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Swin Design Anthropology versus U of Dundee Design Ethnography

As some people know, who follow me in FaceBook, I am in the process of getting a Masters of Design in Design Anthropology program accredited at Swinburne for a 2011 launch. Right now, my Course Advisory Committee is reviewing the program. One of the reviewers asked what is the difference between what we are offering at Swinburne and what is offered in the University of Dundee Design Ethnography program. I think the U of Dundee program is great, but the Swinburne program will be focused on something quite different. So I thought I would post my reply to the question, because it helped clarify my thoughts about what the Swinburne program is really about.

The distinctions I make between University of Dundee and Swinburne's programs are related to both programs' QAME, questions, assumptions, methods, and evidence (outcomes in terms of types of students).


The Dundee program has as its main question how "to gather and represent data and insights on design requirements, and to leverage these into industry design processes." It sets up an instrumental relationship between ethnographic research and design practice, whereby research's value is how it leads to better design. Swinburne's question is "how do the process and artifacts of design help define what it means to be human." The intersection of the fields of design and anthropology are seen as having intrinsic values for exploration of their theories and practices. This exploration can get leveraged back into design processes. Yet by doing so, it actually attempts to change the design process, not just in terms of including users, but by challenging some of the underlying values and principles of the design process in various forms of practice (business, government, and social systems).


The Dundee program conflates ethnography with anthropology, design ethnography with user-centred design, and has a strong high technology focus. The Swinburne program operates under different assumptions for strong ontological reasons coming out its engagement with Indigenous Knowledge. While there is a strong ethnographic focus--as a philosophy of trying to understand and represent knowledge from the perspective of the people engaged in the study--the program explores the wide range of anthropological challenges:

  1. The nature-nurture problem (ex. Is it biology or environment that causes humans to respond to something in a particular way?)
  2. The evolution problem (ex. How do things expand and change over time?)
  3. The internal-external problem (ex. What are the ways in which behaviors are influenced by values or environmental conditions?)
  4. The social facts or emergent properties problem (ex. How are people influenced by social forces that emerge from the interaction of humans, but which transcend individuals?)
The user-centred design approach assumes that the subject of design interaction is an individual. This is represented through the use of personas and other methods that focus on individuals as key actors. Swinburne DA is more open to other modalities of being that emphasize the relational group identity as the key way of operating in the world, such as those found in IK. So it will by nature operate differently.

Lastly, the DA Foundation is field-of-application agnostic, meaning it serves as a basis not just for those who want to engage in sustainable design practices, or define institutional values through branding, but also seek to design social systems through indigenous methods. The DA foundation sees all human made objects and processes as technologies for shaping human values and actions. Thus whether it is high tech or low tech, tangible or intangible, the student will know how to analyze and redesign "technologies" with greater alignment between intentions and outcomes.


Dundee program is focused on ethnography as a method in the UCD process including usability. The Swin DA program engages in a wide variety of anthropological and design methods depending on the specific question one is seeking to answer. If it is a nature/nurture question, one might need to approach it from a biological measurement approach which is not indigenous to the group studied and thus not ethnographic, but it might be how you have to answer the question in the Multisensory Design Anthropology unit. Probably because of my four-fields training, I do engage in Anthropology from its widest range of the scientific to the humanistic without too much bias. I'm pretty poly-vocal.

Student Outcomes

The Dundee program wants to produce user researchers. The Swin DA program wants to produce "big-D" Designers. Meaning, the intention of the Swin program is to create those who can design new human systems of interaction and engagement with business, government, and society, through the design of communications, objects, environments, interactions, and/or experiences. As you state (the reviewer asks that we make sure that students come out prescriptive with great critical thinking skills), the students will be equipped to be prescriptive, yet their prescriptions for future states will be deeply informed by a inclusive, iterative process that respects multiple visions of what could be and ethical in its mitigation of harmful effects and optimization of its benefits to the weakest in network. The Swin DA student will not just want to feed into industry, but will want to revolutionize industry.

What makes me happy is that I know from my teaching at UIC that this approach produces these type of students. I think about the outcomes of my MFA students at UIC and they are changed creators of human interactions. So I am excited about the idea of developing a formal program that will produce a lot more of these students.