The cultural dimension of forms

Saksham Panda
5 min readMay 12, 2020
earthen pots of different shapes and sizes
Photo by Oshin Khandelwal on Unsplash

Form and Culture are very well understood by us as separate words but putting them together opens a completely new doorway of design. We see various objects around us. Each one has a defined form and a plethora of reasons to prove why it is the way it is. Making of new forms is not an individual’s task. There are many elements that contribute to the creation of new forms and a crucial one of them is Culture. The Culture that I’m talking about is way beyond our mere understanding of religion, traditions, customs, etc. The culture is perpetually changing or let’s say it quite dynamic in nature. Forms also undergo many changes to survive in the culture or to find a suitable fit in the culture. This evolution is a complex system of people, objects, and their interaction with each other. Form in the industrial design domain is always a hot topic of discussion while Culture in design has its own significance. Understanding Forms and related cultural nuances give a clear perspective of the creation of new forms.

A complete way of life comprising of beliefs, customs, traditions, and values largely shared by members of the group. There are no strict boundaries to a culture and it always comes with context. A large number of elements come together to form a Culture. Few elements of culture become dormant but never die. They come back after some time. The evolution of culture can be traced and tested over a period of time.

A society cannot survive without culture. Humans have the ability to learn and implement their knowledge in solving life problems. Just like inherited anatomical traits we also tend to transfer our learning to coming generations. It works like genetics or in this case we can call it social genetics. This exchange forms a culture and keeps it alive. Humans create a culture to fulfil their needs. Needs can be both emotional and physical. Our needs bring a change in material culture. We tend to manipulate the elements of culture according to our own convenience. In fact most of the time the shift is because of society’s convenience. The Dominant traits of a Culture determine its visibility. Culture is a spectrum of collective reflection of society. The survival of elements in culture is most crucial. Everything that survives becomes a part of the culture. The main institution in culture remains constant while the perception and associations change over time. A culture cannot be taught to any society. It trickles down in a society with constant imitation and practices.

Culture has diverse entities affecting each other. The elements of such an ecosystem act in either favour of or against each other. Every single element which affects a system is termed as a force here. There are a lot of forces acting to sustain a culture. Few forces will act negatively and then others will tend to balance out the whole system. The existence of every form in a culture is a result of a balance achieved by supporting forces and forces against its existence. These forces are very dynamic in nature. Change in one force may shift the whole balance of culture and this is how it expands. Culture is perpetually evolving and the intensity of forces acting on it also varies from time to time. The driving forces may or may not be directly in action. The intensity of impact varies depending on the relationship of driving forces.

How does a form originate in the first place? How does it change over time? And how does it affect the culture and vice versa? The human needs give birth to any form that exists. The new forms can be consciously made by research and studying patterns of usage. Another way of creating a form is an unconscious one where we unconsciously generate a new form while focusing on a bigger intent. As we talk about creating new ones, There are million other forms existing parallelly around us. For instance, let us track down the journey of the form of a pen. It would have started from the need to make marks on some surface. Someone picked a piece of stone or clay and it served the purpose. After some time the piece of stone gets a little more refined to have a sharp peak for writing. With thousands of iterations and improvements we now finally have a pen to write of paper and stylus to write on screens. So among all the different forms that came between that piece of stone and the stylus some survived and some got extinct. This entity which is forcing the form to survive or extinct is what we call forces.

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There are so many forms existing around us and each one has innumerable forces acting on them continuously trying to either push or pull out of Culture. Taking the pen example forward, the feather and inkpot slowly vanished from the culture as the forces acting for their survival were very less than the ones pushing them out. There came a point when the pushing forces overtook and that particular form became obsolete.

This intricate relationship between Forms and Culture demands a deeper understanding in the creation of new forms. The understanding comes with the responsibility of balancing the creative tension in various cultural aspects such as geography, technology, gender spectrum, etc. Design enables us to gauge the intensity of different forces and hence provide the best possible outcome. The fun part is to shuffle between the fine details and the macro perspective of the culture. The creation of new forms is a blend of considerations from function to emotion to culture and everything in between. The changes in a culture tend to create fixed patterns and we tend to follow them without question. These patterns when followed for a long time become traditions, customs, superstitions, taboos, etc. This rigidity is one of the biggest hurdles in pushing the boundaries and coming up with new forms.

The forms evolved through improvisation around demands of culture are thus beautifully organized and accepted by all as they are not designed by a single person and those with planned efforts to force-fit in a culture fail miserably. The design process that takes us through Cultural context and considerations thus empowers the form to fit in well. Finding the perfect fit for forms in culture is a perpetual struggle and that’s where design can make a huge difference by bringing an equilibrium between continuously changing Dynamics of Culture.