Design Anthropology Pt. 2: A New Style of Knowing

Design benefits from looking to anthropology, and vice versa, as noted in part one of this post. But how does can this meeting make for a new and distinct ‘style of knowing’ (Otto and Smith 2013)?

A key reason is that design and anthropology have different temporal orientations (Kjaersgaard et al. 2016). Design is by definition concerned with the future, setting out to create new things and solutions (Ibid., p. 1). In contrast, anthropology has ‘traditionally been concerned with the analysis of past and present realities (Ibid., p. 4). As Pink (2014) notes, ‘designers address issues that, as anthropologists, we have conventionally been taught are beyond our (and perhaps anyone else’s) reach’ (p. 16).

Moving anthropology towards the future opens it up to design. But doing this requires altering and reinventing anthropology’s research styles (Kjaersgaard et. al. 2016, p. 5). Let’s look to an example.

Rachel Smith is a design anthropologist who worked on an exhibition experiment titled Digital Natives (Smith 2016). The exhibition focused on how young people use technology. At the same time, the project asked how museums might engage young people with cultural heritage in a digital era. Smith worked collaboratively in a team of curators, interaction designers, and young people aged 15-19. In order to grasp Smith’s work as being design anthropology, it is important to note at the outset that the process of mounting the exhibition was in many ways more important than the final exhibition.

Design activities and ethnographic research were embedded throughout the process of creating the exhibition (Ibid. p. 24). For instance, early in the project a mock-up exhibition allowed the teenagers to engage in conversations with the interaction designers. Contrary to the assumptions of the interaction designers and curators, the teenagers did not fit the popular mould of tech-savvy youth, instead using technology in fragmented ways specific to their personal interests. For instance, one girl was a keen Facebook user, though kept a clear separation between her social media use and her passion for film. She achieved this separation via practices of storing and organising data, and through organising her time and her interests (Ibid. p. 24).

Thus far, Smith’s project isn’t veering too far from regular ethnographic research, nor has the future come into the frame. We have something akin to ethnography being used for design, albeit in a museum context, and in a collaborative manner, rather than out in the ‘field’.

Again, focusing on process will be helpful. The mock-up allowed the teenagers to become more aware of their use of technology, through directed discussions, sketching and other activities. In this regard, the process was interventionist, asking the teenagers to explore their subject positions in relation to digital technology, at the same time as they imagined design solutions (Ibid., 26). Rather than focusing on the past/present, this interventionist approach saw Smith ‘moving forward with people in tandem with their desires and aspirations rather than looking back over times past’ (Ingold and Gatt 2013, p. 141).

Later, the team put together a list of principles for the project based on research insights. Moving away from ‘‘formal’ heritage [and] the ‘static’ and confined exhibition space’, the list directed the teams’ focus ‘towards a dialogic and open-ended conception of the exhibition as a ‘processual’ and ‘hybrid’ experience, that centrally engaged the audience and took point of departure in continually emerging cultural practices’ (Otto and Smith 2013, p. 25).

Fully outlining the process of the Digital Natives exhibition is beyond the scope of this post, but these details are enough to show how design and anthropology can transmute. Here, research and creation are not separate parts of a process (Gerber 2015 p. 1), as in anthropologies of design and anthropology for design. Being cyclical and collaborative, it is not that the future is made amenable to conventional ethnographic research methods. Of course, the future remains unknowable. Instead, emergent social forms cyclically inform design processes, making design anthropology more ‘present-emergent’ than ‘past-present’, as with most anthropology.


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

Gerber, A 2015, ‘Exploring Anthropological Imagination’, Design Anthropological Futures, Copenhagen, Denmark, August 14th-15th 2015, The Research Network for Design Anthropology, 1-4.

Kjaersgaard, M, Halse, J, Smith, R, Vangkilde, K, Binder, T and Otto, T 2016, ‘Introduction: Design Anthropological Futures’, 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. 19-36.

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

Pink, S 2014, ‘Digital-Visual-Sensory-Design Anthropology: Ethnography, Imagination and Intervention’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 412-427.

See also:

Here’s a video of one of the exhibition installations, DJ Station.

If you want to read further, check out Uncertainty and Possibility: New Approaches to Future Making in Design Anthropology by Pink, Akama and Sumartojo. It’s available through the library as a PDF.

Cultural Anthropology has a great series of blog posts under ‘Keywords for Ethnography and Design’. Ton Otto discusses the emergent present, and Lucy Suchman asks ‘how we might design ethnographically’.

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