The Origins of “Design Thinking” and “Design Ethnography”: A Few Notes Toward a History (for educators)

Four tentative propositions — that I think are problematic (because they suggest the historical roots of design ethnography are shallow) - provide the starting point for this post: (1) As an approach to applying ethnography in business, the label “design ethnography” gained currency at around the same time that “design thinking” was starting to describe a specifically “West Coast” approach to doing design; (2) 2005 was a pivotal year for both “design ethnography” and “design thinking”; (3) The events of 2005, although largely independent, were mostly complementary and compatible; and (4) — here is the kicker, ouch! — Much (perhaps all) that a student might want to learn to get started in design ethnography has been written — or otherwise given expression— in the last decade.

Addressing that fourth proposition (and why I think it is an error) is the objective of this post.

That concludes the 60 second version. It is a little too brief for the topic. I hope you choose to go forward.

The longer version

The next section provides some circumstantial evidence that the first three propositions above are not without a grain of truth. The final section argues that, nonetheless, a deeper historical appreciation of “design ethnography” might make a significant difference in how the field is taught, and practiced. Indeed, it might even improve both.

Some Circumstantial Evidence for Design Ethnography as a 21st Century Event

Let’s bulk up the four propositions offered above.

Propositions (1) and (2) — 2005 marks the year when David Kelley helped launch the d.school at Stanford University. The d.school quickly put an academic stamp on an approach to “design thinking” — epitomized by the widely shared d.school Bootcamp Bootleg — that David and Tom Kelley developed during the 1980s and 1990s at their firm IDEO. In both the academic and business realm, the Kelley approach to “design thinking” would quickly gain very broad emulation and recognition, most recently through the emergence of IDEO itself as a force for bringing design thinking to the masses. The power of the IDEO brand probably also has some relationship to the emergence of San Francisco as the innovation capital of the world.

2005 also marks the year that the anthropologist ken anderson helped launch the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (E.P.I.C.). Before he joined INTEL, ken anderson co-authored one of the first papers to refer to “design ethnography” in the title. E.P.I.C. quickly emerged as the dynamic focus of a new generation of anthropologists employed or seeking employment in private industry, without a foothold in academia.

Proposition (3) — The emergence of the distinctive IDEO / d.school approach to “design thinking” cannot be directly attributed to anthropological ethnographers — even though the Kelley brothers give anthropologists explicit credit as their sources of inspiration. There is of course a much about “design thinking” that anthropologists never articulated, or even imagined —which is precisely why “design thinking” revolutionizes the way ethnography is brought to fruition. And there is a lot of anthropology that is missing as well, particularly its critical edges. That said, anyone familiar with anthropological ethnography will experience a profound sense of deja vu as they read the Kelley’s writings on design thinking.

A Blog is a better place for making tentative guesses rather than sharing mature analyses, but it seems fairly clear that there was no direct causal link between the emergence of the IDEO / d.school brand, and the emergence of E.P.I.C. Their shared birth year of 2005 is accidental. Neither was the inspiration for the other. They have distinct histories.

Consider, for one thing, that the d. word is absent from the E.P.I.C. acronym. The focus is on ethnographic practice, not design thinking. It is not E.D.I.C. And as we have already noted, the anthropological feel of IDEO inspired “design thinking” does not make it genuinely anthropological. They differ in other ways: E.P.I.C. has a comparatively weak corporate epicenter (INTEL is prominent, but not in the manner of IDEO). E.P.I.C. cannot be described as “West Coast.” Lastly, E.P.I.C. has no academic hearthstone comparable to the d.school.

Proposition (4) — Much of the buzz surrounding “design thinking” - and most of the broadening opportunities for “design ethnography” — is a product of the last decade. And those opportunities, and the concepts that give them shape, are not evenly distributed around the world. Anyone in the general gravitational field of San Francisco could be forgiven for believing that they at the center of the Design Universe and nothing beyond Nevada really matters (I do not, as it happens, agree with this — to understand why, consider simply SCAD).

Just so, anyone new to practicing anthropology might be forgiven for focusing on E.P.I.C. — and overlooking the Society for Applied Anthropology, and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (ah, contentious words! This belongs in a different post, but there was a reason why N.A.P.A. emerged even though the S.f.A.A. already existed, and the same logic holds for the later emergence of E.P.I.C. With each new association, we move to a new generation, penetrate deeper into the private sector, and depart farther from the traditional concept of an academia society. Indeed, E.P.I.C. is less a association and more an annual meeting. It is something of an ethnographer’s Burning Man [okay, that may be a little bit of hyperbole]).

Welcome to design ethnography!

Welcome to the 21st century!

Welcome to San Francisco!

Is it not plausible that we can teach Design Ethnography by simply mixing together E.P.I.C. on the one hand, and the IDEO / d.school tradition on the other? And given the rich and plentiful writings today on design concepts, is there really any need to make any reference to what came before the year 2000?

Some Problems with 21st Century Presentism in the Teaching of Design

Let’s start by admitting that the characterization (or caricature) sketched above might have some problems. It is a questionable sketch, first, because it relies on a characteristically American — and perhaps more precisely Californian— indifference to history. California is where the future happens, and the past is simply over.

The importance of California is not in dispute. But, it is also true that the Bauhaus revolution in design was underway in Germany by 1922, and soon reached the United States with the Central European intellectual diaspora that followed the rise of Nazism. Design schools in the eastern United States, with deep genealogies stretching to the 1930s, will quite reasonably scoff at a history that drops the entire twentieth century, and everything east of the Mississippi, from view. Then again, it is something of a stretch — so far as I now know — to propose a close relationship between Bauhaus design and anthropology or ethnography.

However, even if we ignore these early 20th century roots — which are unfathomably antique from an American perspective — we might still be faulted for ignoring the rise of the “participatory design” movement in Northwestern Europe, and the critical influence of Victor Papanek during the 1970s. Design ethnography rooted in participatory design emerged, as a result, at the juncture of anthropology and design in Scandinavia decades before it was ever imagined in America. And it had both a social conscience and a critical edge. That critical edge is all too lacking on the optimistic West Coast.

Lastly, even if we stay on American (British) soil, and stick to anthropological ethnographers trained in the social-cultural tradition, there is of course good reason not to doubt that at eLab and PARC much that is today known as “design ethnography” first found its form in the 1980s and 1990s. Design ethnography is as old, at least, as humans interacting with computers.

Why reach toward a deeper history of design?

There are, I think, excellent arguments in support of reaching back before the year 2000 to trace prior encounters between design and social thinking — for that, really, is what design ethnography amounts to — and the reason is that in failing to do so we simultaneously impoverish our sense of the possible, and diminish our awareness of the many truly wicked challenges that remain entirely unmet. Designers have not, to date, come anywhere near to either provisioning nor shaping a sustainable, equitable, open, and inclusive global society. There would be no reason for Papanek to be any more optimistic today than four decades ago. Indeed, we seem perilously close, at present, to revisiting an authoritarianism very much similar to that which marked the decade of the 1930s. It is only by reaching wider, and digging deeper, that a critical awareness of what there is to be done emerges.

A very short annotated bibliography (some require library access)

I have scattered links to online sources throughout this post. The very brief bibliography that follows lists a few sources that are important to the questions addressed. There is some futility in posting a bibliography to a Blog because many readers will lack access to online academic library materials, and some of these readings are very hard to access otherwise.

  1. When did “design thinking” first appear in the literature?

Even with powerful search engines, the results here are open to revision. But it appears that it is only in the years after 2005 that “design thinking” really surfaces as a theme in the business press — enveloped in the sparkle of the new. The IDEO approach hit the business journals with the piece by Tim Brown in 2008, when references to “design thinking” were already accelerating (two examples are given):

Brown, T. (2008). Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86(6), 84–92.

Dunne, D., & Martin, R. (2006). Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion. Academy Of Management Learning & Education, 5(4), 512–523. doi:10.5465/AMLE.2006.23473212

Nussbaum says design thinking must be integral part of business. (2007). Design Week, 22(27), 4.

The IDEO approach hit the business trade book press a little earlier (and in this work Kelley gives priority to the contribution of “The Anthropologist” as a creative persona:

Kelley, T., & Littman, J. (2001). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, America’s leading design firm. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

2. When did “design ethnography” first appear in the literature?

This is an even question harder to answer, because much of the literature falls into the nearly gray zone that is outside of the major journals. One of the earliest pieces where the key-words appear in the title was co-authored by ken anderson (when Salvador and Bell, but not Anderson, were at INTEL). One of the best historical discussions is the review by Christine Wasson.

Salvador, Tony, Genevieve Bell, and Ken Anderson (1999) “Design Ethnography” Design Management Journal 10(4):35–43.

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

3. Beyond America: Participatory Design and Design Anthropology in Europe since 1970

One of the books that sold me on the concept of a design anthropology is Victor Papanek’s classic 1973 critique of the design profession: Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (it has been reissued in a second revised edition). This book — and the tradition of European design anthropology — has a sharper critical edge and a more counterfactual stance to industrial society than any other area of the field. It brings together many issues that will restore your anthropological spirit.

There is now a wealth of recent academic publications that combine participatory design in the northern European tradition with an emerging “design anthropology” — you can get a good start with the 2013 collection Design Anthropology (edited by Ton Otto, Wendy Gunn, and Rachel Charlotte Smith — there are actually two collections bearing that title, with overlapping editors, whose content is nonetheless differerent).