Turian Labs’ distinct take on Design Thinking methods and Pramanas, the Indian taxonomy of knowledge process

There has been a tremendous buzz around Design Thinking in the recent years. From corporates to governments, are looking at it as a panacea for solving critical problems. India too, has joined the race and as a flag bearer of rising economy, the IT (and some of manufacturing) industry seems to have found a new messiah in this process.

Design Thinking is finally a ‘knowledge creation’ process. As a ‘knowledge process’, it is literally a new born child, when one looks at it from an ancient land of India, with thousands of years of history of codified human knowledge. Indian thinkers and philosophers thought of minute details around people, objects, emotions and existence. Design Thinking, as a way of understanding a problem comprehensively and solving it creatively, one wonders if Indian wisdom had something to offer in this space. Here is one clue through Pramanas.

Pramana, is a term (literally means ‘evidence’) used in the ancient text in India, as way to know anything. At different point of times different sets of Pramana existed adding up to more than 20 overall. However, 6 Pramanas have been accepted as the most important ones. First three are the ones which we use in conducting everyday business. They are Pratyaksha (Direct knowledge), Shabda (from an expert/knower) & Anumana (deduction).

The first, Pratyaksha, or direct knowledge, is the one that we get from our senses (eyes, ears, skin, tongue and nose). But Indian philosophy distinguishes it from what we know from our MIND (jealousy, pleasure, pain etc.). Knowing the reality from our mind (manas) is also regarded as direct-knowledge. But Indian thinkers went ahead in search of more means of this direct knowledge or evidential knowledge and figured that there is a stage in the meditation journey, where one KNOWS without the aid of bodily-senses or the mind (there is elaborate classification available for the different ways of ‘direct knowledge’). Closest English word for that is ‘INTUITION’ but not quite that. India is filled with stories of such yogic powers to ‘know’ the past, present and the future. In the business & technology context of today, we have been talking of ‘virtual reality’ and ‘embedded chips in the body’, which will enhance human capabilities to see, feel, process and retain information. Telepathy, as an art, is about to be democratized due to technology-augmentation of the body. Seeding of ideas in someone else’s mind like the movie ‘Inception’ may become a reality soon. This will change a few concepts like market research for ever. We surely will have to figure out what is ‘evidential’ and what is not, part from addressing bigger issues of what is moral and otherwise. Knowledge structure of Indian philosophy must help this new taxonomy.

The second one is Anumana or deduction. Today, in the world of Big Data, this is an extensively used science. Business world relies on deducing the next step, analyzing the past data. And, please note that this is just, ONE of the ways to know.

Third is Shabda, or the knowledge received from the experts/knowers of the domain. This has roots in supreme pedestal, that Indian philosophy lays down for Guru (the teacher). Not surprising that a real guru, has been put on higher pedestal that the God himself in several scriptures. But this does not mean that a knowledge received thus cannot be argued. In fact, there are protocols to logically challenge any knowledge till a valid, cogent argument is accepted. India is probably the only place in the world where not one or two but ten parallel darshan or philosophies exists which are mutually exclusive. One ‘darshan’ is a complete set of knowledge elements, on how to live and how to make sense of the reality, life and death. Each of these have been debated between the experts in formal forums over hundreds of years, exemplified, written down and refined.

The next three Pramanas are the ones, that seem to be eluding our current way of knowing. Design Thinking is trying to restore these in some ways. The next three are Upmana (metaphors), Arthpatti (postulates, hypotheses) and Anuplabdhi (absence). These are the ways, which are vanishing from the society as focus on data is increasing but provide an important aid to completing the picture of reality.

Upmana or metaphors, are in fact common ways to explain complex things in all native languages. Adages and sayings have a place in society because of that. When I say, “my home should be like a palace” or “your business model should be to Uberize the healthcare for the poor”, we are using the upmana pramana. Likewise, in Design Thinking, ‘metaphor elicitation’ is one of the powerful tools to ‘empathise’ with the users.

Anuplabdhi, or absence, is also a valid way to know the reality. Sometimes, to know what it is, one must understand ‘what it is not’. In creating a new brand character, we often define what a brand stands for, and what a brand does not stand for i.e. natural ice-cream would use natural fruits AND it will NOT use artificial flavors. In visual design, ‘figure-ground’ (positive and negative spaces, both play equal role) relation is the best example of this. Have you noticed the legendary ‘hidden arrow’ in the Fedex logo? And I cannot stress how much I am in love with this Zen poem that stresses the important of ‘emptiness’ –

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center
that makes the wagon move

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the
emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the
inner space
that makes it livable

We work with being
but non-being is what we use

And the last, but not the least — Arthpatti or postulates/gestimates/hypotheses. This is the very fabric of Design Thinking. As the business complexity is increasing exponentially, even with big-data and AI, it is literally impossible to know the true picture (else we would have predicted recent American elections differently). Design Thinking suggests that iterative hypotheses, with rapid validation cycles through early-prototypes, is a great way to move forward. Infact, this is completely counter-logic to traditional management education, that presses hard for being precise and clear every moment; every decision must be backed by data. What if we only had part-data? Can we still go ahead and make a hypothesis to do an early check? Design Thinking is the pragmatic way forward there.

These codified pramanas, the six ways to know, complete the paradigm of empathy and holistic way to ‘know’. As the challenges of too much data shore-up, we must expand the vocabulary and methods to all dimensions of human capabilities, to make sense of the world around us. And ancient Indian wisdom, sure has some clues.

Design Thinking | Innovation Strategy | Design | Futures Studies | Turian Labs. Author-Skyway Interpreter & Madhurimayan