Academic boost for discipline of design anthropology

The discipline of design anthropology, which will next year be the subject of an MSc course at the University of Aberdeen, is described by its practitioners as an emerging field, but one which has been emerging for some time.

For some 20 years, the likes of Ideo, Intel and Nokia have been using arts and social science graduates to help them define and think about their customers in new ways. Key figures such as Genevieve Bell at Intel and Dori Tunstall, formerly of Arc Worldwide and Sapient – both anthropologists – have worked to improve the design of user-experience by using their anthropological training to better understand the users.

Tunstall, currently associate professor of design anthropology at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, describes the discipline as ‘understanding the human values, and their nuances, and bringing them into the design process’. As an example she cites a project she was involved in for a health-service provider in Chicago which looked at what people from a wide range of backgrounds saw as key values for health-service provision. ‘We discovered that pretty much everyone had the same values,’ she says. ‘What varied was the way in which these values were ordered. For example, an elderly person might have valued honesty over speed, while for a young mother speed would be the more important value. This is the sort of nuance design anthropology would pick up.’

Dr James Leach, head of the anthropology department at the University of Aberdeen, envisages further ways in which anthropology could influence the design process. Leach says that as well as using ethnographic research to understand consumers – generally through consumer research – anthropology could be used to help designers understand their own perceptions, both of the design process and the consumer.

Leach says, ‘We rather tend to take the view that what we’re best at doing is not just doing ethnographic research, but also drawing on previous research and anthropological understandings in the literature to help making processes.’

Leach cites a project he was involved in – a team of social scientists worked with a group of choreographers to develop digital objects that revealed aspects of dance in digital space. He says, ‘We were able to ask questions about what they were doing and enable them to frame their process in a different light.’

Leach, whose specialism is Melanesian anthropology, told the choreographers about work he had done in Papua New Guinea, where anthropomorphism of objects is common, and objects are heavily defined to their makers. ‘For example, if my mother’s brother makes something for me, I would see him in it,’ says Leach.
The workshops also developed the ideas of objects being either commodities or gifts, with commodities defined by a single transaction, and gifts based on an ongoing relationship. This led, Leach says, to the choreographers thinking about different levels of access and privacy in what they were creating.

These ideas, and others, will be developed further in the University of Aberdeen’s MSc course in design anthropology, which will start next September. Leach says, ‘We don’t want to teach anthropologists to be poorly trained designers, or designers to be poorly trained anthropologists, but we want to encourage both to explore their contexts and relationships. It’s important that graduates have specific skills they can use.’

Tunstall last week delivered a keynote speech at the Cumulous 38º South design symposium in Melbourne, in which she enlisted the services of a circus troupe of contortionists and jugglers. She said, ‘As an anthropologist working in the field of design, my work has always been transdisciplinary. It is probably the essence of my being to work between, across and beyond all disciplines.’

Aberdeen University’s dance project

  • Worked with choreographers Wayne MacGregor, Siobhan Davies, William Forsythe and Emio Greco
  • Developed four digital projects/ an online archive, a body you can instruct with specific choreographic instructions, a website which analyses elements of a dance, and a project using 3D installations and motion-capture technology to educate people about dance movements

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