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FAQs: Design anthropology

A student at UIC asked me what design anthropology was. She could not find the definition on my blog so I am posting my response to her.

What is design anthropology

It can be seen in two ways:

The use of anthropologically-based concepts and methodologies, especially ethnography, in the design process for new product and service design and innovation.

This is what is promoted in Business Week when they discuss the uses of anthropology and ethnography in business.

At UIC, this takes the practical form of teaching qualitative research methods to design students (i.e. how to skillfully and systematically plan and execute research projects involving people.)

I look at it more philosophically. Anthropology seeks to answer the question, "What does it mean to be human?" Design anthropology approaches this question by seeking to understand how the processes and artifacts of design come help to define ever evolving ideas of what it means to be human.

This could be:
    a) Archaeological studies of the origin of creativity and its contemporary evolutions.
    b) Human physical variation, ergonomics, and anthropometrics as manifested in the design of Nike tennis shoes.
    c) Language variation and graphic design representation
    d) Transcultural studies of the meaning of designing and design artifacts

So its everything human as it relates to anthropology and design. It is sharing with designers the fact that anthropologists have studied the processes and artifacts of design for over 150 years, and that knowledge should be available to them to extend their creative conceptualization and execution to be more ethical. It is sharing with anthropologist the importance of form-making in communicating the value of human knowledge.

How did you found out about Design Anthropology?

I did not “find out” about it but am actually one of the many co-creators, especially of Design Anthro in the second form. Earlier incarnations of the first form is found in the anthropology of business and mostly in practice. Here is Christina Wasson’s list from her class that covers some of the knowledge. http://courses.unt.edu/cwasson/uxreadings.htm  The second form is found in strains of material culture studies, visual anthropology, archaeology, etc. See this link to my class in 2005 for more. http://www.uic.edu/classes/ad/ad502/

How can I get into the profession?

First, join the anthrodesign yahoo group list where people post internships and job announcements. Its rather difficult to find very entry level positions, but working at firms like Context Research, Adaptive Path, and Conifer will provide some experience. Make sure that you have a diverse set of skills in design as well as anthropology and maybe even marketing. It is an interdisciplinary field which requires a broad set of skills, yet deep core competency in either design or anthropology.


Claudia Mendez

My name is Claudia. I am an anthropologist living in Bogota, Colombia. The idea of anthropology and design has been on my mind for several years, for my interest in material culture studies and image analysis. As a matter of fact I have been working on marketing for 2 years. I am glad to know somebody in the world has studied the subject deeply, and I wanted to ask you about authors that could give me an idea about the subject. Thank you very much.

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