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date: 28 February 2021

Design Anthropology in Europefree

  • Wendy GunnWendy GunnMonash University


Design anthropology is a dynamic interdisciplinary field of scholarship, research, and practice. Rather than a concern with highlighting divergences between design and anthropology, design anthropology is concerned with convergences and confluences in design and anthropology. One of the main aims of this emerging field is to link social and material practices of designing to the affects and effects that design processes and practices have on people who engage with different kinds of design outputs. Design anthropology in Europe has emerged in and through collaborations across universities and public and private sectors. The emerging field of design anthropology in Europe is expanding and has been influenced and continues to be influenced by developments in design anthropology internationally. Researchers in this field carry out research and collaborate with research partners both in Europe and globally. The field is characterized by conceptual reconfigurations, disciplinary dialogues, interdisciplinary research, multidisciplinary teams, and transdisciplinary practices involving collaborative methodologies and mixed methods, and engagement with public and private partners. Collaboration can occur offline, online, or a mixture of both, depending upon the research being carried out. Central issues are to identify anthropological methodologies and theoretical concepts that would support future-making practices in a diversity of design processes and practices; attune different kinds of design processes towards engagement with communities of practice; contribute to the design and critique of emerging technologies; enhance existing products, services, or experiences, strategies, and policies; and further develop aspects of visual and sensorial ethnography whereby designing is the process of collaborative research inquiry.

Design Anthropology

Design anthropology is a form of design grounded in “anthropological design.” Multiple methodologies, methods, and sites of practice are situated within intersecting types of partnerships. Designing as the process of inquiry is employed by practitioners of design anthropology related to the specificity of different kinds of design practices. In the convergence of efforts of design and anthropology, it is essential to recognize these disciplines have their own respective methodologies, ´methods, and historiographies,…as having a discrete worth within and of themselves´ (Clarke 2017, xv). From the early 2000s in Europe, there has been a move in design from non-object-oriented forms of design towards service, social and strategic aspects of designing in both the public and private sectors. Such shifts towards more sustainable modes of designing in response to ongoing global changes in technology, society, and environmental systems has led to a recognition by design practitioners that their role is not solely to make industrial products. Instead of judging the quality of a product on aesthetic impressions alone, attention is deferred to universal, social aspects and contextual use. In general, there is more willingness among design practitioners to engage with socially emerging processes building upon a continuum, from user-centered design towards service design, social innovation, and transition design. Design anthropology, however, not only shows a willingness to engage with socially emerging processes, but also considers the added value of design for the wider ecosystem of individuals, groups, and environments. Importantly, the field demonstrates a tight coupling of theory and practice and has attempted to build a research agenda whereby designing is the process of research inquiry.

Since the early 21st century, the aesthetics of collaborative forms has had a tendency to draw upon theoretical models built upon a philosophy of art and design history. Increasingly, however, in design anthropology and design studies and among design practitioners, there is a need for theoretical and methodological discussion specific to emergent design processes and practices of collaborative design; and for engaging a greater diversity of people previously excluded from design processes (Escobar 2018), especially, when linked to issues of aesthetics of sustainability (Gunn 2018). Sustainability as Ingold reminds us does not “mean the maintenance of human environmental relations in a steady state, but rather the possibility for ways of life to carry on. The emphasis, thus, is not on the stability of outcomes but on the continuity of process” (Ingold 2016, 4). Adopting such an approach to design and research requires rethinking relations with nature, matter, materials, and people within emerging relationships. In so doing, both design and research are considered as practices of “future making.” Design anthropology employs practices of future making, “as a way of joining from within amidst the ongoing lives of people and communities, and amidst the world to which both we and they belong, in a forward-looking, open-ended and collaborative process of shaping futures for all” (Ingold 2016, 11). At the same time, design anthropology is concerned with finding ways of designing conceptual frameworks (both generational concepts and frameworks of analysis) to inform different kinds of design processes and future-making practices.

Shared objectives across disciplines engaged in doing design anthropology include the generation of flexible categories and building relations between gestural movements of designing and gestural movements of using (Gunn and Donovan 2012). Anthropologists, designers, architects, landscape architects, engineers, and technologists position themselves under the umbrella of design anthropology and conduct design anthropological research, consultancy, and design projects. Design anthropology is understood by practioners as a distinct style of knowing (Otto and Smith 2013; Kilbourn 2008); it is also a style of doing with specific research practices that are collaborative and concerned with the generation of design concepts and practical responses attentive to ongoing changing material conditions (Pink 2014; Halse 2008). For different disciplines, design anthropology can be a transformative set of practices. As the field has expanded, a diversity of methodologies from anthropology and design methods has emerged in response to different kinds of design processes and practices. What is common across these design processes and practices is the attunement of designing in relation to people’s everyday life histories through heightened critical reflection and reflexivity by the team members (Clausen and Gunn 2020).

Researchers engaged in design anthropology attempt to find ways of corresponding with the people with whom they are carrying out research, as Gatt and Ingold (2013) have previously argued. Finding ways of corresponding includes: the making of tangible research tools which are embedded within iterative design processes; ongoing improvisation in response to fluctuations within different environments and groupings of peoples; designing of aesthetic frameworks for understanding emerging forms; and engagement of peoples in imagining futures towards some form of change.

Imagining futures in this way requires transformation of the researchers’ own practices through ongoing engagement with the people she or he is working with. Transformation involves ongoing self-critique of unproblematized and taken-for-granted design concepts and assumptions within researcher practices.

Design by Means of Anthropology and Anthropology by Means of Design

Zoy Anastassakis (Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro) has a background in graphic design, design consultancy, and anthropology. Anastassakis (2014) has been working closely with researchers in Denmark (Professor Thomas Binder) and Scotland (Professor Tim Ingold) and has been influenced by design anthropology’s theoretical developments in Denmark and in Scotland. In Rio de Janeiro, she has been working on a project in which design students work to foster preservation and promotion of indigenous cultures in Brazil. In doing so, they experiment on doing design by means of anthropology, transforming the way design and anthropology has been practiced in the Indigenous Museum, which is dedicated to research projects, scientific documentation, and collaborations with indigenous peoples themselves.

This initiative involves designers rethinking scientific dissemination of exhibits through singing, drawing, and painting. In so doing, it brings designers and design students closer to the institution. Collaboration requires reflexivity with respect to the research process itself, since matters of concern emerge related to the political background of indigenous peoples. Similarities and differences are brought to the fore in terms of challenging research frameworks, while they are engaging within existing institutional frameworks. Correspondence is established by means of partnership among designers, design students, indigenous peoples, and the museum. The museum is a fragile institution: to act as a designer implies resistance. So considering the limits and possibilities of design anthropology in such a context, all matters of concern are focused on the political and social, whereby “crafted speculations” provoke shifts in the mind-sets of participating partners.

Anastassakis’s collaborations demonstrate that design anthropology can be a transformative set of practices for both designers and anthropologists/ethnographers. What then do professional designers become when engaged in doing design anthropology? Could designers become anthropologists? What kind of learning transformation is required in this process? Could anthropologists become designers? Could possible transformations arise due to such a collaboration? Anastassakis’s research inquiry is not based on classic design or anthropological practices, but rather on collaborative social experiences that come to life by the activation of the researchers’ capacity to correspond to what the “others” do, whether they are “in the field” or in the educational institutions within which they work.1 These “others” are here perceived as skilled practitioners (Ingold 2000), with whom researchers seek to establish correspondence relationships, thus creating common collaborative research projects.

Arvid van Dam has a background in cultural anthropology. His research gives focus to making and unmaking landscape in the arid southeast of Spain (van Dam 2020). In his research, he questions dominant conceptualizations of design as an agent of generalized 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. Within the context of abandonment—taking a village in southeast Spain as an example—he considers what a future linked to emerging technologies and technology development might be and what a new digital age could do to prevent the emptying of rural villages. What different ways of designing in design anthropology might relate to such instances, when design as well as speculative imagination are tied up with ruination and abandonment? As he says,

Unmaking relates to stories of pasts and challenges the possibility of futures, and in so doing coincides with hopeful or desperate forms of making . . . Unmaking here appears not a simple, careless destruction, but as historically self-conscious and selective, engaged and affective (van Dam 2020).

How then could the intentionality of unmaking be approached as a form of designing? Can we speak of unmaking as a form of design? Does intentionality within the design process fit with processes of engagement? Van Dam’s research demonstrates that design anthropology takes seriously the idea of creative destruction vs. production. Design anthropology thus is not always about making new things. Of importance here is intentionality within the design process and how it does or does not necessarily fit with processes of engagement. The notion of unmaking, therefore, could also be considered a way of doing anthropology by means of design.

Collaboration between Designers and Anthropologists

Collaboration is not new between designers and anthropologists and can be traced across many different fields of design including architecture design, urban design, industrial design, computer system design, and interaction design. Clarke reminds us,

from the late 1960s to the close of the 1970s, anthropology and the social sciences coalesced with industrial design, transforming design from a practice whose aesthetic discourse was largely dominated by industrial rationalism, to one of critical intervention with a social agenda (Clarke 2016, 43).

A move towards relating to the social within design processes and practices and doing alternative models of democracy and design with others, could be considered a form of activism (Papanek 2016). Design anthropology shares with activism, a passion, a call to transform the world. However, the question of differentiation lies with design anthropology’s concern with learning (Lave and Wenger 1991); design anthropology enables people to be actively involved as part of their own learning and research. As Hasse (2015) indicates, this learning is possible when researchers engage with communities of practice. Skills of interdisciplinary working are also nurtured whenever researchers and the people they are working alongside join in the common task of future making (Ingold 2000, 2012; Pink 2009). Multisensory skills of perception and action are involved when practitioners engage creatively with both the materials they use or consume and the landscapes they come from. Learning from each other during a collaborative design research process is important considering that in many different kinds of design projects in companies, there appears to be a lack of learning from one project to the other. This pattern could be due to a number of factors including as Pink et al (2020) has recently argued, the importance of rethinking the concept of trust among participating individuals during collaborative practices of future making.

Design anthropology is interpreted in different ways depending upon the methodological positioning of the researcher/designer (Gunn and Donovan 2012). Although the author and Jared Donovan developed the following acronyms almost ten years ago based upon their direct experience of working on collaborative research projects with private and public sector partners, the acronyms still resonate with different ways design anthropology is practiced:

dA—The theoretical contribution is for anthropology rather than design. Design follows the lead of anthropology in terms of adopting theoretical understandings or becoming the subject of anthropological study.

Da—Fieldwork is in the service of design. Framing originates from problem-oriented approaches rather than engagement with people. Anthropology is put in the service of design. For example, ethnographic studies may be used for establishing design requirements.

DA—Disciplines of Design and Anthropology are engaged in a convergence of efforts each learning from the other (Halse 2008) . . . DA is a shift from informing design to re-framing social, cultural and environmental relations in both design and anthropology (Kjærsgaard 2011).

(Gunn and Donovan 2012, 8–9).

Design Anthropology in Europe

Design anthropology in Europe is grounded in anthropological traditions through an understanding of techniques, artifacts, and technology (Schiffer 2001). Several key players have informed theoretical debates of design anthropology in Europe, namely Marcel Mauss (2006), André Leroi-Gourhan (1993), Lucy Suchman (2007), Tim Ingold (2000), and Bruno Latour (1986, 2008). The field is expanding and more anthropologists and designers from many different disciplinary backgrounds are contributing to the interstices between design and anthropology more generally, and specifically to the field of design anthropology (Murphy 2016). Since the early 1980s, ethnographers have been concerned with studying design ethnographically. Anthropologists have also been engaged in design ethnography working for both the private and public sectors. Their analytical findings, often derived from ethnographic field studies, are used in combination with participatory design techniques to anticipate user needs and involve user knowledge as a resource in the design process (Wasson 2016). While design anthropology involves an ethnographically grounded inquiry, this approach should not be confused with survey data models that uncover user needs, according to Ingold. Such models confirm the separation of production from consumption and the precedence of design over use, which design anthropology sets out to question (Ingold 2007).2

A Research Agenda for Design Anthropology

In Europe, specifically in Scotland (Ingold, Leach, Gatt, Harkness, and Anusas) and Denmark (Gunn, Buur, Donovan, Clausen, Otto, Binder, Kjærsgaard, Smith, Halse, and Clark), a group of researchers based in universities with backgrounds in design, anthropology, and engineering have made important theoretical contributions to the emerging field of design anthropology. Underpinning their research, and through collaboration with both the private and public sectors, was a concern to develop a research agenda for the emerging field of design anthropology. Collaboration between the different researchers was made possible due to shared research interests in the relations between design and use, using and producing, and people and things. They also shared research interests in the social aspects of technology development. At the same time, support for individual researchers, research projects and infrastructure, research training and long-term research collaboration between these researchers was possible due to a number of Danish and UK research grants (2005–2008), substantial research funding from the Danish Government Strategic Research Council, the User-Driven Development Program, which was awarded to Professor Jacob Buur and his research team (2008–2013), and a European Research Council Advanced Grant, which was awarded to Professor Tim Ingold and his research team (2013–2018). The dialogue between the researchers continues, albeit less intensely due to changing circumstances of individual researchers and financial limitations.

In the early stages of these collaborative research dialogues, design anthropology, both theory and practice, was viewed as contributing to different types of design processes (i.e., engineering design, interaction design, product design, and systems design). At the outset, researchers attempted to build upon and enhance the embodied skills of human users through attention to the dynamics of performance and the coupling of action and perception (as against the more traditional focus in computing science on mental computational operations). Such an approach to designing was seen as a radically new area of research that cut across a wide range of fields from industrial design, through human movement studies and ecological psychology, to sociocultural anthropology. From an anthropological perspective, it resonated with three areas of interest that were generating some of the most exciting new work in anthropology at that time: the understanding of skilled practice (specifically, the study of skill, and of the ways skills are acquired, embodied, and deployed in practice); the anthropology of the senses (including sensory perception, and especially the relations between touch, hearing, and vision), and the aesthetics of everyday life (linking the practices of perception to cultural evaluations and ideas of functionality and beauty). Design anthropology during this period was concerned with bringing these areas together.

A number of key theoretical contributions to the field were developed through doctoral training and research seminar programs including the first PhD course in design anthropology. The course was developed in a collaboration between the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen and the Sønderborg Participatory Innovation Research Centre (SPIRE), and Mads Clausen Institute, during 2010. Focusing on the relations between designing and using, PhD students were introduced to a series of issues at the interface between theory and practice, designing and using, gesture, craft, and skill. The issues were explored through collaborative team working, co-design, co-analysis, and cross-comparative study engaging with empirical materials from ongoing research projects at the two institutions. An international cohort of doctoral students attended the course and came from a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds including architecture, archaeology, anthropology, industrial design engineering, and computing science. Ten years later, the course outline continues to attract a lot of attention on social media from an international multidisciplinary audience.

During 2009–2010, Ingold et al. reported on the Designing Environments for Life program and associated workshop outcomes: As indicated, the task of the program:

was to bridge the gap between the familiar environments of quotidian experience and the “environment” of scientific, technological and policy discourse, in such a way that we are better able to reconnect the practices of everyday life with the imperatives of environmental sustainability. . . . The program introduced a new way of thinking about design that

Is oriented to process rather than product.

Is open-ended rather than end-directed.

Is dictated by hopes and dreams rather than fixed targets.

Associates creativity with growth rather than novelty.

Emerges from dialogical relations both among people and between them and materials.

Is democratic rather than based on systems of command and control.

(Ingold et al. 2010, 6–7)3

In parallel, to these research activities in Denmark and Scotland, it is important to remember that there was extensive investment in user-driven innovation research by the Danish government (Nyholm and Langkilde 2003). The national program for user-driven innovation was established in 2005 and funding was released in 2007. This funding supported “research in the field of user-driven innovation; development of tools and projects to support user-driven innovation methods in small and medium-sized enterprises and more concrete cooperation between businesses and higher education through, for example, specific innovation projects” (Wise 2006, 27). With such governmental financial support available for long-term research projects lasting between three and five years nationwide, design anthropology research was possible with an emphasis on the social and relational aspects of designing (Halse et al. 2010), the possibility for design anthropology to go beyond analysis and description to the generation of design concepts (Otto and Smith 2013) to hold methodological implications for transformative capacities in peoples (Halse 2013), and the creation of performance-focused publics which can provide feedback on the implications of ideas from a diversity of people(s) (Clark 2013).

One important research center that promoted the development of design anthropology in Denmark was SPIRE, located at the University of Southern Denmark. Figure 1 shows SPIRE’s organization of a research context where design anthropology evolved. SPIRE was comprised of six university disciplines, a theater group, and industrial partners, and received €3.2 million from the Danish Council for Strategic Research. An important outcome of SPIRE (2008–2013) was the education of ten PhDs and six postdoctoral researchers. The center’s main goal was to develop an alternative approach to user-driven innovation. Working with industrial, company, and public sector research partners, the research team worked on a series of eighteen experimental innovation projects involving PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, public and private research partners, and SPIRE researchers. Each project lasted from six months to three years. As shown in figure 1, researchers and students came from disciplinary backgrounds in design anthropology, user-centered design and interaction design, innovation management, interaction analysis, marketing, and theater. Underpinning the organization of collaboration across disciplines were ongoing attempts to provide a collaborative research environment. This environment involved embracing design from a set of complementary methods and methodologies, development and assessment of curriculum for multidisciplinary groupings of international undergraduates, graduates, doctoral students, and postdoctoral researchers, involving live projects within industry and the public sector; designing of research tools and methods for involving a broader grouping of peoples within research and design processes; promoting and guiding multidisciplinary research with senior and junior researchers across the technical, social sciences, and humanities faculties.

Figure 1. SPIRE centre organization diagram by Jacob Buur.

Reprinted from SPIRE Research Summary, 2008–2013, Sønderborg Participatory Innovation Research Centre, University of Southern Denmark.

The aim of the strategic research center was to develop a theory of the participatory dynamics of innovation and a range of methods to support user-driven innovation. Multidisciplinary research teams (e.g., engineers, designers, and conversation analysts) carried out field studies of how people innovate and how companies innovate together with people. The term “participatory innovation” was coined to indicate that “users” will often include a wide circle of actors that potentially can contribute to innovation (Buur and Matthews 2008). As a fundamental premise of the research center, participatory innovation is based on a Scandinavian ideal of democracy as all-inclusive engagement. Underpinning investigations in participatory innovation has been a concern with finding ways of engaging people within collaborative designing and participatory-innovation activities who otherwise would be excluded from the processes and practices of design and innovation (Buur and Matthews 2008). This approach meant making user knowledge actionable, expanding the circle of participation in innovation projects, dealing with business challenges, and attempting to make innovation practices reflective. SPIRE built upon fifteen years of research by the user-centered design group at the Mads Clausen Institute. Jacob Buur and Thomas Binder originally founded the group at Danfoss in Denmark during the early 1990s. Collaborative research activities built upon Scandinavian participatory design, action research, grounded theory activity theory, ethnomethodology, anthropology, and philosophy (Gunn and Donovan 2012, 3). In particular, the Scandinavian participatory design tradition has had a significant impact on SPIRE researcher’s activities (Ehn 1988; Sundblad 2011).

One of SPIRE’s main challenges was to reconcile a drive towards innovating for the public good in society with a legitimate interest in generating business for the private sector. Early theoretical contributions to the emerging field of design anthropology were made possible by anthropologists working in close proximity to other disciplines in open plan design studios and being involved within all stages (including design) of participatory-innovation research projects; these projects were organized in collaboration with international and local industrial and public sector partners of varying scales (i.e., local small- and medium-sized enterprises and global companies). Each project lasted from six months to three years. Examples of projects involving anthropologists, designers, and engineers in collaboration included:

Pre-Users of Medical Devices (2009–2012). Partners: Oticon, Novo Nordisk. Goal: To study the barriers in the transition from “pre-user” to user of hearing aids and insulin pens, and to develop methods that involve pre-users in innovation processes.

Design Anthropological Innovation Model (2008–2010). Partners: Danish School of Design and four other agencies. Goal: To develop appropriate tools for involving anthropologists in innovation. A pilot study of the garbage collection system in Copenhagen followed by innovation projects in the four design consultancies.

Indoor Climate and Quality of Life (2008–2011). Partners: Velux, WindowMaster, Isover, Grontmiij, Nilan, and DTU. Goal: To create new business opportunities across the value chain of a ventilator systems manufacturer based upon field studies of how installers and users relate to ventilation in schools and across plants.

Design anthropology’s main aims within such research projects were to:

Close the gap between everyday understandings of “environment” and those adduced in the discourses of techno-science and policymaking.

Challenge conventional thinking regarding the nature of design and creativity in a way that acknowledges the improvisatory skills and perceptual acuity of inhabitants.

Explore the relevance and potential applicability of research in a field formed though the convergence of approaches not only in anthropology and design but also in engineering, while also widening the discussion to include communities of practice beyond academia—including the arts, design and architectural practices, government and the public sector, business and industry, and environmental organizations.

Find new ways of combining techno-scientific expertise with the wisdom of inhabitants in the common project of designing environments for life.

Key Concepts of Design Anthropology

During the period from 2005 to 2017, a number of key concepts (Drazin 2013) emerged through collaborative research among the research teams in Scotland and Denmark; these concepts have continued to influence inquiry in design anthropology globally.

Finishing Is Never Finished

Design anthropology can extend our understanding of design practice and material culture to consider interrelations among perception, creativity, and skill, and what it means to make things in processual terms (Hallam and Ingold 2014). Design anthropology moves beyond a concern with stabilized objects and artifacts, 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.”4 In his doctoral thesis, Anusas (2018) reflects upon his practice as a product designer with a view to articulating possible futures for design; he argues for different ways of designing that would not result in closed feedback products. Through analysis of his own design practice by drawing and modeling, he realized traces of his own inclination of bodily movements—gesture of his hand—bending of form—is always imminent within objects made and are an instantiation of the way the practitioner is always being formed. His reflections of design practice remind us that human beings are part of a world which is continually undergoing change. Materials are part of this world and are affected by the environment. Organic materials like humans grow and age. Let us consider Ingold’s proposition that making does not give way to use because an object is never finished, as opposed to understanding a process of making and using an object as beginning with a raw material that is worked up and then broken down through use (Ingold 2013).


In its concern with the forms of things, design anthropology has much in common with the more established field of material culture studies. It differs, however, in so far as it deals as much with processes of production as with those of consumption. While the study of material culture has tended to focus on how objects, once made, are put to use, design anthropology is above all about how things get made in the first place. And by situating making in its social and environmental context, design anthropology questions the conventional distinctions between designing, making, and using. Instead of regarding use as what happens after things have been designed and made, both designing and making are understood to go on within contexts of use, understood as an accustomed pattern of skilled activity. Thus, every user is a producer, and “user-centered design” is, by the same token, “producer-centered” (Ingold 2012). Design anthropology challenges conventional thinking regarding the nature of design and creativity in a way that acknowledges the improvisatory skills and perceptual acuity of people. Studying the relation between design practice and use practice, researchers place emphasis on the creativity of design and emergence of objects in social situations and collaborative endeavor. Specifically, anthropological theories concerning institutional divisions between innovation and improvisation, transactions, exchange, and personhood are brought to bear on the form objects take in technological or other contexts, giving due attention to the situated nature of processes of production and consumption, and to social form.


Design anthropology engages groups of people within multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary collaborative, inter-organizational design processes and co-analytic research activities with people vs. the individual anthropologist conducting studies of peoples (Gunn and Løgstrup 2014, 2; Ingold 2014a). While involving design anthropology tools for moving collaborative research into different kinds of design processes and future-making practices, forms emerge out of the continuous reconfiguration of boundaries (Barad 2003), the relations between people (Leach 2015), the specificity of the grouping of peoples involved within a process of inquiry, and the interests of the various individuals involved (Strathern 2014). Adopting such an approach to doing research recognizes research participants not only as informants but as people with whom the researcher is conducting research. This approach requires a different kind of relationship between the researchers and the people with whom they engage in the research. This relationship is dependent upon a correspondence being established (Gatt and Ingold 2013; Ingold 2017). Such a relationship entails building up intimacy between the people involved within the research inquiry and affective levels of intersubjectivity. As Leach says, doing research with and establishing correspondence necessitates attention to “the particular interplay between things made together and the emergent sense of the reality of the affects of those things that enables ideas and practices to reciprocally condition imagined futures” (Leach 2015, 272).


Design anthropology is a shift from informing design to reframing social/cultural and environmental relations in both design and anthropology (Kjærsgaard 2011). Kjærsgaard and Otto (2012) argue that the anthropological contribution to design depends less on detailed accounts from the field, and more on a continuous involvement with and a reframing of field and design practices throughout the design process. An important aspect of reframing is to recast assumptions that call into question the traditional assumptions, representations, and dominant ideologies that have shaped and influenced the concepts of design and innovation.

For example, the SPIRE Indoor Climate and Quality of Life project was an attempt to link peoples’ perceptions and experiences of dwelling in homes, offices, and kindergartens to the design of the systems and controls that regulate those indoor climate environments. The project had two main objectives: (a) to demonstrate how innovative indoor climate systems could improve peoples’ quality of life; and (b) to lead to new directions for the development of energy efficient indoor climate products and systems in the building industry. It was a public research project, running over three years from August 2008 to July 2011. It involved five Danish companies from the building industry and two Danish universities. As such, the project brought together researchers from environmental engineering, user-centered design, interaction analysis, interaction design, and design anthropology.

Within this diverse set of disciplinary perspectives, an aspiration within the project was to work collaboratively towards building relations between individual/group perceptions of indoor climate, techno-scientific discourses, and everyday experiences of inhabiting indoor climate and wider systems environmental control. Many of the project company partners had engineering backgrounds and were interested in the possibility of changing energy use behavior through the use of technical devices. Creating a technical change became synonymous with changing behavior. Changing behavior meant changing users’ motivations and existing behavior to something new. A central issue while relating perceptions and experiences of indoor climate to past, present, and future engineering design practices was to find ways of supporting company, university partners, and users to imagine possibilities instead of certainties in terms of innovation potential. This process involved engaging with qualitative field materials from homes, nurseries, and offices. For many of the engineering partners, this engagement was challenging as it presented a form of research that was perceived as being very different from quantitative information with which they were used to working.

Empirical materials generated through the Indoor Climate and Quality of Life project enabled the research team to trace the movement and transformation of user knowledge from user sites to confront established configurations of users in worlds of institutionalized indoor climate research and development. Alongside being part of a wider project research team, I worked closely with an engineer for a twelve-month period in tracing learning from participation in the innovation project temporary spaces back into the companies and research units of universities. My colleague and I (Gunn and Clausen 2013; Clausen and Gunn 2020) showed how a temporary intermediary space, set up by a research team, contributed to challenging and (under certain circumstances) even reframing existing engineering and model-oriented user conceptions towards a more peoples-practices orientation.

But this study also revealed that due to strong path-dependent innovative practices in the participating organizations, a direct uptake of the kind of knowledge of user practices presented during collaborative design activities beyond the temporary intermediary space proved limited in our project partner organizations. Path-dependent innovative practices, business strategies, and dominant designs add to the lack of relevant spaces for innovation within or across the participating organizations. By highlighting the important role of temporary spaces and generation of inter-relational forms (e.g., tools of engagement), we argued that inter-relational forms can be subject to ongoing changes in both the design process and the interventions made. The design of inter-relational forms, in close interaction between design-oriented and engineering-oriented knowledge practices, together with key stakeholders seems important for the configuration of temporary spaces and the reframing of user conceptions. It seems that the configuration of the temporary intermediary learning environments and the design of inter-relational forms are “closely intertwined and mutually dependent” (Clausen and Gunn 2015, 91, 2020).


Arlandis and Lieberman (2013a) challenge a problem-oriented technical understanding as a basis for design interventions. They introduce the concept of intravention vs. intervention. According to Arlandis and Lieberman, “Although it is only a matter of a couple of letters, intra’s focus on ‘within’ clearly establishes intraventions as already a part of the space and times in which they are intravening; quite a different focus than the ‘inter’” (2013b, 6). Intervention, by contrast, in Latin means “to come between” or “to interrupt,” as such practices of intervening have potential to create rupture. Arlandis (2016, 6) proposes that further research is required concerning intraventions. Intraventions according to Arlandis exist on the basis of an engaged situation, which requires anthropological, ethnographic, and aesthetic methodologies and tools as well as improvisational skills to respond to changing environmental conditions. These methodologies, tools, and improvisatory skills are made to explore the nature of practices of sustainable future making that allow for as Barad has previously argued, ‘…an ongoing reworking of the very nature of dynamics’ between peoples (Barad 2003, 818).


Building sustainable futures relationally is concerned with reflexively attuning and thus transforming design processes and future-making practices to emerging conditions (Anderson 2014). By designing in this way, a broader understanding of the future is given importance through revealing different senses of the present evident in individual research team member’s contributions (Anusas and Harkness 2016, 55). Design anthropology considered in this way offers “a theoretical and methodological proposition that argues for a particular understanding of futures that builds from a theory of human life and the configurations of things and processes of which it is part are on-goingly emergent” (Pink and Salazar 2017, 14). Practices of sustainable future making go beyond future trends and projections. Practitioners of design anthropology therefore attempt to build partial connections between the past, present, and future to enable participants involved in collaborative research to reflect-on-the-future, while respecting multiple temporalities belonging to different peoples involved within a research process (Wilson 2008). In practice, this approach means that team members may use different time frames to conduct their work (i.e., the time required to conduct field studies and/or the time spent on analysis of qualitative empirical materials and/or quantitative data). Finding ways of recognizing disciplinary similarities and differences, while allowing these similarities and differences to co-exist is important for interdisciplinary work to be successful.

Collaborative Research, Transdisciplinary Practices, and Tools for Engagement in Design Anthropology

Collaborative Research

Design anthropology is inherently interdisciplinary and requires rigor, engaging within multiple worlds through careful, very precise attention to practices of inquiry. Research inquiry in this field is experimental and explorative. It involves discovering critical gestures and sensorial sense making with both one’s design colleagues and the people with whom the researcher is conducting research. Design anthropology draws upon classic anthropological approaches—for example, politics of inviting, sensibilities of field working, and opening lines of inquiry. Reflection and reflexivity upon modes of collaborative research and the positioning of the researcher are central. Specifically, attention is given to how researchers can engage with and take seriously sensorial and affective aspects of collaborative research and conceptualizations of the user during design processes and practices. Anthropological knowledge can influence design processes and practices of future making depending on how knowledge is disseminated among design practitioners by collaborating anthropologists. Thus, engagement and dissemination are not auxiliary to the collaborative research endeavor but intrinsic to the research process itself.

Transdisciplinary Practices

Transdisciplinary practices are concerned with how to move findings from collaborative research into different kinds of design processes and practices. Transdisciplinary practices in design anthropology are also concerned with instigating different ways of designing across different scales (e.g., products, services, and policies) as well as working relationships. Underpinning these practices is a concern for finding out what design can learn from anthropology and what anthropology can learn from design.

Working on collaborative research projects with both the public and private sectors and involving multidisciplinary design teams, design anthropologists often are dealing with emergent situations engaging with peoples and places where a problem is not predetermined. Design anthropology thus is a move away from a problem-oriented approach—a standard trajectory of one situated context of use, one problem, and how to solve a particular problem. From this standpoint, practices of design anthropology can be understood as a material engagement and constructive critique with design involving “participatory observation” (Gunn and Løgstrup 2014). Participatory observation can be a form of engagement and can lead to generating anthropological capacities in people with whom the researchers are carrying out research. Establishing such relations can lead to transitions and point towards possibilities for transdisciplinary practices in design anthropology being active and transformative. Relationships made during such practices can become a process of mutual learning (Gunn and Donovan 2012, 7). Integral to these practices of learning and research is a sharing of sensory worlds during participatory processes rather than mental representations (Ingold 2014b, 520; Fors, Bäckström, and Pink 2013, 175).

Tools for Engagement, Field Materials, and Design Experiments

Tools for engagement, field materials, and design experiments within collaborative research are made to address “design problems relationally” (Fry 2009, 189). Løgstrup (2014) in her doctoral thesis, “Reconceptualising Understandings of Agency: Within the Designing of Demand-Side Management in a Future Electricity Smart Grid,” argues for a different way of designing a future energy smart grid in Denmark. She focuses on the importance of reframing the relation between the private end user and the energy company. Exploring the idea of the interaction design studio as an extension of field sites, Løgstrup, two graduate students (Nelson-Burk and Mosleh), a group of first-year interaction design engineering students, a professional model maker, and I worked towards the making of a tangible research tool shown in figure 2 (Løgstrup et al. 2013).

Figure 2. Tools for engagement.

Photograph by Louise Buch Løgstrup. Exhibited provotype. Artifact session. Co-curated by Alicia Dornadic and Adam Drazin. EPIC 2013, London. Printed in Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings (Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association, 2013), p. 382.

The tool was made to address the question: How can design anthropology reframe the company relation to private electricity end users to move towards the electricity smart grid company future? The tool was an incomplete model of the energy company’s connection to its users and was used to demonstrate how this relationship is changing due to the development of an electricity smart grid and the ongoing liberalization of the energy market in Denmark. At the company, the researcher involved the incomplete tool in her interviews with company employees (see figure 3) to discuss how the electricity smart grid (as a new type of infrastructure and liberalization of the energy market) may require changing the entire business model of the company. Employees added new elements to the model as a result of the interview and ensuing dialogue between researcher and employee.

Figure 3. Reframing the relation between the company and the private end user.

Photograph by Wafa Said Mosleh. Reprinted from Wendy Gunn, “Collaborative Forms,” in The Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and Beauty: From Aesthetics to Creativity, edited by S. Bunn (London: Routledge, 2018).

The research tool was a way to instill reflection and do research with company employees whereby correspondence between the researcher and people with whom she was carrying out research opened a learning process between the company employees and the researchers (Gatt and Ingold 2013). Throughout engagements with company employees, Løgstrup and one graduate student, Mosleh, added additional layers to the tool, raising questions concerning the “kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged unconsidered modes of thought. . .” underpin existing smart grid design practices that were taken for granted by company employees (Rabinow 2005, 52; Gunn and Løgstrup 2014, 437). As Gunn and Løgstrup discussed,

All of the employees Løgstrup engaged with were primarily concerned with how the energy company could make financial gains from the Smart Grid and were not driven by a goal of private end user participation in the designing of energy infrastructure. The design anthropology research contribution here, then, lies not to promote an anthropological study of energy, infrastructure or even anthropology of designing the Smart Grid. Rather, by making and involving a tangible research tool as an integral part of Design Anthropology research inquiry a contribution is made to doing anthropology by means of design and design by means of anthropology (Gunn and Løgstrup 2014, 437).

Importantly, the inter-relational approach informing research practices allowed researchers and employees to engage critically within the actual designing of an operational electricity smart grid.

Temporary spaces for staging transitions across knowledge and institutional boundaries can bring key concepts in design anthropology to life and demonstrate the value of programmatic approaches in offering actionable guidelines and recommendations (Clausen and Gunn 2020). Within such environments, field materials and design experiments (as shown in figure 4), are essential to engage in collaborative research activities. With this in mind, I refer to the specific challenge of improving air quality in hospital environments and a workshop conducted during 2016 entitled Design for Growth and Well-Being: Sustainable Future Making. As a way to develop the research, I engaged two master students in design communication and twelve interaction design engineering students in the design of a workshop, focusing on the sustainable practices of design and future making in a hospital. In the workshop, group members turned from the growth of plants in interior hospital spaces to the quality of air, focusing on the hospital as a site where air quality can have crucial consequences for health.

Figure 4. Field materials and design experiments.

Photograph by Wendy Gunn. A multidisciplinary workshop organized by the author was held at the Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex, April 2016. The design materials and experiments made for the workshop were not only a way of testing hypotheses but also of passing on skills and learning between university researchers, practicing architects, engineers, and healthcare professionals. Findings from the workshop whereby designing is the process of inquiry enabled workshop participants through their engagement with the challenge of improving air quality within hospitals to recognize possibilities for conducting future research together.

Up to now, since it is normally invisible and intangible, air has been neglected in studies of architecture and material culture. In discussing the “atmospheres” of buildings, scholars have focused on interactions between people and things and the feelings these interactions generate. Yet without air there could be no such interactions: not only do we need air to breathe; it is also the medium of all perception. Thus, the quality of the air is likely to have effects that exceed the purely physiological, to include the varieties of sensory experience.

Group members attempted to challenge the disciplinary divisions between architecture and environmental engineering by exploring the potential of bringing together technology, architectural elements, and environmental engineering systems. Fostering an environment of well-being, they argued, must be central to any architectural design brief. Existing research in environmental engineering devoted to the improvement of air quality is seeking to demonstrate the potential of technology by making the transition from experimental setups to working prototypes. Working with graduate students in IT product design and interaction design engineering, a number of hypotheses drawn from experimental findings were tested. They included the tangible testing of how plant roots can act as insulation and help to clean the air, the light capturing and shading properties of algae, and how biotechnology could form dynamic interactive walls equipped with water aeration flushing systems. In the longer term, these experiments could be developed further to test for effects on oxygen levels, sustainable yields, and waste production. Research and teaching in design anthropology connected to such research inquiry involved process facilitation of multi-sited field studies, co-creation, co-analysis, and participatory-innovation workshops and training activities in the design of emerging technologies. In practice this work means:

Coordinating collaborative research and design processes with a diverse grouping of students, internal research team members, academic faculty, private and public stakeholders.

Being involved in research projects as a senior researcher and research supervisor.

Developing and assessing curriculum for multidisciplinary groupings of international undergraduates, graduates, doctoral students, and postdoctoral researchers involving live projects within industry and the public sector.

Designing research tools and methods for involving a broader grouping of peoples within research and design processes.

Promoting and guiding collaborative research with senior and junior researchers across the technical, social sciences, and humanities faculties.

Making sense of design-led collaborative multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research activities while working as a design anthropologist within design research teams.

Within such dialogic contexts, how learning between peoples can be instigated through social material practices involving creative methods is central.

Involving tools of engagement, field materials, and design experiments as an integral part of collaborative research can be a way to expand the scope of dialogue concerning design and future-making practices. At the same time, it can contribute to different kinds of design education curriculum (e.g., industrial design, policy design, technology design, and architectural design). Conducting research across universities and the public/private sectors, tools of engagement, field materials, and design experiments are involved within collaborative research to attend to what remains unnoticed—and/or emerging research issues—perhaps unarticulated but present, while at the same time attending to peoples’ own assumptions about the future architectural design of healthcare facilities, autonomous driving cars, digital infrastructure, waste, health, and well-being.5 Research tools involved in doing design anthropology strive towards instigating reflexivity within design and future-making practices. Therefore, practitioners of design anthropology are not only concerned with transforming the practices of others but also transforming their own research practices. In this sense, the research tools they involve within their inquiries have a critical role and aim towards bringing attention to the limits of understanding of a grouping of people engaged within a research project. At the same time, the temporal places created to explore practices of design and future making allow for the co-existence of difference. While involving tools for engagement, field materials, and design experiments within a process of research inquiry, in and across the different sites, researchers in the field of design anthropology explore:

Different ways of conceptualizing the future interrelations between social and material forms.

Relationships made between people through their relations to the emerging forms of things made during a research process.

The nature of material form made along the way, as related to the specificity of the grouping of people involved within a research process and research concerns of the grouping.

During such explorations, tools for engagement, field materials, and design experiments bring to the surface underlying issues related to designing as a social process. In this sense, tools of engagement, field materials, and design experiments inform the design process and help address and identify different kinds of research questions, instead of answering one overall pre-set question or solving a specific problem through the design of a product. While designing such tools, materials, and experiments, both practitioners of design anthropology and the people with whom they are conducting the research process recognize the importance of attuning the tools, materials, and experiments to the specificity of the conditions of the field sites vs. applying the same tool in the same way across different sites. Adopting such an approach to doing collaborative research, however, is not about creating a shared language, or even coming to a consensus. Rather it is becoming familiar with another’s approach in such a way as to open lines of inquiry and guide future design directions. This approach is in line with that of Gatt and Ingold who state that designing environments for life is about giving directions rather than specifying endpoints (2013, 139).

Limits of Collaborative Research in Design Anthropology

Despite the advantages of collaborative research, participants (including researchers) often have a fixed idea of what collaboration is, how it should happen, when it should occur, and what the outcomes should be; expectations are high. As a result, a number of issues influence the limits and possibilities for design anthropology within collaborative research by group members. Limits can be attributed to a distrust of external peer judgements, management conditions influencing choices of research dissemination, and a flattening of evaluation measures of research outputs across the humanities and social sciences in favor of engineering sciences and technological solutions. Within such research contexts, university management should recognize the necessity for retaining spaces for individuality during collaborative activities, and a need for some connection to a disciplinary home for individual group members.

Making Futures

Understanding past failures of design anthropology practices is integral to making futures in design anthropology. In response to Suchman’s (2011) discussion of the limits of design, it is necessary for the future trajectory of design anthropology to question dominant conceptualizations of design as an agent of generalized positive, productive change. This could, for example, lead to questioning how design anthropology might relate to such instances when design as well as speculative imagination are tied up with ruination and irresistible abandonment (van Dam 2020). Van Dam’s research demonstrates that design anthropology must take seriously the idea of creative destruction vs. production. Of importance here is intentionality within the design process and how it does or does not necessarily fit with processes of engagement. It is also important within the experimental temporal places where transdisciplinary practices of design anthropology take place to reflect, as Harvey (2019) says, “on the relationship between the hybrid forum and more conventional ethnographic methods where researchers do not attempt to speak for the social but seek rather to extend their understanding of human sociality as a dynamic and intrinsically relational process.”

Anthropology as a discipline and its many sub-fields is undergoing transformation. There is a move towards a more collaborative inquiry and the need for anthropologists who have skills and capacities to work with, to, from, of, against, and on an ongoing future for the discipline.6 Collaboration however raises many methodological and ethical issues. As a mode of research inquiry, collaboration does not suit every researcher and there still remains resistance in some anthropology departments to anthropologists carrying out research collaboratively. That said, collaborative research practices are changing the meaning of research in anthropology. There is a growing need for involving the teaching of collaborative approaches within anthropology education connected to design anthropology to broaden anthropology. At issue here is developing methods to trace where and when anthropological concepts are generative and have affect during collaborative anthropological design processes. Such collaborative processes have the potential to extend beyond standard anthropological methodologies and methods.

Importantly, design anthropology offers the potential for realigning research processes within anthropology. This potential is possible by the way inquiry in design anthropology is grounded in ongoing engagement with a diversity of peoples who would normally be excluded from research processes in experimental and collaborative processes of future making. Future making is central to design anthropology (Akama, Pink, and Sumartojo 2018). The notion of future here, however, is not concerned with projection or progress models. Instead, future is considered a future past and the future present (Smith et al. 2016). Design anthropology is an opportunity for anthropology to explore and critically engage in processes of design and innovation using collaborative, future-oriented, reflexive, and experimental approaches (Gaspar 2018).

Design anthropology in Europe contributes to a variety of design disciplines. For example, architecture design (Vermeersch 2013); co-design (Halse et al. 2010); decolonizing design (Tunstall 2013); inclusive design (Annemans et al. 2012; Hartbay 2017); interaction design (Jensen 2005); industrial design (Ventura 2013); participatory design (Smith and Kjærsgaard 2015); landscape architecture design (Doherty 2016); service design (Prendville 2015); social design (Ventura and Bichard 2017); and transition design (Clausen and Gunn 2020). Further expansion of the field has resulted in greater specialization with differing methodologies, methods, and research outputs. In each of these specialist areas, researchers and practitioners draw upon theoretical resources from a diversity of sub-fields in anthropology and/or other disciplines depending upon the nature of the research and/or design inquiry they are pursuing. A tight coupling between theory and practice appears to be consistent in comparing across these specialist areas. Sub-fields are emerging within design anthropology such as architectural anthropology (Lucas 2020; Stender 2017) and engineering anthropology (Ewart 2013). Design anthropology also contributes to a number of established fields in anthropology including digital anthropology (Drazin 2012); business anthropology (Gregory 2018; Miller and Hitch 2018); urban anthropology (Jimenez 2014); environmental anthropology (Anusas and Ingold 2013; Berglund 2015); design studies (Pink, Osz, Raats, Lindgren, Fors 2020); and design history (Otto 2016; Garvey and Drazin 2016). Design anthropology continues to draw upon theories from many areas of anthropology, science of technology studies, and philosophy of science and technology depending on the line of inquiry. Theoretical and analytical frameworks are selected in accordance with the specificity of community of practice with whom the researcher is working, alongside researchers’ disciplinary backgrounds, methodological positionings, and previous training.

What Can People Do with Design Anthropology Skills, Competencies, and Knowledges?

Within the emerging field of design anthropology there are an increasing number of employment opportunities beyond academia and across different sectors, depending upon the educational background of the individual. Training in design anthropology can provide students with the methodological and conceptual tools to develop new approaches to making products, buildings, landscapes, and relationships. Research training in this field should be cross-sector, interdisciplinary, and international and involve ongoing collaboration with local communities. Such training will enhance employability in research and development departments, in architecture and landscape architecture companies, design and engineering consultancies, and government bodies focusing on social innovation, sustainability, and design. Impact of research in design anthropology will be increased through establishing links to national policies and research strategy concerning social innovation, sustainability, and design. These connections will require provision of concrete suggestions for applying research findings in the public and private sectors. Developing part-time educational opportunities in design anthropology could benefit practitioners working in both policy and practice in architecture and design and allied disciplines. Such opportunities will provide robust training and practical skills to formulate practices of future making. Close links to the public and private sectors can put students in much more competitive positions regarding future employment, enhance their capacity to transition between academia and non-academic environments, and lead to a unique set of academic and industrial skills.

Design anthropology practitioners are flexible to transition between academic and non-academic environments. Flexibility is one skill employers will continue to value in the future. In many employment contexts, a position will not necessarily be labeled with the title “design anthropologist.” However, the individual could craft a position towards contributing to design anthropology. Increasingly, there is a demand for online services within all sectors including education, public health, and healthcare. This demand will require individuals to focus on social aspects of emerging technologies and technology development. It could involve contributing to innovation and process modeling, information infrastructure, digital democracy, digital change management, public digitalization and cybersecurity, as well as business and management.

Due to the diversity of different kinds of designers and anthropologists, practitioners of design anthropology work in a variety of different roles in Europe depending upon their educational and work experience. In the public sector, they may work as a member of faculty, conducting research and teaching in a variety of university departments and/or schools of art, architecture, and design; in user and stakeholder engagement in development of digital infrastructure for local and national governments; for private companies and consultancies; in establishing independent, small- and medium-sized enterprises; and in grassroots and data-driven monitoring of public health and environmental issues for NGO’s.

Design Anthropology as Providing Foundations for an Unnamed Discipline

During 2014–2016, a group of university researchers and public and private sector partners with backgrounds in anthropology, art, architecture, design, engineering, and landscape architecture worked towards formulating an integrated program of research and training. Located in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe, they wanted to establish an entirely novel discipline at the confluence of anthropology, architecture, and design. Three key terms informed the development of the Making Futures: New Directions in Anthropology, Architecture, and Design (MFAAD) research and training program: sustainability, intravention, and communities of practice.7 The program was interdisciplinary and intersectoral and was established at the convergence of anthropology, architecture, and design. Addressing key challenges in the cultural, social, and ecological sectors, the five principal research and training objectives were:

The infrastructural conditions for making, building, and growing, in both urban and rural regions.

The implications of an intraventional approach to planning, construction, and land use.

The contribution of architectural design to improving food production and air quality.

How aesthetic judgements grounded in everyday experience engage with economic and managerial imperatives.

The development of sustainable citizenship through activism and education.

Equipped with this training, the group proposed that future practitioners will possess a unique combination of skills that will enable them to make vital contributions in both academic and non-academic sectors, ranging from environmental policy to urban planning, and from bioengineering to health care.

The initiative was founded on the realization that there were synergies across subject areas and a wider societal concern for a new kind of collaborative working. While firmly grounded in methodical scientific inquiry, this way of working needs to be answerable to European and indeed global societal challenges. These challenges call for responses that are innovative in conception, sustainable in implementation, and conducive to well-being in their effects. With regard to innovation, the proposition was to explore how the creative economy can be developed not just through business-led models but though expanding the scope of participatory citizenship. With regard to sustainability, research partners sought to build new relations with our environment that focus on long-term growth and co-existence rather than short-term profit and exploitation. And with regard to well-being, they looked for ways in which creative practice in architecture, design, and allied disciplines can promote healthier and more productive lives amongst those they affect. The futures to be made through this research program of training will be tied to specific collaborative practices, connecting current activity with possible trajectories of continuation.

The group anticipated that the MFAAD research and training program would lay the groundwork for a new but as yet nameless discipline that will not be confined to the academy but will equally be open to all concerned, in policy and practice, with the design and implementation of sustainable futures. MFAAD will educate the first generation of researchers in this emergent discipline by equipping them with training in every contributory field, from landscape architecture through social anthropology to product design, and by combining this training with practical, hands-on experience, both with partner organizations and through fieldwork.

The future of the field of design anthropology will be to support initiatives in research and training. Support will involve methodological and theoretical contributions, alongside designing of methods attuned to very different approaches, to designing at the convergence of anthropology, architecture, and design. Such an integral program of research and training advocates research and training that is interdisciplinary and intersectoral. Here the focus is on nurturing knowledge, creativity, and skills, and responsible innovation towards a sturdier economic, sustainable social and healthy society. Of central importance is the involvement of public/private partnerships, engaging universities, public and private sectors, local and international networks. Importantly, proximity to industry and companies is central to putting younger people in a much more competitive position when entering the job market. Future collaborations between universities and the public and private sectors will create sustainable growth, while at the same time raise awareness of the long-term benefits of such collaborations in the private and public sectors. Company partners have much to gain from such collaborations. They will provide entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises with robust training and a network to enable them to develop knowledge and practical skills to formulate progressive practices of future making, while promoting socially and environmentally sustainable business worldwide, consistent with the principles of active citizenship and sustainability.

Links to Digital Materials

Social media continues to play an important role in communicating research outputs of design anthropology in Europe through publications, European center activities, research projects, and networks with a design anthropology agenda.

Digital Publications
  • García Molina, Andrés, and Franziska Weidle. 2019. “Correspondence.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, January 21, 2019.
Research Centers
Related Research Projects in Europe

Knowing from the Inside project aimed to forge a synthesis at the confluence of anthropology, art, architecture, and design (2013–2018) and was funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant held by Professor Tim Ingold. The project host institution was the University of Aberdeen. The PEOPLE project was financed by the European Union (2016–2019). The project focuses on the imbalance between qualifications gained by humanities and social science students and skills expected from graduates by employers in industry. Results from the project pointed to a lack of practical experience among recent graduates of anthropology, which often diminishes their employability in the industry sector and contributes to high overall rates of unemployment among youth in the European Union. The project was coordinated by the Institute for Innovation and Development of the University of Ljubljana. A unique partnership was formed across four countries (Slovenia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Czech Republic) engaging higher education, research institutions, and industry partners. Central to their investigations was the idea that “people should become an indispensable part of industrial development processes.”

The Matters of Activity Project: Image Space Material, 2019–2025) focuses on the role of design that is emerging in the context of growing diversity and the continuous development of materials and visualization forms across over forty disciplines. The project host institution is Humboldt University of Berlin. In Europe, there are also a number of public and private sector collaborative research projects occurring in and across consultancies and companies led by social scientists and designers such as: ReD Associates, Stripe Partners, Point Blank International,, CoCreation.Loft, Antropologerne, Mundy & Anson, and Antropología 2.0. Due to issues of confidentiality, it is not always possible to publish information about this research and/or findings. Employees at these companies do write and contribute to conferences—for example, at the Why the World Needs Anthropologists (WWNA) conferences in Europe and/or internationally at Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conferences (EPIC), which is primarily a US-based conference.


Design Anthropology Network in Denmark, 2013–2015. The Research Network for Design Anthropology was a collaboration between the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Aarhus University, and the University of Southern Denmark. Applied Anthropology Network of the European Association of Social Anthropology (EASA) is the main European platform for practitioners and applied anthropologists and organizer of WWNA conferences (2013–ongoing). Meta Gorup and Dan Podjed are the main coordinators for WWNA (see Gorup and Podjed 2016). Laura Korčulanin and Verónica Reyero Meal (2018) report on the Sixth International Applied Anthropology Symposium in Lisbon, giving focus to “Anthropologists and Designers Co-Designing the Future.” Future Anthropologies Network is being established as an outcome of the work of the Anthropology at the Edge of the Future Lab held at the 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists EASA conference. The intention of the group is to collaborate through conceptualizing, debating, theorizing, and practicing an engaged anthropology that puts futures at the center of its agenda.

Courses in Design Anthropology
PhD Level

Design Anthropology of Borders. November 2018–January 2019. 7.5 ECTS. Research School for Swedish Anthropology, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, and Engaging Vulnerability Research Program, Department of Social Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University. The aim of the course is to provide an understanding of the anthropology of objects, sites, and spaces as borders and bordering processes through implying different ethnographic and design concepts and methods. Organized by Mahmoud Keshavarz and Shahram Khosravi.

PhD course in Design Anthropology. 2010. 8 ECTS. Sønderborg Participatory Innovation Research Centre (SPIRE), University of Southern Denmark, and the Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen. The aim of the course is to challenge conventional thinking regarding the nature of design and creativity, in a way that acknowledges the improvisatory skills and perceptual acuity of people. Organized by Wendy Gunn and Tim Ingold.

Further Reading

  • Anusas, Mike, and Tim Ingold. 2013. “Designing Environmental Relations from Opacity to Textility.” Design Issues 29 (4): 58–69.
  • Cantarella, Luke, Christine Hegel, and George E. Marcus. 2019. Ethnography by Design: Scenographic Experiments in Fieldwork. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Clark, Brendon. 2007. “Design as Socio-Political Navigation: A Performative Framework for Action Orientated Design.” PhD diss., University of Southern Denmark.
  • Gunn, Wendy, ed. 2009. Fieldnotes and Sketchbooks: Challenging the Boundaries between Descriptions and Processes of Describing. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
  • Gunn, Wendy, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, eds. 2013. Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Hald, Lene. 2018. “Photographic Design Anthropology: Becoming through Diffractive Image-Making and Entangled Visions in a Copenhagen Immigrant Youth Context.” PhD diss., KADK, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, Denmark.
  • Hallam, Elizabeth, and Tim Ingold, eds. 2007. Creativity and Cultural Improvisation (ASA Monographs 44). Oxford: Berg.
  • Harkness, Rachel. 2009. “Thinking, Building, Dwelling: Examining Earthships in Taos and Fife.” PhD diss., University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
  • Ingold, Tim. 2012. “Toward an Ecology of Materials.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 427–442.
  • Murphy, Keith M. 2015. Swedish Design: An Ethnography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Murphy, Keith M., and George E. Marcus. 2013. “Epilogue: Ethnography and Design, Ethnography in Design . . . Ethnography by Design.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 251–268. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Nicewonger, Todd E. 2014. “Anthropology and Design.” Oxford Bibliographies Online, August 26, 2014.
  • Rabinow, Paul, George E. Marcus, James D. Faubion, and Tobias Rees. 2009. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Singh, Abhigyan. 2019. “Conceptualizing Inter-Household Energy Exchanges: An Anthropology-through-Design Approach.” PhD diss., TU Delft, The Netherlands.
  • Smith, Rachel Charlotte. 2013. “Designing Cultural Futures: Design Anthropological Sites of Transformation.” PhD diss., University of Aarhus, Denmark.
  • Vangkilde, Kasper Tang. 2012. “Branding HUGO BOSS: An Anthropology of Creativity in Fashion.” PhD diss., University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
  • Wallace, Jamie. 2010. “Different Matters of Invention: Design Work as the Transformation of Dissimilar Design Artefacts.” PhD diss., University of Aarhus, Denmark.


  • Akama, Yoko, Sarah Pink, and Shanti Sumartojo. 2018. Uncertainty and Possibility: New Approaches to Future-Making in Design Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Anastassakis, Zoy. 2014. “Design and Anthropology: An Interdisciplinary Proposition.” In Diversity: Design/Humanities. Proceedings of Fourth International Forum of Design as a Process. Scientific Thematic Meeting of the Latin Network for the Development of Design Processes. Edited by Dijon de Moreas, Regina Álvares Dias, and Rosemary Bom Conselho Sales, 240–247. Brazil: Editora da Universidade do Estado de Minas Gerais.
  • Anderson, Ben. 2014. Encountering Affect: Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.
  • Annemans, Margo, Chantal van Audenhove, Hilde Vermolen, and Ann Heylighen. 2012. “Hospital Reality from a Lying Perspective: Exploring a Sensory Research Approach.” In Designing Inclusive Systems for Realworld Applications, edited by Patrick Langdon, John Clarkson, Peter Robinson, Jonathan Lazar, and Ann Heylighen, 3–12. London: Springer-Verlag.
  • Anusas, Mike. 2018. “Beyond Objects: An Anthropological Dialogue with Design.” PhD diss., University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
  • Anusas, Mike, and Rachel Harkness. 2016. “Different Presents in the Making.” In Design Anthropological Futures, edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjærsgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder, 55–70. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Arlandis, Alberto Altés. 2016. “Objective 2: Intraventions: Architecture from the Inside (WP2).” MFAAD: Making Futures: New Directions in Anthropology, Architecture and Design. Unpublished Marie Skłodowska ITN Research Proposal.
  • Arlandis, Alberto Altés, and Oren Lieberman, eds. 2013a. Intravention, Durations and Effects: Notes of Expansive Sites and Relational Architectures. Baunach, Germany: Spurbuchverlag.
  • Arlandis, Alberto Altés, and Oren Lieberman. 2013b. Immediate Architectural Interventions, Durations and Effects: Apparatuses, Things and People in the Making of the City and the World, edited by Staffan Lundgren, 119–121. Stockholm: Umeå School of Architecture.
  • Barad, Karen. 2003. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs 28 (3): 801–831.
  • Berglund, Eeva. 2015. “Time for Design Anthropology: Reflections from the Point of View of Environmental Change.” Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 40 (4): 29–36.
  • Buur, Jacob, and Ben Matthews. 2008. “Participatory Innovation.” International Journal of Innovation Management 12 (3): 255–273.
  • Clark, Brendon. 2013. “Generating ‘Publics’ through Design Research.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 199–215. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Clarke, Alison J. 2016. “Design for Development, ICSID and UNIDO: The Anthropological Turn in 1970s Design.” Special Issue Design Dispersed. Journal of Design History 29 (1): 43–57.
  • Clarke, Alison J. 2017. “Introduction. ” In Design Anthropology: Object Cultures in Transition, edited by Alison Clarke, xv–xxvi. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Clausen, Christian, and Wendy Gunn. 2015. “From the Social Shaping of Technology to the Staging of Temporary Spaces of Participatory Innovation: A Case of Participatory Innovation.” Science & Technology Studies [Special Issue on the Politics of Innovation for Environmental Sustainability: Celebrating the Contribution of Stewart Russell (1955–2011): Part II] 28 (1): 73–94.
  • Clausen, Christian, and Wendy Gunn. 2020. “Staging Participatory Innovation as Transition Design.” In Staging Collaborative Design and Innovation, edited by Christian Clausen. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
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  • 1. Returning to Karen Barad’s concept of agential realism, response-ability “is not about right response,” instead it is a matter of inviting, welcoming and enabling the response of the Other. That is, what is at issue is “response-ability-the ability to respond” (Barad in Kleinman 2012, 81).

  • 2. See initial publications defining the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen’s contribution to the development of design anthropology, in relation to the department’s research group on Culture, Creativity and Perception, by Tim Ingold (2007)

  • 3. The overall aim of the Designing Environments for Life program (2009–2010) was to establish the scope, relevance, and potential applicability of research in a field formed though the convergence of approaches not only in art and design, anthropology, and architecture but also in subjects ranging from archaeology to engineering, while also widening the discussion to include communities of practice beyond academia—including arts, design, and architectural practices, government and the public sector, business and industry, and environmental organizations (Ingold et al. 2010).

  • 4. Mike Anusas (University of Edinburgh) convened a panel Design Anthropology: Uniting Experience and Imagination in the Midst of Social and Material Transformation, 1-3 June 2018 at the conference Art, Materiality and Representation, which was jointly organized by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, the British Museum’s Department for Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and the Department of Anthropology at SOAS and held in the Clore Centre of the British Museum and the SOAS Paul Webley Wing of Senate House, London.

  • 5. Research is a research group in the Department of Architecture at KU Leuven University led by Professor Ann Heylighen. The group conduct design-oriented research related to the inclusion, interaction, fabrication, and expression of architecture, in areas including (health)care, heritage, smart cities, and digital fabrication. Several of the researchers draw upon design anthropology theory and practice to inform their research (see Annemans et al. 2012). During 2017, the author was awarded a Senior Research Fellowship from KU Leuven Research Council to collaborate with Professor Ann Heylighen (architecture) and Professor Dirk Saelens (building physics) on the research project: An Anthropological Inquiry by Design towards Improving Indoor Air Quality within Hospital Settings. During her fellowship, she designed a pilot study Combining Quantitative and Qualitative Methodologies and Methods in Data Collection of Air Quality (Measured and Perceived) within Hospital Healthcare Settings. Central issues underpinning this collaborative research were to (1) identify anthropological methodologies and theoretical concepts that would support architectural and engineering design concerned with improving indoor air quality in hospital settings; (2) define, describe, and discuss future forms of architectural and environmental engineering design practices that would support architectural design and future-making practices towards the improvement of indoor air quality in hospital settings; (3) describe the movement of scientific research into architectural and engineering design; and (4) explore experimental approaches to combining qualitative empirical materials and quantitative data in a collaborative research project involving interdisciplinary methodologies concerned with improving air qualities within hospital settings.

    The Emerging Technologies Research Lab, led by Professor Sarah Pink, has recently been successful in winning a number of prestigious research funding applications. The funding spans several interconnected areas: health and artificial intelligence, older age health care involving low technology, work automation, building construction, healthcare services, robotics in public spaces, and transport mobilities. Research areas are connected to future making as a shared theme. This involves methodological and theoretical research projects (for example, non-predictive futures, a current research collaboration with Warwick University in the UK). Integral to Research Lab’s overall aim is the theme of future health. In addition, Professor Pink has received prestigious awards, research funding, and joint university-wide research projects engaging with grand challenges (see, for example, her contribution to the Monash University Centre of Excellence on Artificial Intelligence and Society). The Emerging Technology Research Lab, which the author is affiliated to through her adjunct professorship at Monash University, is also connected with Centers of Excellence globally—for example, the Scandinavian network for Humanizing Technology, involving university partners in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.

  • 6. A comment made by Professor Nigel Rapport during his introduction to the symposium The Limits of Collaboration: Assessing Collaborative Research in Anthropology, University of St Andrews, September 11–12, 2015.

  • 7. The three key terms informing the proposal are explained in detail in Ingold (2016): “By sustainability we do not mean the maintenance of human environmental relations in a steady state, but rather the possibility for ways of life to carry on. The emphasis, thus, is not on the stability of outcomes but on the continuity of process. . . . By intravention we mean that the tasks of making, themselves unending, are inevitably carried on from within a nexus of social and material relations . . . Sustainable intravention, however, can only be carried on within communities of practice. This is a third key term of our proposal. It is within such communities, formed whenever people join in the common tasks of future making, that the necessary skills are developed and passed on from generation to generation.”