I have worked as a web and graphic designer and was originally a multimedia design major before deciding to transfer to anthropology with the goal of advancing to design anthropology. Since my time as a design major, I faced the challenges of becoming a successful designer by supplementing my formal education with a multitude of relevant topics in design concepts, theory, and practice and writing about my findings through a past blog at www.projectdesignportfolio.com. That blog represents the period of time that lead up to my interest in anthropology. Even before discovering the promising field of design anthropology, I viewed anthropology as an avenue for inspiration and innovation through a deeper dive into people’s lived experiences within the cultural melting pot.
What I came to realize was that much of my dialogue with, and approach to, design was a form of applied critical anthropology in that a fundamental objective and foundation of every design project that I participated in was, in a way, a cultural commentary as much as a design, but, at least personally, that commentary was only meaningful when it was engaged with the design process and translated into design concepts. Ultimately, my foray into anthropology broadened my perspective and has challenged my preconceived notions of innovation, progress, and representation.
However, the future-oriented, interventionist, and collaborative nature of design, not to mention the overriding objective to produce a design concept, parts from traditional anthropology. While the theoretical and conceptual frameworks utilized to understand and interpret the contexts of use, the temporal dimensions that ground them, as well as the trained sensitivities to the complexities and particularities of shared events, actions, experiences, and meaning-making of the anthropological enterprise is often viewed as a useful, but secondary consideration to design – which is itself a site of cultural production and one that is judged by its change impact.
Taken as a whole, Smith and Otto explain in Design Anthropological Futures that design anthropology “represent a shift from predictability in the design practice and taxonomical understandings of culture towards the enabling and becoming of potential futures and of situated future making that can be negotiated and performed through socio-material processes of design anthropological intervention” (2016:27).
The mantle and traditional role of anthropologists in design has been to serve as cultural interlocutors that can inform design through ethnography, but if craft works by opportunistically pursuing moments of cultural breakdown and uncertainty in order to reframe what exists, culture itself is informed through the performance of designing. Therefore, anthropology’s productive role within design can and should extend to the event of the design process. Design anthropology is an attempt to resolve these disconnections by extending the theoretical trajectories of the field of anthropology into the future through design by conceiving of participatory, speculative, and critical design events together as a pliant, actuating field site.
My approach to design anthropology, therefore, is not as an anthropologist interested in working in the field of design or as a designer dabbling in anthropological frameworks, but to practice design anthropology as an emerging field within design. Following the dictum of design anthropology that design is not merely a final, prescribed, solution to straightforward problems, but is a temporally and socially embedded arena that inhabits a wide range of perspectives and potentialities of lived experiences where practices of use are localized and continuously improvised and recontextualized.