Design Anthropology…What is it?

The term design anthropology has cropped up on my radar many times over the past year. Initially I assumed that the term referred to a kind of human-centered design that uses ethnographic methods such as interviewing and participant observation in order to create desirable design outcomes for people. I came across a presentation by Jan Chipchase, head of research for Frog Design, which situates itself as design anthropology.

On watching the video I found design anthropology to be akin to my initial assumption, and very similar to design thinking. Yet perhaps design anthropology is more explicitly anthropological than design thinking. Companies based on design thinking such as IDEO are quick to publicise their interdisciplinary nature, and the fact that they employ anthropologists, however, their methods are often packaged as design methods, not (possibly adjusted) ethnographic and design methods.

Recently I was reading Ethnography: A Way of Seeing by Harry Wolcott. He (an anthropologist) distinguished between doing ethnography and borrowing (some) ethnographic techniques. In his view, the methods may be the same, but the purposes are different. He proposed that doing ethnography must be ethnographic in intent, in that it “finds its orienting and overarching purpose in an underlying concern with cultural interpretation.” (2nd ed. p 44 & 72)

If we follow Wolcott’s premise, then perhaps we are designers who borrow (some) ethnographic techniques, rather than design anthropologists. After all, ethnographers create ethnographies, and I’m not so sure that designers do. If designers do create ethnographies, they’re certainly not traditional ones. Whether or not designers create ethnographies may not be clear cut, but it is clear that the purpose of using ethnograhic techniques as designers is different to that of ethnographers. Where ethnographers try to understand and compare cultures and humanity, designers (working for clients) inherently want to understand, but also change something about or within a culture. Some anthropologists have promoted lobbying for positive change as an essential part of an anthropologist’s role as well as understanding and documenting, however, this approach is certeinly not shared by all anthropologists.

Well that’s got me interested in the purpose of ethnographic methods and design’s inherent element of change. I’ll definitely be thinking more about these issues and finding out more about what design anthropology really is as I keep studying design (and) anthropology.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Design Anthropology at Swinburne University of Technology « DESIGN INNOVATION

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