Mahatma's Design Mindset

A lot has been said about the life of the Mahatma and definitely, it is a source of inspiration for the world. This Gandhi Jayanti we at Humane Design and Innovation Consulting are celebrating the designer in the Mahatma.

You must be wondering, why I am calling Mahatma Gandhi a designer. Well from my eyes he was a designer ‘A Designer, who designed the freedom movement of India and got it freedom’. This Gandhi Jayanti, we wanted to reflect on his mindset and draw learnings that can leave us inspired.

Nonconformity & Creative confidence

The 1st aspect that intrigued me about Gandhiji’s mindset is ‘Non-conformity’. He was dissatisfied with anything that was ‘not proper’ and was unwavering, even if his definition of proper was against the Social norms or public perceptions. Let’s try and understand this through a story from his life.

When he was in South Africa trying to set a practice of law, he was once asked to step down from the 1st class compartment of the train and move to the 3rd class compartment, as that was the norm. Due to color discrimination, dark people had to travel in 3rd class compartments even if they had a 1st class compartment ticket. Gandhiji did not conform to this and subsequently went on to start a mass movement against discrimination in South Africa.

Then at a point of time in his life he realized what was going on in his own country i.e. India, and being a non-conformist of the wrong, he left what he had created in South Africa with a single purpose of ‘Getting India free from the unjust British rule. He never knew whether he will succeed in what he aimed to achieve. He knew it will be a daunting task that will be taxing in all ways. But, he was confident enough to think that let me start and I am sure I will be able to create something.

We too, as designers believe that ‘Non-conformity is the birthplace of Creativity’ and that ‘We know, it is going to be a daunting journey of creation, but we will still start’. We should not conform to bad designs and always work towards creating better ones.  

Being Human-centered

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” – Mahatma Gandhi. 

A powerful quote that describes the deep empathy that Gandhiji had for humans. Let’s try to understand this through a story from his life.

Once Gandhiji was resting at the Sabarmati Ashram, and a mother came to him along with her child. The mother requested Gandhiji to ask her child to stop eating sugar, as it is bad for health. Gandhiji smiled and calmly asked the mother to go back and return after a week. 

A week later when the mother and child came back and met Gandhiji, he looked at the child and smilingly said “You should stop eating sugar, it is bad for health” and stopped. Mother looked at Gandhiji a bit agitatedly and said, “Bapu, if this is what you wanted to say, you could have said it in my last visit itself. Why did you call us again after a week?”

Bapu replied, “Before I could advise anything to the child, I wanted to understand what it is like not to have sugar. So for the past week, I have stopped eating sugar and have been able to survive. That is why I asked for a week’s time. Now when I understand the feeling, I am in a position to give him the advice”

This is what, we in the design world also term as being empathetic for the humans who are going to use the solutions we design, and that is what Gandhiji also practiced. ‘Experience what someone is experiencing and propose a solution.’

Embracing ambiguity

We will never have all the answers and will never be in complete control of the situation. We will have to embrace this fact and move forward. This is something Gandhiji was able to achieve, and this could help in designing one of the biggest and powerful freedom movements across the world.

An instance from his life that inspires me about embracing ambiguity is when he decided on the ideology of ‘Nonviolent freedom movement’ OR ‘Ahimsa’. All the freedom movements in the history of the world were full of bloodshed, violence, life loss, etc., etc. He absolutely had no historical data or reference of a nonviolent freedom movement and did not know, if this will get the freedom. It was its ability to embrace ambiguity and take decisions in ambiguity that led to the craft of a nonviolent and successful freedom movement.

The learning for us as designers of the new world, most of the time neither we nor anyone around us will know all the answers. It is our ability to continuously navigate through an ambiguous world that is the only way to sail through.

Being Action biased

“Without action, you aren’t going anywhere” – Gandhiji. 

This quote from Gandhiji, beautifully describes what is the importance of being action-biased. Let’s zoom in into one of his life instances to understand this better.

In the year 1929 Gandhiji and his close group declared the vision on ‘purna swaraj’ through civil disobedience i.e. complete independence for India. Gandhiji knew that just by announcing, things won’t happen, there needs to be some action that can drive to make it a structured movement. Gandhiji understood that there is a special emotion attached to ‘SALT’ in India. So he chose ‘Salt’ as the start of the civil disobedience movement. Gandhiji with 72 of his close volunteers marched to Dandi as a mark of civil disobedience against the British Salt Tax and it became the start of a mass movement not only in India but across the world. 

As designers, we should not only think about how to solve a problem, but it is our duty to quickly get into action to actually solve it. As it is said, “Actions speak louder than words”.


Being Experimental

“Life is but an endless series of experiments” – Gandhiji. 

Let’s try and understand the depth of this quote through a story from Gandhiji’s life.

An incident from his life that inspired me about experimentation – In his childhood, Gandhiji was at an examination during 1st year at high school. Mr. Giles, the educational inspector, had come for an inspection. Mr. Giles had set five words to write as spellings. One of the words he was assigned to write was ‘kettle’. Gandhiji misspelled it, the teacher tried to prompt Gandhiji to copy the spelling from his neighbor’s slate. Gandhiji did not, and the result was that all the boys, except Gandhiji, were found to have spelled every word correctly. The teacher tried later to bring this stupidity home, but Gandhiji could never learn the art of ‘copying’. This further showed up in the experiments he made like ‘Nonviolence, Satyagraha, etc.’ and not copied from what was already across the world.

The art of ‘Not Copying’ is a skill that every designer should try to embrace. It is these experiments that later become the source of inspirational change stories for the world to reflect upon.

Being Iterative

“First, they will ignore you, then they will laugh at you, then they will fight you, Then you will win” – Gandhiji. 

For me, this indicates his take on the mindset of being iterative and going through the cycle of Build – Fail – Learn – Repeat. 

The civil disobedience started with a salt satyagraha with Gandhiji and 78 satyagrahis, became a movement of thousands, and ended up getting at least 60000 people arrested. This got the world’s attention to India. The civil disobedience movement then pivoted into a mass movement – a satyagraha with people boycotting foreign clothes and goods and refusing to pay other such taxes and later took shape of the non-cooperation movement.

An important lesson for all designers is that do not aim to be 1st time right, every design you create will go through iterations. By aiming to be right the first time, you just build pressure and frustrations.


I remain an optimist because of my unflinching faith that right must prosper in the end” – Gandhiji. 

I feel the entire freedom movement of India could continue because of the optimism and faith Gandhiji had in people and the principles of ‘Nonviolence and Satyagraha’.

The Dandi march, the non-cooperation movement, the Kheda Satyagraha, the recruitment campaign, the Hindu Muslim unity drive, etc. were all instances where the result was never known at the start and there were points of failures during the journey. Eg. During the recruitment campaign, when Gandhiji accepted to help the British in the second world war and had to recruit people for the British Indian army, he faced severe restrain from people who related Gandhiji to ahimsa and he was asking them to pick arms. During the revenue campaign for satyagraha the people who readily offered their carts free of charge, and two volunteers came forth when one was needed, it was difficult now to get a cart even on hire, and there were no volunteers. But the only thing that made Gandhiji still complete the mission of recruitment was the purpose and his optimism of getting complete freedom for India.

Great learning for designers in this story is ‘We will definitely go through failures and at times our purpose and optimism are the only things that will drive us to still walk the path that we have taken.’

I would end this article with the quote that truly defines the power of a person’s mindset.

“A man is but a byproduct of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes” – Mahatma Gandhi.

About the author, Ajay Aggarwal

A Haryanvi by origin, an entrepreneur at heart and a consultant by choice, that’s how Ajay likes to introduce himself! Ajay is the Founding Partner at Humane Design and Innovation Consulting (HDI). Before starting HDI, Ajay founded the Design Thinking and Innovation practice at KPMG India. His 16+ years of professional career spans across various roles in product and service design, conducting strategy workshops, storytelling and enabling an innovation culture. He has coached 50+ organizations and 2000+ professionals in institutionalizing design and innovation practices. He loves to blog and speak on topics related to Design Thinking, Innovation, Creativity, Storytelling, Customer Experience and Entrepreneurship. Ajay is passionate about learning, writing poems and visualizing future trends!

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