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Industrial Design, Ethnography

and Anthropological Thought

Jonathan Ventura

 We bear in mind that the object being worked on is going to be ridden in, sat upon,
looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some other way used by people individu-
ally or en masse.
 When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of fric-
tion, then the industrial designer has failed. On the other hand if people are made safer,
more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient – or just plain happier – by con-
tact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.
 We all know that a machine-made commodity can be awkward or handy, ugly or
beautiful. Industrial design is a means of making sure the machine creates attractive com-
modities that work better because they are designed to work better. It is coincidental, but
equally important, that they sell better. (Dreyfuss 1955)

ABSTRACT: The definition of ‘applied anthropology‘ varies from period to period and
from culture to culture. However, anthropology’s centrality is, in my eyes, unquestion-
able. With that in mind, a significant part of the discipline’s basic principles remained
unchanged, despite recent socio-cultural, economic and technological changes sweep-
ing the world in recent years. In this article I wish to present two case studies in which
the inherent connection between anthropology, as a discipline, and other professions,
is challenged. Through teaching anthropological theories and methodologies to in-
dustrial designers and architects I will present a somewhat different approach from
those practiced by anthropologists. As a result I will redefine the role of the applied
anthropologist as an essential member of the design team.

KEYWORDS: applied anthropology, ethnography, industrial design, design anthropology

Anthropologist, Designer or Architect? those of ‘adjacent‘ disciplines (architects, film-

makers, designers and culture administra-
During one of the many debates which took tors or policy makers). During this debate I
place during a research session1 focusing on found myself a key speaker among ‘the others’
the definition of ‘applied anthropology‘ and group, while contradicting and criticizing my
anthropology’s role in contemporary society, I beloved discipline, upon which I was raised
found myself offended. The heated debate was from the first days of my academic career.
based on two opposing groups. In one corner This duality, in my eyes, is not solely my
stood the ‘classic‘ anthropologists, teaching in burden, but rather derives from an inherent
various departments in universities through- disciplinary duality: firstly, anthropology, as
out Israel, or those who define themselves a professional body of knowledge, deals with
as anthropologists as a central part of their an almost infinite amount of socio-cultural
professional identity. In the other corner stood knowledge, and as such, suggests fascinating
Anthropology in Action, 20, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 31–41 © Berghahn Books and the Association for Anthropology in Action
ISSN 0967-201X (Print) ISSN 1752-2285 (Online)
AiA | Jonathan Ventura

explanations relevant also to practical profes- after weighing possible alternatives, I have
sions, such as architecture or industrial design. decided to walk a different and somewhat un-
Secondly, due to this abundance of theories, orthodox path towards teaching anthropology.
methodologies and areas of interest, charac- This article is a result of my PhD dissertation,
terizing the discipline, guidelines to prevent which was based on a study focusing on the so-
‘crossing borders’ and falling to unprofession- cial roles of industrial designers. My thesis is based
alism, should be outlined. This said duality on in-depth ethnography which took approx-
characterized my difficulties to find wiling and imately eighteen months. During my ethno-
cooperating mentors in my PhD thesis, com- graphic work I have been spending a day every
bining anthropology and industrial design.2 week for the said duration, in an alternate order
In the last few years I have been teaching between three different industrial design stu-
several courses in departments of industrial dios. Furthermore, for the last two years I have
design (at Bezalel Academy of Arts and De- been working in various vistas as an applied
sign and Hadassah Academic College) and anthropologist alongside industrial designers.3
architecture (BA and MA at Bezalel). Unfortu- In this article I will present the essence of
nately, I have found out it is not easy being an theoretical and practical dialogue between an-
anthropologist in a department of architecture thropology, design and architecture, a dialogue
or industrial design. The gap manifested in which will also serve to define contemporary
the academic context, subject matter, research applied anthropology. I will begin by present-
methodologies, goals and primary teaching ing two pedagogic case studies, and proceed
methods, is considerable. However, setting to present applied anthropology theories and
aside the aforementioned constraints and dif- practices in the field of industrial design.
ficulties, these worldview differences can lead
to fascinating dialogues and collaborations with
designers and industrial designers alike. For Two Case Studies: Anthropology
example, a course taught dually by two profes- in the Service of Designers and
sors, one focusing on theoretical dimensions Architects
(an anthropologist, psychologist or sociolo-
gist), and the second focusing on practical di-
mensions (an engineer, designer or architect), The classic pedagogic method being used in
amounts to a unique and profound experience, the ‘introduction to anthropology’ course, the
to students and staff members alike. first and foremost course in our degree, usu-
For six years I have been teaching different ally follows a path of chronologically present-
courses in anthropology in universities and ing primary theories and thinkers, alongside
colleges alike, and yet, teaching industrial de- canonic texts of the forbearers of the disci-
signers was by far the most challenging. For pline. In addition, through famous studies, the
example, it took me a fair amount of time to professor demonstrates key methodological
assimilate that industrial designers think visu- principles, while demonstrating the anthro-
ally, in contrast to ‘classic’ anthropology stu- pologist’s role in the contemporary academic
dents who think textually; this led me to change universe. Furthermore, one of the keystones of
my teaching techniques, and my choice of sub- the course lies in illuminating the gap between
jects and examples. Furthermore, as a teacher, anthropology’s comprehensions of daily real-
it took me a while to renounce the somewhat ity, in contrast to other academic disciplines.
mythological structure of the course ‘introduc- One of the most famous illustrations to this
tion to anthropology’, and try to develop a claim lies in the long-lasting insistence on
worthy successor. In the last couple of years, opening the course with Miner’s (1956) classic

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article on the Nacirema Tribe. In this article, low middlemen or corporate evaluation teams
Miner illustrates the Westerner’s difficulties in (sales or marketing, for example). In my PhD
viewing himself from an anthropological per- research, as well as in my pedagogic work, I
spective (as an act of defamiliarization). This started to mesh up design ethnography with
text remains an inherent part of the anthropo- classic anthropological theories and methodol-
logical canon, and the numerous articles writ- ogies in order to bridge the gap between design
ten in the past fifty years relating to it can attest students and anthropology, as a discipline.
to its importance. However, in the few times In the new version of the ‘introduction to
when using this text to illustrate anthropolo- anthropology’ course, targeted at second-year
gy’s unique standpoint, unfortunately, my de- design students at Hadassah Academic Col-
sign students failed to view its brilliance. After lege, I decided to teach anthropology from
Miner’s first example they ‘cracked’ his ‘secret’ the end to the beginning. In other words, I de-
meaning and lost interest in all the ensuing cided to start by introducing qualitative meth-
examples. Nevertheless, beyond this anecdote, odology and then proceed to teaching anthro-
the classic structure of the ‘introduction to an- pological theories and key thinkers. During the
thropology’ course usually remains the same, first lesson I presented the students with their
and includes a presentation of basic theories ‘end of semester project’, which was to design
and articles written by key thinkers (Durkheim, a mass-produced object targeted at a speci-
Boas, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Turner, fied socio-cultural group. While every student
Goffman, Geertz, Gluckman, Levi-Strauss, selected a different group, all of the students
Benedict, Douglas and more). But, despite this designed the same object (i.e. a chair in the
structure’s proven success among students first year and a table in the second year). As a
of anthropology, it was pronounced to be a key feature, the students had to explain their
failure when taught in the department of in- choice of materials, aesthetics and functions,
dustrial design. Students found it irrelevant, as deriving directly from their chosen socio-
obsolete, tiresome, overly detailed, anecdotal cultural group. During the next lessons I started
and overly focused on remote communities. a chronological pendulum movement from
After changing the course’s syllabus to no avail, classic and modern anthropological thought
I decided to change the course’s structure and to practices of design methodologies, as well
goals radically. In order to create a different as reading texts of key anthropologists (Mauss,
atmosphere I turned to a once-popular alterna- Douglass, Elias, Geertz to name a few), relevant
tive called ‘design ethnography’. theories (mainly material culture and visual
The term ‘design ethnography’ was coined anthropology) and adjacent thinkers (Marx,
in the 1990s (Salvador et al. 1999), yet almost the Frankfurt School, Bourdieu, Foucault and
vanished from academia and returned lately to more). The ensuing papers were illuminating.
the academic discourse alongside the growing The variety of papers presented by the stu-
interest in user-interfaces, and the user’s wants dents was astounding: a table for treating an-
and needs (Bichard and Gheerawo 2010; Ven- orexia; for fishermen’s personal and profes-
tura 2011). In order better to understand the sional gear; for various ultra-religious Hassidic
user’s world, designers use qualitative meth- groups; for professional tattoo artists; a table
odologies taken primarily from anthropologi- and eating utensils for Thai manual labourers;
cal thought (Geertz 1973), mainly interviews a table for street musicians; for soccer fans;
and participant observations. This rich and a backgammon table for elderly residents of
deep qualitative data enables designers to base Jerusalem’s Central Market; a table for ADHD
their pragmatic and technical decisions on children and for anthroposophy-oriented kin-
the user’s true needs, and not blindly to fol- dergartens and many more.

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During the second year of running the new The name of the course alludes to the focus of
course, the chosen product was a chair, and urban anthropology; however, the second part
here as well, the results were extremely in- of the title hints at my intention to create an
novative: a first-date bench for ultra-orthodox interdisciplinary approach, not only between
Jews; a washing chair for dog hairdressers; a anthropology and architecture, but also to
commemorative chair for the Armenian holo- spur architects to keep their socio-cultural
caust; an ergonomic chair for breastfeeding; tact. This is not only an exercise in semantics,
a pneumatic ladder-chair for wedding pho- but rather a fundamental pedagogical choice,
tographers; for cubicle-situated bureaucrats since applied anthropology’s essence lies not
and more. The result, for me, was astound- only in applying qualitative research methods,
ing, although I was facing a strong sense of but rather in promoting deep and meaningful
betraying my discipline. This sense of betrayal changes in its practitioners’ awareness. And
stems both from the way anthropology should by that I mean, primarily, open-mindedness,
be taught (as I was taught), as well as the multi-layered thinking, pluralism and an an-
‘sacrilegious’ use of anthropology (a liberal thropos-oriented mind. And indeed, when pre-
and humanistic discipline, in my eyes) as an senting the course (taught at an Urban Design
applied tool for designers or architects. How- MA programme, and meant for experienced
ever, from the students’ point of view, a deep, architects) I turned to address the architect’s
mediate and long-lasting bond was originated work as seen through the eyes of the person
with the field of anthropology. Furthermore, walking in his designed urban spaces.
the discipline’s basic principles and ways of The goal of the course, in my eyes, was to
thinking became, for them, a key feature in the focus on the ways ‘ordinary people’ experience
industrial designer’s toolkit. urban designed spaces. Indeed, one of the cri-
The lecturer’s work is not an easy one; it tiques regarding the presentation of architec-
is a time-consuming, difficult task which de- ture lies in the way new buildings are depicted
mands the lecturer’s full attention, as well as in most cases in a ‘clean’ (i.e. devoid of any
an infinite number of innovative ideas and human presence) environment, whereas only
techniques. It is not my intention to reduce the the building is present, in all its vacant glory.
difficulty level of the course, or to reduce the Hence, in this course I intended to resume the
quantity or quality of the subject matter, far connection between the architect and his ‘con-
from it. A good industrial designer has to ac- sumers’, meaning people using his designed
quire basic knowledge in theoretical concepts, urban space. In order to do so, I chose to
methodological practices, as well as verbal divide the course into three sections: the first
abilities and literacy methods. However, an- part focuses on qualitative research methods;
thropology’s unique features of open-minded- however, instead of dealing mainly with the
ness and flexibility should commence in the ‘how to’, I chose to focus on the ‘why to’. By
ways we teach. We have to stray, on occasion, that I mean presenting qualitative research in
from the path in which we were educated, in its socio-cultural-ethical complexities as pres-
order to accommodate our subject-matter to ent in the architect-pedestrian relationship:
our students. why does the architect have to understand the
pedestrian’s needs, how his needs are mani-
fested via qualitative interviews or participant
observations etc. The second part of the course
The second case study I will present depicts focuses on theories, where my first intersec-
the pedagogical guidelines of a course I named tion was between interpretive and political
‘Anthropolis: from an anthrotect to an anthrotact’. theories. In this part I chose not to separate

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between classic anthropological theories and luxury towers exclude pedestrians from using
other disciplines. For example, interpretive their street-level spaces. Yet another assign-
theories started with Weber (and his ‘verste- ment focused on a central area in Jerusalem
hen’) and Geertz, of course, yet, we found and designing ways by which it will become
ourselves dealing in length with Barthes’ se- a focal point for different communities living
miotics (for example, cultural interpretations in the area. The success of the course lies, in
of colours and materials architects use, Barthes my eyes, in the assimilation of anthropological
[1957] 2012) or Bachelard’s ([1958] 1994) phe- theories, ideas and practices by architects who
nomenological-psychoanalytical approach. In took part in it. This example, as can be seen
the same way, when teaching political theo- in Shaffer’s extensive pedagogical descrip-
ries we started with Marx (1983; [1867] 1992) tions (2003, 2005), expresses the importance of
and Gramsci ([1972] 1992), the Frankfurt and openness and extensive creativity when teach-
Birmingham Schools, and De Certeau (1984). ing design professionals. This interdisciplin-
The third part of the course focuses on spe- ary approach needs to be based not only on
cific and current urban anthropological issues, methodologies, but also on the importance of
such as urban pluralism, strife and conflict in various theories to the world of designers and
the neighbourhood, reasons for leaving one’s architects alike.
apartment, gentrification and so on.
As a final assignment, the students were
asked to choose an urban space, while focus- Beyond Design Ethnography
ing on a specific socio-cultural surrounding
(areas of social, religious or political conflict; We can see, then, a change of perception among
urban inequality, urban semiotics etc.). This design professionals is a must, yet how to
assignment’s purpose was to gather data from define this interdisciplinary practice? During
urban ‘consumers’ and, following their input, the 1990s researchers from different disci-
to choose either to keep the current architec- plines started recognizing the importance of
tural outline, or change it accordingly. The the consumer’s preferences and behaviour in
assignment’s output was a written document the design of new products, technologies and
including methodological, theoretical and user-oriented graphic design (Beyer and Holtz-
practical (in the form of an architectural pro- blatt 1998; Holtzblatt et al. 2005). A few years
gramme and sketches) elements. later, contextual and user-oriented design was
Here are some examples: one of the students being used in the marketing world, as well as
chose Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of aesthetic industrial innovation and design. However,
segregation, or ‘distinction’, in his words, fol- only several years later, qualitative, rich, ‘from
lowing Elias’ (2000) description regarding the the native’s point of view’ data (contrary to
endless race for aesthetic separation between focus groups or statistic data) was sought after
socio-economic classes. Her research focused by consumer-product corporations (Lu Liu
on houses she designed in a new semi-rural 2010).
community in the North of Israel. While peo- Design ethnography was developed as a
ple of ‘old money’ chose from several options research strategy at the end of the 1990s, and
the most modest alternative, recognized only targets the gap between the consumer’s world
by their choice of top-of-the-line materials, in and that of the manufacturer. Salvador et al.
contrast the more ‘nouveau riche’ residents (1999) claim that, following the debates in the
chose extreme amounts of money to display studio targeted at meeting the manufacturer’s
their new acquired social status. Another as- demands, the designer is less and less oriented
signment focused on the ways residents of towards meeting the consumer’s demands

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AiA | Jonathan Ventura

in tandem. In order to bridge this gap, while sumers’ interaction in their ‘natural’
creating a close and personal connection with surrounding.
their potential consumers, designers adopted • Holistic Approach: consumer’s behav-
the guidelines of classic ethnography (mainly, iour must be appraised in their socio-cul-
a short stay in the field while conducting con- tural context, especially so when dealing
cise interviews and product-oriented observa- with inclusive design.
tions). Following these guidelines, the designer • Thick Description: following Geertz’s
is transformed into a ‘part-time anthropolo- (1973) recommendation, a rich descrip-
gist’, gathering data while staying, briefly, in tion will benefit the designer in planning
the field. After exiting the field, the designer and designing a better product.
processes his gathered data and implements
it to plan and design his product better. In my In other words, following basic anthropologi-
eyes, this approach presents a fair number of cal concepts and methodologies will benefit
problems, inasmuch as the designer functions the designer greatly. Yet, what does it actually
as an anthropologist, yet gathers specific data mean to adopt these principles in the field of
in order to design a better product; this dual industrial design?
role may fall between the drops. However,
a fully ‘credited’ anthropologist – one who
remains in an academic anthropology depart- Using Anthropology in
ment maintains a deep and longer connection the Field of Industrial Design
with the field. Surprisingly, not many corpora-
tions have yet realized design ethnography’s First, I wish to explore the relevance and im-
potential in creating a better product. portance of anthropology to the world of in-
According to Julier (2000), assimilating eth- dustrial design in two dimensions comprising
nography in the design process will result the field of applied anthropology: academic
in innovative, useful and interesting results. applied research and practicing anthropology
Blomberg et al. (1993) follow the same route (Erving 2000). To these I wish to add a third di-
and claim, that ethnography’s unique key- mension, that of pedagogical practice targeted
stones – holistic thinking, open-mindedness, at anthropological courses taught at schools
adopting the ‘native’s point of view’, relying of design (graphic, as well as industrial) and
on the ‘natural’ products of the field etc. – will architecture.4 Contrary to classical definitions,
highly benefit the designer in better under- viewing applied anthropology as contributing
standing the consumer’s needs. The main mainly to corporations or government agencies,
friction point may arise, according to said re- I will present an alternative, which is working
searchers, from the fact that while anthropolo- alongside practical disciplines, such as indus-
gists delve deeply into the field, designers do trial design or architecture.
so only as a brief and focused effort. Therefore, As every cultural anthropologist knows, ap-
the designer has to change his perspective in plied anthropology in its early stages suffered
adopting an anthropological viewpoint de- (justly) from a negative image. Some applied
riving from the way consumers experience anthropologists worked in the service of Eu-
reality. Blomberg et al. (1993: 125–130) de- ropean nations which used their socio-cultural
scribe several ethnographic features relevant skills in order to exploit local communities bet-
for designers: ter (Mascia-Lees et al. 1989). However, Geertz’
seminal works changed the way anthropolo-
• Natural Characteristics: in the sense of gists think and work, and yet there are still
the use of designed objects, and con- fields who cry for a cooperation with anthro-

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pology, such as industrial and graphic design ture studio. Indeed, training programmes
and architecture. of designers have to include in-depth
Similarly to the classic anthropologist’s ba- courses of methodologies and ethno-
sic qualities, applied anthropologists typically graphic practices (qualitative research
need a flexible mind; a capability to adapt to methods, research ethics, visual anthro-
various socio-cultural and professional sur- pology, visual and material analysis etc.)
roundings; highly acute social skills; the abil- as well as courses in visual culture, ad-
ity to assimilate new bodies of knowledge vanced semiotics and phenomenology
rapidly; innovation skills; mediation or negoti- and more. Furthermore, I have been
ation skills; interpretation abilities; a vast theo- mentoring fourth-year design students in
retical and practical knowledge, and practical their final projects. It is extremely impor-
knowledge in their field of research. Our start- tant, in my eyes, to offer mentors who are
ing point lies in the applied anthropologist’s not strictly practitioners of design or ar-
capabilities to gather data and translate it to chitecture. Cultural researchers (anthro-
a relevant action of practice. The anthropolo- pologists, sociologists or psychologists)
gist’s applicability and influence on the field mentoring design students will bring
can be appraised through several arenas:5 forth a whole new approach to their
projects, which will enhance each depart-
• Pedagogical courses (MA and BA): As ment’s innovation. Finally, courses taught
we have seen in the beginning of this ar- by two lecturers, one specializing in theo-
ticle, different disciplines develop world- retical knowledge (anthropologist, social
views rather different from those of the historian, social psychologist), and the
anthropologist, since, for example, the other in practical knowledge (designer or
designer’s goal is to translate theoreti- architect) will highly benefit the students
cal knowledge into applicable methods and the department’s outcome, following
and not only in culminating informa- the Bauhaus School’s footsteps.
tion. Therefore, when planning a classic • An anthropologist in the studio: As we
anthropological course, the examples, as have seen in this article, anthropological
well as the goals should be altered and knowledge is crucial for the work of the
be practice-oriented. In this way, visual designer, as well as that of the architect.
anthropology, for example, turns into Condensed workshops can be held in
applied semiotics dealing with socio- design or art schools, as well as in design
cultural differences articulated through studios or architectural firms. An even
material or colour selection. In this way, better solution would be to employ an
anthropological thought and methodolo- ‘in-house’ applied anthropologist to offer
gies serve to apply changes in the ways ongoing guidance and advice.
the designer thinks of his product. In a • Design-oriented research: beyond de-
similar fashion, architects use anthro- veloping a research department which
pological teachings to better plan their will focus on practical visual disciplines
urban spaces according to the needs of (industrial design, graphic design and
their ‘consumers’. architecture), there is a need for research
• Theoretical and methodological training seminars targeted at design students (BA,
in design or architecture schools: Shaffer MA or PhD) and at professionals of these
(2003) presented an in-depth review of a fields. MA programmes in design should
combination of practical and theoretical also present the option of writing a theo-
pedagogical tools in an Oxford architec- retical thesis in the fields of industrial or

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AiA | Jonathan Ventura

graphic design. Our point of origin lies In this last section I will deal at length with
in one of the basic traits of anthropology, one topic which is the most urgent in my eyes
that of commitment and involvement in – the role of the applied anthropologist as an
our socio-cultural communities (Van Wil- essential member of the design process team
ligen 2002). (comprising mainly of designers, engineers and
• Changing the minds of industry leaders: marketing professionals). With Geertz’s words
My intention is to create and promote above echoing in my ears, I wish to conclude
research processes which will tighten the with anthropology’s major strength, which is
bond between researchers and industry its flexibility and adaptability to other disci-
leaders. The focus should be beyond plines, while maintaining an outer perimeter
ecological research targeted at friendlier allowing it to become an academic plexus. As
materials or industrial processes, but also Margolin (2007) mentioned, even if the de-
to understand the local communities bet- signer’s influence is limited, he is not free of re-
ter and their socio-cultural normative sponsibility regarding the socio-technological
keystones. An academic–industrial inter- world in which he works. In his sphere of pro-
action will benefit not only corporations, fessional and social influence, the designer has
but also students who will develop their to harness industrial, technological, municipal
applied skills. and political forces for the good of the commu-
• Social impact: As one can see in these nity. One of the ways to do so, in my eyes, can
pages, I believe the designer has to take stem from applying a bit more of what can only
his place as a leading social agent. With be described as the ‘anthropological spirit’.
that in mind, I do not mean the classic so- In a broad perspective we should strive to
ciological term, but rather as a social axis redefine the contemporary concept of ‘anthro-
influencing society through technology, pology’, which suffers from an acute case of
industry and ethical consumption. De- over-use (every person today watching a real-
signers, as well as architects, can use their ity show is an anthropologist of a sort). This
liminal ability as a mediator between the vast question, bigger than the scope of this
community and industrial corporations. article resonates in the title of Maurice Bloch’s
In this way, the designer will influence (2005) article ‘Where did Anthropology Go?’,
ecological, ethical and manufacture di- resulting, in his view, in a scattering of studies
lemmas which will impact on entire com- focusing on an endless array of subjects. The
munities. Furthermore the designer can solution, therefore, lies in the cooperation of
and should strengthen the bond between anthropologists with professionals from other
academy and the community, especially disciplines in a process strengthening both.
as a discipline dealing directly with our Another problem lies in the common knowl-
daily lives. edge that anthropologists are, simply put,
ethnographers. Yet, as Ingold (2008) stresses
correctly in his important paper, ‘anthropol-
ogy is not ethnography’. Anthropology, as
One of the Team: The Applied Boas, Mead or Geertz outlined it, is far more
Anthropologist and the World of than its methodology. While ethnographers
Industrial Design describe, (applied) anthropologist act. Follow-
ing his words, I will outline what it means,
One of the advantages of anthropology as a
scholarly enterprise is that no one, including in my opinion, to ‘use’ anthropology as a key
its practitioners, quite knows exactly what it is. feature in the professional work of industrial
(Geertz 2000) designers.

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Researchers from various disciplines have oriented or other projects), rather than
been pondering the complex relationship be- adding consumer products to an overly
tween design, capitalism and taste.6 A com- crowded market.10 In this context we
mon string of thoughts highlights the role should strive towards a more complex
of research and aesthetics during the design definition of the common trope, ‘the user’
process as key elements for improving sales (Wakeford 2003: 237).
(Shore et al., 2007). However, in my eyes, the 2. Defining and maintaining a moral com-
combination of anthropology of design and an- pass: The applied anthropologist’s aca-
thropology for design is much more important.7 demic sphere should function as a moral
Ethnographic research or the implementations compass for the team of designers. By
of applied anthropology in the professional that I mean the anthropologist should
work of designers corresponds with the bare serve to remind the designers of their
essentials of anthropology as a discipline, as commitment to preserve their clients’
Fulton Suri (2010) describes at length. Usu- dignity and basic prerogatives, as is writ-
ally, when working as anthropologists in other ten in the American Anthropological As-
professional vistas, outsiders tend to treat sociation’s code of ethics.11 This implies
anthropology first and foremost as a complex of course the necessary knowledge of
tool of qualitative research methods. This, of the applied anthropologist in the pro-
course, is far from the truth.8 The role of the fessional fields of materials, production
applied anthropologist in a team of designers methods, distribution and so on.
should not suffice in providing qualitative re- 3. Working as a mediator: While design-
search data or phrasing a research question or ers themselves serve as mediators be-
scientific rationale. The applied anthropologist tween clients and consumers (Ventura
would not provide a ‘fig-leaf’ for the capitalist 2011), applied anthropologists should
agendas of the design profession. This being function as mediators between designers
said, the applied anthropologist should (after and consumers. By that I mean both in
constructing and leading a deep and meaning- the macro-level (social surrounding) and
ful qualitative research) be adamant in his role the micro-level (the consumer’s social
as an ambassador of his profession. In that I needs). For example, designers excel in
mean several roles: taking into account ergonomic variations
stemming from physical dimensions of
1. User-oriented design: While industrial consumers. However, the applied an-
designers focus on the ideas and de- thropologist should add to the equation
mands of consumers for the last decades various socio-cultural dimensions, such
(Hill 2004; Shore et al. 2007), the applied as shame, prudence, social pressure etc.
anthropologist offers a different perspec- This metaphor resonates, in my eyes,
tive. While designers contemplate con- with Suchman’s (2011) work on innova-
sumers’ needs as a tool for enhancing tion and technology. As technological
sales, the anthropologist’s view is rooted beings, we tend to interpret innovation
in a deeper understanding. The anthro- and technological advances as a wholly
pologist’s scientific work should focus on positive process. It is the anthropologist’s
ways to improve the consumer’s daily rou- prerogative to stall this tendency and
tine and immediate material surround- ask questions no one else would. Wake-
ing.9 Various designers in our days choose ford (2003) arrives at the same conclu-
to focus mainly on socially oriented proj- sion, while stressing the importance of an
ects (such as paramedical, community- interdisciplinary perspective involving

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AiA | Jonathan Ventura

designers or technology-oriented profes- Samuel Kaplan of the Department of Industrial

sionals and social scientists. Design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.
 3. These issues will be described in length in sev-
eral forthcoming articles.
Viewing himself not only as a representative
 4. In those academies in which I teach, although
of his discipline, but also as a key member of in some departments the situation is much dif-
the design team, the applied anthropologist ferent, such as: Aberdeen, UCL and of course
can and should create a deep and meaning- the RCA (Royal College of Art), in which I am
ful change in the field of product design. currently enrolled as a post-doctorate.
While the field shifts towards socio-culturally  5. These ‘in a nutshell‘ remarks will be broadly
discussed in several upcoming articles, yet I
originated products (such as social design or
still think it important to raise these issues first
service design) the applied anthropologist has and foremost among applied anthropologists
to preserve his unique role as a scientist. Con- and further along the way – to broaden the
trary to other design-oriented professionals scope to include anthropologists in general.
(socially sensitive as they may be), the applied  6. Of these, two edited books should be noted:
anthropologist is rooted in a deep and rich Alison Clarke’s Design Anthropology (2010) and
Gunn and Donovan’s Design and Anthropology
scientific milieu whose prime interest should
(2012). These books, contrary to others, deal di-
be the social surroundings of consumers (con- rectly with designers and architects in various
trary to clients’ prime concern of promoting issues.
sales). As a ‘socio-material’ agent, the applied  7. Following Suchman’s (2011: 3) call for striving
anthropologist has to promote not only valid towards the anthropology of design.
and professional data but rather preserve the  8. An important example for combining ap-
plied anthropology with inclusive design is
crucial base of industrial design, which is, to
articulated in the article written by Bichard and
use Henry Dreyfuss’ famous book title – the Gheerawo (2010).
essence of ‘Designing for People’.  9. An implied comment should advise the applied
anthropologist to choose carefully the projects
Jonathan Ventura is currently researching at the and clients with which he engages.
10. For example, the Helen Hamlyn Centre for De-
Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal
sign, situated at the Royal College of Art (RCA),
College of Art. His main fields of interest are in- or the program of Social Design, situated at the
clusive design, design thinking and methodologies Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE).
and applied anthropology. He teaches at the 11. http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/
Departments of Architecture and industrial Code-of-Ethics.cfm.
design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design
and at the Department of Inclusive Design at
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Industrial Design, Ethnography and Anthropology | AiA

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