One of the fundamental traits of humanity is our ability to design. As anthropologist Franz Boas wrote, “there are no peoples without religion or without art.” Yet it was not until the late 1600s that the word “designer” first came into use, thereafter classifying some humans as designers, and others not. But what are the criteria for this distinction? University degrees? Professional training? Is it impossible to design without such things?

While trained designers are instrumental to cultural progress, the sequestration of “users” from “designers” elevates designers to a position of power, allowing progress to be driven by designers rather than community members. This tends to exclude communities from involvement in the creation of their environments and to insulate designers from relevant cultural experience. To address this, Design Thinking proclaims the need to empathize with users. Empathy, however, is an ambiguous term that is often interpreted superficially, leading to myopic speculations about user experience.

Borrowing from elements of Human-Centered Design, Anthropology, and Cross-Cultural Communication, this toolkit proposes a more egalitarian model which embeds participatory activities directly into the Design Thinking process, allowing designers to fulfill their roles as the instigators of change while giving users a stake in cultural innovation.

How to Use This Toolkit

A Field Guide to Design Anthropology is an online thesis project by Russell Pinkston, Master of Art + Design candidate at North Carolina State University.