Frugal Design Lab

The Frugal Design Lab has evolved over the last 7 years exploring several ideas – grass roots innovations, craft communities, small-scale industry, old and new technologies and new ways of making. Through projects and workshops, we interact with a variety of people and organizations and we seek to question and refine the way we design things today.

Many of the design processes used today are consumer and market led and the emphasis has shifted from how things are made, to how things are sold. As resources become scarce and the problems created by consumerism threaten to destroy, we do need to define a more frugal way. Participatory and inclusive design processes are evolving and there is a wealth of existing experience and knowledge in India that we can learn from and use in contemporary design practice that avoids the pitfalls of ‘Industrial design’.


We envision new processes in design, that uses frugality as the core principle, not only for people who are constrained to adopt it, but also for those who don’t need to, to develop frugality as an aesthetic, to design sustainable and inclusive products and systems. We seek to develop frugal methodologies that can be applied across contexts.

Using Frugality as a Design Principle

Design has been through many interpretations and varations through its relatively short history. While the core processes remain much the same, often, the principles vary in emphasis.

Design has also been a response to social and cultural shifts of the world around us and has often interpreted these into form and material. While one end of the spectrum of design deals with trends and social/psycological needs of people, which are sometimes superficial, a large number of designers have engaged with the world around them in a deep and human way. Artists/Designers have expanded their vision and chosen consciously to use design thinking to deal with complex wicked problems, have learnt from politics, economics, sociology and engineering to find new ways to think about this complexity.

Frugality is one such response to the world. It seems a fairly obvious response to the excess around us, and it has been used as an underlying principle in design for sustainability, social innovation and much of the current thinking around the world. As more people use this principle in their work, the immense possibilities will be realised. This could be used in different contexts, from  extreme situations in which the urban poor live, to understanding and redefining social/community needs in the more developed world.

What is Frugal Design?

  • Design as connections
  • New material/skills/technology and old
  • Working with communities and on the ground using Participative design methods
  • Questioning ‘needs’
  • Working on what is essential, thinking within boundaries of systems while pushing what is possible
  • Copy left
  • Being thrifty with resources at different levels
  • Learns from informal design but works with a firm design intention

Activities & Projects

As part of the lab, we work with different kinds of organizations and people at all levels to run workshops and projects.

Detailed below are some of our recent projects:

  • Frugal Design Workshop at Srishti, Bangalore in collaboration with the Zurich University of the Arts and Selco Foundation
  • IDSS 2016 International workshop on Frugal design at Zurich University of the Arts
  • Behind Fences, a workshop in applied design research workshop run in Hamburg’s Gegenwartsakademie, or Contemporary Academy for Social Sustainability, Designxport and Goethe Institute, Bangalore
  • Inventing Green, a project in collaboration with Selco

Frugal Design Workshop

February 2017

The project 'Frugal Design - Potential of the Thrifty' is a research project realised by the International Hub of the Design Departement of the Zurich University, Switzerland in close collaboration with Srishti.

The aim of the project is to explore the potential of 'Frugal Design' to initiate social transformations. By building on gained knowledge and insights of the International Design Summer School 2016, detailed below, hypotheses are derived, which were more closely examined. As a result of this discussion, (new) methods are being defined / determined, which enable the designer to integrate and apply Frugal Design in future projects.

This workshop worked on water issues in an urban slum in Bangalore and brought together both Indian and Swiss design students to engage with a difficult context, and explore the possibilities of design.

Project Brief: A lot of people migrate to cities from the surrounding rural and tribal regions in search of better livelihoods and opportunities and they typically form the major component of labour and work force in Bangalore. Access to clean water being once of the basic missing services for notified and un-notified slums translates into dismal health and well-being conditions within these communities. Understand issues/ typologies of target end users in terms of water access, storage and purification and develop appropriate design approach and solution to the issues.

Students worked on:

  • Acess to and transport of drinking water
  • Storage of water in the home
  • Low cost water purification

Venue: Roshan Nagar, DJ Halli, Bangalore

Understanding the context

Project Partner - Selco Foundation

Since 2010, SELCO Foundation has influenced solutions not only at the grass-root level but has also become a pioneering symbol of social innovation and sustainable energy across the world. The interventions of the organization have lead to improving quality of life and increased incomes for the poor: with the underlying aim to create solutions that can be replicated around the world for the benefit of the 3 billion poor people.

SELCO partners include end users, NGOs, local financial institutions, education institutions, social enterprises etc.

Classroom interaction and working in teams – Swiss and Indian

Huda Jaffer from Selco sets the context

Validating the prototype with the community

International Design Summer School (IDSS) 2016

August 2016

In August 2016 the IDSS took place in August 2016, at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland. 35 international design students from China, India and Switzerland got together for two weeks to work together focussing on the topic of Frugal Design. They explored the topic and possible contexts from the city, and developed their ideas, to demonstrate their approach as innovative products, services, statements, artworks or theories. The students worked in intercultural teams of three persons: one from each country and culture. This gave the unique opportunity, not only to discuss and compare different or similar approaches within design and traditions, but also to reflect on a critical view on their own design culture. 

The design process was accompanied by theoretical inputs, lectures and excursions to establish a broader view on the chosen topic. The final presentations brought together results and offered a view on how global design teams may cooperate in the future. 

The outcomes of the workshop were very exploratory, and served to clarify the following ideas

  • What Frugal Design could be
  • Can we look at issues around us through the ‘frugal’ lens?
  • In the context of Zurich, which faces relatively fewer civic issues at the outer, superficial level, how can we look at different layers to uncover lacunae?
  • Can the experiences of the Indian and Chinese context be useful when looking at the Swiss issues? How can these experiences come together and strengthen vision and suggest more ways to address issues?
  • Constraints being a spur to creative problem solving
  • Systems thinking being a crucial part of Frugal Design

Final Exhibition of work

Using old bottles to cruise the river

A market for clothes exchange

Behind Fences

May-June 2016

“What can design do for people on the run, shelter-less and without resources?” In an applied design research workshop run in Hamburg’s Gegenwartsakademie, or Contemporary Academy for Social Sustainability, a group of 9 people from varied backgrounds, qualifications, mind-sets and experiences came together to try and find solutions to the several issues of migrant people in similar situations. A series of discussions, workshops, research expeditions and brainstorming sessions resulted in some interesting ideas and concepts broadly divided into two categories - the conceptual and practical.

The workshop was held in May-June 2016 for a period of 5 weeks in Hamburg, Germany.

Some of the final outcomes came under the following categories:

  1. Membrane of osmosis /porosity along the border of the camp
  2. Making the camp financially sustainable
  3. Understanding refugee policy
  4. Macro vs micro efforts
  5. Preserve identity and personal choices
  6. Identifying skills and en-cashable experiences
  7. Privacy vs integration

At the camp

Exhibition of work

Discussions in class

Exhibition – what is privacy?


Inventing Green


January-April 2016

‘Inventing Green’, project of SELCO, is looking at experimenting with materials and developing ways to reduce the embodied energy in Decentralized Renewable

Energy (DRE) lighting solutions for underserved communities. Mainly working with solar energy, these solar powered lighting solutions could improve livelihood, education or well being of the community. It also questions the current and local green manufacturing process.

Are the products and services that claim to be green really green? Manufacturing and selling green energy or renewable energy products is now an established business avenue and the market is flooded with products that claim to be eco-sustainable solutions for the planet. However, very often these ‘green’ products leave behind a negative footprint. For example, the current practice of using non-renewable fossil fuel in the forms of plastic and non-replenish-able minerals is definitely not sustainable.

Further, traditional crafts communities using locally available, natural materials are not able to make a livelihood due to competition from these products.

In collaboration with SELCO Foundation, which works to link the benefits of sustainable energy to poverty eradication by collaborating with NGOs, local financial institutions, education institutions and social enterprises, we worked to imagine new ways to think and work with materials and manufacturing processes to rethink the products in terms of form, materials, packaging and manufacturing.

Understanding the context

Using traditional skills

Solar lamp made using artisanal skills

Research and Collaboration

Zurich University of the Arts
Selco Foundation


Sudipto Dasgupta

Naga Nandini

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