Introduction: Man and object

From the first stone tool to the IPod, humans and human ancestors have a likely two million-year-old relationship with technology.  Thus, it is hard to study humans without also acknowledging the objects that they create and live with.  Yet objects really don’t get nearly the attention and study that people do, especially in the field of social sciences.  It seems that as humans become more engaged than ever with technology in the present day, there has been a recent focus on the role and possible application of design thinking to other areas.  Similarly, trends in the design world are looking to apply a greater understanding of people in order to improve the overall design of objects.  Green thinking and sustainable design are also quick to jump on the design theory bandwagon. A current exhibit at the UN in conjunction with the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum exemplifies these recent trends which are summed up in such terms as “social design,” “design anthropology” or “sustainable development.”  Entitled “Design for the other 90%” it “explores a growing movement among designers to design low-cost solutions for the ‘other 90%’” (Design for the other 90%, 2011) who do not have access to the technology most people in wealthy countries take for granted.  Similarly-themed projects are found locally as well; Sustainable South Bronx “seeks to inspire a generation of South Bronx eco-conscious designers and inventors” (Sustainable South Bronx, 2011).  These recent projects seem to have no losers, but just what are the underlying theories from which they frame their work?

This paper is an inquiry into the role objects play in human life and looks at the two following theoretical frameworks which integrate design and anthropology.

(1) Using design to solve social problems, especially in cross-cultural context

(2) Applying anthropological techniques, theories, and understanding to the design process in order to create a better (more usable) product.

As people seek to solve social problems through the design process much is overlooked in the fact that people are engaged in design all the time, in fact, design is simply one example of a type of educative activity, such as communication, apprenticeship, or any other. 

Everything is Education?

            Studying education and how people come to know is one of the cornerstones of the social science fields.  Varenne (2007) has argued that education is something that people are engaged in all the time, during all stages of life, and in all interactions and communications.

[Cremin] showed that education is something that happens “in many institutions.”  We argue that education is essential to the development of these institutions, their integration, and their change. Education is fundamental to sociability and is ubiquitous in the everyday life of all human beings… Each historical act—new technology, new governmental policy, or natural disaster—produces new forms of knowledge and ignorance that require changes in routines, even by those with the greatest interest in maintaining what will never be a status quo (Varenne, 2007). 

New and changing circumstances will create new opportunities and need for a new knowledge.  This paper is concerned with what this framing of education might tell us about the design process, especially in circumstances where design is being called upon to improve lives and solve social ills.

 History of Social Design from Design Perspectives

Victor Papandek, a seminal design theorist, critiques design from the point of view of a designer.  He argues that,

All men are designers; design is basic to human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes a design process…Design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie, choosing sides for a back-lot baseball game, and educating a child (Papanek 1984). 

Ultimately, he says that “Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order” (Papanek 1984). He offers a very broad and encompassing view of design as something engaged by all people; design is not limited to the work of architects or graphic designers.  This idea is analogous to the theme of everything is education (Varenne, 2007).  He even goes so far as to say that “all design is education of a sort.” His seminal work in design theory offers a call for a responsible and socially conscious design.  The rippling effects of his ideas can be found in design discourse even today, however there are some ideas which are dated and conflicting with anthropological discourses.  He says, “design is a luxury enjoyed by a small clique who form the technological, moneyed, and cultural ‘elite’ of each nation” (1984). This would seem to contradict his first idea that all men are designers who are engaged in design all the time.  Further he argues that “basic shelters for American Indians and the Lapp populations of Norway, Sweden and Finland-and shelters for all men poised at the edge of an alien environment need design and discovery” (1984). This statement seems to mean that shelters for American Indians are not designed, which many would argue against.  He proposes a solution in which designers might travel to a foreign place and train a team of local designers who would then educate their own “communities.”  It is clear he doesn’t come out of an anthropological background and some of his ideas speak of a bygone era, but the idea that I would like to take from him is the purest idea that all men are designers, involved in design as an ongoing activity.

Papanek was not the only designer to argue that design is a broad and encompassing idea which includes ways of thinking and organizing. 

In 1946, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy argued at a conference on the future of industrial design as a profession, sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that design “is an attitude which everyone should have; namely the attitude of the planner-whether it is a matter of family relationships or labor relationships or the producing of an object of utilitarian character or of free art work, or whatever it may be. This is planning, organizing, designing”  (Moholgy-Nagy as cited in Margolin, 2002).

Hungarian Bauhaus professor Moholy-Nagy noted that design is way of solving problems which spills out into fields other than those traditionally considered design fields, such as social organization and network study.  

Design Anthropology and Social Design Critiques

Contemporary theorists of the role of design in the social sciences are critical of the power relationships implicit in efforts of “social design” and “design for development.”  Elizabeth Tunstall, former Professor of Design Anthropology at University of Illinois at Chicago, defines design anthropology as “an interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand the role of design artifacts and processes in defining what it means to be human (e.g., human nature)” (Tunstall, 2008). In the lecture entitled, “Design Anthropology, Indigenous Knowledge, and the Decolonization of Design,” she expresses concern that as design moves away from aesthetics and towards design for development and social design there is a danger in assuming that people don’t have their own solutions for problems. She is critical of the idea that “design can save the world” and she compares it to a kind of intellectual colonization of other people.  Even research on “indigenous peoples,” she says is problematic as it can take the form of stealing knowledge and similarly implies that people do not have the solutions to their own problems.  Speaking to an audience of designers, she acknowledges that trends in design have recently started to engage with anthropological questions, such as “what does it mean to be human?” and “how can we improve the human condition?”   She cautions at the same time, however, that it might “also be moving closer to some of the mistakes that anthropology has made in the past” (Tunstall 2008). Design anthropology falls under the application of anthropology to the design process in order to better understand the relationship between man and artifact. Tunstall’s background in anthropology makes her quick to realize the implicit meaning in trying to solve ‘other’ people’s problems through design. 

Others have similarly noted the recent focus on applying anthropological techniques to solve design problems. Arora (2010) says that current trends in technology design and research place anthropologists and sociologists at the forefront in trying to examine “culture” and its intersecting role with technology.  Also, “ethnography allows for a deeper exploration of human activity, connecting it to broader social ecology within which cultures, cyber and otherwise contest, circulate and cooperate” (Arora 2010).   Ethnography is not only used to study human technology, but technology’s role in the construction of human experience.

Also, Hess (1995) makes the case that the effects of new technology on Third-World groups are insufficiently understood. Basically, studying technology in anthropology is not new; what is new is that technology is no longer seen as a tool but as a social construction process (Hess, 1995 as cited in Arora, 2010)

Thus, the most recent theorists of design anthropology argue that objects are participants in the construction of social experience. Arora (2010) ultimately argues that “ethnography examines the admixture of people, artifacts and techniques that make up the technosocial event.” This idea relates to Latour’s (2007) argument that objects have agency for interaction with humans, mentioned below. 

Objects have Agency

By placing technology in its social context, we can begin to see how an object might interact with a person. Latour (2007) argues that if we assume that action is not limited to intentioned, meaningful action (by humans), then we can see that objects also have agency, as they have possibility to act. 

If action is limited a priori to what ‘intentional,’ ‘meaningful’ humans do, it is hard to see how a hammer, a basket, a door closer, a cat, a rug, a mug, a list, or a tag could act…By contrast, if we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then anything that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference if an actor-or, if it has not figuration yet, an actant (Latour, 2007).

If we accept his argument that inanimate objects also have the ability to act, it opens up a whole new space in which to think about the interaction between humans and non-human objects.  Non-human objects would not be limited to simple tools, either, but would include a whole range of interactive technologies, and also institutions which are also inanimate, but with which humans interact regularly.  In effect Latour is arguing for a study of “interactions” rather than specific actors.  Others have also noted the shift from studying actors to actions in order to understand communication (Arora 2010). Latour elaborates on this idea here:

It is true that the force exerted by a brick unto another brick, the spin of a wheel onto an axis, the balance of a lever onto a mass, the gearing down of a force through a pulley, the effect of fire on phosphorus, all of these modes of action seem to pertain to categories so obviously different from the one exerted by a ‘stop’ sign on a cyclist or that of a crowd over an individual mind that it seems perfectly reasonable to put material and social entities on two different shelves . Reasonable but absurd, once you realize that any human course of action might weave together in a matter of minutes, for instance, a shouted order to lay a brick, the chemical connection of cement with water, the force of a pulley unto a rope with a movement of the hand, the strike of a match to light a cigarette offered by a co-worker, etc. (Latour, 2007).

If we take this idea that objects have agency into the context of social design, we can begin to see the underlying critique of development theory.  Specifically, objects are cultural “things” and perhaps form their own cultural institutions, much like education policy, the World Bank, or the UN.  Within the institution of these objects, we can find implicit power relations, values, norms, etc.  Therefore, the same critiques that apply to development agencies must also apply to object institutions.  Simply put, if one is compelled to interact with the IMF it is no different than if one is compelled to interact with, say, Dell computers. 

            De Certeau (1984) relates objects to their role in society, and that they too are bounded by cultural laws and codes. 

Glasses, cigarettes, shoes, etc., reshape the physical “portrait” in their own ways. Is there a limit to the machinery by which a society represents itself in living beings and makes them its representations? Where does the disciplinary apparatus end that displaces and corrects, adds or removes things from these bodies, malleable under the instrumentation of so many laws? To tell the truth they, they become bodies only by conforming to these codes. Where and when is there ever anything bodily that is not written, remade, cultured, identified by the different tools which are part of a social symbolic code? (Decerteau, 1984).

Thus, this is a further argument that objects make up a kind of cultural institution with agency which can be argued has the power to act within certain spheres.

The Design Process and Studying Design Thinking

Looking at interactions of objects and people could be of use to both anthropologists and designers.  Latour (2007) notes the difficulty in observing this interaction because objects have a tendency to “disappear.” He says, “To be accounted for, objects have to enter into accounts.  If no trace is produced, they offer no information to the observer and will have no visible effect on other agents” (Latour 2007). He says that objects are most visible in the stages before their completion.

The first solution is to study innovations in the artisan’s workshop, the engineer’s design department, the scientist’s laboratory, the marketer’s trial panels, the user’s home, and the many socio-technical controversies. In these sites objects live a clearly multiple and complex life through meetings, plans, sketches, regulations, and trials.  Here they appear fully mixed with other more traditional social agencies. It is only once in place that they disappear from view.  This is why the study of innovations and controversies has been one of the first privileged places where objects can be maintained longer as visible, distributed, accounted mediators, before becoming invisible asocial intermediaries. (Latour 2007). 

Here, Latour is arguing that objects are most visible in the design stage and that once the objects are put to use, they become less visible.  Similarly, one of the basic concepts in design theory is that “good design is invisible,” meaning that using a well-designed object is effortless, whereas using an ill-designed object is cumbersome so that each time you use it you are reminded of its defects (Suchman, 1987).  Interestingly enough, the work of the anthropologist has also been described as “making the invisible visible,” meaning that anthropologists highlight culture in a way which reveals information.  

            Others are also concerned with the interaction between objects and people.  Suchman (1987) seeks to understand hidden relationships in order to better understand this interaction.  

My central concern in the investigation is a new manifestation of an old problem in the study of mutual intelligibility: namely, the relation between observable behavior and the processes, not available to direct observation, that make behavior meaningful. (Suchman 1987).

Suchman says that the actions are located within the continually constructed relationship between observable behavior and unobservable intent. Human face-to-face interaction is one example of this mutual intelligibility.  Her work is especially concerned with mutual intelligibility between humans and computer and what this interaction might look like within this context.   

Every human tool relies upon, and reifies, some underlying conception of the activity which it is designed to support. As a consequence, one way to view the artifact is as a test on the limits of the underlying conception of the activity which it is designed to support (Suchman 1987). 

Similarly, the designer creates a kind of plan for how the machine will be used.  This process is similar to Latour’s (2007) statement that design is most visible in the stages of its conception and contention. Suchman further elaborates on the idea about how a designer is involved in the process of a machine’s future use. 

For practical purposes, “user interface” designers have long held the view that machines ideally should be self-explanatory, in the broad sense that their operation should be discoverable without extensive training, from information provided on or through the machine itself. On this view, the degree to which an artifact is self-explanatory is just the extent to which someone examining the artifact is able to reconstruct the designer’s intentions regarding its use (Suchman, 1987).

The idea that a tool’s use should be decipherable by its user is a general design concept that is central to good design.  For the social scientist, this theory can be viewed as the user in communication with the designer through the object itself. If the designer is successful in communicating the use of the object, the user will be able to ‘read’ the function of the object rather easily. Sanders (2002) has also noted the constructed nature of user-designer interaction.  She comments on the common design discourse of ‘designing user experience.’

But we can never really “design experience.” Experiencing is a constructive activity. That is, a user’s experience (with communication for example) is constructed of two equal parts: what the communicator provides, and what the communication brings to interaction (Sanders 2002).

Her argument brings the conversation back to the role that not only the designer, but also the user play in the interaction. Still others have argued that design is an interactive process with many actors.  


Designing is not a reproductive activity based on recipes, but a process in which demands, methods, and solutions, have to be linked in a continuous iteration and interaction with other actors… As design is about interfaces, a most promising issue of interaction (or interface) between design and social disciplines would be communication (Ersten, 2002).

Placing Objects in Space and Time

            A key point in the critique of social design is placing the local vs. global, because so much in the social design field is dependent on this value system. According to Latour (2007), “No place dominates enough to be global and no place is self-contained enough to be local.” 

There exists no global all-encompassing place where, for instance, the control room of the strategic air command, the Wall Street floor, the water pollution map, the census bureau, the Christian coalition, and the United Nations would be gathered and summed up (Latour 2007). 

Here, I believe that Latour is arguing the concept of global vs. local is impossible to define absolutely because global and local do not exist in pure forms but only in relation to something else.  From the designer’s perspective we have, “Locals are localized. Places are placed.” (Koolhaus as cited in Latour 2007).  Arora (2010) says that, “it is important to reiterate that the local is a plurality, potentially conflicting and possibly temporal in its interest and inertia. Further, the local is not necessarily the opposite of global.”  The issue of dissecting the meaning of global and local is relevant to design because objects are given meaning through their contexts. 

Bourdieu’s (1984) “field” of social space, where actors or agents position themselves, is undeniably a valuable contribution to our conceptualizing of context but for the implied dispositions and ingrained societal norms that misleadingly claims to determine social action. (Bourdieu as cited in Arora, 2010).

People and places are given meaning though other people and places.  Thus, we can assume that a particular design or object will have a specific meaning within a specific context.  Take this example:

The Green Bay Packers this year beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to win Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas. In parts of the developing world, however, an alternate reality exists: “Pittsburgh Steelers: Super Bowl XLV Champions” appears emblazoned on T-shirts from Nicaragua to Zambia. The shirt wearers, of course, are not an international cadre of Steelers die-hards, but recipients of the many thousands of excess shirts the National Football League produced to anticipate the post-game merchandising frenzy. Each year, the NFL donates the losing team's shirts to the charity World Vision, which then ships them off to developing countries to be handed out for free (Kenny 2011)

We can see how these t-shirts have taken on a different meaning and location than their original designer intended.  Instead of being purchased by American Steelers fans, the shirts are given away to (or imposed upon, depending on the viewpoint) countries in South America and Africa where most local people probably don’t have knowledge of the Super Bowl or the Steelers.  Kenny goes on to argue that the t-shirt donations do more harm than good for the local population because (1) they hurt the local t-shirt economy and (2) the cost to ship them overseas is more than the cost to produce them locally.  

           Looking at the same issue from a different perspective, we can see that “local” designers will use “global” objects in ways specific to their needs, oftentimes altering the intended original design. This idea is the one most closely related to the framework that education is taking place under all circumstances and in unpredictable and creative ways. Meyer & Verrips (2001) note an experience when they took their car to be repaired in Ghana. 

When I looked under it [the car hood] I got a shock. The radiator was replaced, the original fan removed and a kind of huge propeller attached to the engine block. When I angrily asked a mechanic what the hell happened, he smiled and told me not to worry at all, because this strange propeller was a ‘proper adjustment’ to the climate in which our car now had to function. The original fans were too weak for the tropical circumstances, so everybody with a car like ours would sooner or late replace it by a strong one which would always be in operation, and do away with the thermostat, a useless and even dangerous part in these circumstances.  We felt horrible and irritated, because once again the value of our car had gone down due to this so-called adjustment (Meyer & Verrips, 2001).   

At first glance, the Dutch anthropologists were angered by the repairman’s apparent lack of knowledge about cars.  They later realized that the repairmen did not actually lack technical knowledge, but were quite experienced with these types of repairs.  Their repair, however, showed a different type of knowledge based on a particular problem in a particular place which was different from the authors’ experience about car repairs.   In this example, the car, a Toyota, was not a native object, however it found itself at the repair shop in Ghana, where the local repairman or “designer” implemented his own design in order to solve the problem.  His solution was based on objects which were available for his use, Ghanian climate, and his own particular experience with this type of problem.  The same problem in the United States or in Japan would likely show a different design solution. 

            Thus, any attempts to develop through design should consider the reality that “local” people are already involved in design thinking and they have probably already solved many of their own everyday issues through implementing this type of thinking.  Similarly, former global or foreign object imports may be reinvented to be more usable within a new context.  

            Miller (1995) has also explored the concept of local and global and what it means to means to be a participant in this space.

Therefore to be a consumer is to possess consciousness that one is living through objects and images not of one’s own creation. It is this which makes the term symptomatic of what some have at least seen as the core meaning of the term modernity (Habermas as cited in Miller,1995 ). 

He debates what one experiences as a consumer in the modern world.  He postulates that, “Consumption then may not be about choice but rather the sense that we have no choice but to attempt to overcome the experience of rupture using those very same goods and images which create for many the sense of modernity as rupture” (Miller, 1995). This idea that consumption has a place in social spheres in addition to economic spheres relates to the example of super bowl t-shirts which were sent outside the US.  

What can we take from knowledge about the educative process in response to the problems of social design and design anthropology?

Recent interest in the marriage of design theory and social science has much potential for research and application of new theories and techniques. Hasty attempts to solve all the world’s social problems using design poses the problems mentioned above concerning implicit power relationships, colonization of knowledge, and underlying assumption that “those people” must not have their own solutions. And yet, it still seems like a really appealing idea to some people in both design and development circles.  Ultimately, the policy implication lies in what others have touched upon above, that the understanding lies more in the interaction and relationships between people, other people and objects than in solely the object itself.  Thus, if one wants to implement a sustainable design within a community, they need to look not so much at the objects which will carry out sustainability, but the relationships and interactions between the objects and the people.  If the objects are in place, but no one interacts with them, they will lose their meaning.  In context, this might look like programs which focus on a shared exchange of issues in design problems.  In reality, it is likely impossible to implement design projects which will “save the world,” or even have a broad and deep impact on a community, because people all over the world already have the tools necessary to design their own solutions to their own problems.  They are engaged in solving their problems every day. Just as their family gets bigger, they adapt their house and add an extra room, or as their car breaks down, they fix it with the tools which are available and improvise when necessary.  Chinese-manufactured West African batiks are imported to Senegal and sold to tourists as “authentic” and “local.”  These are the moments of design that highlight human problem-solving abilities but which often become ‘invisible’ once they are in place and everything is working. The designer is making invisible some object and at the same time the anthropologist is making visible the same object.



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