Cultural Design

Culture provides the catalyst for Designer to create services and products that are fit for their context but also innovative and culturally sensitive.

Our role as designers hinges on integrating the socio-cultural factors that leads to the final outcome. Now more than ever, we need to be aware of the impact of culture.

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Contemporary Design Anthropology Practice(s) in Europe

Contemporary Design Anthropology Practice(s) in Europe

What is culture? How do you define it? Can you define it? There seems to be two views within the commercial world. One is the concept of culture as something slippery but ultimately tangible if you throw enough money and resources at it (reminds me of Flynn’s exploration of personas within Microsoft and the need for reinforced vigilance against assumptions about users’ need). The other is the “emergent view of culture”, a new school of thought within the business arena introduced by commercial anthropologists (Ortlieb 2006, 186). Emergent view of culture proposes a “flexible, open view of culture that operates continually in a changing environment”.

So if we were to give credence to “slippery culture”, we would then be able to pin it down by giving it a face or a personality, in effect reducing it to manageable pieces of information that could be replicated. This of course is a creation of western school of thought, which doesn’t always work even within its own framework (i.e. other western countries as evident by case studies on yahoo, and other internet based service providers who are present in the global market as mentioned throughout the readings). Culture is not homogenous, bounded neatly into lovely leather volumes at some grand library. Rather, it retains its distinctiveness while changing. The point is well phrased in Wagner’s quote: “…yesterday’s innovations become part of tomorrow’s transmitted culture”.

This understanding of emergent culture created the move from usability testing to user-centered design. We need to go deeper than just employing visual-drape-over approach, practicing this new way of looking at culture needs to take its own slow course and that “getting culture right” is not a game of categorization and sterotypes instead more emphasis need to be placed on context (Ortlieb 2006, 194-196). Of course in a commercial/goverment setting time is an important factor whether dealing with time-to-market or wicked problems. For example by using documentary style video recordings (innovative in itself, although borrowed from other fields), it allows a researcher to gather large volumes of data, in a short time to be viewed at any stage during the design process and avoid the pressure to come up with quick on-the-spot conclusions, without proper contexualisation by the design team (Raijmakers, Gaver & Bishas, 2006). As with any new profession there are challenges to be faced. As “Design Anthropologists”, we can combine the unique methods of designers and other creatives in the arts with ethnographic ways of inquiry and insight to create practice-based approaches that can be tailored to each new problem.

In the case of yahoo, which can be taken as a sign of what is currently happening in other global companies as well, researchers are developing more compact guidelines, methodologies and integrated research approaches within multidisciplinary teams to market and develop products. Leading to better communication and also aligning the fears of the business decision makers in terms of short-term ROI and the need to get products to market within a specified time period.


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  1. Mindlab method cards. Viewed 20 August 2011, <>
  2. Mindlab website 2011, Viewed 18 August 2011, <>
  3. Ortlieb, M 2009, ‘Emergent Culture, Slippery Culture: Conflicting Conceptualizations of Culture in Commercial Ethnography’, in M Cefkin (ed.) Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter, vol. 5,  Berghahn Books, New York, pp. 186-210.
  4. Raijmakers, B, Gaver, WW & Bishay, J 2006, ‘Design Documentaries: Inspiring Design Research Through Documentary Film’ in 6th Conference on Designing Interactive Systems ACM Digital Library, New York, NY, Viewed 18 August 2011, <>

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