In 2014, I participated in DesignInquiry in Maine. DesignInquiry is a non-profit educational organization devoted to researching design issues in intensive team-based gatherings.

Inspired by the year's theme, access, my contribution was a guide to image-making workshop inspired by the Vishnu Dharmottara.

Vishnu Dharmottara is a good vehicle for making inquirers aware of their own understanding or design assumptions as they follow a written rule set to depict the described gods and goddesses.

Vishnu Dharmottara is an extremely detailed and highly sophisticated structured treatise that prescribes rules on Indian painting and image-making of Gods and Goddesses. It deals not only with the religious aspect, but also, and to a far greater extent, with its secular employment. The text follows the traditional pattern of exploring the various dimensions of a subject through conversations that take place between a learned master and an ardent seeker eager to learn and understand. The Vishnu Dharmottara prescribes textual narration but is void of visual guidance. The Vishnu Dharmottara is a compilation of multiple sources and dates back to 6th century A.D. The translation by Dr. Stella Kramisch in 1928 represents the earliest comprehensive account of the theory of image-making in India.

Vishnu Dharmottara argues for abstract and realistic representation, artistic inspiration and the image’s essence. The ardent seekers—the graphic design students—would employ these rules to construct images of the described gods/goddesses for their visual interpretation.

The transmission of imagination into a visual is an intrigue. As designers and educators we are intrigued by how our imagination or visualization of a particular project is translated in design. We imagine the composition with a particular layout, typography, colour, etc. but when transferred from imagination to paper, screen, or model, the outcome can be quite different from what we expected. The discourse between the King and the Sage is an exploration between that dialogue between imagination and visualization. The instructions outlined in the text are the practice of making imagination visible, and allows the image-maker to increase their own awareness and understanding of visuals. The Vishnu Dhamottara enables imagination by prescribing the form and keeping the rest of the representation vague. This amount of prescription leaves the image-maker to imagine and have their inspiration, creativity and intuition complete the image.

Vishnu Dharmottara is a good vehicle for making designers and students aware of their own understanding or design assumptions as they follow a written rule set to depict the described gods and goddesses. The written rules set to depict the described gods and goddesses is a great frame of reference. The gods and goddesses offer a wide range of exploration. Creating these images allows the 
image-maker to not only imagine and interpret the text but also encourages self-reflection. We can reflect on our own image-making processes, and consider the role of faith and nature in our value systems. The Vishnu Dharmottara is an excellent vehicle for making graphic designers aware of their own understanding and design assumptions. Applied in design education, Vishnu Dharmottara will not only inspire another process of image-making but also continue dialogue on graphic design’s important relationship to interculturality.

The exercise was to interpret the following description of the 'Directional Gods and Goddesses,' according to the individual's concept of abstract using materials found on the Island. It is interesting to note the varied interpretations, which essentially portrayed the individual's profession as image-makers.

Directional Gods and Goddesses on Part III, Ch. 73, Verses 1-51 are described as :

The Eastern direction should be a lady red and seated on an elephant. The South-eastern is a bulky maiden of the colour of the lotus, seated on a female elephant. The Southern should be yellowish, placed on a chariot and with youth (fully) attained.

The South-western belonging to Varuna is dark-yellow and seated on a camel. The West is dark, destitute of youth and seated on a horse.

Oh delighter of the Yadus, Vadava (the NW) is blue and with hair almost grey. The North is white, old and borne by a man .

The North-east should be very old, white, and seated on a bull. The lower region is similar to the earth and the upper region is suspended in the sky.

The ever-present Kala should be shown with a noose in the hand, terrific, with a large face having hairs on the body (in the shape of) serpents and scorpions.

The following images are some of those interpretations by designers, educators, writers and image-makers:

Gail Swanlund
Margo Halverson
Joshua Unikel

Sarah Shoemake
Arzu Ozkal
Emily Luce
Steve Bowden and Nick Davis
Sheila Pepe
Joshua Singer