Design as Karma

Dr. Badrinarayanan Srinivasan
3 min readJul 1, 2020
Source: Getty Images

Design is popularly understood as a noun, and stands for a pattern, object, or set of perceived relationships. However, when used as a verb , it means acting deliberately, with intention. The notion of Karma as explained by Buddhists is no different. While karma is widely (mis) understood as fate, or as reward and punishment for one’s good or bad behavior, meted out by an all-powerful external agent, Buddhists believe that karma is self-created, and the results are self-experienced. There are no external judges involved.

If you do not look where you are going, you are likely to stub your toe. If you create trouble for others, trouble will follow you like a shadow. The process is very precise, almost impersonal, like a clock-work mechanism. Cause and effect operate both at individual, as well as collective levels because we are all interconnected. Unlike Hindu and Jain traditions that are concerned with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actions, the Buddhists emphasize more on the intention and inner motivation behind the action. If one has engaged in charitable activities with a genuine sense of concern for others, the karma is considered ‘good’. If one is doing it to avoid taxes or to boost up one’s ego, the karma may not be so good or could even be considered harmful.

All intentional/volitional acts of thought, speech, and action create karma. While the results of past karma are unavoidable, the effects of them can be mitigated by one’s present actions. This bestows a tremendous sense of empowerment and agency to the individual. How you think, speak, and act now, will not only influence how you experience the effects of your past actions but will also determine the quality of your future experiences. No one is exempt from this universal law, not even designers.

Design involves intentional thought, intentional speech, and intentional action. If you are an architect, urban designer, interior designer, product designer, communications designer, fashion designer or a UI and UX designer, you could try asking these questions during the design process:

1. Will this project/ design/ product/ system directly or indirectly harm any being/s or will it nurture them?

2. Will it upset the natural equilibrium of living systems and the environment or will it restore and maintain balance, and harmony?

3. Will it compromise the freedom and responsibility of individuals and communities or promote it?

4. Will it promote inequity, exploitation, vanity, greed, or hate or will it promote equity, humility, sharing, contentment, and love?

5. Will it distract people, make them careless and indifferent, and take them further from the truth, or help them become careful, self-reflective, mindful, and self-aware?

When one starts thinking along these lines, troubling questions may arise: “It’s all very well to sermonize, but why should we designers carry all the burden of conscience? Aren’t we all just professionals being paid for our services and expertise? By these standards do not all designers have blood on their hands? Can we really be choosy about one’s work? How do we earn our livelihood if we turn down work when the economy is already in shambles and my personal finances are not so good? Can we really take it upon ourselves to educate our clients? The client will simply go to another designer! I will go bankrupt and will be on the streets.”

The choice is entirely ours. Our deepest motivations cannot be hidden from ourselves and they have far reaching consequences on ourselves and others. Yes, sometimes one might realize what one is doing is harmful and yet end up doing it because of severe constraints. Even that little awareness can help lessen the harmful effects of our design-karma, as it is better than indifference or ignorance.

Personally, I have seen that when we stick to sound principles of basic goodness and altruism, the right projects and the right clients start to gravitate towards us by the universal law of attraction. Design IS Karma. Design is service. It is good to examine who and what are we are ultimately serving, as we have the power to either create more suffering — or create relief, comfort, and well-being for people and the planet. Our future is entirely in our own hands.