Design Anthropology and Design Culture: In Pursuit of a Well-Thought World

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Learn about new concepts and practices in the evolving intersections of ethnography and design.

An EPIC Talk with ADAM DRAZIN, University College London

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This talk explores the role of ethnographers when collaborating with designers, and especially about how material culture can play a part in this collaboration.

There is no longer a clear distinction between ‘design’ and ‘culture’. In everyday life, people commonly understand their own everyday environments as design, so design culture is no longer limited to professional studios and labs. This presents ethnographers with the need to adapt. They no longer deliver understandings of culture ‘to’ designers, but have to work between two kinds of design cultures, professional and everyday. Their work has to resonate with both, seeming exclusive and professional in some sites, accessible and ordinary in others.

Working on materiality can help anthropologists to productively bridge these design sites. Materiality here means not only taking the material world as a focus for ethnographic conversations, but also the cultural frameworks through which people understand those material worlds. Design research commonly explores the material spaces and things around users in this way. For example, designing for ageing can focus on the communication boxes on the walls of supported housing; or designing for mobility can look at public bus networks. In this talk, we look at how these banal material things can be both irritant and solution. They can represent both design questions and potential answers in ethnography, both the context where new design is going to happen, and the emerging design concepts which need development.

The talk explores the nature of the work being done around these ‘ethnographic things’. As design anthropologists, we do knowledge work which is heuristic, producing collaborative, ‘best-fit’ understandings, which fit into ecosystems of design knowledge which extend far beyond professional sites.


Adam Drazin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCL (University College London), where he teaches design anthropology and material culture. Previously, he worked for HP Labs, Intel, and IPSOS among others. He co-edits the journal Home Cultures and his latest book is Design Anthropology in Context (Routledge 2021).