‘Design is an enabler of social change’

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Indian designer Sanjana Paramahans speaks about “social designing.”

Sanjana Paramahans
Sanjana Paramahans

Social designing, as a concept, has gained popularity in recent years. New York-based Indian designer Sanjana Paramhans, a graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, was in news recently when she developed an emergency shelter for refugees. Born in Lucknow, she was schooled in India, Uganda, Kuwait and Bahrain before enrolling at Pratt for a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program in interior designing. In an interview with The American Bazaar, the 23-year-old, who calls herself a “social designer,” speaks about design “as enabler of social change” and her inspirations, among other issues. Here are edited excerpts:

How do designs help in bringing economic and social change?

I think what is so great about design is that innovation and design can be used to solve some of the most trivial, as well as life and death problems of the world. Design stimulates people to behave a function a certain way — it can condition and control their actions and reactions. The design is not just pretty lights and wallpapers; it is an enabler of social change.

Your designs are not just for the privileged but for the under-privileged, too. Helping refugees is one of your passions. What is the inspiration for that?
I was born in Lucknow in 1994 and moved to different cities quite a lot growing up. Mumbai, Delhi, Uganda, Kuwait, and then finally to Bahrain, where I finished my high school. I had been in 10 schools by the high school.  In 2012, I moved to Brooklyn to pursue my degree in interior design at Pratt Institute. It was around this time, where my mind was still forming, and opinions still developing, that I first heard and experienced what was happening in Syria. I felt deeply moved by the plight of the people there. There was hopelessness attached to it — a sense of inevitability. Some of the people were escaping on boats, to any place that would accept them. They took only their most deeply personal belongings with them, never knowing if they would come back again; if they would ever be able to see their homes. In a strange sense, this resonated with me. All the moving and displacement from country to country when I was young — making friends and then losing them — it was hard and it was painful. And I probably only experienced about a tenth of hell, probably not even that much, of what they were (and still are) going through. That’s when I knew I wanted to make a difference, small or big.

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Tell us about some of your ongoing projects…
I am currently working on an app that helps refugee youth with adjusting to their new life after resettlement. The app is being designed in such a way that it will provide mentorship programs to the youth. In addition to its refugee-mentor matching feature, the app will include five features. On the “Opportunity” board, users can post about jobs, internships, or support programs. The “Education” board will be focused on education opportunities, from school courses to adult language classes and university scholarships. The “Live Events” board will advertise events relevant to the needs of refugees, including workshops and social events. The “Resources” board will contain informative resources, such as short videos explaining how to construct a CV, or how to recycle your trash. Lastly, the “Answers” section will have e a Q&A forum visible to all users.  I also work with NGOs in India and Bahrain, helping kids with mental disorders. I design their programs and try to include art therapy as a part of their curriculum.

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How do cultures and countries impact the overall perception of design? Are designs limited to borders and cultures?

I believe cultures are platforms where people from different backgrounds, living in different climates and eco-systems, can help inform and critique other people from other backgrounds. To some extent, certain elements of construction cannot be used in other countries due to geography, but to a large degree, the fascinating part of design is about incorporating local culture and traditions with more modern, international elements to fit the users’ tastes and identity. There is a definite give and take beyond borders and past cultures.

You have studied in the US, the UK, India, and Bahrain. How much have these countries influenced your work?
My experiences have moved me profoundly. People that I meet every day are really inspiring in their own ways and I use their stories and struggles to motivate me to work harder to spread messages of importance.

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What are your future plans?
Enabling social change is what I want to do long-term. In the future, I see myself working as a social designer, using design and design thinking as a tool to deal with economic and social challenges in the world.

What part of your profession do you enjoy the most? 
I think there are several ways to make a difference. I was lucky enough to find a passion and subsequently realize that I could use it to voice issues that were much bigger than me. You also need to believe in yourself and your art and draw inspiration and strength from it.

You co-founded and lead the South Asian Student Association while studying at Pratt. Tell us more about it.

Five years ago when I joined Pratt, there were only about a handful of South Asian students on the campus. Since then the South Asian population has grown rapidly. Such a situation demands the need for a common platform for students to interact and engage, and celebrate their origin and roots at a home away from home. An organization that could connect people across different creative fields, including the current students, alumni and influential people related to different fields. We organized events such as “Peer Critiques” where people could meet to discuss and help each other with their school work, in addition to movie nights, festival celebrations and the likes.