Design Anthropology: Uniting experience and imagination in the midst of social and material transformation
Location British Museum - BP Lecture Theatre
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 4


  • Mike Anusas (University of Edinburgh) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Tim Ingold (University of Aberdeen), Wendy Gunn (RMIT University)

Short abstract

This panel takes Design Anthropology beyond a concern with stabilised objects and artefacts, to show how design can be a way of doing anthropology in the midst of social and material transformation, evidenced by works-in-the-making and drawing on experience from all regions and peoples of the world.

Long abstract

This panel will address the intersection of artistic expression, creativity, material practice and technological possibility through the interdisciplinary field of Design Anthropology. The panel proposes a view of Design Anthropology not as a sub-disciplinary study of the forms and functions of already settled objects and artefacts, but as a way of doing anthropology by bringing together lived experience and speculative imagination in the midst of social and material transformation.

The panel will bring together existing voices in Design Anthropology with those in adjacent fields of contemporary art and critical design who seek to explore art and design as avenues of provocation, change and speculation and who are willing to transgress disciplinary norms and boundaries in striving for an imagination of the possible.

Whilst the panel will follow a tradition paper-led structure, participants will be asked to develop anthropological critique and theory through works-in-the-making; that is, through the presentation of experimental, propositional and prototype forms of artefact, dress, media, sculpture and/or material surface. Our aim thereby is to explore the potentials of anthropology as transformative practice, engaged with life and materials on the move and in the midst of dialogue and correspondence.

As well as making an open call, we will invite papers, discussants and chairs from established international Design Anthropology networks across Australia, Scandinavia, North America and the UK. We will also invite key participants from Africa, India and South America. Our ambition is for a Design Anthropology that draws on experience from all regions and peoples of the world.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Unmaking and ruination in design anthropology

Author: Arvid van Dam (University of Leeds) email

Short abstract

This paper questions dominant conceptualisations of design as an agent of generalised positive, productive change, and how design anthropology might relate to such instances when design as well as speculative imagination are tied up with ruination and irresistible abandonment.

Long abstract

This paper draws a portrait of a single village in the south-east of Spain. Once completely abandoned and re-inhabited when the Moors were expelled from the peninsula, the once prosperous village has since the 1960s seen a steady and seemingly irresistible trend in abandonment. The result, at this point in time, is that there are only 60 permanent inhabitants left. The resulting ruination of houses, irrigation systems, and cultural fabric is addressed with the term unmaking. Unmaking here appears not as a simple, careless disregard, but as historically self-conscious and selective, engaged and affective. By presenting an ethnographic account of the lives of people in the village and their relations to their material surroundings, I show that unmaking relates to stories of pasts and challenges the possibility of futures. In doing so unmaking is not hegemonic and coincides with both hopeful and desperate forms of making without which it would not look the same way or take the same shapes. In this way I question in this paper the dominant conceptualisations of design as an agent of generalised positive, and productive change, and put into perspective how design anthropology might relate to such instances when design as well as speculative imagination are tied up with ruination and irresistible abandonment.

The Power of Invitation: Invoking New Ways of Being as a Participatory Designer

Author: Ann Light (University of Sussex) email

Short abstract

The future-oriented practices of some participatory design research are intended to investigate new ways of being. How does the designer's invitation marry with participants' experience to co-create the stagings that might enact social transformation?

Long abstract

The future-oriented practices of some participatory design research are specifically intended to investigate new ways of being. Introducing new arrangements by staging encounters not only brings people together to mutually shape the socio-technical, it can also reveal how the socio-technical might be capable of shaping people (Light 2015). This investigation into transformation has been dubbed "constitutive anthropology" (ibid), with roots in feminist literatures on identity. In this talk, I build on this position by examining the nature of the invitations that serve to bring people together to reveal these potential futures. What kind of potential do these invitations represent? How do they invoke roles, relations and activities and, thus, what does the designer set in motion in planning these engagements? Is there an inherent expectation of behaviour in a call for participation? And how does the designer's imagination and intention marry with participants' shared experience to co-create these stagings? Drawing on my own work on designing futures, conducted over 10+ years, I will discuss the potential for meaningful transformation, the openness of invitations for action and the nature of participant responses, in examining the power of engagement strategies to enact social change. I hope to link this to a wider study of creative practices being used to support and enable transformations towards sustainable societies.

Light, A. (2015) Troubling Futures: can participatory design research provide a constitutive anthropology for the 21st century? Interaction Design and Architecture(s) Journal - IxD&A, N.26, 2015, pp. 81-94

Exploring cancer patient experiences through art: what can visual methodologies offer user-centred health services (re)design?

Author: Sofia Vougioukalou (Cardiff University) email

Short abstract

This paper argues that art produced by health service users is a form of representational knowledge that can engage health service professionals in service redesign in a much more effective way than propositional knowledge about patient needs.

Long abstract

Re-designing health services around patients' and relatives' lived experiences is a practice of increasing popularity. However, the use of arts-based enquiries has been limited. This paper will explore the potential of creative expression to inform health service (re)design and contribute to innovative service improvement that meets patients needs. Materials are drawn from a qualitative research project that looked into the experiences of cancer patients who live on their own. We identified key issues for this little-known group of cancer survivors through an innovative methodology that complemented interviews with an art-based enquiry. Twenty cancer patients (in treatment, in remission or palliative) were interviewed on their experiences dealing with the physical, emotional and financial impact of cancer while living alone and ten participants took part in the arts-based enquiry. Participants produced poems, photographs and drawings that either directly reflected or were metaphors of the effect of cancer in their lives. This process allowed them to be the authors of the representations of their experience and choose which facets they'd like to communicate and in what ways. The richness of the representations of these experiences through creative means offered a unique contribution to the user-centred redesign of cancer services. Using Heron and Reason's (2008) model of extending epistemology through co-operative enquiry, this paper argues that art produced by patients is a form of representational knowledge that can engage health service professionals in service redesign in a much more effective way than propositional knowledge about patient needs.

Anthropology by means of design in a Brazilian Indigenous Museum. Account of an ongoing experimentation.

Author: Zoy Anastassakis (Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro) email

Short abstract

The paper presents a project through which design students works to foster preservation and promotion of indigenous cultures in Brazil. In doing so, they experiment on doing anthropology by means of design, transforming the way anthropology and design has been practiced in the Indigenous Museum.

Long abstract

The paper presents an experience achieved through a partnership between the Superior School of Industrial Design, State University of Rio de Janeiro, and the Indigenous Museum, of Indigenous National Foundation. Through it, fifty undergraduate, master and doctoral design students are attending the museum weekly since August 2017, in order to develop researches and projects that fosters the museum main social commitment, namely, preservation and promotion of indigenous cultural heritage in Brazil that contribute to a greater awareness of the contemporaneity and importance of indigenous cultures. This project aims to try out the possibilities of an anthropolgy by means of design, main research theme of the Laboratory of Design and Anthropology, LaDA, a research group led by one of the teachers. The Indigenous Museum characterize itself as an institution strongly oriented by an anthropological approach. Design, which has been practiced there with excellence, has been taken as the final stage of the communication process, mere formalization of contents organized by ethnologists and linguists. This project proposes to transform the space for design in the museum, proposing an anthropology by means of design. After all, what design students develop are artifacts, communication, images, media. But in doing so they are being invited to do anthropology as well, thus reversing the emphases with which traditionally distinguishes the documentation of lived experience and exercises of speculative imagination. In the paper, I intend to present what has been developed by students, as well as theorize about DA from the account of this process still ongoing.

Speculative diagrams: plotting to reclaim algorithmic prediction

Authors: Betti Marenko (Central Saint Martins, UAL) email
David Benque email

Short abstract

We open a conversation between design theory and practice to critically interrogate current modes of algorithmic prediction. We focus on diagramming as a way to understand the operational core of machine learning and to propose alternative strategies rooted in speculative methods and imagination.

Long abstract

Our proposal brings together two approaches—design theory and design practice—to critically interrogate current modes of algorithmic prediction. We take the diagrammatic nature of machine learning as an entry/meeting point. This offers a design-driven understanding of computational prediction, and allows us to propose alternative strategies rooted in speculative methods, divinatory practices, and imaginative storytelling.

Machine learning algorithms operate in multi-dimensional mathematical space; they create knowledge through operations, comparisons, and transformations of vectorised data. The shape of this space—and therefore the scope of predictions that can be made from it—is constrained by the training data and by the wide range of statistical operations and linear algebra that machine learning performs. In this current scenario, causality is superseded by a correlation-based type of rationality that predicts (re-)occurrences of phenomena as literal 'patterns' rather than searching for causes and allowing for contingency. This process has profound implications for what counts as knowledge as it forecloses the space of potential—what might happen or might not happen.

By drawing on selected aspects of Deleuze's thought we discuss ways of 'diagramming' alternative narratives of these spaces of potential in order to reclaim algorithmic prediction as a productive mode of speculation; one that is able to predict radically new futures. The aim is to design (both in theory and in practice) a form of diagram-making that is liberating, enabling of the new and, crucially, able to actualize the very potential otherwise captured by contemporary apparatuses of algorithmic prediction.

Fashion Design in the age of Posthuman Ecologies

Author: Patricia Wu Wu (Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

If the emergence of the concept of posthuman implies an epistemological shift in design, how might this transform the way we think about fashion design and the body?

What forms of material aesthetics and practices are envisioned during the process?

Long abstract

Marked by the increasing ecological and technological crisis within the generation of the Anthropocene, the role of design is experiencing an epistemological stir. Challenged by new notions of aesthetic sensibilities rendered in the emerging advances of bio, nano, digital and robotics; the word human is confronted by its subsequent connotation of post-human.

No longer is the body dressed to be protected, but instead the dressing of the body has become a surgical act. Mediated by sensory augmentations and prosthetic accessories to enhance human physiology. In the midst of these contingent uncertainties, fashion design can be viewed as a heterogenous prism. A site of speculative probes in response to the dynamic changes that effect the body.

Propelled by this speculative inquiry, this paper proposes creative research through a hybrid fashion design practice. Composed of artifactual making which integrates physical, digital and biological actants through iteration and experimentation. While the textual reflection will contribute to new ways of thinking and making within the field of Design Anthropology. Incorporating an assemblage of processual methods, i.e. surgically designing, constructing, dissecting and (de)composing together — a network of vibrant material agencies. By exploring the different ways though which we can convey, the complex symbiosis of the dynamic and unpredictable world of matter. To imagine an embodied otherness, through the lens of non-human eye as a post-anthropological way of designing. This aims to open up new streams of design speculation, creative imaginaries and forms of aesthetic expressions that are conditioning the futurology of the body.

Correspondence between traditional handicrafts and the use of plastic by indigenous people in Brazil

Author: Raquel Noronha (Federal University of Maranhão) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses the relation of indigenous craftsmen with new and old materials in situations of territorial expropriation. In correspondence, we seek to understand its relations with these materials through the making and cartographic design.

Long abstract

This paper discusses the relationship established between indigenous artisans with plastic instead of fibers and wood, in situations of territorial expropriation and land tenure instability. With the expansion of agribusiness, access to the materials was made impossible by the enclosures of the fields, impacting the relations of producers of knowledge and the environment itself. In the process of correspondence (INGOLD, 2018; GATT and INGOLD, 2013) between the environment and the peoples inhabiting these territories there was a relation of autopoiesis (MATURANA e VARELA apud ESCOBAR, 2017) that regulated the cycles of production, extraction of the material, and this was constructed through the making and with the materials. Our correspondence with artisans highlighted their relations with the materials and limits and scope established by the contemporary use of plastic as an accessible material to cover the absence of so-called traditional materials. Negotiations on what they consider traditional and as the memory of their territoriality find frictions with what needs to be shown, in the context of legalization of their identities before territorial struggles. In Brazil, land reconnaissance and redistribution require material evidence of ethnic identity (FRENCH, 2011; NORONHA, 2015), and the traditional way of craftsmanship is nowadays - with the use of plastic - away from what they need to prove. As designers / anthropologists, in correspondence with these artisans, we made new things, drawings, cartographies and crafts, in order to understand how these craftsmen relate to the old and the new materials, beyond to dichotomies like traditional versus uprooted.

Anthropology uncertain and in-the-making

Author: Mike Anusas (University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

This presentation will discuss an anthropological programme of work in-the-making concerned with questioning, proposing and exploring new ideas of form and formation. The specific focus will be on a creative workshop - a Bauhaus Dessau 'Open Studio' - the outcomes of which are as-yet-unknown.

Long abstract

Here I present an anthropological programme of work in-the-making and focus on a particular event within this programme, also currently in-the-making. This overarching programme of work is to anthropologically question, explore, propose and develop alternative and/or new possibilities of form and corresponding practices of formation. To date, this has involved me - as anthropologist and designer - teaching and working in design studios with fellow learners and practitioners, collaborating on projects and observing everyday work practices. My next stage of this exploration is to undertake a week long workshop with twelve student/practitioner filmmakers, glass makers, illustrators and graphic, interior, product and textile designers from the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh, where we will together explore ideas of formation across our disciplines through discussion, drawing, making, recording and presenting.

This workshop will be held as a Bauhaus Dessau Foundation 'Open Studio' in February 2018. The title we have developed is 'Dis/Ordering Design: Norms, Forms and Storms' and by this agenda we aim to explore the descriptive and creative practices which shape order within each of our respective disciplines and explore the possibilities of methodological disorder and disciplinary difference for informing new ways of perceiving, knowing, making and projecting.

For the conference I wish to discuss this overarching programme of work and present the as-yet-unknown outcomes of this workshop, and in doing so, consider what it means to purse anthropology as an uncertain practice of imagination and social change.

Artefacts of inclusion: the participatory lab of Costruire Bellezza

Authors: Nicolò Di Prima (Polytechnic of Turin) email
Cristian Campagnaro (Turin Polytechnic) email
Valentina Porcellana (University of Turin) email

Short abstract

The proposal aims to present the on-going case study of 'Costruire Bellezza' (Crafting Beauty), a Turin-based interdisciplinary lab focused on the topic of social inclusion of homeless people via design-anthropology-led creativity and participatory design processes.

Long abstract

This proposal aims to discuss the interaction, collaboration and correspondence between Design and Anthropology in the framework of an interdisciplinary action-research toward social change.

It does so through presenting the on-going case study of Crafting Beauty (CB), a Turin-based interdisciplinary lab focused on the topic of social inclusion of homeless people via design-anthropology-led creativity and participatory design processes. CB, set up in 2014 as pilot project, is now working within public services for homeless people support.

Participants include researchers, homeless people, students in design and social sciences, social workers, educators and creative talents. Through regularly design activities, organized in a shelter, they all together experiment new projects, languages and production processes and share tacit and explicit knowledge and experiences.

CB acts as a strong relational apparatus of collaborative experiences by which all participants' biographies are also valued. In fact, the collective actions on the materiality of objects is a way to encourage a positive relation among participants that learn how to collaborate. In this way, the co-produced objects become a medium of relationship. Working on material transformation is also a way to propose, produce and visualize how some transformations are possible in homeless life.

CB is also a valuable tool, shaped by Design and Anthropology that, through co-designed artefact and processes, enables the researchers to 'stay in the field' of the social services context to better understand it and moreover stress it toward new models of personalized and community based welfare.

Arresting Design: the work of the studio of material life

Author: Adam Drazin (University College London) email

Short abstract

Design anthropology challenges notions of stopping points and flows in social life. Artefacts produced by the Studio of Material Life at UCL provide an opportunity to think critically about the role of ideas of 'thing' and 'person' in the cultural field of design.

Long abstract

Design anthropology presents fundamental issues for the study of material culture in anthropology. There are a range of ways in which anthropologists have thought about the relation of material things to processes, particularly in relation to generative agency (McNay 2003) within the cross-cutting personal identities of industrial modernity. Objects are often characterised as social 'stopping points' in the building of these identities and relationships, whereas design anthropology (Binder et al 2011) frames material things as more mutable and processual, as works-in-progress between more stable social states occupied by persons. Notions of progress often hinge on such understandings of material culture.

This paper presents a range of experimental work undertaken by postgraduates at UCL as a part of the Studio of Material Life initiative. Over the past six years, postgraduate design anthropologists have undertaken small projects with nearly twenty different institutional collaborators. In evaluating a range of artefacts produced, the paper will focus with examples on three key themes: firstly, working to render contextual material things as 'questions', rather than them appearing as cultural 'answers'. Secondly, attempts to 'arrest' design work, to create anthropological spaces and moments within a contextual design process to re-imagine cultural issues, which future design work might address. Thirdly, the paper examines the work of distinguishing and privileging persons above things, against intellectual currents which emphasise entanglement.

In sum, the paper experimentally attempts to rehabilitate ideas of 'thing' within a broadly processual design anthropology, and hopes to invite debate on these issues.

Designing cultures of care for vulnerable children: Experience and imagination in Bihar, India

Authors: Tracy Johnson (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) email
Palash Singh (Vihara Innovation Network) email
Divya Datta (Vihara Innovation Network) email

Short abstract

This paper draws on design anthropology to understand and elevate material artifacts of health, protection, and community as the foundation for building improved cultures of care around vulnerable children in Bihar, India.

Long abstract

Anthropology illuminates ways in which life has been socially constructed in past and present and brings greater depth to understanding lived experience. Design, on the other hand, focuses on imagining and prototyping potential futures. While trying to solve for complex problems like the state of the public health care system in Bihar state, India, this imagination of potential futures must be grounded in the present and past lived experience of the communities for whom we are trying to solve. This is where anthropology and design come together as design anthropology.

Vihara Innovation Network, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, employs a design anthropological approach in Project Paanch Paar to understand and solve for childhood vulnerability in rural Bihar. Detailed ethnographies of families provided us with enhanced understanding of the experience of illness, health, and care among Bihari communities. Interrogating cultural artefacts and local metaphors - marital wall paintings, safe space rituals, and totems of protection - allowed us to articulate key constraints and leverage points to structure the imagining and designing of potential futures.

Our paper - illustrated with photographs and developing prototypes - will focus on the processes by which we worked with families to design a Bihar in which communities come together to identify and care for the vulnerable among them in innovative ways. We will share lessons learned from how we drew on design anthropology to craft a narrative explanation of childhood vulnerability as a foundation for designing new cultures of care.

Interventions, design, and the many modalities of future-oriented anthropology

Authors: Debora Lanzeni (RMIT) email
Karen Waltorp (Aarhus University) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses the possibilities of research through interventions. Design Anthropology argues that ethnography and design is a collaboration with implications for the formation of future(s). We argue from two cases in the making: an IoT platform and designing a web platform-cum-exhibition.

Long abstract

This paper discusses the possibilities and limits of research through interventions and co-creative projects aimed at outputs beyond the verbal and written. This interventionist stance has been integral to- and promoted by design anthropologists (Otto & Smith 2013, Pink et al. 2016), arguing that ethnography and design is a collaboration in/with implications for the formation of people's future(s). Based on ethnographic explorations of the experience of designing a platform for the Internet of Things market in Europe (Lanzeni) and filmmaking and designing a web platform-cum-exhibition in the ARTlife project: Articulations of Life among Afghans in Denmark (Waltorp), we question each other - What does the interventionist stance make possible? What does 'research-through-making-together' offer in comparison with more classic forms of participant observation and ethnographic fieldwork? We think of this as part of a 'Design Anthropology beyond a concern with stabilised objects, artefact and procedures...a way of doing anthropology in the midst of social and material transformation'. We argue from these two very different cases of 'works-in-the-making' which we will share in their current state of becoming.

Free-form: making double curvature architecturally possible

Author: Rachael Luck (Open University) email

Short abstract

The free-form shapes found in nature and Frei Otto's structures provide inspiration for many architects and make double-curvature a desirable design characteristic. We will study just how they work with shape and form in plywood that is curved in two directions, to make a curve out of a line.

Long abstract

The free-form shapes that abound in nature and the elegant geometry of Frei Otto's gridshell structures provide inspiration for many architects and make double-curvature a desirable design characteristic. Just how they produce and work with shape and form that is curved in two directions, as we shall see, involves the manipulation of linear strips of plywood, thereby making a curve out of a line. They explore design possibilities, working with the different qualities of ply when it is wet, damp and as it is physical properties change when drying out. In this way they work with time, as the process of evaporation is a quotient in the malleability of the material. Then there is the challenge of deformation and impermanence: how to fix and retain these materials in this shape [to set this form], which is overcome by interleaving layers of ply and stitching them in place. Seeing how this happens, through exploratory actions and dexterous practices improvising with materials to produce novel form, suggests a way of working that is different from the notion of design intent.

We began as part of the part of the body - a sound artwork as creative correspondance

Author: Beverley Hood (Edinburgh College of Art) email

Short abstract

The proposed presentation will demonstrate a sound artwork We began as part of the body, developed by the author during a period of creative research residency, at the laboratory of Professor Sara Brown, an eczema genetic research facility, within the School of Medicine, University of Dundee.

Long abstract

The proposed presentation will demonstrate a sound artwork We began as part of the body, developed by the author during a period of creative research residency, at the laboratory of Professor Sara Brown, an eczema genetic research facility, within the School of Medicine, University of Dundee, Scotland, organised by ASCUS Art & Science.

The artwork is a spoken word sound piece, leading the audience through the story of the lab's artificial skin cell culture's journey from operating theatre to research lab, and finally to disposal. The dialogue is based on scientifically detailed information, made curious, enlightening and poignant, because here the point of view is the personal perspective of the artificial skin cell cultures, recounting the journey of their short, precious, three weeks long 'in-vitro' life.

We began as part of the body is an artwork that reflects complex human and ethical questions about the relationship between the body, science and technology, in a rigorously informed, but deeply poetic way. It places the artist as correspondent within a cutting edge, real-world scientific environment, able to apply methods deemed "positively squishy" (Ingold 2016), too soft for typical scientific enquiry in order to question and provocate (as opposed to illustrate or be instrumental).

In this presentation the author considers the affective potential and implications of using the ex-vivo 'life' of the organotypic artificial skin cells, as the anthropological (creative) subject, through an eclectic and broad lens including design anthropology, phenomenology, new materialism and psychology.

Design Anthropology, Emerging Technologies and Alternative Computational Futures

Author: Rachel Charlotte Smith (Aarhus University) email

Short abstract

Emerging technologies are providing a new field for design anthropological inquiry that unite experiences, imaginaries and materialities in complex way and demands new approaches to developing sustainable computational futures.

Long abstract

The rapid digitalisation of society is affecting all areas of our everyday lives and practices, from personal and public to corporate domains. Emerging technologies and concepts of automation, machine learning, algorithms and computational thinking are providing new imaginations of the possible, but the increasing technological complexity also challenges people's roles as democratic and empowered agents in a digitalised society (Cuny et al. 2010, Iversen et al. fc; Vors & Pink 2017).

Otto and Smith (2013) argue for design anthropology as a distinct way of knowing, based on an approach to emergence and intervention in the process of constructing knowledge. Here the conditions for possible futures are imagined and negotiated, but also actively co-constructed in relation to given contexts, through processes of designing cultures and making futures (Smith & Otto 2016; Smith et al. 2016; Ehn et al. 2014). This transdisciplinarity gives design anthropology a unique position to engage with the experiences and imaginaries and experiences that are entangled in the design of future technologies. At once, the complex computational processes demand alternative experimental and socio-material approaches to inventing the ethnographic field and exploring possible futures.

Based on two design anthropological projects involving collaborative experiments with interactive technologies, maker spaces and digital cultures in public institutions, the paper questions how design anthropology may engage in the socio-technical practices and transformations through which heterogeneous cultural imaginaries are inscribed into the design of emerging technologies? And, what would a critical design anthropological approach to developing sustainable digital and computational futures look like?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.