The History of Design Anthropology

Design anthropology is a form of applied anthropology that makes use of ethnographic methods. It is reflective, yet given its design-orientation, also deliberately and openly prescriptive. Moreover, design anthropology is adept at solving modern complex problems given its ability to understand the problem by conducting applied research which is framed out through the theory and scholarship of cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology (Wasson, 2016).

Early Design Anthropology

Design anthropology grows out of the confluence of the multiple disciplines which include design and anthropology but is by no means limited to them. This trend of blending disciplines seems to have arisen in its modern context the with information technology in the early 1990s as a result of the new challenges it presented. At that time, design consulting firms like IDEO, Fitch, and frog were starting to bridge industrial design and engineering. Similarly, larger research labs like Xerox PARC, Microsoft Research, and Bell Labs technologies had been bringing together communication designers, usability and human factors engineers with social scientists from anthropology, linguistics sociology, and psychology. The goal was to “understand how people thought machines worked, to understand the interactions between people and technology, and the reciprocal impact of organizations, practices, and technologies on one another” (Clarke, 2017).

Design Anthropology Matures

Building on those foundations of these earlier movements, pioneering design firm E-Lab helped to bring design anthropology into its own right by fostering a model of collaboration between designers and anthropologists, thereby bringing together design and ethnographic practice (Wasson & Metcalf, 2013). E-Lab is important because it fostered an equal partnership between research and design, with teams of roughly equal representation and influence, and ethnographic methods were the core of their research methods (Wasson, 2000).

Design Anthropology Today

This was important because before ethnography being used, cognitive psychology as the social science research model of choice (Norman, 1988). The problem with this previous model was that it mostly accounted for what the user was thinking, and often failed to understand the larger institutional and cultural contexts that the use was embedded in (Rick E., 1993). Furthermore, before the greater degree of equality between research (anthropology) and design that E-Lab promoted, anthropology was often just a complimentary practice to design or usability testing, as opposed to “informing design to re-framing social, cultural and environmental relations in both design and anthropology” (Kjærsgaard, 2011).

Learn More About Design Anthropology

To find out more about the benefits of bringing anthropology and design together to solve the toughest problems in business, check these links out on design anthropology, using contextual inquiry for design research and getting user experience (UX) adopted by leadership in a corporate environment.


Clarke, A. (2017). Design Anthropology: Object Cultures in Transition. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Kjærsgaard, M. (2011). Between the actual and the potential: the challenges of design anthropology (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Culture and Society, Section for 42 Anthropology and Ethnography, University of Aarhus).

Norman, D. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

Rick E., R. (1993). What to do with a Human Factor: A Manifesto of Sorts. American Center for Design Journal, 7, 63–73.

Wasson, C. (2000). Ethnography in the Field of Design. Human Organization, 59(4), 377–388.

Wasson, C. (2016). Design Anthropology. General Anthropology, 23(2), 1–11.

Wasson, C., & Metcalf, C. (2013). Bridging Disciplines and Sectors: An Industry-Academic Partnership in Design Anthropology. In W. Gunn, T. Otto, & R. Charlotte Smith, Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Originally published at Matt Artz.