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AOW Insider | Interview: Slow Design: The Ethics of Designing with Traditional Artisans

Ana Paula Fuentes and I have been working on a paper on the Ethics of Designing with Artisans in Mexico. We were recently interviewed by AOW Handmade where discuss basic principles of ethical interaction.  This article appeared In AOW Insider January 4, 2020

AOW Insider | Interview: Slow Design: Guiding Principles and Practical Methods on the Ethics of Designing With Artisans in Mexico.

January 4, 2020

Tell readers a bit about your experience working in the field and how you both got into working with artisans.

We drew the insights for this paper from our experience working directly with artisans for a combined total of 25 years. Because our work has been based in Mexico, we are addressing this to Mexican artisans, but we have gleaned information from personal collaborations, visits, and projects with artisans and designers on six continents.

Carolyn Kallenborn is an artist and Emerita Professor in the Design Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin now living in Mexico. Since 2004, she has spent time each year in the central valleys of Oaxaca, working with artisans in a variety of roles: collaborator, facilitator, commissioning work, and design support. She is also the creator and producer of two documentary films: Woven Lives: Contemporary Textiles from Ancient Oaxaca Traditions, and La Vida y Los Muertos about the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico.

From Mexico City, Ana Paula Fuentes has been wrapped and tangled in the world of textiles, travel, organizing, and outreach for a long time. In 2005, she moved to Oaxaca City and was the Founder and Director of the Textile Museum there (Museo Textil de Oaxaca) until 2012. Currently, she is working as a full-time guide and consultant for Traditions Mexico, a company that offers unique cultural tour opportunities focusing on the master skills of artisans in Oaxaca and Chiapas.

Please tell readers about how you feel about designer-artisan collaborations taking place in Mexico.

Indigenous communities often have deep connections to their place, which brings with it an inherent understanding of interconnection, balance, sustainability, and long-term stewardship. In the few places where craft traditions still exist, the traditions often go back thousands of years and have developed into sophisticated techniques that can only be done by hand.

Working with artisans, a designer can offer their clients a beautiful, unique product, made with care that also has meaningful connections to deep traditions. For artisans, working with an outside designer brings in new ideas and helps keep the products relevant to a contemporary market.

Bii Dauu Cooperative, Teotitlan del Valle

Our world is changing quickly. The ability to communicate, find, share, or steal information across distances is unprecedented.

This is not just a change of process or what we think about. It is a fundamental change in how we think. It is now possible for an obscure maker in rural Mexico to connect directly with thousands of potential clients or designers in New York, Paris or rural Uzbekistan. This creates an opportunity for engaged collaboration and design-quality products that value, craft skills, and support traditional communities and cultural heritage.

Please tell us a bit about the opportunities and things we should be looking out for.

Though many initiatives are well-intentioned, the artisan perspective often gets lost in the process. Though many artisans are very interested in collaborating with others, the relationships can become strained over logistics, internal issues, and politics.

Across the globe, the challenges are often the same, but the solutions are rarely the same in any two places. However, it is possible to identify the core principles and guidelines that can be translated into a variety of situations.

These guidelines are offered as tools to give perspectives that act not as a map, but a north star: ideals that perhaps can never be reached but can always be used to get us closer to what we hope to achieve. Our paper provides lists of common challenges and cautions both for designers and artisans. We hope that these insights can foster respectful, fair, transparent, and sustainable interactions between artisans and designers.

I realize you have put quite a bit of time into creating a comprehensive list of guiding principles for designers to consider. Please tell us a bit about the work you have created.

Keep in mind that each community, each group and each artisan has a distinct set of social mores, history, and values. In this list, we have defined and described common issues that often emerge, though they do not always show up in the same way, and may be more or less intense in some groups or individuals.



Trust, honesty and transparency can be the most important elements to developing a respectful, resilient project.

To avoid dependency or exploitative relationships, it is important that trust is established in an atmosphere of honesty and transparency. Honesty and integrity in all business dealings and communications will allow the team to trust each other and become stronger. This includes honesty with yourself in what you can and cannot do. It also means honesty with the artisans about expectations and or problems that arise.

Cultivate integrity with your clients and customers.

This means being honest about the origins, materials and cultural significance of the objects. It also means being careful in how you present your own role and your business model.

Be extremely careful when using buzzwords such as fair trade, empowerment, sustainability, social economy or social design. Be sure you understand what those terms mean and that you truly are putting them into practice if you say you are.

Transparency, which includes:

Sharing policies, pricing strategies, where profits go and how decisions are made, plays a crucial role in establishing trust and maintaining honesty.

It can take a significant amount of time and energy to make sure everyone’s voice is being heard and everyone is informed. The return on that investment is an increased engagement that helps to maintain honesty and alleviate potential problems.


  • Mutual respect and appreciation are basic building blocks in cultivating a horizontal relationship where the designer and artisan become active partners in the project.

Cocijo Artesania, San Pablo de Mitla, Oaxaca
  • Keep in mind that a skilled artisan is more than just manual labor. The artisans often bring years of experience and generations of knowledge with a rich history behind their work. Try to find out what their interests and specialties are and get to know their particular personality.

  • Involve artisans in the design process. Be open to and encourage artisans’ ideas and input. As you begin to understand and engage with a specific individual, look for ways you can develop products that amplify their skills and passions. At the same time, recognize in yourself how your own understanding is broadened by working with the artisans.


  • Recognizing and respecting the artisans’ contributions and providing just compensation are primary tools in avoiding exploitative and paternalistic business practices.

  • This is true both for the designers and the artisans. Be sure everyone is being compensated for their contribution from making the piece to material sourcing, designing, quality control, prepping, shipping, inventory, and prepping for sales.

  • Try to avoid situations where anyone is volunteering or being vastly under-paid for their portion of the work. Over time there´s a chance of resentment or burn-out. It can also put the project in danger if a personal issue comes up and a key volunteer has to step out. If no one else is willing to do that work for free, the whole project can grind to a halt. If everyone is getting something in return, it is much easier to recruit a new person to take on a task.

  • It is also important to avoid situations where the designer does all the work for free and never asks for anything in return. This can lead to unhealthy dependency on the designer and an inability for the artisan to voice real concerns for fear of upsetting the designer.

  • Keep in mind that compensation may not always be monetary. Some might consider their ability to travel or take workshops as compensation for a certain role. But in all cases, each person should receive fair compensation for their role and responsibilities.


Considerations of sustainability – economic, social and environmental – can be applied to the business model where production, marketing plans and sales strategies are based on fair trade and small-scale production. Developing a market for clients who appreciate work that is not mass-produced will help ensure a safe, fair, equitable, and steady income.

Keeping sustainability in mind as a guiding principle can help influence many small decisions that over time help maintain your purpose.

Ñaa Ñanga Tijaltepec, Oaxaca

Sustainable production considerations include:

  • If the project continues to grow, would the wages per piece be enough for the artisans’ time?

  • Are there limits on how much the artisans can produce in a given time period?

  • Will equipment have to be bought or replaced? How will that be paid for?

  • Is someone setting aside funds to cover unexpected expenses, training or travel for the artisans?

Key Guidelines

It takes time

• Community and family obligations are of utmost importance

• Most artisans do not have a lot of cash available

• There will always be the unexpected

• You are a link in the chain

• Properly credit the artisans

• Plagiarism of design is always inappropriate

• Small scale production can be quite different than large scale production

• A high-quality product can command a higher price.

  • Work toward horizontal and ethical collaborations between artisans and designers, where there´s a win-win situation and agreements that will benefit both parties.

  • Create relationships guided by a commitment to generate solutions. Despite inherent differences, we are strengthened through exchange and dialogue.

  • Reinforce communities through design.

This is why we use social design as an approximation for our work and try not just to understand the process as cultural patrimony. We look to create the optimal routes for commerce with the goal of integrating our production into the global economy. We want to revive traditional techniques and the strengthening of the community through the knowing and the doing, it’s the “the knowledge of making with our hands.”

  • Work with the artisans to determine the working relationship.

Will the artisans just be a source of labor or will they be decision makers on the project? This depends on the social business model you choose, but I think it´s important to mention that in any model, both designer and artisan have to be honest and transparent about their roles, responsibilities, commitments and goals.

  • The HOW is more important than the WHAT.

Working with artisans doesn´t mean supporting artisans and strengthening them. That´s a colonial mindset and it reiterates the idea of seeing the artisans as powerless people and the designer as the powerful.

What are some strategies and practices based on the guiding principles?

  • Get to know the artisans and their context.

Take time to know the artisans before you start to work with them. Be curious. Ask about their history, their customs and culture. By visiting the workshop and community you will gain a better understanding of the variety of work being done. Seeing the physical space, the tools, and the environment can help you understand possibilities and limitations for technique and capacity. It is ideal to visit several artisans to be able to see variations in workshops, products or villages. You may also find that there are additional resources in the community that can lead to other design potential. You can also gain understanding about practical issues like distances and resources as well as community and family dynamics.

  • Think beyond the product and consider the full process of production.

  • •Build the design project organically and in conjunction with the artisans.

  • Create a shared common vision. Make sure the designer and the artisan both are hoping for the same outcome.

  • Don’t put artisans in a box.

    • Be careful not to assume that artisans are only one way or only want to do one thing. Like following an old family recipe, some cooks want to make it exactly how mom made it, while others want to play with the recipe.

    • It is also important not to define an individual as “the artisan” or “the designer” or “the customer”. One person may be capable of playing multiple roles.

    • Be observant and responsive to what they can and want to do.

  • Clear, honest, on-going communication is essential. Be honest with the artisans right from the beginning. Along with trustworthy business practices, be open with them about what you know and don’t know. Be upfront about whether you have a specific plan which is ready to go, or if what you have is just a rough idea. Though a detailed plan may allow everyone a quick sale, an in-progress plan has potential to allow you and the artisans to craft a new project together.

  • Whenever possible, build on existing strengths and skills rather than starting all new skills and processes.

  • Develop an effective and respectful business and marketing plan.

Embroidered Dress: Miriam Campos, San Antonino Castillo Velasco. Styling El Nahual
  • Find markets to fit artisan work versus finding artisan work to fit the market.

If you want to work with a specific group of artisans, it can be much more effective to find or create an appropriate market for your product, rather than having a market and finding a product to fit that market.

  • Promote cultural understanding.

Use the project to heighten respect for the artisans’ work and culture. Show their culture as multi-dimensional and artisans as individuals.

Try to use their names of the name of the group whenever possible to keep from generalizing that all artisans are the same.

Market the strengths, talents and resiliency of the artisans rather than the poor conditions or tragedies of their lives.

  • Support artisans in being agents of their own culture.

Provide opportunities for artisans to tell their own stories. If you have the opportunity, bring them to visit your community.

Make and share videos of artisans talking about their work or their lives. Whenever possible, have them use their own voices.

Avoid situations where the artisans are dependent on the designer for everything. Try to pass as much of the decision-making, contacts and skills to the artisans as possible.

Invest in your business while you invest in their future.

  • Engage the young people of the community. They are the future.


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