Anthropology & Design

by Ron Burnett

Design practice is centred on audience(s). It matters little whether the audience is hypothetical, real or imagined, there is always someone for whom designs are created. This is often used as the fundamental distinction between design and art practices. The practice of creating art on the other hand, is seen as personal and evolving out of processes that don’t have an overt goal in mind. Yet, there are audiences for art, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that every major city in the world has an identifiable museum. And, do artists try and understand their audiences and cater to their needs? Let’s leave that question open for the time being.

The challenge of course is how do we understand audience, client and user?—Or, in the digital design world, the agent, interactor or participant? Another way of approaching audience is to create one, just as Apple did with the iPad and the iPod. Notice that irrespective of historical circumstances, projections or perceived needs, the term audience remains abstract. This is because it is virtually impossible to draw a straight line between for example, creating a logo and anticipating the response of groups of people to it—or, developing a product and knowing how clients or users will react to it. This is why designers often develop many alternative strategies to their designs and also work iteratively on various prototypes; all with the goal of creating something that will be closer to the perceived needs of the user.

In anthropology, efforts to understand both contemporary cultures and ancient ones are circumscribed by the challenges of observation, analysis and fieldwork. Prior to the revolution in anthropological thought provoked by George Marcus and Michael Fischer [4] in the 1980’s, there was endless debate among anthropologists about the relationship between observation and subjectivity. Put another way, to what extent does your own cultural, class and ethnic background influence what you see and what you observe? It is clear that your own personal history, desires and orientation will have a big impact on the conclusions that you draw from the observations you make. [5] The challenge therefore is to try and articulate what you know and examine how that may influence your assumptions about other people. It means that fieldwork is essential only if you bring to it a self-reflexive awareness of the contingent nature of the experiences you may have with complete strangers.

Designers are well aware of these obstacles and have developed many different strategies to deal with them. One of the most important is testing designs with users and trying to learn about utility, reaction and aesthetic response. But, how far does the process of learning about response go? To what extent are designers able to test their assumptions about their audiences? These issues are even more complex if as is often the case, designers are now crossing the boundaries into the ways in which people organize their lives (design thinking, design process), and the many ways in which design thinking is applied to businesses and to innovation.

“Professional design is now operating within an expanded and increasingly complex field. Some design professionals take solving complex social issues as their domain, often but not always working in close collaboration with specialists in public services from healthcare to those working with disadvantaged families to policing. Other designers and their ways of working are welcomed into business schools to teach the next generation of managers and leaders. Concepts and language that used to be associated with designers now enter other specialist areas: policymakers are told that public services should be more user-centered (Parker and Heapy 2006); businesses engage with customers by offering new meanings for things (Verganti 2009); the US Army is considering the role of design in warfare (School of Advanced Military Studies n.d.). Professional design, in particular design as practiced within the studio-based tradition of many art schools, is taking a new place on the world stage.” [3]

So much of the knowledge that we share in any given society is tacit. So many of the assumptions we make about ourselves and about others are unconscious. It is easy to say that designers should uncover their cultural bias. [6] But, which methods are best suited to the task? Janet Murray suggests bringing multiple stakeholders into the discussion of the design process “and elicit their different perspectives and needs.” [3]