Design anthropology

by Jamie Wallace

Design Anthropology is an emergent field[i] at the intersection of human and design activity.

An integration of anthropological and design understanding is used to consider how design influences human interaction, how this can be reconsidered, and how it can be put to use within design work itself. Aligned closely to the humanistic inquiry of design studies[ii] rather than the objective and systematic approach of design science[iii], concerns range from:

  • skilled practice and “the design of technologies that build upon and enhance embodied skills”[iv] ;
  • how “design helps define what it means to be human, that diversity of human values, and then how design translates these values into tangible experiences”[v] ;
  • along with the "speculative imagination of possible futures"[vi].

This focus upon the human within design relies upon the use and development of anthropological approaches allowing an “emphasis on .... ethnographic methods for a humanist kind of design that accounts for the lived cultural worlds inhabited by designed things and their users”[vii]At this stage it is unclear the extent to which this kind of emphasis plays a part in the design of robots, however it would seem reasonable to assume that a design anthropological approach as outlined would increase the likelihood of unearthing, and setting into action, ethical concerns about robotics.

Design Anthropology shares a set of interests with and number of fields such as material culture and some sub fields with Design Research such as Participatory Design. Participatory design’s relevance to Robotics can be seen in an example by Frennert et. al. in which a robot mock-up was used with a group of implicated users to consider the design of assistive robots for the elderly[viii]. In this case the issues was one of designing a robot that would be adequately ‘accepted’ by older people and focused upon researching into the informants beliefs and opinions related to aging, interaction with the robot, and aspects of aesthetics.

Design and Design Research

There is no single definition of what is meant by design research but it is generally seen to follow differing directions whether related to specific problems, general types of problems or fundamental principles[ix]. These lead on to the three categories suggested by Sir Christopher Frayling (following inspiration from a number of others[x]): research for design; research through design; and research about design. In other words, research for design would be activity that supports an actual design process such as the design of a robot to pick cucumbers, and might shed light upon the preferred way to handle them. Research through design focus upon the use of design methods such as prototyping to create new knowledge, without necessarily having a good idea of all of the issues before hand.  A design approach such as Participatory design follows this paradigm. Research about design is concerned with the nature of design as a discipline and how it is being done. Carrying out interviews with robot designers and users falls within this category. In practice, these directions may be found to inform each other and become intertwined within hybrid methods and individual ways of working.

Design Anthropology in Three Directions

The arrangement of Design Anthropology into three strategies follow similar directions that mirror the relations between the disciplines of design and anthropology[xi]. These are outlined by Gunn and Donovan[xii] 2012 as “Anthropology for DesignAnthropology of Design and Design for Anthropology[xiii] . Anthropology for Design is as it appears within design research and refers to the utilisation of anthropology in a design process. Anthropology of Design is similar to ‘about’ design in design research in which design is placed as an object of ethnographic enquiry. Design for Anthropology is similar to Research through Design in which design methods are applied to enhance the practice of ethnography.

Extending Research and Enhancing Design

In support of REELER methods can be adopted in two direction: through a combination of Research through Design and Design for Anthropology and through a combination of Research for Design and Anthropology for Design. For simplification, this can be termed Extending Research and Enhancing Design

These provide two interrelated strategies for the application and development of methods to develop understandings useful for future interactions between people and designed things.  This provides a way to consider the means through which REELER findings can be actively directed within the diverse practices and situated actions of Roboticists. The translation of knowledge into methods depends upon contextual factors but also relating to distinctions of human proximity, context of robot development such as within the Industrial or Research sectors and equally notions of Technological Readiness Level.


[i] Clarke AJ. 2010. Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century. New York: Springer.

Gunn W, Otto T, Smith RC, eds. 2013. Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury

Gunn W, Donovan J, eds. 2012. Design and Anthropology. London: Ashgate

[ii] Victor Margolin. "The Multiple Tasks of DeSign Research" In No Guru No Method7 (Helslnki. Finland. Umverslty of Artand Design. 1998), 43--47

[iii] See Bruce Archer’s Systematic Methods for Designers published 1981

[iv] UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN / SOUTHERN DENMARK, PhD course in Design Anthropology gottesman.pressible.org/todd/design-anthropology-a-resource-guide

[v] SWINEBURN UNIVERSITY, Design Anthropology MA program, gottesman.pressible.org/todd/design-anthropology-a-resource-guide

[vi] ABERDEEN UNIVERSITY, MSc Design Anthropology: gottesman.pressible.org/todd/design-anthropology-a-resource-

[vii] Murphy, K. M., & Marcus, G. E. (2013). Epilogue: Ethnography and Design, Ethnography in Design ... Ethnography by Design. In W. Gunn, T. Otte & R. C. Smith (Eds.), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice (pp. 251-268). London: Bloomsbury. Page 252

[viii] Frennert, S., Eftring, H., & Östlund, B. (2013, October). Older people’s involvement in the development of a social assistive robot. In International Conference on Social Robotics (pp. 8-18). Springer International Publishing.

[ix] See for example Frankel and Racine, The Complex Field of Research: for Design, through Design, and about Design

[x] ibid

[xi] Murphy K M 2016 Design and Anthropology

[xii] Gunn W, Donovan J, eds. 2012. Design and Anthropology

[xiii] Ibid page 9