What is Design Anthropology?

Have you asked yourself what is design anthropology? If so, this article attempts to demystify the growing relationship of design anthropology and why it is important.

Design anthropology is a form of applied anthropology that makes use of ethnographic methods to develop new products, services, practices, and forms of sociality. It is reflective with its foundation squarely rooted in anthropological theory and methods, yet also deliberately and openly prescriptive with its future-making design orientation.

The Theoretical and Methodological History of Design Anthropology

Building on a long lineage of thought from the social sciences, design anthropology can trace its roots back to the interdisciplinary field of material culture which brought together history, sociology, psychology, archaeology, and anthropology to understand the creation and consumption of objects, as well as the meaning ascribed to objects.

Material culture studies are relevant to design anthropology because physical objects, and increasingly in intangible objects, play a role in mediating relationships between humans through time and space. In fact, within material culture studies as well as design anthropology, researchers are more interested in the sociality that surrounds the object such as the behaviors and rituals that the objects create or takes part in.

Early Design Anthropology

Building on the theoretical and methodological foundations that came before it, design anthropology as an applied practice grows out of the confluence of the multiple disciplines which include design and anthropology but is by no means limited to them. The trend of blending disciplines seems to have arisen in its modern context with information technology in the early 1990s as a result of the new challenges it presented in the forms of intangible objects and radically new forms of sociality.

At that time, design consulting firms like IDEO, Fitch, and frog were starting to bridge industrial design and engineering. Similarly, larger research labs like Xerox PARC, Microsoft Research, and Bell Labs technologies had been bringing together communication designers, usability and human factors engineers with social scientists from anthropology, linguistics sociology, and psychology. The goal was to “understand how people thought machines worked, to understand the interactions between people and technology, and the reciprocal impact of organizations, practices, and technologies on one another” (Clarke, 2017).

The Design & Anthropology Collaboration Matures

Building on those foundations of these earlier movements, pioneering design firm E-Lab helped to bring design anthropology into its own right by fostering a model of collaboration between designers and anthropologists, thereby bringing together design and ethnographic practice (Wasson & Metcalf, 2013). E-Lab is important because it fostered an equal partnership between research and design, with teams of roughly equal representation and influence, and ethnographic methods were the core of their research methods (Wasson, 2000).

This was important because, before ethnography, cognitive psychology was the social science research model of choice (Norman, 1988). The problem with this previous model was that it mostly accounted for what the user was thinking, and often failed to understand the larger institutional and cultural contexts that the use was embedded in (Robinson, 1993).

Furthermore, before the greater degree of equality between research (anthropology) and design that E-Lab promoted, anthropology was often just a complimentary practice to design or usability testing, as opposed to “informing design to re-framing social, cultural and environmental relations in both design and anthropology” (Kjærsgaard, 2011).

Three Models of Design Anthropology

In 2006, Marietta Baba stated that design is part of the larger field of business anthropology, and to that end, it is used to create ethnographically informed products or services. In this definition, anthropological research is employed in the creation of designed artifacts, and while this is accurate, viewing design anthropology from this perspective is also limiting.

Building on these ideas, Wendy Gunn and Jared Donovan, confirmed Baba’s explanation, but also extended it to include two other models of design anthropology. In the introduction to Design and Anthropology: Anthropological Studies of Creativity and Perception they discuss three models of how design and anthropology can work together. They titled those design Anthropology (dA), Design anthropology (Da), and Design Anthropology (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” (Gunn and Donovan 2012, 12).
  • “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” (Gunn and Donovan 2012, 12).
  • “DA — Disciplines of design and anthropology are engaged in a convergence of efforts each learning from the other each learning from the other” (Gunn and Donovan 2012, 12).

So Then What is Design Anthropology?

Design anthropology can take the form of any of those models, however, it may be argued not all models are equal. To solve the modern complex messy problems of today, a collaboratory approach is often required. This applies to a for-profit business context when creating products or services, but likewise to other sectors of the economy such as government, education, and nonprofit.

Likewise, design anthropology should no longer be thought of as research in service of designed artifacts, nor an anthropological study of design. Instead, design anthropology should be thought of as a philosophy and practice for creating a true partnership among stakeholders with the goal of designing for good, by being aware of the past, but seeking to positively transform the future.

Learn More About Design Anthropology

If you would like to learn more about what is design anthropology, check out these resources:

References:

  • Baba, M. (2006). Anthropology and Business. In H.James Birx. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Clarke, Alison. 2017. Design Anthropology: Object Cultures in Transition. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Gunn, W. and Jared Donovan. (2013). Design and Anthropology: Anthropological Studies of Creativity and Perception. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing.
  • Gunn, Wendy, and Jared Donovan. 2012. “Design Anthropology: An introduction.” In Design and Anthropology, by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto and Rachel Charlotte Smith , 1-16. London: Routledge.
  • Kjærsgaard, M.G. 2011. “Between the actual and the potential: the challenges of design anthropology (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Culture and Society, Section for 42 Anthropology and Ethnography, University of Aarhus).”
  • Norman, Donald A. 1988. The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.
  • Robinson, Rick E. 1993. “What to do with a Human Factor: A Manifesto of Sorts.” American Center for Design Journal 7: 63-73.
  • Wasson, Christina. 2016. “Design Anthropology.” General Anthropology 23 (2): 1-11.
  • Wasson, Christina. 2000. “Ethnography in the Field of Design.” Human Organization 59 (4): 377-388.
  • Wasson, Christina, and Crysta Metcalf. 2013. “Bridging Disciplines and Sectors: An Industry-Academic Partnership in Design Anthropology.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto and Rachel Charlotte Smith. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Also published on Medium.

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