Pronoia: the blessing of student's not getting it

One of my favorite books is Pronoia, by Rob Brezney from Free Will Astrology fame. I love it because whenever I get grumpy and start generating negativity, it reminds me that "the universe is showering me with blessings." These blessings range from bittersweet self rebirthing pains, like leaving Design for Democracy so that I can develop more freely the Design and Governmentality concept to cosmic jokes like losing a favorite mitten so that I can get a new pair that are more suited for me than the pair I "loved" before.

So now I'm trying to define the blessing in the fact that few students have signed up for my AD502 course "Design and Governmentality" next semester. The cosmic joke is that last year I had to cancel my AD502 on "the Sacred and Profane in Art, Design, and Culture" because of lack of enrollment. Many of the students then came up to me saying that they wished they had signed up for my class instead.

This time I have invited special guests from government and policy. I have held out promises for publishing opportunities and yet no traction, yet. So the blessing may be that it will be small enough for us to take a trip to Washington DC to meet with people over spring break. That would be a blessing.

The other blessing will be that I can better engage with the students because I will have more time. The ones who take the class will truly be special.

Yet, there is this nagging feeling of wanting to share more. My husband, Mohammed, and my mentor, Roberta, all tell me that I am too ahead of my time and that it will take a while for people to catch up and catch on with what I am trying to create. While I agree with that assessment, I often feel frustrated as I wait for others to do so. What am I supposed to do while others catch up? Perhaps I need more meditation. Anyway, this sacred advertisment from Rob Brezney cheered me up:

The iconoclastic physicist Jack Sarfatti proposes that all "creative thought by artists, craftsmen, and scientists involves the subconscious reception of ideas from the future, which literally create themselves." Beauty and Truth Laboratory researcher Vimala Blavatsky puts a different spin on it. "Our future selves are constantly transmitting great ideas to us back through time," she says, "but most of us don't believe that's possible and consequently are not alert for it."

What do you think is the most pressing communiqué your future self is currently beaming your way?
The preceding oracle comes from my book, PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.

Maybe I'm not ahead of my time at all, its just that I'm alert to my future selves quite clearly. Often when I appear in my own dreams, I feel as if it is a future communique. Recently, I got my student evaluations for the AD418 Research methods class and they were wonderful. The students were very very positive about the class and the journey through the class. I (and they) feel that the course helped them get in touch with their future selves by showing them how to develop greater sensitivity to themselves and others (not just through the visual, but with the spirit). I am amazed by the kinds of designers they will become. That is a great blessing as well as finally getting premier status for United  airlines. Yippee!

Yin Yang of Design and Anthropology

Wednesday, I gave a presentation at Wayne State in Detroit on the Yin Yang of Design and Anthropology. It is one of the three key "projects" on which I am working:

  1. Design and Governmentality
  2. Anthroplogy and Design as Yin Yang energies
  3. Rebranding Anthropology

I was very happy with the presentation, but more importantly the discussion afterwords. Wanye State is exploring the possibility of a design anthropology concentration in their business design program. I am on their advisory board to help them develop it. So we had a variety of discussion around the structure and the content of a design anthropology program. And the tying in Yin Yang philosophical concepts in my presentation elevated the discussion so that it was as much about spirituality and culture as about the intellectual intersections of design and anthropology. I hope to refine it so that it will be a major conference piece that I do next year.

So specifically, the talk addressed:

  • How the anthropology/design nexus is in a liminal position, which can lead to new social developments. Citing Victor Turner's idea of liminality.
  • The misperceptions about design and anthropology by the general public, allied professionals that work with designers/anthropologists, and non-formally trained designers and anthropologists. This part is sure to be controversal.
  • The negative impact of those misconceptions for the 2 fields' roles in society, government, and business.
  • How anthropology represents Yin energy (internal contemplative) and design Yang energy (external active)
  • Through using the eight trigrams of  3 levels of Yin Yang energies (Heaven=intentions, Man=approaches, and Earth=anthrodesign techniques), how the combination of anthropology and design can positively impact society, business, and government with specific examples.

I've attached the presentation for review. Commentary would be more welcome, since I really am just in the middle of fleshing this out. Download YinYang_anthdesign_tunstall06.pdf (5 MB in PDF format).

Rebranding Anthropology - Faux Ad

This year at the American Anthropological Association meetings, I showed, as part of the Anthropology Rebranding Project II, the faux advertisment I did for the field of Anthropology. Some people have asked me to present the clip so that students can see how the language of design can be used to create a more compelling and relevant image of Anthropology.

The tagline: Anthropology, Connect to Our Humaness.

Concept: Demonstrate how the global phenomenon of world soccer can be understood through the four fields of anthropology (archaeology, physical anthropology, linguistics, and socio-cultural anthropology).

Download (approximately 4 MB in Quicktime format. Note it is highly compressed.)


The Anthropology logo was created by Cheyenne Medina of StudioLab in Chicago.
The images are taken mostly from Getty Images. Note: These images are not used for commercial purposes, although I hope to convince the AAA to do an ad campaign maybe using them, in which they will be purchased.
The music is from the CD, La Casbah Paris (Atoll 2002). It is the first track "First Transmission" composed by Declan Flynn, and performed by Al-pha-X.

Branding Anthropology + Design Anthropology

Being a "bad anthropologist" I have not attended any presentations during the five-day, 8:00am to 8:00pm, extravaganza that is the American Anthropological Association meetings. Curiously enough, the topics are closer to themes and approaches that I am interested in (ex. public anthropology, activist anthropology, governmentality, and citizenship). The problem is that I do not enjoy academic discourse the same way I did before. I have these conversations with people where I keep wanting to say, "Can you draw me an experience model?" So I have definitedly crossed a design threshold somewhere.

When I was on the plane flying to the conference, someone said, "You can't be an anthropologist. Your presentation looks too good." Someone else told me that they find the workshop form more appealing than going to paper presentations. AAA presentations tend to be made up of obtuse language and the lack of visuals.

The two workshops I facilitated were interesting because they were very interactive. Using a lot of Post-it notes to get participants to brain storm about the brand attributes of anthropology and opportunities to craft audience appropriate messages (via appropriate distribution channels). The Anthropology Rebranding Workshop was excited because AAA Executive leadership were present and was very engaged with what I was trying to say and do about the focus on people who are not anthropologist. I am optimistic that it may lead to opportunities to rebrand the AAA, which is the largest (10, 000 members) and oldest (over 105 years) anthropological association in the world. That would be very cool.

Tomorrow morning, I will probably break down and attend a panel session. It is strange to feel so alienated from your discipline, but exciting to see that it is transforming to become more like you. Ah, the plight of marginality and the promise of centeredness.

Anthropological methods for art and design 1: Preview of my lecture tomorrow

Bmc_athenahead_cr So tomorrow, I begin classes. This is my first lecture class, which I am really excited about. There is something about the lecture format that captures the romance of being a professor. Perhaps because each week you have to write an essay, you feel like you are more deeply engaging in the act of thinking.

Tomorrow's lecture is the overview of the class + a lecture on why you need anthropologically-based research for art and design. My key points are:
The activities of creative "making" is as much theory as it is practice, in other words it is a praxis.

Theory consists of four elements (from Alan Barnard's History and Theory in Anthropology, Cambridge 2000):

  1. Questions, or what you need/want to know and understand
  2. Assumptions, or what you and others  think is known and understood
  3. Methods, or the materials and techniques used to answer the questions and ground the assumptions
  4. Evidence, or how you communicate one's knowledge and understanding to others in a meaningful way

It is because of the "power" of assumptions that research needs to be conducted skillfully and systematically. Not because assumptions are bad, but because they are dangerous when disconnected from appropriate contextual milieus.

In the creative distrust of too much theory, there is a presumption that thinking is not an act, but rather something that precedes the real act, which is making. But according to Dewey, thinking is an act by which the reflection on discordant factors in situations results in the creation of new situations and solutions.

This reflection on discord and constitution on harmony (which again resonates with Daoist ideas) is why creative thinkers have ethical responsibilities for the human impact of their creative conceptualizations and manifestations.

Anthropologically based research methodologies provide creative thinkers with the tools (equipment) to inquire and reflect on the human impact of the creative conceptualizations and manifestations.

This is important in terms of the problematization (ie. identification and sensory perception of situational/experiential discord) of the disciplines of art, design, and anthropology in terms of their power and relevance to the human experience.

Thinking, anthropology, and design

I am currently reading, Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment by Paul Rabinow (Princeton University Press: 2003).  The book is an indepth meditation on the work of Michel Foucault. Its is useful for me because I have taken Foucault's notion of governmentality as a key theme in my work, but he also puts Foucault in dialogue with John Dewey, with whose theories  I have always resonated.

Dewey, Thinking, and Anthropology

Rabinow describes Dewey's idea of thinking as "...a situated practice of active inquiry whose role and goal is to initiate a movement from a discordant situation to a more harmonious one. " (Rabinow 2003: 17).  This helps to reframe the purpose and objective of Anthropology from the study of humankind to one more about the thinking about humanity. Sidenote: It makes me wonder if AIGA had Dewey in mind when it shifted its mission to design thinking.

The idea of moving from a discordant situation to a more harmonous one is fascinating when you connect this with the Taoist ideas I have been applying of trying to align oneself with the natural world. Humanity not as an object of study (in the past) but rather situations for thinking enbles a much more freeing engagement with the problems of humanity and an orientation of the field of Anthropology as future-oriented and solution proposing.

This is the intersection of anthropology and design. Anthropology offering the tools, the equipment to identify discordant situations and design offering the equipment to propose more harmonious situations, anthropology then helping to refine those proposals in an iterative fashion.

Research methods for art and design

Img_1144 I start teaching my new class on Research Methods for Art and Design on Friday. I am very excited about it as I attempt to adapt anthropological methods to art and design contexts. I must say, I was very disappointed by the texts available for the course. I ended up using as my  main texts (1)  the classic, H. Russell Bernard's Research Methods in Anthropology, 4th edition by Altamira Press 2005 and (2) John Jones' Design Methods, 2nd edition, which was developed by the British Design Council by published by Wiley and Sons 1992.

Bernard will probably be too advanced for the students and Jones will be too simple. The current design research books were completely unsatisfactory. Brenda Laurel's Design Research was not instructional enough to use as a textbook. There were a lot of opinions and positions stated, but it is not organized as a guide to how to do the actual research.  IanNoble and Russel Bestley's Visual Research was a disappointment. While visually stunning, I did not think it worked as a textbook either.

So there is a major knowledge gap, so as my course co-participants (students) follow along the research journey, I hope to discover what they need in a research methods for art and design textbook.

The theory advocate

This is a response to an Anthrodesign posting this morning in which someone blew off my statement about ethnography and theory.

Without going into the entire history of anthropology and/or ethnography, let me state the position that the ethnographic endeavor has always been about making recommendations and initiating change. The difference has always been the positionality of the field in terms of advocating for change (on the behalf of others) or directly making the macro-decisions that cause systemic changes. During the colonial heyday, ethnography shifted from directly making macro-decisions (as colonial administrators) to advocates for others (as theAaa05_postery disengaged from the effects of the colonial project that as expressed by Renato Rosaldo’s  concept of “imperialist nostalgia” they were responsible for). The guilt over ethnography’s role in the colonial project led the field to focus on the role of advocating for others.

The applicability of ethnography to design is an extension of that project whether the “others” are workers, customers, clients, and engineers. Ethnography’s applicability to design is not the real issue. Maybe it was 10 years ago, but there are too many organizations that use ethnography to good effects. The issue is what is the “metric” by which that value is measured and what implications does it have for the practice of ethnography, and thus directly the true value that it brings to the design enterprise. In relationship to the HCI community, it is an issue of who has the legitimacy to make decisions on par with those in the community that have adopted the “business/design value” metric as the criteria for legitimacy.

There are no inherent problems with discount methods, except when they are executed (1) without knowing what kind of information and problems ethnographic approaches are good for and (2) what it means to really represent an experience from the perspective of the people studied.  Whether discount methods are conducted by a Ph.D. Anthropologist or an “untrained” designer, they need to be conducted with the understanding of how they solve specific problems (T his is theory). You need to know when you need to spend one week immersed in a community versus 2-hours rummaging through someone’s refrigerator. And you need to know the trade-offs you get when you make those decisions for the formation of the problems as well as the solutions developed.

To avoid anthro-centricity, in graphic design, you need to know which typographic font is appropriate for the information design of a government form versus a poster for the Lyric Opera. There is a theory behind those design decisions as well, which even “untrained” ethnographers should take in consideration if they are making those kinds of decisions.

And if you spend a year in someone’s home observing their daily behaviors and rituals, yet still model their behaviors based on a marketing purchase cycle (acquisition, conversion, retention); it is NOT ethnography. The CIA does excellent observation, but it is NOT ethnography.

The point is that theory is not a component of ethnography, but rather ethnography is an acting out of a philosophical orientation. A friend once called it “applied phenomenology.” See for the seven widely accepted features of the phenomenological approach.

Theory tells you what are the boundaries by which ethnography can and cannot be effectively applied to design, engineering, education, or public policy. Theory tells you what is the inherent value system by which ethnography can most effectively be measured. Just like the “neutrality” of a font like Helvetica is the criteria which makes it most effective for information design on government forms. The understanding of these theories will lead to more thoughtful and effective research and design, regardless of the area of application. Which does not mean you need to have a PhD in Anthropology, but it means you should be in the “know” about the assumptions built into a practice so that you can effectively address them.

Best supporting actress in a design project...

....goes to ethnography. Supposedly at the 2006 CHI conference, there is a paper by Paul Dourish on the implications of ethnography on design that is causing quite a controversy. Here is my reaction to the paper and hints at why there maybe controversy, originally posted to the Anthrodesign list this AM.

What I most appreciate in his paper is the perspective that ethnography is not a collection of research techniques, but rather a specific theoretical orientation to knowledge production and representation. In other words, ethnography is embedded in theory and thus the use of its common methodological techniques have significant theoretical implications for the outputs and assumptions of the study.  The theoretical amnesia is the problem I have with “discount” ethnographic techniques, where it is applied without knowing the assumptions built into that technique.

The power struggle is that ethnography, and research in general, is seen has having a supporting role to design. Ethnography supports design decision-making, but does not make decisions itself or at least it comes into conflict when it tries to make decisions. This is the colonial role reversal that Dourish talks about where field anthropologists began to write the reports for colonial administrators. Ethnography came to support colonial decision-making, which does not mean it endorsed colonial policies.  As a supporting role, ethnography is thus “optional” as opposed to integral to design decision making. Yet, my favorite parts of the research process are planning and synthesis where you originally frame the questions (this is the theoretical part) and tie the data back into that theoretical framework. This is where ethnography is integral not optional, because if you frame the wrong problem you lose lots of time and money to correct things. And this is diffe! rent from entering at the “lab portion” of the project when you are defining the product not what the problem is.

One of my favorite examples of ethnography as theory versus research technique is a card sort that I did for a large retail client to “redesign” their product categories. Card sorts are, of course, a common HCI technique to get to the “cognitive categories” by which people structure words/objects, etc.  The outputs of my card sort were, of course, the architecture for the site in terms of product categories but also I had this meta-narrative about how people sorted products by gender categories and spatial configurations of the home and outside. While I took it for granted, the client partner pointed out to me how different my “results” were in a company that does lots of card sorts.

That meta-narrative was the result of my ethnographic philosophical orientation in which I, probably unconsciously, seek to represent the experience from the perspective of the people studied. Now from an output perspective, the product category hierarchy I developed was ethnographic as well (basically, it was just a product kinship diagram) and could eventually be measured on the site in terms of traveled paths, and shorter purchasing steps, etc. The meta-narrative was important and insightful to the client (having greater implications beyond the website), but was much harder to measure in terms of its implications for design. In fact, it told them more about how they should not design something as opposed to what they should do.

I can see the controversy this is causing because its a conflict over who makes decisions in design.  In the interdisciplinary product development process, its tough to be the new kid on the block, even if you are not so new.