Examining Cultural Need: Discussing Design Anthropology with Amélie Lamont

When we think of anthropologists we might be inclined to quickly lump them in with the archeologist set — perhaps a group of academics digging around dusty old spaces looking for clues to help better understand the people of the past and their lost cultures. And if we were limiting our scope purely to the anthropological field of study we might be pretty close to the mark. Yet, there is another profession that models itself after the work of anthropologists but has expanded the scope to include the field of design and how it affects culture(s) in the here and now. It’s not surprising then that this area of study and its practitioners are referred to as design anthropologists.

When I first found out that I would be speaking to Amélie Lamont, a NYC-based design anthropologist, I immediately hopped on the internet to find out what exactly this profession was all about. What I found was a group of people keenly interested in deeply understanding cultures (similar to an anthropologist), but intersecting that with questions of how design and technology impact those cultures, its people, and their use patterns.

If you’re thinking that sounds an awful lot like UX design you wouldn’t be that far off, but where design anthropology excels, in my mind, is in the inclusion of an anthropological framework in their studies. They draw from a rich toolbox of established anthropological practice that provides these designers with a broader understanding of individual design needs based on cultural norms, mores, and individual preferences.

During our discussion, Amélie and I covered a decent amount of territory regarding design anthropology as well as gender and racial gaps in the design industry.

I don’t think that there is a defined path that a designer would take to explore the area of design anthropology further. Even as we speak, it’s still being defined and molded.
~Amélie Lamont

The terms “design” and “anthropology” are not ones we hear used in conjunction with one another very often. For those of us who are unfamiliar with the term, can you describe the role of a design anthropologist?

I first learned of the term from design anthropologist Dori Tunstall and have been learning about and researching about it ever since. Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures and how they develop (past and present). And design is about using creative solutions to solve complex problems. The two don’t seem related at all, but when you define them, you start to realize just how related they are. Everything we use — from a fork to a computer to clothing, is designed. What are the implications of these designed items on human society? And what societal conclusions can we draw from those implications? That is where design anthropology centers its study.

Ultimately, Design anthropology focuses on better understanding human value systems. As designers, when you understand human value systems, then you can begin creating holistic solutions that directly impact your community.

So, a design anthropologist is concerned with understanding human value systems and civilizations (past and present) in order to create holistic design solutions. So, how does a design anthropologist differ from a traditional anthropologist, and what is the path a designer would take to explore this area further?

I don’t think that there is a defined path that a designer would take to explore the area of design anthropology further. Even as we speak, it’s still being defined and molded. When I first started researching, I reached out specifically to Dori to get some guidance. At the time she was teaching the first Design Anthropology master’s program (in the world) at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

The first step a designer could take is research to see if they can begin by taking a few anthropology courses. They could also ask their network (which is what I did) for recommendations/introductions. Design anthropologists seem rare, but I’ve been introduced to a few, just by asking more senior design friends.

It seems that much of what a design anthropologist does focuses on a deep understanding of people and the crafting of specific experiences for those audiences. Can you describe a typical scenario (and project type) in which a design anthropologist would be brought in to help?

A design anthropologist would be brought in to help a project that wanted to know how the end product would affect human culture and values. Honestly this should be the case for all projects, as anything designed by humans has the potential to impact human society. If we’re getting narrow, I’d say they’re most needed when it comes to digital products that directly affect social culture and values–like social media products.

We’re in a state of expansion (of the mind) in which the value of design is finally starting to be understood by people who are not necessarily involved in the field. What do you see as the biggest benefits of this role and the deeper nature of ethnographic study now employed in the design cycle?

The biggest benefit of this role is expanding minds even further. When I design, the first thing I think about are how what I’m creating will impact the people interacting with my designs.

Design (as implemented by humans) has the power to change lives and impact culture. Both good and bad design cause us to adapt, learn, and create new behaviors. As a designer, you shouldn’t overlook that kind of power and its affect on society-at-large.

Design anthropology is a growing field of study that has begun to take shape, becoming the subject of several books on the subject.

Let’s switch gears a bit. As a woman in design and tech, do you see the design profession becoming more diverse as respects gender, than say, it was 10 years ago when you were starting out?

Interestingly enough, when I was younger, I didn’t pay much attention to the level of diversity in the design industry. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much more aware. I’m seeing more women, but not seeing as many black / women color as I’d like to see.

Reaching out and engaging women in the design and development fields has become a major initiative for many organizations. In your opinion, what is the best way to introduce women to these fields and engage them?

We talk a lot about starting young and that’s definitely important. However, there are plenty of women right now who are interested in design and development. What happens is that there’s this intimidation they feel–“I don’t code / there aren’t people who look like me / I’ve heard too many horror stories.” All of those are valid fears, and I think that we’ll be hard-pressed to bring women, especially women of color, into design and development unless we can do more than just talk about safe spaces. We need to actually create safe spaces.

Are there platforms such as MeetUp or others that make it easier to build audiences and collaborators to increase awareness of issues and bring people together to make change?

I think Meetup.com is a great tool. I also love what people are doing with social media–especially Twitter. Many amazing movements we’ve seen recently have stemmed from the power of social media’s reach to connect people from all over. #OscarsSoWhite is a great example of this.

Additionally, there is a large push to diversify roles held in design leadership. What do you think can be done to help women to break through the glass ceiling of design leadership?

When I talk about diversity, I’m most interested in helping women of color, especially black women, break through the glass ceiling. There’s definitely a diversity issue for women, but consider that issue and now add being a racial minority to it. The discrimination increases immensely. The best way to make a crack in the ceiling of design leadership is to acknowledge that a huge bias exists. We need to talk about it. When we bring these uncomfortable issues to light, then we’ll have enough awareness to take action.

Designer Kristy Tillman has said that creating a seat at the table means you, “create opportunities you desire without asking for permission or waiting on an invitation.” As women, that’s really important to keep in mind. And as we create our own opportunities, we need to make sure we save a seat at the table for other women, as well.


Amélie Lamont is a product designer at a small startup who combines her love for user experience and design anthropology to make great products. She will be speaking more on design anthropology during her WebVisions Chicago talk, Design Anthropology 101.