Design Anthropology Pt. 1: Anthropology of Design, and for Design

Maybe you just read the words ‘design anthropology’ for the first time. It might be easy to imagine what this new branch of anthropology involves. People design things like computers, buildings and cars, launching them out into social worlds. Ethnographic research seems like a rich way for learning about the social lives of these designed things. Or you might have imagined a designer reading anthropology texts, on topics like liminality or ontology, to inform or inspire their design practice.

These are indeed aspects of design anthropology. People and companies are using ethnography to inform design, including Volvo, which is using ethnography to inform the design of autonomous vehicles. And anthropological knowledge is being co-opted for design (for instance, Anastassakis and Szaniecki 2016), along with social theory more broadly (for instance, DiSalvo 2012; Fry 2012). Anthropologists are also taking cues from design – for instance, by creating new concepts using a design workshop ethos (Rabinow and Marcus, 2008).

A concept for an autonomous car, the Volvo 360c Exterior, released in 2018 by Volvo.

But design anthropology also goes a step further, shaking up the two disciplines. Design and anthropology transmute. For me, this is the most exciting aspect of design anthropology.

To get at this exciting and transmuting form of design anthropology, taken up in part two of this post, it’s helpful to first differentiate between anthropologies of design and design for anthropology (Murphy 2016).

Anthropologies of design take design as a research topic, following the ‘anthropology of x’ formula, like An Anthropology of Scientific Things. For Gatt and Ingold (2013), anthropologists have two options for doing an anthropology of design. Design can be taken as an innate human capacity, similar to language or symbolic thought (p. 139). Alternately, design can be approached as something done by people who identify professionally as designers. Murphy notes (2016) anthropologists have historically tended to focus on the ‘forms, meanings and social effects’ of designed things like buildings, spaces and clothing. This focus has led to a neglect of actual practices of designing, up until very recently (p. 437). Murphy’s recent (2015) Swedish Design: An Ethnography falls into the latter category. He shows that Swedish design practices are informed by social democratic thinking, with design seen as ‘the basic starting point for crafting a just society’ (p. 11).

A major aspect of anthropology for design involves using ethnography to ‘try to look into what people do, what tools they use, and how they think’ in order to design with more sensitivity to local contexts (Salvador et al. 1999, p. 35). Anthropology for design also involves using anthropological concepts and texts to inform the design process, including but not limited to the above-mentioned anthropologies of design.

This is part of what design anthropologists do: they use anthropology and ethnography to bolster design. But, as mentioned above, some design anthropologists take this a step further, mixing design and anthropology, and creating a new ‘style of knowing’ (Otto and Smith, 2013, p. 11). This is taken up in part two of this post.


References:

Anastassakis Z and Szaniecki B 2016, ‘Conversation Dispotifs: Towards a Transdisciplinary Design Anthropological Approach’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, pp. 121-139.

DiSalvo C 2012, Adversarial Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Fry T 2012, Becoming Human by Design, Berg, New York.

Gatt W and Ingold T 2013, ‘From Description to Correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time’, in Gunn W, Otto T and Charlotte Smith R (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 139-159.

Murphy K 2016, ‘Design and Anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 45, pp. 443-449.

Murphy K 2015, Swedish Design: An Ethnography, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Otto T and Smith R 2013, ‘Design Anthropology: A Distinct Style of Knowing’, in Gunn W, Otto T and Charlotte Smith R (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 1-32.

Rabinow P and Marcus G 2008, Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke University Press, Durham.

Salvador T, Bell G and Anderson K 1999, ‘Design Ethnography’, Design Management Journal, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 35-41.

See also:

Imo interviewed people about where your anthropology degree can take you, including Katie, who completed a Masters in Design Anthropology.

Here’s a short lecture about design ethnography from Sarah Pink, Director of the Emerging Technologies Lab at Monash University.

If you’re interested in ethnography outside academia, you could also check out EPIC, a member-based organisation which brings together ethnographers working outside academia. Looking at the EPIC job board might give you some ideas about where you can take your anthropology degree.

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