Collaborating with Anthropologists to Emphasize Core Competencies in Industrial Design Education
John F. McClusky and Charles N. Darrah, San Jose State University
This paper explores the process and outcomes of using the discipline of anthropology to enhance core competencies in industrial design. It is grounded not in the lofty goals of combining disciplines, but rather in practical problem solving by two practitioners. Specifically, cultural anthropologist Chuck Darrah had conducted extensive ethnographic research in the Silicon Valley region of northern California, work that often provoked indications of interest by designers. Yet as interesting as the ethnographic data might have been, how it would inform designers addressing specific problems remained uncertain and the “hand off” of data to designer was never smooth. If indeed it occurred, he found that he had little say in how the information was interpreted or utilized design implementation. Industrial designer John McClusky encountered complementary difficulties since he first had integrated research into his design process during previous work with anthropologists at Xerox. Specifically, he found that the research findings often failed to provide a deep and broad understanding of consumers’ assumptions and values that his designs were required to address.
McClusky and Darrah had attempted to resolve these shortcomings, initially by learning more about the other’s discipline. Yet such “lite” approaches to anthropology or design are fraught with peril, and although they increased our sensitivity as connoisseurs of the other’s expertise, they were no substitute for being skilled practitioners. Accordingly, we effectively returned to our respective disciplines, but with a renewed commitment to test the fit of our skills and knowledge in the context of practical problem solving. Darrah sought to be an anthropologist, albeit one who was sensitive to how designers approached their practice and who could frame his research in ways that supported it. McClusky sought to be a designer, but one who constantly tested concepts and images against the brute facts of how real people lived their lives and how they aspired to alter those lives. Ironically, our starting point had been to narrow the gap between ethnography and design, but to do so we discovered we had to fully understand our differences and the tension that sometimes resulted in order create the desired synthesis. The result has been tentative steps toward a synthesis that is fundamentally social and collaborative. Not located either in ethnography or design, but in our shifting roles in a dynamic problem space that brings together research and design.
This paper provides one perspective on the relationship between anthropology and design, and the way two practitioners, a cultural anthropologist and an industrial designer, have attempted to synthesize them. Significantly, this synthesis has occurred in an educational context dedicated to preparing designers as practitioners who are well rounded problem solvers who can develop actual products. Accordingly, the story this paper tells is one grounded in dialectic between our own professional practices as anthropologist and designer, and as educators who regularly work with students who desire the skills that will make them employable.