design anthropology…what’s the deal?

Ingrid Johanna Claringbould Fløgstad worked at reframing studio for a couple of months as an intern. She studies industrial design at the Arkitektur- og designhøgskolen i Oslo. She also received education in Anthropology. There is a lot of buzz on how anthropology contributes to design, so we asked her: design anthropology…what’s the deal? And that was the beginning of a series of letters:

Amsterdam, april 6th 2016

Dear Ingrid,

I like your statement about designers being the humans’ advocate. I hope it someday becomes a reality! And it better be quick for  your letter made me realize that we have touched a pressing issue. 

Your answer seems to hint at a partnership, some sort of dynamic duo: The antropologist isolates an unfavoureable development or trend. The antropologist reveals the underlying cultural conventions and psychological drivers. Hands that over to the designer who designs a remedial alternative adhering to the same, as you call it, 'internal logic’. That sounds like a prolific approach in the case of stuff that is in need of repair: obesity, carbon emission, gender inequality…most of the design work falls into this category. 

But that brings me to the pressing issue: once you venture into truly new technology, especially informational technology, there maybe no ‘present context’ to research: What is the antropologist going to 'field study’ in relation with the Internet of Things or the Driverless Car?  I am rather pessimistic about designers naively designing all that technology briefed and funded by techno-utopists and libertarian capitalists. I think there is no way to stop these technologies for they are too appealing. But we desperately need input form the humanities in order to tame it down in order to make them compatible with ‘human internal logic’. Tell me how the dynamic duo will operate in this mission.

Regards Gijs



Oslo, dec 22nd 2015

Dear Gijs!

Your questions have led me into reflecting a little bit on the roles of the Anthropologist and the designer in a design process. How can strategic insights follow out of ethnographic observations and be valuable for design?

In todays society we are facing major challenges and changes (globalization, digitalization etc. ) and design, as a tangible manifestation of intentions, has the power to shape the way we live. The designer has a huge responsibility; in assuring that  technological developments do not eventually turn against humanity. In a way designers can be seen as advocates for the human being, defending human interests. The designers role is to use the opportunities that new technology has to offer, together with knowledge about human behavior, to create design that supports and is meaningful to humans; whether it is a digital platform distributing jobs (interaction design), a blanket for elderly that can measure health information (product design) or a transportation service (service design). It is therefore utterly important to know what is in the interest of humanity.

The goal of the anthropologist is to understand which values and meanings are underlying drivers behind everyday behavior. Our behavior is not strictly defined by instincts, it is followed by cultural conventions and psychological drivers. Anthropologists seek to explain behavior from out the internal logic of a given culture, be it female circumcision in Somalia or clothing consumption in, say Norway. In order to understand the natives viewpoint, the Anthropologist needs to suppress own presumptions, which can be very challenging if it is ones own culture. Instead of forming a hypothesis from the start, like a designer would do, Anthropologists first gather data about a phenomenon and see which patterns emerge.

Let us look at a trivial consumption situation: People spend significant parts of their total income to buy (fashionable) clothes; much more than they physically need to protect themselves against the weather. Now, from an anthropological perspective we might see groups of humans simply acting out the opportunities that exist within their framework: They have a need (underlying drive) for expressing and negotiating about social/cultural identity, and shopping for new clothes is one of the ways to do this.

How exactly can this be used by designers? Designers (and other innovators) have the power to influence the framework wherein humans act, aligned with human needs. For example through designing platforms for easy distribution, sharing and re-use of over-capacity recourses like clothes.    

In a time when we are in a process of reinventing our classical institutions: money, ownership, citizenship, mobility etc., (as a consequence of technological developments),  I believe anthropology can contribute with valuable behavior insights, that can turn into strategic recommendations, to designers who have a major responsibility in shaping peoples interaction, behavior, feelings and sustainable living in future society.

Best regards, Ingrid


Amsterdam, dec 9th 2015

Dear Ingrid

I immediately believe the humanities discipline will be able to provide complementary research material by asking different questions and by ethnographic analytics on existing interaction and behavior. The thing that interests me more: To what extent is making sense out of the resulting data similar to creating an ‘anthropologic theory’ based on the observations (Rather than checking whether the observations support an pre-assumed theory)?. At some point you will have to tell me more about how exactly this is done. What also intrigues me is the mechanism behind this providing of “strategic insights into complex issues that Suri promises us: How do strategic insights follow out of ethnographic observation? It seems to me that an insight is something that doesn’t reside in the observed situation. It is a creative step. Can you send me the article or book-title containing her quote?

Regards Gijs


Oslo, oct 19th 2015

Hi Gijs!

Contextual inquiry is clearly similar to the anthropological (ethnographic) practice: Anthropology systematically investigates the past in order to understand the present. Although Anthropology, in contrast with design, is not directed towards changing the future, one of its main concerns is to understand how social and cultural change happens. Anthropologists are concerned with how culture is constantly produced and reproduced through everyday interaction. With this we mean how people perceive, create, negotiate and transform meaning in their daily lives.

Anthropology offers methods, theories and tools for understanding the context in which both products and people interact. This interaction also shapes people. However, since most social sciences are concerned with the human being, what is it that distinguishes anthropology as a social science from sociology, psychology, economics, philosophy, neuroscience and other social scientific disciplines? One of the main reasons is that they ask different questions about the human being, but first of all it is the anthropological fieldwork. While other researchers, such as sociologists, concentrate on gathering information through quantitative and qualitative methods such as questionnaires and interviews, anthropologists additionally spend a lot of time observing human behavior. Anthropologists believe there is a difference between asking people to explain what they do versus watching them do it. The method for gathering knowledge in this way is called `participant observation` and involves being a participant in people’s daily life over a longer period of time. When anthropology was established as an academic discipline in the late nineteenth century, anthropologists went to exotic places far away from the western society (typically New Guinea) and lived with the people they were studying and attempted to behave just like them. Today fieldwork might as well take place in modern, industrialized societies; vegetarians in an urban environment, a ‘tribal village’ or teenagers in a virtual network. In the US it has become increasingly common for many big companies to have an anthropologist studying the behavior and needs of users and consumers indicating an appetite for knowledge on behavior in relation with culture and meaning.

Now this is not a new phenomenon: Since the 1970s anthropologists have analyzed needs and done user testing, focusing on improving the functional solutions. But according to Jane Fulton Suri, chief creative officer at IDEO, this (improving functional solutions) is not were ethnography's real opportunity lays. She states that ethnography´s real opportunity resides in “providing strategic insights into complex issues like identity, lifestyle and meaning”.

That  provides you with a positive answer: Yes! We need to get to grips with cultural, sociological and psychological drivers shaping our world as well as ourselves and our future! 




Amsterdam, oct 7th 2015

Dear Ingrid,

In our ‘reframing’-approach to design, one of the first things we do, is attempt to understand the past and present. We are very interested in how other disciplines might contribute to a deeper understanding of the what, the how why and the why.

If my assumption is right that anthropologists are trained in recording and analyzing the way people operate and interact in their ‘habitat’, designers better become interested in the anthropologists’ tools, methods and theories. What we are after is an understanding of apparent and hidden patterns and connections between product attributes, the interactions between these products and their users as well as with the context in which these products, users and interactions operate in the present and have operated in the past.

The technical aspects are usually pretty clear to us, after all we are engineers. But in getting to grips with the cultural, sociological and psychological drivers, I expect the humanities in general, and anthropology in particular, to be a valuable complementary resource.

Since you received formal academic education in anthropology I am talking about you! 

Regards Gijs


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