Academic Writing

A Field Guide to Design Anthropology

Our world is getting smaller.

As the colonialism of the past becomes the globalization of the future, it is increasingly important for designers to think critically about the cultural impact of their work. Do contemporary design methods support local cultures, or do they reinforce outdated models of hegemony?

This is a tough question. We all have preconceived notions about the world, and it can be just as difficult for designers as anyone else to think beyond these preconceptions. But if designers should hope to achieve more egalitarian futures, they must find methods to disrupt old ways of thinking and open themselves to new pathways and perspectives.

The methods outlined in the following Field Guide begin to provide such methods, creating opportunities for designers to challenge cultural biases and work alongside the stakeholders of designnot simply as faceless ‘users’ but as unique, beautiful, and complex human beings.

This online thesis project is still a work-in-progress.

The Art of Symbiosis (2020)

What is it to be human? Is our humanity found in impermanence—in the frail, fleshy vessels that lend locomotion to our minds? Or, is our humanity found in the struggle to overcome this impermanence? Every day, we use technology to enhance our abilities. It is seamlessly interwoven with the fabric of our daily lives, from “smart devices” to the systems of infrastructure that keep civilization from collapse. Since the dawn of humanity, we have striven to become more than human, to enhance ourselves to a state of immortality, to become Homo Superior. We are on the cusp of possessing technologies which would enable us to enhance ourselves beyond that which is naturally possible, and so we find ourselves teetering on the brink of an existential chasm. As we slip into a delicate symbiosis with the superhuman technology of our own design, does this make us more—or less human?

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Natural Design (2019)

The Instinct to Alter Our World

The discipline of design is deeply connected to culture as an amalgamation of current need and traditional knowledge. As such, the products of design are tied to cultural anchors which are rooted in the soils of specific traditions and values. Because the cultural experience—the way of life—changes so drastically from one place and time to the next, the impact this has on design is nothing short of profound. In the same respect, the styles and products of design are not only reflections of the cultural zeitgeist, but can also serve as catalysts which hold a mirror up to society, allowing it to change along with changes in cultural ideology. The styles of each of the world’s cultures follows this evolutionary path. However, as disparate cultures interact, this path is altered. The future of design must take care to preserve local knowledge, rather than displace it, else we risk losing pieces of our very humanity.

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Decolonizing Design (2019)

Creating Sustainable Humanitarian Solutions in the Era of Globalization

The history of design discourse is often myopic, lacking a broader perspective of the political contexts underpinning its Eurocentric ideologies and largely ignoring the cultural products of non-Western civilizations. Centuries of Western colonialism have created a hierarchy so culturally ingrained that it is still apparent today, even in “human-centered design.” To create more sustainable humanitarian solutions, Western designers must be aware of the history of imperialism that is inherent when they design for other cultures. If these inherent and hidden biases go unquestioned, even the best intentions can perpetuate the long history of Western colonialism. Sustainable design is culturally relative, and we decolonize design not by telling people how we’re going to solve all their problems but by asking them what they’re doing to solve these problems and what we can do to help.

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