Teaching: Design Anthropology

A question was recently posted to the anthrodesign list about courses in design anthropology/ethnography, and people were quick to point out the growing number of postgraduate programmes including Design Ethnography at University of Dundee, Design Anthropology at University of Aberdeen, Design Anthropology at Swinburne University, and Culture, Materials and Design at University College London. But no one seemed to know of any undergraduate courses.

Since I’ll be teaching my second-year undergraduate course DSDN 283: Design Anthropology for the third time next term, and since it’s finally becoming the course I envisioned, I thought it might be a good time to post about it.

I work in a school with a rather artistic, exploratory and experimental approach to design, and teaching anthropology in this environment requires a different approach than what I was taught as an anthropologist, and from the more business- or industry-oriented approaches to ethnography that I’ve seen elsewhere. At its core, my introductory course uses design to understand social and cultural experience, and takes people’s everyday lives as inspiration for design.

Here are some snippets from the course outline:

Course synopsis

Anthropology can be defined as the study of similarities and differences between peoples of the world, or all the ways we make sense of ourselves, each other and the places in which we live, work and play. As designers work for—and with—a wide range of people around the world, the knowledge and skills of anthropology can be seen as increasingly relevant to a situated and adaptable practice. This course will explore how design shapes, and is shaped by, people’s cultural values and social practices, and help students use anthropological concepts and methods to enhance their design practice and understanding.

Aims of the course

Building on students’ previous studies of discursive, visual and material culture, this course introduces students to major themes from anthropology and their relevance to the understanding and practice of design. The primary aims of this course are to 1) ensure that students can critically and creatively assess the role that design and culture play in everyday life; and 2) enable students to use fieldwork and cross-cultural awareness to improve the quality of their designs.

Course content

This course’s exploration of design and culture will be framed by a number of scales and contexts, including individuals, social groups and cultures from different locations and points in history. Particular emphasis will be placed on what people believe, say, do and make.

Through theoretical concepts, cross-cultural examples, and field-based research methods, students will be introduced to the ways in which symbolic, visual and material culture both shape, and are shaped by, different people in different ways.

The required textbook for this course is Keri Smith‘s How To Be An Explorer of the World.

Course assignments

Project 1: Words

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, conduct library research, and submit a 2000-word essay.

Project 2: Images

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, and submit an original 10-image photo-essay, along with a 500-word curatorial statement.

Project 3: Objects

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, and submit an original design object, along with a 500-word curatorial statement.

Lectures, tutorials and projects are based around discursive, visual and material culture–all things that are familiar to design students but rarely presented in terms of everyday life or lived experience as the social sciences understand them. The choice to use Keri Smith’s workbook reflects my desire to present fieldwork as an integral practice that ethnographers and artists/designers already share–although my primary challenge remains to help students look outwards, to other people, with the same attention and skill they use to look inwards.

Using anthropological concepts to help students make sense of what they experience or find in the field is the distinguishing element of this course–a goal that I placed at the top of my agenda once I realised that my design students were often much better at conducting and documenting fieldwork than my sociology and anthropology students were, but they almost completely lacked the tools to make sense of it and apply it to the tasks they faced.

This approach is only one of many, but I’ve found it very helpful in preparing students for more advanced studies that require a firm knowledge of the cultural contexts of design, and in extending the range of jobs for which they are prepared, and in which they are interested.

It may also just be a personal preference–I did end up in a design school after all–but I often wish I had been exposed to these ways of doing anthropology and ethnography in my undergraduate years. And although I no longer refer to myself as an anthropologist, and highly doubt I will ever consider myself a designer, I certainly feel as though I’ve become a better social and cultural researcher because of my time with artists and designers, and now I get to do cool things like this upcoming workshop on object ethnographies. This course is my space to share with students what these experiences have been like for me.


  1. Adela Vangelisti
    25th June 2014

    I am serching for a Phd program in design anthropology online. I reside in Los Angeles, California, USA. Any recommendations? I have a Masters in Creativity and Innvoation.


  2. Elisenda
    22nd January 2015

    Thanks, it is very inspiring! I am conceiving an introductory course in Anthropology for Design for undergraduate students in Design and this is very helpful!