Below is the script and my presentation at the AIGA Nationals. It was well-received based on the feedback that people were giving me the rest of the weekend. I was worried about it being too esoteric:
The YinYang of Anthropology and Design: Anthrodesigners and the Evolution of Graphic Design
In Taoist teachings, the human mind has two minds, Xin (i.e emotional mind) and Yi (i.e. wisdom mind). Providing the passion and direction to formulate ideas, the two minds are responsible for all human creations, which first start in your imagination. (Yang 2003:10).
Portrait of Anthrodesigner as a young woman.
Passion and direction. I exist at the liminality of passion and direction, emotion and wisdom. For 8 years, classically trained in the science of human wisdom, Je’ sui une anthropologist. But not in the way the French mean it., As the “philosophy de l’homme la femme.
But the way the Americans mean it. Bryn Mawr and Papa Boas, Stanford and the Post-Structuralists I was disciplined in the approaches of the social and behavioral sciences. Which means questions and categories such as “How do we define Humaness in its biological, linguistic, material, and cultural diversity across time and space?
I am disciplined in the cultural questions of “What pattern is your kinship diagram?
Or biological questions such as “How did you get that opposable thumb which makes
finger snapping such a miracle act?”
Using these questions and categories to guide nuanced understanding of Kenyan Street Children, Phone Sex and Gender, and Ethiopian tourism. My dissertation shows that I was not your average anthropologist.
Whereas wisdom is good and direction is fine. I am like the great Coyote Trickster figure in my Native American culture courses. It may take wisdom to understand the world, but it takes passion to change the world. While I was trained in the wisdom of understanding, it is elsewhere that I sought to train for the passion that can positively change the world.
De-sign. Design, with big D, is the act of changing the world. As Herbie Simon says, from existing conditions to better ones. So for past 8 years, I’ve played passionately in the field of Design with big D. And sometimes little D, when I can’t afford a designer who can live up to my conceptual visions of how the world is and what it could be?
Little d, design skillful decisions about line, point, color, texture, pattern, form, type, and
image make manifest the ideas of Big D design and make actionable anthropological understandings.
So at the liminality, of wisdom and emotion, I speak to you.
At the liminality of guidance and passion, I call to you. And as Victor Turner says In my liminality, I am the germ of “Future social developments, of society change.”
And I am not alone….So let’s talk of the Yin Yang of Design and Anthropology, the mutual contexts we share, how with our complementary ethos and skills of wisdom and emotion, guidance and passion can be a positive force for business, government, and society.
Mutual Contexts of Design and Anthropology’s engagement
Whatever comes to you, you must engage it somehow. You receive it, you may alter the circumstance and let it go, you may inject something of your own into it, or you may knowingly let it pass. Whatever you do, there is no need to be apathetic toward life. Engagement, (Deng Ming-Dao 1992: 34)
Anthropology and design have long histories of encounter since their establishment as “modern” practices in the 19th century. Notes and Queries on Anthropology, published in 1899 had sections on the analysis the production and consumption of material artifacts, which is the knowledge domain of design. Design requires a certain understanding of human biological and cultural variation to develop products and communications.
Yet, it only in the past 20 years that design and anthropology have deeply engaged with one another professionally. What has happened in the past 20 years to support this deeper engagement? The digitization and globalization. The conversion of the world to bits and the new appreciation for one’s place in the world introduced new challenges to the professional anthropologist and design. Opening the possibilities for anthrodesign collaborations.
Digital Design and Digital Anthropology
According to Nicolas Negropointe , by 1995, the future had become about the world of bits as much as the world of atoms. The digitalization of information and communication technologies had a profound affect on the production and distribution of design and anthropological artifacts and knowledge.
The popularization of AutoCAD in the 1980s, desktop computing with graphic user interfaces (GUI) in the 1990s, and the Internet itself in the 1990s brought about the mass digitalization of design. Loretta Staples describes how desktop publishing and laser printing “…supplanted professional typesetting and offset printing as the preferred low-end prepress and printing option. Peter Bil’ak in his overview of typography in the 1990s states, “The arrival of digital technology meant that typeface design was no longer the domain of specialists. Few people realized that the democratization of typography might also endanger the existence of professional designers.”
Yet, the ubiquity of design tools of production led to new design outputs and design practitioners. The combination of these new digital tools and the digital platform of the Internet created new categories of design outputs on screens and interfaces and of web and interface designers to create them.
Anthropology has always been savvy about technologies of recording. As far back as the 1880s, anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Alfred Cort Hadden were early adopters of still photography and film to enhance their ethnographic fieldwork (Pink 2006: 5). When digital versions of these technologies appeared, Anthropologists eagerly pleaded with the National Science Foundation to grant them the latest laptop computer, digital camera, and now iPod “recorder” for professional fieldwork. Maybe its because early fieldworkers are often in their 20s. Yet, anthropologists have been less comfortable with digital technologies of distribution such as the Internet and cable television. This is because digital technologies of distribution challenge the core of the anthropologist’s expertise: the eyewitness and thus expert “merchant of the exotic”.
The rise of cheap flights, the Internet, and cable TV channels like the Discovery Channel removed the structural barriers that separated researchers from “natives,” and specialists from tourists. For example, in the analog days, a representation of life in Vanuatu came from the rigorous publications of books and articles by a “defined” external expert on the subject. Today, the Internet enables the people of Vanuatu to represent their own culture and life much easier and with wider distribution. Digital technologies accelerated the redistribution of power relations between the research and the “native” that was started in the 1980s by the challenges of native and halfie anthropologists. This digital extension has been labeled Anthropology 2.0, drawing from Bill O’Reilly’s description of Web 2.0. The goal of the Anthropology 2.0 movement to make anthropological knowledge more open and accessible through information and communication technologies (Anthropology2.0 wiki 2007). Generationally, the discipline continues to be split between those who are comfortable or not with digitalization and what it means for professional anthropological expertise.
David Harvey talks about the compression of time and space made possible through our digital technologies. Over one million people all over the world can watch the winning kick of the World Cup match through digital satellites beaming to TVs, PDAs, computers, and mobile phones. This makes some people think that digitalization caused globalization. But according to systems theorist, Immanuel Wallerstein (1974), processes of globalization began around 1500. Rather digitalization accelerated globalization’s reach and impact.
How did it affect professional designers and anthropologists? Actually, in similar ways. Both anthropological and design practices where traditionally framed by the focus on “locally bounded” societies. Whether the design societies of Chicago, New York, or West Coast design for designers or the remote native villages for anthropologists.
After the 1980s, both designers and anthropologists began to focus on the dynamic flows of what Arjun Appadurai (1996) called “…ethnoscapes, mediascapes, techoscapes, financialscapes, and ideoscapes.” The response to these cross-cultural flows of people, media, technology, money, and ideas was varied. It ranged from fear of disenfranchisement as it was perceived that the Chinese, Japanese, Indians would take “American” jobs by offering lower prices for the same quality. But it also led to the embrace of the possibilities of difference.
It is this embrace of differences in human experience that has deepened the engagement of anthropology and design together. Professional designers have had to understand the differences in human experiences and draw upon anthropological knowledge to support that understanding. These new practices take the forms of Design 3.0, Cross-cultural design, Green design and sustainability, Universal design, or Socially relevant design.
Professional anthropologists have had to more effectively communicate with humans who have different expressive experiences. They now draw upon the designerly knowledge to support those communications in ways that are intuitive to different audiences. These new practices take the forms of Engaged anthropology, Public anthropology, and Anthropology 2.0.
All of these designerly and anthropology practices mark a greater engagement with positively affecting the life.
That is why the ancient scriptures say that from the One comes two,
because there must be duality for there to be existence. These two are
called yin and yang. We need white to know black, We need space to see
a line. Everything in life we know because of distinctions. Two, (Deng
Ming-Dao 1996: 217)
Yin Yang; Complementary Practices and Perspectives.
The ethos and skills of designers and anthropologist are not binary. Designers understand and Anthropologists create, but there are differences in the relative amount of time, energy, and effort spent in each activity. Having practiced Tai Chi for over 5 years, I’ve found that the Taoist concept of Yin Yang is one way in which one cane approach differences without resorting to binary oppositions. Yin Yang are modalities of engagement with life based on disciplinary histories and personal passions.
The Yin modality or energy is about yielding to the world around you. Going with the flow in order to cultivate the internal contemplation to better understand the world. When encountering force, you bend to the energy in order to neutralize its negative effects. One seeks to be small and insubstantial so as to minimize your negative impact on the world.
The Yang modality or energy is about acting on the world around you. Crafting new flows in order to extend and advance the world. You are a force of external action, creating new energy to positive effect. One seeks to be big and substantial to open new possibility in the world.
Anthropology, by disciplinary history and personal passion, often operates in the Yin modality. One yields oneself to the cultural context, whether of a society, an institution, or a business to understand its energies and flows.
Design, by disciplinary history and personal passion, operates in the Yang modality. Envisioning oneself as the creator of the future, one acts on a society, institution, or business to redirect its energies and flows.
Anthropology and Design are the Yin Yang complementary modalities of the world.
They represent the human potentialities for both action and understanding.
Design provides the knowledge and passion for functional success in artifacts, messages, experiences, and systems. Anthropology provides the knowledge and understanding for contextual success in which design operates.
We need each other. The complexity of the problems and contexts in which professional designers and anthropologists are being forced to and are choosing to address means that our separate skills are not enough anymore. We need to cultivate of the skills for both Yin Yang modalities of engagement. It is imperative for the success of both disciplines in their intentions to be progressive forces for business, government, and society.
The intellect uses discrimination, categorization, and dualistic distinctions in highly sophisticated ways. By contrast, spiritual contemplation involves no discrimination, categorization, and no dualism, so it has little need for scholasticism. It is pure action that requires the totality of our inner beings…The proper use of the intellect is to give it free play, develop it to an extraordinary degree, and yet leave it behind when spiritual action is required. A sage knows how to balance and combine both. Scholasticism, (Deng Ming-Dao 1992: 138)
It’s about being able to balance and combine both.
In the liminality of anthrodesigner hybridity, I and others have already begun to use the combined Yin Yang modalities of Anthropology and Design to be progressive forces for business, government, and society.
As pioneered by places like Doblin, E-lab, Xerox Park, Sapient, Sonic Rim, hybrid anthrodesigners successfully brought together deep human understanding and designerly creative action to change the practices of businesses. The humanizing effect of anthropology and the clarifying and prioritizing effect of design help business become more accountable to its customers.
Changing the value basis of business from mere numbers to actionable human needs, wants, desires, expectations, design and anthropology combined their Yin Yang energies to create a more holistic picture of the return on human investment. A picture that continues to expand as business uses design and anthropology to understand, model, and adapt its effects on individuals, groups, communities, societies, and ecosystems.
My personal work is at the intersections of design and government. Previously with Design for Democracy, and now through the City Design Center at UIC, anthrodesigners like myself are changing the practices of governance by bringing the same accountability, humanization, and clarity in business to government. Providing clear models of complex human processes and interactions, the Yin Yang energies of anthropology and design are translating the values of democracy into tangible experiences among diverse peoples. Anthropology helping to understand what those values are from the perspective of the people themselves.
Design acting of the translator of those values. The tangibility of them through artifacts enabling the iteration process to achieve alignment between the values and peoples’ actually experiences.
The Yin Yang modalities of anthropology and design demonstrate that even a micro-artifact like a hospital bill can represent the entire macro-enterprise of an organization and people’s relationship to it.
Anthrodesigners are taking what they have learned from business and government and applying it to wider society. The work of anthrodesigners like Saki Mafundikwa of Africa or MP Ranjan in India are showing how the Yin Yang of deep yielding to local and global cultural conditions can lead to actionable design innovations that are culturally, economically, technically, and environmentally appropriate. And if we are to further engage in a global design, we need both Yin Yang energies to be sensitive yet passionate about social and economic justice.
But we don’t always have to go far from home, we can have positive effects by addressing social concerns that cause deep tragedy in our lives.
If we can combine the intellect and direct experience with our meditative mind, then there will be no barrier to the wordless perception of reality. Intellect, (Deng Ming-Dao 1992: 84)
Anthrodesigners and the evolution of graphic design
As I stated in the beginning, I am not alone in my liminality. There are many students who now journey this path with me at UIC. We’ve learned to combine anthropological knowledge with designerly ways of knowing to understand the ethical responsibilities of being a graphic designer today and tomorrow.
Combining passion and wisdom, action and understanding, functional and contextual success, they are the future of graphic design and what it can do in the world.
And they are the hybrid Yin Yang masters of this new world. From their thesis projects to their personal convictions, they are writing a new disciplinary history and future for the graphic design field. One that accentuates the creative redesigning of the world which is the hallmark of design, but seeks to use anthropology to ground the impact of their power in what is appropriate, ethical, and humanly sustainable. And they are changed forever.
Passion and direction. We exist at the liminality of passion and direction, emotion and wisdom. We are the germ of “Future social developments, of society change.” And we are not alone… Thank you.
Appardurai, Arjun, ed. The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Bil'ak, Peter. "Type Design in the 1990s, Demystification and Re-Mystification". The Hague, Netherlands, 2000. Typotheque.com. Typothegue. July 10, 2007 2007. <http://www.typotheque.com/site/article.php?id=44>.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. New York: Blackwell Publishers, 1989.
Ming-Dao, Deng. 365 Tao Daily Meditations. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992.
Negropointe, Nicholas. Being Digital. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Pink, Sarah. The Future of Visual Anthropology: Engaging the Senses. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Simon, Herbert. The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.
Staples, Loretta. "Typography and the Screen: A Technical Chronology of Digital Typography 1984-1997." Design Issues 16.3 (2000): 19-34.
Turner, Victor. "Liminality and Communitas." The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1969. 94-113, 25-30.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System Vol. 1. New York: Academic Press, 1974.