Design Education as Applied Anthropology

We seem to have reached a plateau in graphic design – the feeling that everything that could be “out there” already is. More alarming is the apparent devaluation of intellectual rigor (creativity) for technical know-how (software and hardware obsession). What is designed? Among other things, it is art, technique, commercial, expressive, experimental, subversive, selling out, problem solving, not art, activism. The question is innocuous enough. It is a visual artifact. It is clear, meaningful, at times beautiful, at times ugly, and at times appropriate for its intended audience, at times self-indulgent. But it can be much more.

As a design educator, foremost on my mind is inspiring my students to believe in the efficacy of what they do when mediocrity and cultural regression are the norm. I ask: What can graphic design still be? How distant are we from its edges? Have we reached the end of the journey? Are we at the pinnacle? During the past three years, I have been actively searching for a method of teaching design that will help my students establish connections/discover pathways that lead to an understanding of the humanistic considerations that makes their work relevant, meaningful, and socially responsive. How can formal concerns typically associated with graphic design be seamlessly merged with theory, practice, history, research, and writing?

To re-emphasizing the humanistic forays that constitute a large portion of undergraduate experience, I look to Applied Anthropology as a model for teaching graphic design holistically. Lukewarm outlooks among students these days about the prospect of becoming graphic designers means that it is absolutely essential to discuss design as a “human relations” study (per Marvin Harris’ Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed.). Cultural anthropology, by definition, is a means to describe culture (the way a people live, what they believe, how they act, etc.). Applied Anthropology, a subset of Cultural Anthropology, generally aims to put research into practice. Success rests upon a trio of principles that one must adhere to:

1. Avoid ethnocentrism (the belief that one’s culture is superior) and Western bias. Making a point of not imposing one’s preferences or beliefs upon a culture or society.
2. Be holistic. Avoid acting upon decisions based on the easiest, most quickly verifiable and quantifiable information. Consider what other variables might be at work.
3. Pay attention to etics (a native’s perception of a given structure/environment) and emics (an observer’s perception of a given structure/environment).

When applied to design, the above principles lead us to consider:

1. personal taste, formal exploration/process,
2. context (Who are we designing for? Where will it be used?), and
3. appropriateness (How will a non-native interpret a design? How will a native of the environment that hosts the design interpret that same artifact?)

Design education for me is an opportunity to connect with the world in a variety of ways. My goal is to exploit a potential – to reveal how an anthropological perspective might be used to raise the potency and relevance of design. Anthropology is our history, our evolution, and our relationships. Its global nature allows us to view the space we occupy in culture broadly. I’m not proposing a creativity-eschewing, scientific study that has us spinning our wheels (though I’ll admit I’m fascinated by the objectivity it offers). I’m interested in developing a practical method that accounts for our propensities as creative individuals but also facilitates our putting those to use in appropriate ways.

This is a difficult time for educators. How do we contribute positively to our student’s creative lives given the questions our current economy raises about the value of our profession and given the limits it imposes upon what we ought to teach our students? I see the above as a preliminary step and welcome your comments and suggestions. Adopting such an approach will no doubt alter curriculum structure as well as the tenor and content of discussions at critiques. A lot has already been said about designed objects. I’d be interested to hear more about the intellectual life lived by designers which leads to what Tony refers to as “refined generative processes”. If we wish to underscore the multidisciplinary nature of design, looking at Applied Anthropology might be one way of ensuring that the journey continues to be an exciting and enlightening one.

Thanks much!
Anthony Inciong
Specialist Professor, Graphic Design
Monmouth University, Dept of Art & Design

posted by Anthony Inciong on March 15, 2004 | comments: 2 | post a comment

Perspective is an amazing thing.

I think one can see 'design' activities on the decline only when judged from a relatively small slice of the pie. If we see design as a larger process outside of the confines of a very small cadre of academics in the last 20 years, there is still all kinds of potential for things to open up in teaching and in our own work.

That cadre at best only touched on a very small handful of people as audience(my purpose is not to denigrate anyone's position here but to point out that there never was a 'high point' when gauged with the majority of design production in the world at large, or even the idea of a larger sense of cultural production).

The end of the 'golden age' or whatever that Anthony points to is an opportunity to re-invent ourselves. This is always no small task, but in the long run it is probably the most productive thing to any cultural production.

This is opportunity of a sort that is more beneficial than following in anyone's footsteps or program.

Scary? You bet- especially those of you who are in the academic line of the business and are not tenured yet.

But on the other hand (speaking from my experience) it also is a fascinating place to work from, both in teaching and in whatever you define as your work or research.

Posted by S. Townsend on March 25, 2004 04:43 PM

Hi, my names olli im currantly studying graphic communication at uwic.

Preparing for my dissertation would it be possible for me to ask you a few questions concerning your article in emigre no.67, 'tuning up'
Im looking at the subject education vs training, and how courses aim to prepare students for the professional world.

this would be a great help,

thanks for your time.

Posted by oliver nute on August 30, 2005 07:56 AM