02.155HT Design Anthropology

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When designers create something– whether an algorithm, a user interface, a technological device, a building, or a new urban plan – they actively intervene into the lived world of its users. But both designers and users are human beings enmeshed in varied social, cultural, and political worlds. As such, they bring different ideas and assumptions about things like value, beauty, social order, power, morality, and ethics into their creative and practical activities, including their reception or uptake of a designed form, object, space, or system. By focusing on the diversity and variability of human experience, the discipline of anthropology is well-situated to interrogate design as socio-culturally mediated act of human creativity. Issues like the formation of design problems through community engagement, the cultural embeddedness and historical novelty of a design process, empathy with users, and analysis and anticipation of user experiences (UX) all hinge on anthropological sensibilities and methods. To that end, this class develops an anthropological approach to design, which can equally inform how social scientists understand design and design processes, as well as designers’ and engineers’ reflexive and critical approaches to their own practices. For instance, how does qualitative engagement with people’s lived circumstances contribute to the formation of a design problem? How can designers try to anticipate unexpected critiques or problems with their design before they happen? How do political values, assumptions about social organization, moral goodness, and power get built into designs? How might a holistic view of social life inform the ethical commitments of designers in releasing a designed artifact, object, or entity into the world? What exactly are creativity and innovation, and are these even possible without a certain level of historical and cultural awareness?  Through curated readings and activities, this class provides students with the conceptual tools and analytical skills with which to reflexively engage with design, design thinking, and design processes as social and cultural phenomena. It introduces current and emerging ideas in design anthropological theory and practice, and explores how sensitive, ethical, and innovative design relies on social, historical, and cultural knowledge.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify, summarize, and explain theories, methods, and concepts from the field of design anthropology and related fields.
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments, approaches, and techniques encountered in assigned readings.
  • Select and mobilize design anthropological concepts to analyze real-life examples of design and design processes outside the classroom.
  • Report this analysis in verbal presentations, writing, and various other media through design presentations, reflections, and ethnographic exploration of a designed object and associated design processes.

Measureable Outcomes

  • Participation in and contribution to class discussions focusing on key concepts from assigned readings
  • Satisfactory completion of class exercises using the theories, methods, and evidence used by authors to analyze selected illustrative case-studies.
  • Critical assessment, evaluation, and application of the course’s key concepts to real-world examples of design through design reflection and response papers, and a mid-term paper.
  • Development and delivery of a “Design Ethnography” project that selects and mobilizes appropriate design anthropology concepts and techniques to analyze in-depth a specific real-world example of a designed object and/or a design process.

Course Requirements

Assessment Percentage
WEC – Design Reflection and Response 20
WEC – Mid-term paper 25
WEC – Design Ethnography Project 40
WEC – Attendance and Participation 15

Weekly Schedule

Week 1 – Introduction I: The Anthropology of Design

Week 2 – Introduction II: Design Anthropology

Week 3 – “Design Thinking” and the Uses and Abuses of Ethnography

Week 4 – Things-in-Context(s)

Week 5 – Affordances and Forms

Week 6 – Technique, Making, and Craft

Week 7 – Recess Week

Week 8 – Improvisation, Creativity, and Innovation

Week 9 – Design Ethnography Group Consultation Week

Week 10 – Design, Environment, and (Symbolic) Power

Week 11 – Design and Politics

Week 12 – Design and the Self

Week 13 – Design Ethnography Review/Critique Week

Week 14 – Design Ethnography Presentations/Due

Gabriel Tusinski