Back to the Roots: On The Positive Feedback Between Design Thinking And The Anthropological Sciences

by | 14.7.2015

Along with some rare exceptions in the animal kingdom, we are the only designing species and thus this paper adopts the view that design, by definition is human- centered. In human society, those individuals especially gifted in the process of designing are more powerful then others with their ability to shape the future. With such an elevation in hierarchy comes narcissism, often marked by limited empathy and a thirst for recognition. In this text, design research is seen as a long overdue return to the needs and wants of the end-user. The anthropological sciences with their methodology and findings are seen as an antidote as they force the focus away from the design community and onto users. Conversely, design as a discipline produces culture and is thus an essential part of scientific scrutiny. This paper explores a positive feedback between four exemplary anthropological sciences-  preventative science, biological anthropology, evolutionary psychology and ethnology- and design thinking, a term used here not as a patented process but rather as the purposeful conceptualization and shaping of a given phenomenon. Primarily, the aim is providing a review of anthropology research relevant to designers. Additionally, various design projects from the department of Design and Product Management (DPM) at the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences using an anthropology-infused approach will be discussed. Before that, some commonalities between design thinking and evolutionary theory are explored.

paper originally written for and lectured at the summer cummulus conference »virtuous circle« at the politecnico milano from 3.–7. june 2015.



Ancestral Hominids have failed to evolve many defensive characteristics (Lorenz, 1964), but they have gone far beyond mere biology and produced the most sophisticated culture on earth. We are so good at reasoning on the basis of design from birth onward that it is very likely a genetically evolved adaptation (Wilson, 2011), and thus each one of us truly is a designer. Richard Dawkins developed the idea of the extended phenotype, according to which genes do not only control protein synthesis inside an organism’s body but also affect the organism’s environment through that organism’s behavior (Dawkins, 1982). The blueprint for the things we design – hand axes, houses and smartphones-   are never genetically anchored but the potential to shape existing matter into new forms and in new ways likely is. Dennis Dutton believes all forms of design including art are innate, speaks of the art Instinct and argues that the production and acquisition of aesthetic objects has brought our ancestors a survival advantage (Dutton, 2009).  At the dawn of speciation, Homo habilis developed the first artifacts, culture was synonymous with design and the designer was Promethean. For Homo habilis, which literally means “handy man” the trump card became the design and manufacture of tools, but this was surely not done on an individual level. Judging from the paleoanthropological and archaeological evidence, the archaic process of ideation, manufacture, distribution and communication of the first gadgets could only have happened through teamwork and a continuous feedback between “designers” and users (Mithen, 2005). In the beginning, design surely was participatory and sources open!

Design research- qualitative, quantitative or otherwise- has become an important part of the design process (Brown, 2008). It is also firmly established in the curriculum of many design schools (Bayazit, 2004). However, the feedback between scholarly theory and industrial practice could be deepened significantly. While academia is often accused of staying in an exclusive ivory tower, the creative industries are said to disregard evidence. The reason for designers’ resistance and skepticism to scientific fieldwork may be the current emphasis on deductive exploration (Müller, 2011). The marketing sciences tend to use such a top-down approach of going from the general to the specific; when a product is accepted, a given strategy is repeated, when not it is dropped. Why, designers ask, should they do such research, when marketers already do it better? Numbers and facts on consumers are important but not sufficient for explaining why a person becomes a customer or not (Madsbjerg & Rasmussen, 2014). Marketing-driven research is skewed in behalf of the seller, rather than user and in behalf of profit rather than progress. Ideally, the design process is exploratory and neither inductive, nor deductive but abductive.  John Chris Jones, one of the first design science thinkers defines the discipline of design as holistic, centered primarily on problem solving (Jones, 1970) and thus the basic steps of research in the anthropological sciences and design are similar. Any empirical insights concerning human action and motivation could be foundational for the design process and conversely design thinking could be studied by all kinds of anthropologists because only then does design return to being human-centered. Above all, the natural parameters provided by evolutionary theory could provide designers with a kind of matrix and it is this idea that we will turn to first.

Darwinian Design: Design Thinking and Evolutionary Theory

Evolutionary theory, showing us the mechanisms that led to a faulty present could readily be combined with design thinking for a change towards a more positive future but the marriage is not an easy one. Interdisciplinary, inherently optimistic and constructive, design thinking is a strong candidate for tackling some of societies’ wicked problems (Buchanan, 1992). Evolution as a concept is threatening because it is wrongly equated with genetic determinism implying an incapacity for change and thus- in the face of current issues- a dystopian future.  However, even at the very lowest level of complexity, organisms respond to a set of if (a certain environment)-then (a certain action) rules (Wilson, 2007). The evolutionary process is not teleological and, as Popper remarked, “the future is open”. “Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world,” he added (Popper, 1967). Theoretically, evolutionary theory would help designers understand why humans behave in manner x in situation x. On a practical level, designers could make truly human-centered decisions with an eye on likely outcome. If certain societal phenomena are unattractive, then the environments surrounding those phenomena have to be re-designed. In this vain, David Sloan Wilson’s The Neighborhood Project set out to “use evolution to change [his] city one block at a time” (Wilson, 2011). Together with his colleagues he surveyed four aspects related to pro-social behavior (prosociality) in his neighborhood.

Fig. 1: David Sloan Wilson uses evolutionary theory to understand and then improve his neighborhood. (Source of Image: Marris, 2011)

Design thinking, as opposed to designing refers to the specific methodology with a clear aim to foster creativity for problem solving (Brown, 2008). On a purely theoretical level, the three crucial steps of design thinking— generation, selection, and retention—are surprisingly similar to evolutionary theory (Thoring & Mueller, 2011). (1) Retention: In both biological evolution and design thinking, a pattern of information must first be stored and reproduced. For living things this is accomplished through inheritance and breeding. Ideas must be retained in the mind, written down, or otherwise recorded. A brainstorming session will have no outcome if ideas are not saved. In this vain, founder of IDEO, David Kelley liberally praises the post-it as a retention tool (Kelley &Kelley, 2013). (2) Generation: In order to create variation, and consequently innovation with the retained pattern, that pattern has to either mutate or recombine. Chromosomal crossover is an example of this in biological evolution and similarly ideas mutate and recombine. Whereas in nature toxics or radiation can cause mutations, books, films or teachers can cause mutations in the mind. In his groundbreaking work The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins first called such ideas memes and actually founded a new field of inquiry called memetics (Dawkins, 2006). (3) Selection: Nature is master of prototyping; the pattern of information that has been retained and recombined must be tested under changing environmental contexts. While the genotype represents the genetic information of an organism, natural and sexual selection happens on the level of phenotype, which is what is actually represented. In design thinking testing of assumptions is done repeatedly through prototyping (IDEO, 2008). To make an analogy to design thinking, a concept or idea would be the genotype, while a representation of such an idea like a prototype, could be described as the phenotype (Thoring & Mueller, 2011).

The designer must try and understand what is done and desired on the level of phenotype, and some of the best available theories to make sense of human mind and body are broadly the principles of natural and sexual selection (Miller, 2009). Artificial selection helps when trying to understand cultural evolution (Schermer, 2008). Products that impress aesthetically and functionally will likely be selected over others and sometimes first-to-market commodities mark a path dependency (Stack, 2003). In the department of (DPM), my courses Scientific Work 1, Scientific Work 3, Anthropology and Design and Ethnography: Design Research are taught using an evolutionary conception of human nature to produce and test any design decisions. Below, I will discuss some promising projects coming out of those classes.

Nudge: Design Thinking and Preventative Sciences

Recent research in various behavioral sciences (prevention science, cognitive psychology, neurology, experimental economics) is especially fruitful for designers as it shows that certain interventions can prevent many of the behavioral problems that trouble society. Indeed, it is now possible to positively influence the further evolution of cultural practices (Wilson et al., 2014). For example, at the British Behavioral Design Lab, a collaboration between Warwick Business School and the Design Council, scientific understanding of people is used to design better products, services and places (, accessed on 9/2/2015). Perhaps the most relevant for designers is the so-called nudge theory. The basic argument here is that non-forced compliance can be achieved at least as effective by positive reinforcement as by negative sanctions (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Let us imagine we are hungry and walk into a self-service cafeteria. If the slices of pizza are found immediately after the entrance and the salad bar at the very end before the cashier, we will likely not eat many greens. But, for a designer wanting to fight a rising trend in diabetes, the environment of the cafeteria could be restructured in a way to encourage eating more greens and less lard. Especially designers of services and social innovation – but also those of commodities- can thus become choice architects by shaping the situations in which people make choices (Thaler & Sunstein 2008). Of course marketers, advertisers and shop designers have been excellent choice architects for decades but their motivation has been on behalf of the seller. Designers could just as easily study human behavior and use choice architecture on behalf of the chooser. A Master student’s project of (DPM) called MOTUS was a designed catalogue page for a furniture company that wants to add children’s furniture as a new product line. The students decided to fight – although only two-dimensionally- rising child obesity rates by nudging children to use their rooms to be like kids: wild.

Fig 2: MOTUS: Nudging children to be wild! (Image Courtesy of Essl, Kanakov, Ronniger, Tschiderer, 2015)

We are not Modern: Design Thinking and Biological Anthropology 

From the research of paleoanthropology, primatology, archaeology and genetics we now know that the vast majority of our evolutionary history was tribal, nomadic and sustainable and thus radically different to life today (Diamond, 2005, Diamond, 2012, Wilson 2012). If we just paid attention, we would realize that we are often ill adjusted to the niche we have designed around ourselves for hundreds of thousands of years. The glitches in the interface between the Pleistocene brain and Modern times are called cognitive biases and they serve as reminders for the need for a more naturalist design research. To use an example, consumer (B) buys something because a respected other (A) belonging to a desirable tribe has bought it before. Indeed, it has been known for a long time that advertising is largely based on the bandwagon effect, according to which we behave in a certain way simply because others behave that way (Packard, 1957).  This effect can be a remarkable marketing strategy (Lindstrom, 2010), when celebrities – the Modern version of royalty – flaunt something material (Lindstrom, 2011). Nescafé did so well in part because George Clooney is shown sipping it and to the archaic brain Clooney is an alpha male stakeholder. Indeed, marketers have long exploited the tribal nature of people. Is it not time to work with that same nature but skew benefits towards end-users?

E. O. Wilson, father of sociobiology, argues that humans are one of only a handful of eusocial species ever to craze earth (Wilson, 2012). Eusociality is the highest, most complex level of societal organization consisting of factors such as many individuals caring for related and unrelated offspring, a multi- generational contract and a strong division of labor. The emerging picture of our eusocial species is one of radical egalitarianism and immense peer pressure often shown by displays of hive-mind (Boehm, 2012; Wilson, 2007). However, examples of the human species’ altruistic, pro-social behavior where the commons are   protected and governed are never random or archaic but always include design principles, as was shown by Nobel-prize winner Elinor Ostrom (Ostrom, 1990). Edward O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson elegantly sum up human social motivation:  “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary ” (Wilson & Wilson, 2007). Thus, Seth Godin’s observations that overlapping networks of collaboration and allegiance are not just from the distant past or exotic locations, but a driving force of game-changing innovation (Godin, 2008) are supported by science.

We don’t think modern: Design Thinking and Evolutionary Psychology

Named after the evolutionary psychologist, Dunbar’s Number describes the cognitive limit of people we can have meaningful and stable relations with (Barret et. al, 2002). Robin Dunbar has made extensive research with other like-minded scientists and he discovered groupings of 150 almost everywhere he looked. The few remaining hunter-gatherer societies tend to be 150 members strong as are the smallest autonomous military unit in ancient as well as modern armies.  The communes of the Hutterites and Mennonites, Amish-like sects of North America, divide when their numbers exceed 150. But, so do the offices of many modern corporations (Dunbar, 2010).  Dunbar and fellow researchers believe that this was the number of people the tribes of modern humans emigrating from Africa some 50, 000 years ago had. This is very significant considering that each and every one of us is a descendant of those people and there exist no descendants of genetic losers (Dunbar, 2010). People are tribal, we conglomerate and virtual meeting points such a Facebook are no exception to the workings of Dunbar’s number (Saad, 2011). According to a 2011 paper the average number Twitter users interact with is lies somewhere between 100 and 200 (Gonçalves, 2011).

Hominids living in small tribes of hunter-gatherers evolved a decision-making pattern for archaic- not modern- circumstances and if that pattern led to their survival then our heads hold a similar pattern to solve challenges today. Since cultural evolution has been much faster than biological evolution, however, our mental algorithms are often inapt for the travesties of modern life. Science writer Michael Shermer puts it this way:

What may seem like irrational behavior today may have actually been rational 100,000 years ago. Without an evolutionary perspective, the assumptions of Homo economicus—that “Economic Man” is rational, self-maximizing and efficient in making choices—make no sense (Schermer, 2008).

Sure, the designer has to design for the circumstances of the 21st century but he/she should never forget that the end user has an archaic mind. Long before the systematic evolutionary study of the human psyche began (Barkow et al., 1992), an evolutionary foundation to human behavior was predicted by Charles Darwin in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin, 1872). Evolutionary psychology now stands as an explanatory framework with the potential for understanding all psychological phenomena. The aim of this young discipline is to understand why humans do what they do and it has the following main tenets: (1) Our ancestors faced many dire challenges during our species’ evolutionary history and natural selection designed our ancestors’ neural circuits to solve them. (2) Only those ancestors that were able to solve problems passed their genes on and those genes were used to build more successful neural circuits. (3) Thus, our modern skulls literally house Stone Age minds. (4) Most of the activity in our minds is unconscious and hidden from us. (5) The mind is modular and different types of neural circuits are all specialized for solving different adaptive problems (Dunbar & Barrett, 2007).

Evolutionary psychology also claims that modern aesthetic sensibility is a product of natural selection of those ancestors who responded positively to the environment of their time (Buss 2005). Especially interesting for design is the so-called savanna hypothesis, arguing that a preference to the basic environmental clues of the distant past must still be present in modern minds (Barkow et al., 1992). This hypothesis has been verified in a very elegant study and modern humans do seem to prefer some environments to others universally (Balling & Falk, 1982). I consulted GP designpartners, based in Vienna on a park project using such evolutionary criteria in 2013. An unattractive piece of land was thus transformed into a naturally more appealing park (, [updated link: 11.7.2015]). It remains to be seen if the surrounding offices reported higher outputs from their human resource departments.

ottobock-park wien

Figure 3: Evolution of the Ottobock walking course park, Vienna, (Image Courtesy of GP designpartners and Mischa Erben, 2013)

Since designed products always appear in different environments, be it the display, the store or just the packaging, the environment in which an artifact is observed or handled must be extremely important (Heufler, 2004; Dutton, 2009). A master thesis project at (DPM) last year used the theory of evolutionary psychology regarding landscape perception and compared it with consumers’ reactions to and perceptions of commodities. The preference of humans towards landscapes and surroundings fit for their survival may thus be in line with the preference of products placed inside a somehow favorable surrounding. A preferred environment might in the long run secure more chance of survival and reproduction, and the resulting preference for that type of surrounding are cross-culturally universal (Dutton, 2009). Thus following evolutionary logic, it was assumed that objects will be judged as more attractive when presented in front of a harmonizing background. Following the premises of natural selection, harmony of objects and background might be unconsciously perceived as offering more security to the individual customer. Due to the pressures of sexual selection, individuals might prefer a harmonic product display because it may make them appear more desirable to the opposite sex. The hypotheses used to test the styling model -used by such companies as IKEA where commodities are displayed inside fake environments- were defined as follows: (1) The color or graphic variation of the surface and surrounding created for a specific target group is sufficient to change the perception of the product design and price significantly for the better, (2) styling of both surface and the surrounding together will have the most significant positive effect, and that (3) the surrounding will have a more significant effect on the perception of the product than the styling of the surface. Theses hypotheses were tested and verified in the actual showrooms of a large furniture house outside Salzburg by (1.) Displaying un-styled furniture in front of un-styled walls, (2.) Styled furniture in front of un-styled walls and (3.) Styled furniture in front of styled walls. On a fourth day, (4.) the showroom was displayed as un-orderly (Topic et al., 2014).

Fig. 4: Evolutionary Theory and Practice in Consumer Behavior. (Image Courtesy of Dinko Topic, 2014)

Runaway Consumerism: Design Thinking and Conspicuous Consumption

In the seminal The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorsten Veblen combined economics and Darwinian theory to explain why we conspicuously consume (Veblen, 2007). Once the basic human needs are satisfied -the argument goes- it makes sense to advertise the ability to consume over and beyond our share of resources. If biological signaling theory can explain the tail of the peacock or the antlers of the buck (Smith, 2003), than it can also explain a Porsche Cayenne or a handbag made by Louis Vuitton. What the consumer wants to advertise could likely be psychological traits of the “Big 5” (Miller, 2011). The resulting runaway consumerism seems to follow archaic patterns and its unholy alliance with planned obsolescence has detrimental environmental consequences (Miller, 2011; Slade, 2007; Chapman, 2005). Geographer and biologist Jared Diamond speaks of ecocide (Diamond, 2005).

Flaunting things that do not help- and often hinder- our chance of survival, can be explained by Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (Andersson, 1994). Evolutionary psychology has shown that we design ourselves and our surrounding not to be but in order to appear a certain way. Selection by mate choice is as ancient as sex itself and crucial for the “designing” process of nature (Miller, 2000). In the words of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller: “Sex became the foundation of almost all complex life because it was so good at both short-term damage limitation … and long-term innovation…”(Miller, 2012). In a pioneering study of products as fitness indicators, anthropologist Marek Kohn and archaeologist Stephen Mithen have independently come up with an extraordinary twist on sexual selection theory to account for the exact symmetry and razor-like edges of Paleolithic hand axes. Such hand axes varied little over vast temporal and geographical distances, were found in  (over)-abundance and often lacked signs of abrasion. Strange as it may seem, their functionality may have moved beyond cutlery and to signaling attraction of the user (Kohn & Mithen, 1999). Just like the owner of a flashy new smartphone, the Paleolithic population wanted to be seen with one of these gadgets (Kohn, 2000). A lot of purchasing decisions are made in order to “keep up with the Jones”; to conspicuously display what others display. Currently, a (DPM) Master student is analyzing selfies posted on Facebook in an attempt to see sex differences in consumer goods display. Her goal is to continue in the vain of the thesis of (Topic et al., 2014) mentioned above by exploring what in design makes a user be rated as more attractive. Finding some answers could certainly add to the growing literature on ecological design and instilling that something into commodities would be an easy sale.

Into the Field: Design Thinking and Ethnology 

Many indigenous cultures have disappeared and most craftsmanship has been industrialized. Yet, perhaps more than ever before, this globalized and disruptive post-Modern world has urban, visual, economic, corporate and cyber-anthropologists poring over new mysteries. Beyond all the data, ethnology also has validated and rigorous methods for gaining entry, conducting interviews and analyzing emic and etic information (Harris, 2001). Recommended by modern firms such as IDEO and méthos, obvious to ethnologists, the designer has to be – above all – empathic. In short: the designer has to become an ethnographer. Francis Müller, ethnologist in a Zürich-based design school laments that designers are still not spending enough rigorous time in the field observing and interviewing real people (Müller, 2011).

Thinking of design as a participatory, emphatic discipline calls for optimism (Brown, 2008) and reminds us that in many ways design thinking is social science thinking. One promising contribution to fieldwork is the cultural probe devised by design professor Bill Gaver, where a member of the target group is asked to actively participate in the research phase of a project (Gaver, 1999). A (DPM) master student spent three weeks living with the Maasai of rural Kenya to gain insights to their problems concerning water transportation. She employed culture probes using cheap, throwaway cameras in order to capture the day-to-day experiences of her subjects. Exemplary human-centered design research, but merely a helpful extension of participant observation, practiced almost a hundred years ago by the founding fathers of cultural anthropology Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas.

Figure 5: From Theory to Practice: Design Research in Kenya. (Image Courtesy of Isabel Steiner, 2014)

Conclusion and Outlook

Homo sapiens are without a doubt the species most sophisticated at niche construction since we deliberately change most aspects of our environment (Odling-Schmee et al., 2003) and design is as old as the species itself.  Today, design needs to return to being an inclusive undertaking for and with the end users. Human needs and wants leading to a willingness to purchase a designed object are based on emotions, instincts and cognitive biases, all of which are innate, evolutionary drivers and largely elusive to traditional market research. Before any successful empirical research can be done, the designer has to consult the lush findings of the anthropological sciences in order to see the larger patterns. Then, designers can go out, gain rapport and through participant observation become part of the myriad of different tribes. In order to positively shape the future, design has to move from being a selfish endeavor to an altruistic one and from an individual one to a tribal one. If design aspires to holism, then a qualitative field-based approach becomes mandatory. In short, the social sciences have known all along that good design can only possibly be human-centered. As far as anthropological science is concerned: What could be better than studying the process of humans giving birth to culture itself?

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