I’ve Heard of Design and Anthropology, but 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. For those of you who want the full explanation, I discuss in detail what is design anthropology below. For those of you who are interested in a quicker version, I have included a brief FAQ.

Design anthropology is a form of applied anthropology that makes use of ethnographic methods to develop new products, services, practices, and forms of sociality.

The three models include 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).

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.

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 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).

In this article, I will discuss the models, but also provide some context for the history of design anthropology as a discipline.

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.

Selecting an Anthropological Model for Design Anthropology

While the DA approach is arguably better, 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.

Design Anthropology Books

Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice

by Wendy Gunn (Editor),‎ Ton Otto (Editor),‎ Rachel Charlotte Smith (Editor)

Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice

Design is a key site of cultural production and change in contemporary society. Anthropologists have been involved in design projects for several decades but only recently a new field of inquiry has emerged which aims to integrate the strengths of design thinking and anthropological research.

This book is written by anthropologists who actively participate in the development of design anthropology. Comprising both cutting-edge explorations and theoretical reflections, it provides a much-needed introduction to the concepts, methods, practices and challenges of the new field. Design Anthropology moves from observation and interpretation to collaboration, intervention and co-creation. Its practitioners participate in multidisciplinary design teams working towards concrete solutions for problems that are sometimes ill-defined. The authors address the critical potential of design anthropology in a wide range of design activities across the globe and query the impact of design on the discipline of anthropology.

This volume will appeal to new and experienced practitioners in the field as well as to students of anthropology, innovation, science and technology studies, and a wide range of design studies focusing on user participation, innovation, and collaborative research.

Buy the book here on Amazon.

Design Anthropology: Object Cultures in Transition 2nd Edition

by Alison Clarke (Editor)

Design Anthropology Object Cultures in TransitionDesign Anthropology brings together leading international design theorists, consultants and anthropologists to explore the changing object culture of the 21st century.

Decades ago, product designers used basic market research to fine-tune their designs for consumer success. Today the design process has been radically transformed, with the user center-stage in the design process. From design ethnography to culture probing, innovative designers are employing anthropological methods to elicit the meanings rather than the mere form and function of objects. This important volume provides a fascinating exploration of the issues facing the shapers of our increasingly complex material world.

The text features case studies and investigations covering a diverse range of academic disciplines. From IKEA and anti-design to erotic twenty-first-century needlework and online interior decoration, the book positions itself at the intersections of design, anthropology, material culture, architecture, and sociology.

Buy the book here on Amazon.

Design Anthropological Futures

by Rachel Charlotte Smith (Editor),‎ Kasper Tang Vangkilde (Editor),‎ Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard (Editor),‎ Ton Otto (Editor),‎ Joachim Halse (Editor),‎ Thomas Binder (Editor)

Design Anthropological FuturesA major contribution to the field, this ground-breaking book explores design anthropology’s focus on futures and future-making. Examining what design anthropology is and what it is becoming, the authors push the frontiers of the discipline and reveal both the challenges for and the potential of this rapidly growing transdisciplinary field.

Divided into four sections – Ethnographies of the Possible, Interventionist Speculation, Collaborative Formation of Issues, and Engaging Things – the book develops readers’ understanding of the central theoretical and methodological aspects of future knowledge production in design anthropology. Bringing together renowned scholars such as George Marcus and Alison Clarke with young experimental design anthropologists from countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Brazil, the UK, and the United States, the sixteen chapters offer an unparalleled breadth of theoretical reflections and rich empirical case studies.

Written by those at the forefront of the field, Design Anthropological Futures is destined to become a defining text for this growing discipline. A unique resource for students, scholars, and practitioners in design anthropology, design, architecture, material culture studies, and related fields.

Buy the book here on Amazon.

Design Anthropology Articles

If you are looking for more content, check out these articles which are inspired by design anthropology.

Renewing Our Practice: Preparing the next generation of practitioners

Susan Squires & Alexandra Mack

Abstract: A key aspect of renewal is disciplinary renewal through the addition of new practitioners, who can bring revitalization to our practice. To successfully land their first job, today’s new practitioners need practical, relevant basic skills and knowledge, which they can acquire through a range of training programs. In this paper, we reflect upon the significant methodological, interpretive, ethical implications of such training programs for ethnographic praxis in industry. How they evolve and change the work, how new knowledge is created in the field and what that may mean for the future renewal of our practice begins with how they are trained.

October 2012 EPIC Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference

DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-8918.2012.00030.x

Design Anthropology

Christina Wasson

Introduction: What will the world look like when half the cars on the road are autonomous vehicles, when the driver is a robot and the humans are passengers? How will the human drivers and the robot drivers communicate with each other? What will people do during their commute when their car drives itself? What groups of people will lose out in a world with autonomous vehicles (AVs), and who will benefit? These are all questions that design anthropologists are actively exploring, as they work for a variety of automotive companies and consulting firms

September 2016 General Anthropology

DOI: 10.1111/gena.12013

Participant observation, anthropology methodology and design anthropology research inquiry

Wendy Gunn & Louise Løgstrup

Abstract: Within the design studio, and across multiple field sites, the authors compare involvement of research tools and materials during collaborative processes of designing. Their aim is to trace temporal dimensions (shifts/ movements) of where and when learning takes place along different sites of practice. They do so by combining participant observation, anthropology methodology and design anthropology research inquiry, engaging with practice based explorations to understand if methods and methodologies, understood as being central to anthropological inquiry, can be taught to interaction design engineering students studying in an engineering faculty and engineers working in an energy company. They ask: how do you generate anthropological capacities with interaction design engineering students engaged in engineering design processes and employees of an energy company setting out to reframe their relation with the private end user? What kind of opportunities can engaging with collaborative processes of designing offer for both designing and anthropological research inquiry simultaneously?

September 2014 Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 13(4):428-442
DOI: 10.1177/1474022214543874

Design anthropology or anthropological design? Towards ‘Social Design’

Jonathan Ventura & Jo-Anne Bichard

Abstract: In this article we will outline the practice of design anthropology, and define the term ‘social design’ vis-à-vis current changes in the world of industrial designers. We will highlight the various popular terms for this rapidly-growing discipline, and outline a ‘how-to’ in relation to industrial designers’ work in the studio. We will conclude by presenting two case studies in which a different approach towards anthropology should be integrated into the practical work of designers. One case study will present design anthropology from a pedagogical point of view, while the other will present a design anthropology workshop. A design methodology leaflet is attached as an appendix to better introduce design anthropology to designers.

October 2016

DOI: 10.1080/21650349.2016.1246205

The Yin and Yang of Seduction and Production: Social Transitions of Ethnography Between Seductive Play and Productive Force in Industry

Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall

Abstract: “Design translates values into tangible experiences. What are your values?” This is a question that Dori Tunstall, Associate Professor of Design Anthropology at Swinburne University of Technology asks the students who take her courses in the Design Anthropology Program. Marking the boundaries between respectful knowing and making, design anthropology lives across and within design’s desire to serve as a positive force in the universe by drawing attention across evolving human values, the making of environments, objects, communications, and interactions that express those values, and the experiences that give interpretation to those values and their meanings. But design must learn to tread respectfully in order to avoid becoming another colonizing practice. In this presentation, Dori Tunstall explores the teaching of design anthropology as a hybrid praxis of (1) critical anthropological and design theory, (2) anthropological and participatory design research methods, and (3) design studio and social systems making. She outlines eight principles of design anthropology as a decolonized practice that seeks to be respectful of different ways of knowing and making. The showcasing of projects completed by students in her Transcultural Aesthetics and Contemporary Design course marks the limitations and possibilities of the discipline as a bridge between respectful knowing and making.

2012 SEGD Academic Summit

ISBN: 1940297206

Anthropology Associations for Design Anthropologists

For new practitioners of design anthropology, networking and mentorship is key to developing as a design anthropologist looking to apply ethnographic methods to solve design and business challenges. If you fit into that bucket, considering joining the following anthropology associations, and going to the yearly conferences. By participating in these communities, your knowledge of ethnographic theory and methods will help you blossom in the design anthropologist you wish to become.

Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC)

EPIC promotes the use of ethnographic principles to create business value.

EPIC people work to ensure that innovation, strategies, processes and products address business opportunities that are anchored in what matters to people in their everyday lives today and over time. EPIC people draw on tools and resources from the social sciences and humanities as well as Design Thinking, Agile, Lean Start-up and other approaches to realize value for corporations from understanding people and their practices.

As an organization EPIC strives to bring practitioners together as a community to create knowledge, share expertise, and expand opportunities. We are committed to the view that we are constantly learning and improving the ways that we achieve innovation and inform business strategy in a constantly changing world.

EPIC is driven by volunteers and supported by members and sponsors. We are a dynamic group of practitioners and scholars from technology corporations, product and service companies, a range of consultancies, universities and design schools, government and NGOs, and research institutes.

EPIC fosters interaction year-round online and at events, like our annual conference—the premier international meeting on the current and future practice of ethnography and design in the business world. We work to enable conversations and make a range of professional resources available to the community.

Check out the EPIC website to learn more.

The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA)

The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) was founded in 1941 to promote the investigation of the principles of human behavior and the application of these principles to contemporary issues and problems. Since that time membership has expanded to over 2,000. The Society now sponsors two major journals (Human Organization and Practicing Anthropology) as well as a Monograph Series and occasional special publications.

The Society has become the preeminent international organization in the field. The Society is unique among professional associations. In membership and purpose, it represents the interests of professionals in a wide range of work settings — academia, business, law, health and medicine, public and government, etc. Members come from a variety of disciplines — anthropology, sociology, economics, business, planning, medicine, nursing, law, and other related social/behavioral sciences. The unifying factor is a commitment to the mission of our association – professionals from a variety of backgrounds who are making an impact on the quality of life in the world today.

Check out the SfAA website to learn more.

NAPA: The National Association for the Practice of Anthropology

National Association for the Practice of Anthropology was founded in 1983 to promote the practice of anthropology and the interests of practicing anthropologists, and to further the practice of anthropology as a profession.

NAPA strives to promote the practice of anthropology, both within the discipline and among private, public, and nonprofit organizations. NAPA continues to grow as anthropologists engaged in practice have developed broader professional opportunities both inside and outside the academic realm. There are currently around 500 NAPA members, working in a diverse range of sectors and positions. Members receive NAPA’s semi-annual “Annals of Anthropological Practice,” professional mentoring, networking opportunities, and discounts on NAPA-sponsored workshops. Select the “Archives” link above to find out even more about NAPA’s history. NAPA is a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), and NAPA members receive all AAA materials and benefits. This is your gateway to learning about NAPA. The resources on this website, some of which are under development, will help you to get more involved in NAPA, or to simply understand more about the association.

Check out the NAPA website to learn more.

Business Anthropology Website & Community / BusinessAnthro.com

The Business Anthropology website is a venue for sharing knowledge and resources, making connections, and advancing careers and education in business anthropology. While this site champions business anthropology, it is not a site to conduct personal business. Mine, share, connect, and contribute, but please do not solicit business. The mission is to enlarge the discussion on the value of business anthropology intellectually and practically to current and aspiring practitioners, scholars, and employers. To accomplish this, they are sharing business anthropology scholarship and ideas for educating business anthropologists

Check out the Business Anthropology website to learn more.

American Anthropological Association (AAA)

The American Anthropological Association is the world’s largest association for professional anthropologists, with more than 10,000 members. Based in Washington, D.C., the Association was founded in 1902, and covers all four main fields of anthropology (cultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology).

While 75% of our members are employed in higher education or are students of anthropology, about 25% of our members work in the public, private, and non-governmental sectors, beyond the academy. The Association is organized into 40 sections, each reflecting specialized domains of knowledge. We publish a portfolio of 22 journals, offer career planning and professional development services, support college and university departments, award numerous prizes and fellowships, sponsor a paid summer internship program, a summer field school in ethnography and occupational therapy, and stage research conferences in the Fall and Spring each year. We also have a public education initiative that highlights the contributions made by anthropological research to important and enduring topics such as race and migration.

The Association is proud to belong to a number of inter-organizational collaborations, including the World Council of Anthropological Associations, the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, the Consortium of Social Science Associations, the National Humanities Alliance, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Learn More About Design Anthropology

If you would like to learn more about what is design anthropology, check out this awesome design anthropology interview with Dr. Dori Tunstall.

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.