Three Models of Design Anthropology

While design anthropology, with its use of ethnographic theory and methods, lends itself well to the application of design in business, not all design anthropology models are created equal. In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Ton Otto and Rachel Charlotte Smith argue that there are three models: dA, Da, and DA.

Design Anthropology (dA, Da, & DA)

  • dA – The theoretical contribution is for anthropology rather than design. Design follows the lead of anthropology in terms of adopting theoretical understandings, or becoming the subject of anthropological study.”
  • Da – Fieldwork is in the service of design. Framing originates from problem orientated design approaches rather than engagement with peoples. Anthropology is put in service of design, for example, ethnographic studies are used for establishing design requirements.“
  • DA – Disciplines of design and anthropology are engaged in a convergence of efforts each learning from the other each learning from the other.”

Selecting a Model of Design Anthropology

Under different circumstances, different models of design anthropology may be more or less fitting.  Some considerations to keep in mind are:

  • Business vs academic – depending on if the project is a business engagement or academic study, it will affect the model you choose, as different models have different fits.
  • Type of Organization – the type of organization, be it a for-profit or non-profit may have an effect on which method you select because they often have very different needs.
  • Budget – related to the previous two points, the project budget will likely impact your decision, because some methods are more time consuming and thus costly than others.
  • Stakeholders – depending on who are the stakeholders and what is there level of interest in the project, you may choose one method or another because they may or may not wish to be involved.
  • Personal goals – your own interests will also play a role. They may not be able to supersede the previous points, but your own perspectives in life will contribute to your desired model.

Learn More About Design Anthropology

To find out more about the benefits of bringing anthropology and design together to solve the toughest problems in business, check these links out on design anthropologyusing contextual inquiry for design research and getting user experience (UX) adopted by leadership in a corporate environment.


Otto, T., & Charlotte Smith, R. (2013). Design Anthropology: A distinct Style of Knowing. In W. Gunn, T. Otto, & R. Charlotte Smith, Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice (pp. 1-32). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Also published on Medium.

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