Where Happiness is the GNP

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Peter Bilak is no stranger to The Daily Heller. We’ve covered his Works That Work magazine, and now in conjunction with the mag, his team is preparing a documentary film about the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. (Coincidentally, Milton Glaser and his class at SVA MFA Design are working on helping Bhutan with products and identity.) Bilak notes that he is presenting Bhutan as “not a country where only happy monks live, but as a place with clever ideas..” At present a large part of their GDP is generated by selling innovative postage stamps—the first 3D stamps, first scented stamps, first audio stamps, etc. These stamps funded the building of roads and hospitals. Bhutan is also a leader in environmental protection, and is the only country that is carbon-negative. There are many untold stories ready to be told. So to produce the documentary, Bilak has launched a Kickstarter campaign. I asked him about it.


A Bhutan “taking stamp,” 1973.


More talking stamps—miniature vinyl records with adhesive back, 1973.

What brought you to such an isolated place as Bhutan?I think the first time I heard of Bhutan was about a decade ago, when I encountered an incredible series of postage stamps—small vinyls, first stamps printed on metal, first lenticular stamps, first stamps on silk, first color-your-own stamps, etc. It triggered my curiosity, and I wanted to find out more. Only after arriving to Bhutan [did] I understand the whole story, and the fact that these postage stamps fueled the economy in the 1970s. The stamps were designed for foreign collectors, and were the main source of foreign exchange.

How does this fit into your Works That Work agenda?WTW often looks at the ignored areas of design; we look at the periphery, we look at the social impact of design. We found very inspiring examples that fit perfectly with our editorial policy. I mentioned pieces of graphic design that help development of the country (stamps), but also discovered artists taking on a wider social responsibility by helping indebted farmers in the countryside, or filmmakers which reinvent film distribution. What is even more exciting is that I haven’t seen these stories presented yet, so we could do original research about things that are not much covered.


Phallus stamps—some of the most popular current stamps, 2013.

Is there an intersection between Bhutan, type and design?At WTW, we understand design in very wide terms, and do not discriminate based on the geographic location of the authors or users. Great design happens everywhere, but in some places designs remain anonymous. We found many small ingenious ideas, but no authors who would credit these ideas. We always look at what impact the ideas have on people’s lives, and when it is relevant, we report on it.


Interview with the prime minister of Bhutan, Tschering Tobgay (Bilak featured at center).

Its GNP is Happiness—is this a viable commodity?Practically, their main export is sustainable electricity which they sell to India; it covers over 50% of their GDP. The GNH (Gross National Happiness) is the guiding principle of Bhutan’s development. It is a well-promoted concept, which is mentioned when speaking to the officials, but not many are clear what it means. Gross National Happiness became the symbol of Bhutan’s unique approach to development, but it often obscures the fact that Bhutan is a real country with real problems and real solutions to those problems.


Inside the Basochhu hydropower plant. Clean energy is the biggest export of Bhutan.

Why did you want to make a documentary?We wanted to tell a story of survival, in a region where other Himalayan Kingdoms (Tibet, Sikkim) were annexed by their neighbors. Bhutan is sandwiched between the two most populous countries in the world—China and India. To protect their sovereignty they had to reinvent their national identity, and it has been a very successful branding program. We now recognize Bhutanese by their national dress, their language, their architecture—thinking they are centuries old, while in reality they were made into mandatory rules only in 1989. We think of this as a set of design guidelines which help define what Bhutan is, and it is interesting to present it from the design perspective.

What do you want the audience to take away?Despite its size, this Himalayan Kingdom is recognized as a small country with big ideals. The outside world is carefully watching how their efforts of being a fully organic country will work out. How their pledge to remain carbon-neutral for eternity will work out. They helped to redefine the metric of economy. Bhutan is a tiny place, but we can learn a great deal from it.


Gho, the traditional Bhutanese robe-like dress, is mandatory to wear, so the individual identity of people is observable only by looking below the knees.

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Where Happiness Works

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →