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.

Response to Design Observer post "Why is this font different from other fonts?"

This is the response I posted to Jessica Helfand's June 26th post to the Design Observer, entitled "Why is this font different from other fonts?" Her essay was about type "ethnicity," cultural stereotyping, and ethics in design. The gist of her argument was there is an ethical dilemma in the use of Faux Hebrew, Faux Mexican, or Faux Hindu typefaces. She asks the question, "What’s the difference between a celebrity making an unforgivable racist remark and a typographer making a font that clumsily perpetuates a cultural stereotype?"


My response:

How do design artifacts (ex. typefaces) enable self-definition and self-determination in relationships of unequal power?

I really appreciate this article and the discussion generated around it. When design is increasingly concerning itself with issues of diversity, the questions posed by Jessica are important to addressing the openness of the field.

How do the design decisions that designers make (our intentions) as they become manifest in specific environments (restaurant menu vs. job application) affect the receptions by diverse groups of people (positive, neutral, negative) to ideas of self and other, within a context where everyone is not given the same access to the agency to define themselves.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Helvetica story is that it was designed with the intention to get away from the national ethnic markers of many European typefaces. It is the Euro of typefaces. In the context of centuries of infighting among European nations, this was important in helping to define a new identity for Europe as international, not national.

Yet, that same Helvetica in the context of an African government form could be seen as colonialism. Through this so-called international typeface, Europeans are trying to transform the "disorderliness" of specific African identities into an imagined rational, ordered, European identity.

Ethics is about the mitigation or elimination of possible negative consequences of one's decisions. This requires the imagining of how design can hurt as well as help. Beyond PC-ism, the goal is to try and do no harm, especially to the weakest among you.

Response to Design Observer's "Ethnographic Turn in Design"

Posted on today's Design Observer, guest observer, Andrew Blauvelt offers his comments of the Ethnography Primer published by AIGA and Cheskin. People from the anthrodesign list posted comments (Bob Jacobson and Mark Rogers), below is the comment that I posted.


This means something.

At E-lab in the 1990s, this is the statement they would place in the opening slide of many presentations. Normally, the text would be overlayed on an image of teenagers wearing backpacks, or a desk full of files.

One of the things that I most appreciate about the contribution the Rick Robinson, John Cain, and others made at E-lab was that they talked about ethnography in terms of how it uncovered the meaning of people's experiences. More importantly, they articulated, in ways that did not require a Ph.D. in Anthropology, how by understanding and modeling those experiences, you can create the conditions to support and enhance new experiences.

What I find interesting in Andrew's comments is while his/your analysis of the content of the text is accurate, his/your analysis of what it means for designing and designers - in terms of the question about the restriction of use and the selection of the coffee cup holder as the most concrete example for critique - seems to miss key points about the publication.

Why restrict its use?

According to Ric Grefé's Walker Art Center presentation last October, ethnographic professionals are part of the expanded constituency of "designers" within AIGA. As an anthropologist who has been involved with AIGA for 5 years and design for now 8 years, the publication is part of making professional ethnographers like myself see themselves as part of AIGA.

As an early reviewer of the publication, it was an important distinction to make that not everyone can do ethnography well, especially the client, so your best bet is to hire a professional, who has training in both the theories and the techniques of ethnographic research and analysis. Just like if you want someone to design your corporate identity, you might want to go to a credentialed professional designer and not a $199 logo shop.

If that person also happens to be someone with design credentials, as well as social science ones, all the better. In fact, in most places that use ethnography as part of marketing research, user experience design, and product innovation, people end up cross-training over time. Designers learn to do research. Ethnographers learn to do design. But each one not with the same efficiency or depth of knowledge as the other one.

I find that idea that everyone can do ethnography is based on a misconception that ethnography is just about observing what people do. Ethnography is not about data collection, which is what everyone designers and researchers can share in because we all observe different things. Ethnography is about understanding the meanings of objects, environments, social interactions, beliefs, values, cosmologies, and communications from the perspective of the people studied. This is hard analytical work that because of ethical considerations of misrepresentation and cultural appropriation requires a certain amount of sensitivity, both broad and deep social knowledge, and constant self-reflection. Professional ethnographers generally ought to possess these attributes whether they hail from design or social sciences, but you gain this through training.

Beyond Cup Holders

This critique feels a bit disingenuous because the other points about what ethnography does is about  the important questions:

How do people make sense of their world?
What are our assumptions about normative values in one culture versus another?
How do people communicate with one another, through objects? What is the most effective way to do it?
What are the cultural codes that have to be adopted and adapted as you bring an experience from one place to another place?

These seem to me to be the important questions of not just design, but of life. These are the questions that ethnography asks, analyses, answers, and helps translate (through design communication) to others. In fact, all of the very socially-relevant, civic based, Design for Democracy work was built on an ethnographic foundation made up of ethnographers and design students trained in ethnographic approaches.

This is just to say that this publication marks a particular milestone in terms of AIGA's relationship with the professional ethnographic community, who since the UX days have been part of AIGA, but have not always been "represented" or particularly felt welcomed. Now I can say, I am part of AIGA without choking on the words.


Design & Anthropology SIG for NAPA

Late last month, I submitted a proposal for a special interest group to the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) for Design & Anthropology.  It was approved by the NAPA board last week.

The mission of the Design & Anthropology Interest Group (D&A IG) is to increase the perceived value of the design and anthropological theories, methodologies, and artifacts to global business, government, and society. Under the institutional structure of the NAPA, the group will be able to develop cross-institutional collaborations with the professional design associations and “design” related divisions within the American Anthropological Association (ex. visual anthropology, contemporary archaeology, and museum studies) to amplify the message of Design & Anthropology’s value.

This is very exciting because the group can hold under a single umbrella the Anthropology Rebranding Project, perhaps EPIC, etc.  So in the next few months, I hope to be able to make rounds to the major design organizations to see what collaborations are possible. I hope to be able to leverage NAPA and the AAA to get NSF-sponsored research methods courses for design students, and design visualization courses for anthropology students.

Big A and little a, big D and little d

There has been some static on the Anthrodesign list about the dominance of anthropologists and their jargon on the list. This was my response to some of the issues that appear on the list every once in a while.

Since I came across the Design and design distinction at the AIGA national conference in 2003, I have thought a lot about Anthropology and Design as general human endeavors and anthropology and design as professional activities. For example, I work/play within the field of Design, but feel less confident about design. Now probably, I am a decent “designer.” And maybe after a summer at Basel, I will change my mind and call myself a full fledge designer without choking. But the heart of the matter is that I don’t feel I have the credibility to call myself a designer compared to the award winning designers I hang out with (who all have MFAs from Yale and studied at Basel). Now this is about my lack of confidence for they all love and adore me and trust me to teach “design” to their students. So to deal with this I have two possible approaches: (1) I can go to Basel and get the marker of credibility I feel I need or (2) I can get my colleague! s to keep telling me that I am a designer until I believe it. Because it is my desire to be respected and admired as a member of their professional group that drives my insecurity about design. Thus for me, the line between Design and design, Anthropology and anthropology is relative to the standards of design/anthropology that one is operating under and the extent to which those are shared by others who can evaluate those standards.

What defines the professionalization of any human endeavor is the establishment of standards. There are design standards and anthropology standards. As professionals in the field of anthrodesign, what should be the standards for the profession will always be and should be a core issue. Is an MA in anthro and MFA or MDes in design both required to be a professional anthrodesigner? Who defines those standards? Who are the influencers and who are the deciders? What I find cool is that the standards are evolving in interesting ways that are, on one hand, higher (ex. thus sadly for newbies the greater difficulty of finding entry level positions in this field) and, on the other hand, broader (ex. the current spate of job postings are asking for wider ranges of credentials across the social sciences, behavioral sciences, and design).

Everyone does Anthropology and Design (we try to understand the people around us and create possible futures based on that understanding). Yet, there are subsets of the population who choose to make their livelihood from those endeavors (anthropologists and designers). To protect the reputation of the field so that clients will buy their services and more importantly understand the value-add of those services, they, as a group, create standards that make clear the “minimal” required skills, theoretical perspectives, and attitudes toward the field. These are not random cruel disciplinary enclosures, but often precipitated by the real harm done by practioners to the reputation and effective impact on the field.

As a professional and academic discipline, anthropology has been keen on protecting its standards for reasons both positive and negative. On the positive side, it is about instilling an theoretical responsibility to knowledge production and the ethical responsibility to the populations with whom one works. Anthropology emphasizes the theory embedded in methods and practices to guard against misrepresentations and abuse of study populations. This is the self-reflection borne out of anthropology’ role in the Imperial enterprise. Ethnography may be a philosophical orientation, but anthropology is a discipline, design is a discipline, physics is a discipline, economics is a discipline. Thus they are practices to be governed. Now, journalist and the CIA may all be interested in Anthropology and the study of culture and meaning. But I find that the questions, assumptions, and outcomes of their forms of inquiry are often not the same as anthropology, although the techniques m! ay be similar.

On the negative side, standards have often been about preserving the privileges of its professional members over those who do not meet the “in group” standards. Yet, over time and due to changes in the current “in group,” the standards shift. I always laugh that the founding fathers of anthropology believe that, as an African American, I did not have the cranial capacity to be an anthropology. This same boundary marking process happens within IDSA and AIGA and the same calls of “elitism” is thrown by those who perceive themselves to be outside of the “in group,” at least until they are the “in group.” <wink>

But for a professional group to demonstrate their value to government, business, and society, it needs to be able to clearly communicate “this is who we are, what we do, and why it matters to you.” This narrative is always one of exclusion. But “no condition is permanent” and this process can be part of establishing new identities as in, “I am an anthrodesigner.” And remember that by claiming, “I am a professional,” you are excluding those who are amateurs. This is not unique to anthropology, but happens whether the fields are art, engineering, economics, or design. We all need to form group identities, especially when we need to communicate them to others of higher status and upon whose favor we rely for our livelihood. 

My point is that I do not view these discussions as a devolution, but part of the evolution of both design and anthropology, as Design and Anthropology. At stake is the reputation and thus the impact of the professions on government, business, and society. Since neither field is especially “high status” in the American government, business, and society, we’re probably are not as open with the standards as we ought to be and expand and contract iteratively. But, I do find both fields trying to approach things more expansively than before in response to the changing world. To continue the dialogue is to continue the evolution.

Visualizing policy design

In my AD502 Design and Governmentality class last Friday, we read Ann Schneider and Helen Ingram's Policy Design for Democracy and Mitchell Dean's Governmentality. Since all of the students are graphic design or electronic visualization MFAs, they complained about the vocabulary of the texts being too "bourgeous, intellectual, not user friendly." In other words, the vocabulary was not their patois, but someone else's.

After I gently reminded them that they, as designers, have the responsibility of translating messages among different langauges and thus need to know this vocab, they changed their tune. But they really had a hard time understanding the ideas in these two very academic texts.

So I used the World Cafe approach to get the students to discuss the ideas.

According to the World Cafe approach:
1. You set them up people in groups of four at a table.

2. You give them papers, markers, and other materials for writing and drawing. In the World Cafe world, this is accomplished through paper tablecloths.

3. Over a series of 3 rounds (each lasting 20-30 minutes), you give them a question (or a series of questions) and have them discuss, sketch, write, sing, however they chose to express themselves, the topic.

4. After the first round, there is one person who is the keeper of the conversation; the rest rotate to other tables.

5. The idea is to cross-pollinate ideas from one group to another and then have a group sharing.

I walked the students through the process and they produced these sketches, which forced them to grapple with the issues by trying to visualize them. Since I have an EV student, he produced a 3D animated model on the fly.

Below are some of the sketches:



AAA Race Exhibit and Website

I just checked out the American Anthropological Associations Race site. As part of the AAA's outreach and what I would call rebranding, it addresses the historical, biological, and socio-cultural aspects of race. It is an amazing site and exhibit, part of which I saw at the AAA meetings.

Coming from a Boasian tradition, my engagement with anthropology has been complicated by the way in which the field has dealt with issues of race and racism. This presentation of anthropological knowledge about race reaffirms my faith in the field. Addressed to a general audience, it is education and engaging. It dispels many of the myths about race without authoritatively presenting one right answer. The games/quizes are very effective in allowing people to question their assumptions about who is white or the various ethnic/racial categorizations across the world.

The design of the site is easy to navigate, friendly, and very professionally done. I say go check it out.

No longer a scientist?

As I am preparing for an NSF, I am coming to realize that I am no longer a scientist (social). Growing up, I had every expectation to become a scientist. I loved chemistry, psychology, biology, physics, and even calculus. I fell in love with anthropology because of its mix of science and humanities. Yet, I was never a positivist, or I was a cynical one. I remember in physics class in high school when I was give an extra credit assignment of researching equations with imaginary numbers. I never loved physics more than those couple of weeks contemplating imaginary numbers.

But the reason why I am no longer a scientist is that I operate at a level of complexity that is the opposite of the key empirical sciences of physics and chemistry. As a cultural anthropologist, I seek out the complexity and tangled interrelations of phenonmenon, whereas these sciences are very much akin to design in terms of seeking simple models of phenonmenon. I put together a project with over 200 variables, wheres for science you need to define 3-4 at the most.

So I edit myself down to a managable model of science, longing to ensnare them in future complexities.

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.  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.

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.

AD418 Final: anthropological reseach and designers/artists

Friday, my AD418 Research Methods for Art and Design students gave their final presentations. The students did an excellent job showcasing the work they did for the class, the variety of their topics, and how it relates to themselves as creative people in the world.  They seem geninuely happy with the results of our experiment in anthrodesign education. Here are some of the themes that came out of the experiment:

Design education focuses too much on "practice" and not enough on "research."

What  I mean by that controversal statement is that is that design education does not engage students with open-ended processes where there is no clear problem let alone answer. The core text in the class was H. Russell Bernards, Research Methods for Anthropology, Altamira Press 2005. He distinguishes between research and practice in terms of  their intentions, outcomes, and expectations.  See table in photo.

View this photo

From my students responses to the class, most of their education is spent solving problems using type, image, materials, form, etc. Even when they were given the opportunity to define their own problem, they initially struggled with the indeterminancy of anthropological research where there are so many ways to approach things. This lack of practice in "indeterminancy" erodes the confidence of designers in terms of being able to say something about the world beyond it should or should not use "dummy quotes."

Skillful and systematic attention to creative conceptualization (through research) produces more innovative creative thinking, because it exposes gaps in people's assumptions.

The narrative arc of many of the students' presentations is how they assumed the problem/issue was X, but the understanding of people showed them that it was really Y.  Some examples of X, Y,  are:

Sara Bassick's project: X= form and content of personal letters and Y= community building among mail art participants.

Chris Kalis's project: X=typography and childen's reading speed and accuracy and Y=textbook layout and design and children's reading comprehension.

I am really excited about where the students will take the research in terms of crafting solutions to some of these issues.

A deep grounding in anthropological research methods extends beyond ethnography.

The class explored interviewing, observation, and self-documentation techniques, which of course are not particular to anthropology. But the course was specifically framed by anthropological questions regarding art/designs relationship to human attitudes, behaviors, and actions and anthropological assumptions regarding the ethics of presenting human experience from the perspective of the people studied (i.e. ethnography as a philosophical orientation).  Yet, the research projects that students explored covered issues of usability (of public transit by elderly, blind, and low vision by student Leilah Rampa, of the website by student Elizabeth Salvi, and aforementioned work by Chris Kalis) and participatory design and art (one student, Mary Carideo, had various non-artists paint Cubist paintings) as well ethnographic  perspectives, which was exciting to see in terms of common disciplinary research platforms.

These kinds of courses, Research Methods, should be a core element of design education at especially the graduate level.

The feedback that the students' gave in terms of (1) being able to use these methods in their work as they go forward and (2) feeling more confident as they approach their thesis is what I hoped to gain from teaching the class. The fact that they got it and got it well  makes me lament the fact that so many other students did not benefit from the class. I do hope that my enrollment is higher next year as it expands to include, hopefully, anthropology students as well as those in Art and Design.