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Design As Margaret Mead

Marc of SFU posted a comment on my blog that I would be interested in Bruce Nussbaum’s posting on how CEOs Must Be Designers.

There was one part of Bruce’s posting that caught my attention, or more likely caused my heart to stop because it exposed the ambivalence I have about design, particularly “design thinking” and what I would see as its potential act of colonization of anthropology and other disciplines.

So the section of Bruce’s post that interested me is this:

The empathetic tools of design can bring business people, educators, urban planners, hospital managers, transportation developers—everyone-- into these communities to understand their values and rules, their needs and wants.

That’s Design As Margaret Mead, Design As Anthropology. Design is so popular today mostly because business sees design as connecting it to the consumer populace in a deep, fundamental and honest way. An honest way. If you are in the myth-making business, you don’t need design. You need a great ad agency. But if you are in the authenticity and integrity business then you have to think design. If you are in the co-creation business today—and you’d better be in this age of social networking—then you have to think of design. Indeed, your brand is increasingly shaped and defined by network communities, not your ad agency. Brand manager? Forget about it. Brand curator maybe.

Then there is Design as Peter Drucker or Design as Management Methodology. Design is popular today also because Design Thinking—the methodology of design taken out of the small industrial design context and applied to business and social process—is spreading fast.

In Marty Neumeier’s the Brand Gap, he has an exercise in which if you can replace the name of a different company into the logomark or tagline, it fails as a mark or tagline:

The empathetic tools of design anthropology can bring business people, educators, urban planners, hospital managers, transportation developers—everyone-- into these communities to understand their values and rules, their needs and wants.

Tools of empathy fail as the differentiating the brand of “design” from that of anthropology. Owning to poor communication of Anthropology’s part, many do not know that “tools for empathy” is the anthropological brand. But in fact, the development, refinement, and recreation of tools of empathy has been the reason for existence and modus operandi of anthropology for nearly 150 years. So I wonder if/why/how design is/seeks to colonize/ be colonizing--not hybridizing or synthesizing-- anthropology?


CAVEAT: Now, understand that I am a completely hybridized designer/anthropologist. I’ve spent now just as long in my design habitus as I did in my anthropological training. So the questions I pose are not about designer bashing, which would be schizophrenia as this point. But the metaphor of colonization opens up possibilities for teasing out how future scenarios of design and anthropology’s engagements can play out.

An oversimplified story of Design and Colonization

Once upon a very real time and place, there was a group of people called Design. Design lived on an functionally substantive and aesthetically beautiful island called Isle de Craft. Design lived happily for a long period of time making beautiful and functional artifacts. One day, two explorer groups called Digital and Globalization washed upon the shores of Isle de Craft. Design was exposed to a whole universe of things it never dreamed of. More efficient ways of doing things and more competition for its crafts. There was intermarriage of the groups and these Digital Design and Global Design and Digital Global Design offspring (Design 2.0) felt uncomfortable with the old ways of Design and felt the Isle de Craft was too small for the work they wanted to do. There was a lot of resentment among the old Design people and sometimes Design 2.0 were prosecuted. In addition, the population boom made the Isle de Craft overcrowded.

So these Design 2.0 and some of the old Design people sought new lands to explore who they are and what they could do. The desire of course was to find unoccupied lands, so they could build their societies anew, but there weren’t any. Thus, some of the groups landed in the land of Anthropology. The chief of Anthropology sent her children Ethnography and Anthropometrics to meet the new visitors. The Design 2.0 were weary and ill from their travels. Ethnography and Anthropometrics brought them healing foods and balm, then introduced them to the rest of the Anthropology people. Some said kill them for they bring disease. Others said we should take care of them and mate with them; we have something to learn from them. The latter group won, but the former group constantly eyed the visitors with suspicion.

Design 2.0 got better and began to build their homes and society in the land of Anthropology. Some Anthropology people liked the look and feel of the new homes and moved in with Design 2.0, sought to learn their ways, and see how they could create new things together to invigorate the old Anthropology society. Some Design 2.0 people liked the methods and society of Anthropology and moved into those villages to learn their ways and see how they could create new things together to invigorate Design 2.0. Others established trade routes between the Isle of Craft and the land of Anthropology, traveling back and forth, sharing ways and understandings. For a while, everything seemed prosperous.

Then, there was a global famine that affected the Isle of Craft and the Land of Anthropology. Being an island, the Isle of Craft was hit harder. Many fled the island and came to the Land of Anthropology. They were also weary and ill, but these Design 3.0 people were different. They learned how things were done in their new lands, but then went around rebranding everything “design.”

Anthropological research methodologies or even the hybrid ones developed by both anthropologist and designers were branded “Design Research” and the origins erased. They kept addressing poor Ethnography as Contextual Inquiry, much to her anger and chagrin. The understanding of organizational structures and services to support them were rebranded  “Organizational Design” and “Service Design.” As the famine increased in the lands, Design 3.0 declared that they were the only people qualified to perform these new things and created new gated cities on the most productive lands where only Design 3.0 people could live and work.

This process also began to happen in the Land of Business Administration and the Land of Politics.

What happens next, choose your own adventure...


As a person deeply committed to the hybrid theories, methodologies, and practices of Design Anthropology, there is a lot of danger I feel in design seeking to claim territory that is already inhabited by others. I deeply understand the desire to expand the practices of design from craft production, but perhaps the way to think about that process is not in the form of Design 3.0, which claims all advances as design and where “Design as Anthropology” surplants and erases the memory of Anthropology or other disciplines.  I try to approach it as Anthrodesign, Designanthro, or Design+Anthropology. Design should not feel so insecure about its craft origins. People need crafts and its a valuable part of construction of humanness. Anthropologist, beyond archaeologists who do perform craft production, should improve the craft of their communication and experiential artifacts. New times may require the acquisition of new skills, but those skills have a history and intentionality to them, which needs to be recognized.

Bruce Nussbaum in the same post talks about how design is hated partly because it is misunderstood, but also because of its own hubris. That hubris leads designers to make statements like, “Designers have an intuitive understand of what it means to be human.” But not being aware of how its actions can be read as colonization, Design 3.0 risks the insurrection of the natives whose lands and practices they are seeking to take as their own. And unlike European contact with the Americas, Design 3.0 will find the natives of Anthropology and Business land have more respect from the deities of Business, Government, and Society. The land grab  for ideas and methods might backfire and the deities punish Design 3.0 for its hubris.

There is no Design as Margeret Mead, but there is an Anthrodesign by which the skills of “professional” design and anthropology are developed in persons and groups to a complementary balance. Margeret Mead is actually very much an anthrodesigner. Her work paid attention to form as it did to content. She and Gregory Bateson were some of the early pioneers of using visual methods of photography and video to do Anthropology engaged with designing new future possibilities for society.

Perhaps that is what the two disciplines should be aiming for.


Gabriel Harp

I dig your sentiment. I read your post the afternoon you posted it, but I needed to stew a bit first. This is a complicated topic, and I think you do a really nice job with the scenario to untangle it. Coming directly from an MFA program that is itself schizophrenic and not sure what to do with art, design, or any of the cross-pollinated interactions we are creating with other disciplines like public policy, biology, Middle-East studies, the classics, etc., I've become acutely sensitive to claims that one discipline colonizes another. This happens in science a lot, particularly biology, where artists tend to be viewed as illustrators of the concepts and mechanisms–more of a servitude rather than a colonization perspective, perhaps. Part of it stems from a lack of exposure and recognition of what artists and designers do at a conceptual level. The Ann Arbor Art Fair was here last week, and among the many glass flowers and nicely made wooden boxes were lots of "sciency" images for people to decorate with. I cringe when I think that this is how some mainstream biologists view the discipline. While there are many craftspeople in the arts and design profession, there are others whose goal is to make hybrids out of other things, like organizations for example.

I would contend that the tools of empathy and not restricted to anthropology. Biologists rarify their ability to grasp natural phenomena from other organisms' perspectives. Barbara McClintock's sense of "a feeling for the organism" characterizes this well as does the concept of witness documented in Shapin and Schaffer's "Leviathan and the Air Pump" and Haraway's "Modest Witness..." The question is, "When do the tools of empathy translate into the tools of concern?" It makes me think of Bruno Latour's "The Politics of Nature" as an interesting extension of the social architecture for doing science, design, and democracy. What I see is the rapid appropriation of empathy as strategy (myself included). However, in some cases (myself excluded), I'm not always sure that this empathy is being leveraged in the interest of those being empathized with, but I suppose it's a start at least.

Maybe it's not colonization per se, but rather the recognition that all of these quasi-rational disciplines (business included) have much more to gain when they assume the limitations of their own methodologies. Like the designers' exodus from the Isle de Craft, contemporary art has undergone a similar crisis after languishing in its self-referential hall of mirrors. I'm not sure it's found it's way out, but it has broken a few of those mirrors with the tools of other disciplines (the Critical Art Ensemble using molecular biology methods, for example).

Still, I do see that hubris that you mention, and I wonder what it takes to vault the cult of the individual–that the individual is expert in everything. Sure, it's more difficult when you have to coordinate the concerns (and idiosyncrasies) of others in design and planning, but then it's more fun too. Perhaps one solution to this problem of colonization is to establish an environment in which the well-regarded methodologies are valued when practiced in concert with those of others. What keeps anthropologists and designers or artists and biologists from cooperating? Is it that they have different goals? If so, where is the common ground?

Ericka Menchen Trevino

Great post. As an interested semi-outsider, I appreciate your perspective and I'd like to see other commentary here as well.

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