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Design Thinking, HBR, and cultural anthropology appropriation?

I have posted before about my ambiguity with the concept of design thinking. In the past few weeks, design thinking has hit mainstream in terms of the Harvard Business Review's recent article by Tim Brown defining of Design Thinking. His opening statement and use of Thomas Edison as the exemplar symbolizes for me all the anxieties and reservations I have about the concept of design thinking:

Thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop products, services, processes—and even strategy.

He lists five attributes of a design thinker: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism, and collaboration, but caveats that design thinkers are not only created by design schools. So I wonder what other fields produce such personality profiles? One of which is anthropology, which is why I have such a hard time accepting the concept of design thinking (which implies a both originary, unique, and proprietary ownership of these characteristics by the field of design or as Brown posits of the designer).

Empathy, integrative thinking, experiementalism, and collaboration are hallmarks of cultural anthropology. Ethnography was developed as both the philosophical, tactical, and representational strategy for gaining empathy and demonstrating the difference of another's perspective to understanding human phenomenon. Integrative thinking is call holistic thinking in anthropological circles which drives the desire to understand things across time (thus the historical bent) and space (thus cross-cultural comparison). The field work experience is one of experiementalism where one tries many and different approaches (from observational to participatory, unstructured to structured) to figure out how to solve problems of human understanding. Even in its most colonial form, the anthropological endeavor was collaborative albeit with unequal power relations.  The derogatory term "informants" allude to the dependency relationship between the researcher and the subject populations. The only thing that anthropology lacks is a sense of optimism, but that is mostly because you often are so close to people's pain when you live with them. So does that mean that cultural anthropologists are design thinkers or are they cultural anthropologists?

If in the world of branding, you must demonstrate  uniqueness and differentiation in the market. If a cultural anthropologist meets the criteria of design thinking (without any interaction with design), then design thinking fails as a brand of design. Design thinking positions itself as the alternative to business thinking. It is a means for designers to enter the strategy game, which is more lucrative and of higher social value. I get it and directly participate in this effort by training my students to do more strategic design.

My problem is that design thinking draws many of its attributes from its encounter with anthropology, yet by calling it "design thinking" the encounter becomes more an act of appropriation without recognition than collaboration. I cannot tell you how many times I go to a conference and someone describes a complex design project, say around service design, and they talk about what the designers did strategically, until they finally, when probed, admit that 1/2 of the designers were anthropologists or psychologists or some other social scientists.

I always characterize my work and that of my students as being hybrid between design and the social sciences, design anthropology or anthro-design. The absence of anthropology/ethnography from the discourse of design thinking makes me think that  I cannot play a part in a world where I clearly play a part because the core aspect of my identity as an anthropologists is being shut out by the discourse of design thinking, which implies that you are a designer or trained as one. Or why call do they call it design thinking and not hermeneutics? But perhaps I feel threatened mostly because Design Thinking is copping the brand of anthropology and there was great value in my anthropological training that will be lost if people feel they can get it from a design department (as most are currently configured). Again, the irony is that I am providing that anthropological perspective within a design school.



Incredibly insightful, wish I could debate certain points though.

jeff wills

Hi Dori,

I just ran across your blog and thought i I would write. No particular agenda in mind. Just wanted to say how interesting the site is and that it's great to have a more diverse discourse in the design community. I'm a black designer and graduate of UIC (1983) and it's rare to see others like me out there. Keep up the good work and drop me a line sometime. I'd like to hear what's up at UIC design dept. these days. Thanks.

Dori Tunstall

Actually, design has to situate themselves as well. To get a patent, you have to demonstrate how your product is different from the others that exist. When creating a poster using images, you have to deal with copyright. The purpose of design 360s and annuals is to provide a wider context for design artifacts. So citational practices exist, they are just poor in relationship to that which design borrows from other fields.

Alex Cheek

Design definitely has poor citational practices, and I think that it reflects on some of the core differences in ways of thinking of the two disciplines.

Design is a client-driven activity. Projects are often conducted in isolation and judged almost entirely on the end product. Anthropology on the other hand is almost always conducted in an academic environment where success is based on contribution to the field. Since the history is so rich and complex, anthropologists need to situate themselves within that (as well as demonstrate their mastery of the canon). Not because of their motivations, but because of their contexts and outputs, design and anthropology are different. (I am tempted to say that there is no real reason to even have good citational practices in design. In design, the idea is not the real issue, the proof is in the pudding.)

In my opinion, both disciplines are much stronger for having each met each other. New paradigms of thought and action need designers to help communicate and demonstrate their value to people. Products, services and systems need to fit into people's lives on many levels.

Design just figured out the business model faster.

Dori Tunstall

Hi Alex,

Anthropology (applied or not) is about making changes in people's lives through both theory and action. The theory is about creating new thought and action paradigms to set the framework for new sets pf behaviors.

Anthropology's role in the Colonial project was about developing a new thought paradigm about "natives" in contrast to the prevailing attitude that they were sub or even non-human. Anthropologists got involved with the colonial project to say (1) these people are human because look they have religion, kinship, political structures, learning institutions, etc, thus (2) in terms of your militaristic Colonial policies you need to treat these people as if they are human. Anthropologists got dinged for the suggestions of how Colonial authorities should treat the natives like humans because it made them complicit with the Colonial project.

The great figures of anthropology were all involved in behavior modification. Franz Boas sought to change US Immigration policy and the resulting behaviors by creating a new thought paradigm that the "fitness" of immigrants should not be based on biological determinism. Margaret Mead sought to change the sexual mores of US men and women across generations, which were very restrictive until the 1960s.

So anthropologists might make theories but not for the sake of making theories, but rather for the purpose of changing existing paradigms of thought and the behaviors that come out of those thoughts.

With the exception of the armchair anthropology of Frasier or Levi-Strauss, I've yet to read an ethnography that was just about abstract theory for theories sake. And even the abstract theory of structuralism was to demonstrate the universality consciousness of all human beings, which was not a wide accepted paradigm at those times.

My point is that, yes, design thinking is the conversation design is having with business but the conversation excludes and ignores the anthropologists who are in the room. It ignores the origins of what is is describing as its thinking from the direct interaction between designers and anthropologists.

As a discipline, I guess anthropology is better at flagging its intellectual hybridity: you have medical anthropology, psychological anthropology, anthropology of law, business anthropology, design anthropology, anthropology of consciousness. Maybe design just has poor citational practices.

Alex Cheek

Dori, I feel you on this one. I studied anthro and spanish in undergrad and just finished a masters at your neighbor school, ID. In fact, I am the other person who feels that they might have received excessive attention in Gabe and Kristy's video (I do the on the street interviews, singing and all).

I am interested in talking about this more, but my initial feeling, is that there is a big difference between anthropology thinking and design thinking. When you read the attributes of design thinking, it is a description that is meant to contrast with business not anthro.

One of my most beloved professors at ID described it like this,
"Anthropology seeks to go out into the world and understand it, with the goal of creating a robust theory, all while not substantially interfering in the lives of the people in question. Design is surveillance with the ultimate goal of behavior modification."

This is a perfect example of the provocative hyperbole that this prof loved, but there is a kernel of truth: behavior modification.

I tend to agree with this prof that at the heart of design thinking is a tendency to action, to making and to creating change, especially in people's lives.

Anthro is being applied is so many contexts, but I still don't think that it is wrong to say that, being a social science, anthro is primarily concerned with creating theories. On the other hand, design likes to talk and theorize about itself, but, being a craft, it is primarily concerned with making things.

Coming to this realization helped me understand how I want to think of myself, what I really want to be doing and what I how to be described professionally.

Now I am working as a designer and researcher at a management consuluting firm. That said, the abstract theory driven way of thinking in anthropology is crucial for setting the stage for succesful action or design.

Gong Szeto

here's my 2 cents:

is design co-opting the brand and best practices of anthropology? yes.

is design repackaging themselves to be something more than window-dressers? yes.

is integrative thinking better than non-integrative thinking? well, this is creating an artificial opposition where one does not exist. it is always a question of "degree" of integrative thinking that is applied, n'est pas? you can't have a thought and not have it be informed by *something* - empirical, anecdotal, recorded, whatever. nature abhors a vacuum.

so what is at the heart of all this? why is there a ( why is there even a discourse at all when these two actors (design and business, respectively) have been in the same play for hundreds of years (capitalism) and no one's bothered to raise a stink about definitions until recently?

i think there is one very important thing at stake here and is being utterly obscufated: all businesses commodify over time.

#1 applies to design businesses as well as their clients. we are in a surplus economy (at least here in the west) where the focus is not creating products to fulfull unmet needs of the market, as i believe we have all the choice we need at the moment. judging from the current ratio of advertising budgets vs product development budgets (about 10:1) we exist in a commercial reality where the dollars are spent more on generating demand for a saturated market than investment into "breakthrough" products. we have been in this continuum since the late 50's. the last major disruptive event that affected the major markets themselves was the dotcom boom, and there isn't a single pundit who will or can bet on the next. there may not be another one.

therefore, what i am saying is quite simply, there is more pent up productivity (supply) than there is demand. if you were in the supply side of the business and you saw the writing on the wall, wouldn't you yourself make up a bunch of hooey to generate MORE demand for your prime productivity? in this case, "design" seeks to get closer to the maker, since they have all the mechanisms in place (advertising budgets, culture, habits, etc) to stimulate demand since they have had to do this for awhile. design firms do not have these things. so...if they can convince them in a very clever way to increase their product development budgets to create more opportunities for their at-risk prime productivity, why wouldn't they? what's to lose? and making the argument that "design thinking" gets the makers closer to the "desires" of customers is a compelling one -- think about it, makers need every nuance and insight they can get because they are utterly commodified, and that means margins are shrinking.

the significance in my claim that all businesses commodify over time is that there is a predictable lifecycle to all businesses. first the edison "eureka phase" where it's all vision, spit and vinegar. later, assuming market penetration and success, then repeatable processes must sink (deeply) as this is the "efficiency phase". disruptive market-making innovation happens in the early phase, and then it grows up to be a big, fat, conservative mature adult. the irony here is that that's the end game. to be mature and stable and predictable. this is the "annuity" psychology of business. why take more risks when things are working just fine?

what troubles me is that the whole design thinking argument (as evidenced in this running in *HBR*, and trust me, it was pushed and not pulled) is targetted at the fuddy-duddy late stage mature companies. it makes total sense in that the personalities involved behind the whole "design thinking" boondoggle, are actually in mid-late career themselves and that's the culture they know. like attracts like, i guess. disruptive innovation is garageband stuff (i know lots of folks who will argue this) and if it is not, then al least there is a pocket of corporate headspace that would engender a disruptive-thinking culture within it.

all this being said, i am certain i've decoded why the whole "design thinking" discourse exists, and to some degree the tropes it has chosen to co-opt. but, dori, it must be posed: does this "design thinking" have long-term legs that represents the beginning of a major cultural shift in what business is and how business is conducted? or is it just a semiotic fad like the beaten-to-death-by-bruce-nussbaum term "innovation"? in my opinion the answer to the former is no, and the latter, yes. but that does not help your own raison d'etre, does it? i think the reality is that this whole design thinking thing does *introduce* prescient concepts and best practices to the business world, ones that you so rightly identify as being in the domain of anthropology. and yes, anthropology needs to get re-spun. but the funny thing is, is that your own work is part of this re-spinning. good luck and may you make many ripples.

one last note of annoyance at brown's article. let's use quantification metrics from gongworld here - design as he talks about it is really about product design (90%), maybe service design (1%, assuming that everyone knows what that means, and you and i both know that only about 42 people on this planet knows what it means), and maybe *design* strategy as an integral *part* of a company's overall business strategy (5%), and process design (boring - 4%). here's the rub, this aggregate (100%) really only represents 10% of ALL BUSINESS' EVERYDAY CONCERNS. and if you look at wikipedia's very unexciting definition of "business" [] they list 7 classes of businesses (manufacturing, retailing/distributing, professional svcs, agriculture/mining, financial, utilities, real estate, transportation). and their definition is useful in that it says that these classes can change depending on the POLITICAL system that exists, so i will throw in public sector as a class for the hell of it. all things being equal, only ONE of these classes has a defensible and obvious relationship to big D design, at least according to brown's application of it.


tim's argument applies to only 10% of a business' daily concerns in only 12% (1 of 8 classes) of all business classes that exist.

therefore these broad claims are at most a whimper in the face of the reality of the commercial business world as we know it.

don't worry too much about this, dori. the numbers (my estimates and weird math admittedly) point to cultural inertia that means nothing is gonna change much overnight. but do keep your eyes on the prize.

sorry if my post got long and rangy. i hope some of my points made sense. i've thought a lot about this.

Graham Douglas

Nicely put.

It seems to me that design thinking and other holistic approaches can be subsumed under NEW Integrative Thinking (NEW IT).

NEW IT is based on extensive research in Mind Science in recent years. Mind Science draws on work from the brain sciences (which include neuroscience, immunology and endocrinology); biology; ethology; computer science; social, evolutionary and cognitive psychology; physics; anthropology; neurophilosophy (a new science established with a view to building a unified science of the mind and brain); linguistics; systems theory; complexity science including self-organization, chaos, uncertainty, and emergence; the philosophy of mind; the philosophy of science and evolutionary epistemology (a branch of philosophy concerned with the origin, nature, methods and limits of human knowledge).

The process of NEW IT may be thought of as our wondering (W) about a situation, creating a narrative (N) connecting our wonderings and managing our experiences (E) in acting out our narrative. It is distinctive in that it helps integrate thought, planning, action, review and evaluation in one continual process. It involves understanding and learning what our basic human needs and aspects of our human will are, what guides us in balancing those needs and will, clarifying what we have and what we want to set our goal, exploring possible connections when relaxed, arriving at a strategy to negotiate the change from what we have to what we want, devising tactics to advance the strategy, taking bold, assertive and timely action to achieve our goal, reviewing and evaluating our performance.

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