anthropology + design: laura forlano.

[This post is part of a series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design. This is our final post!]

LAURA FORLANO. writer and design researcher.



I’m an ethnographic time traveler. For much of the last 10 years, I’ve been studying the ways in which the use of communication technology enables emergent socio-cultural practices around working and living in cities. For example, I’m interested in peer-to-peer networking, bottom-up organizing, co-located online collaboration, user-driven social innovation and open source urbanism, to name just a few. I’ve watched teens use mobile phones in Tokyo, observed activists building Wi-Fi networks on rooftops in Berlin, interviewed freelancers in Starbucks cafes in New York, watched doctors use computers in operating rooms, tested iPhone applications for navigating college campuses, visited design studios in Barcelona, and hung out with hackers in Budapest.


I’m also an activist. I’m not satisfied with merely describing the lived experience of socio-technical change through writing. I’m critical of the metaphors that the mainstream media uses to frame discussions about the interplay between technology, culture, and cities. For example, “Smart Cities” are often described as productive, efficient, and innovative, a continuation of neo-liberal discourses around technology and the economy. I’m concerned about the kinds of values that we embed in socio-technical systems, the opportunities that we bring to life, but also the possibilities that we take away by making these choices.

And I’m a maker. Most often, I’m making something that involves people. A workshop, a research salon, a lecture series. I think that part of my learning to work as a design researcher is related to learning how to facilitate face-to-face, hands-on workshops. I’ve run at least seven design workshops in the past year in order to bring together different communities of scholars, practitioners, activists, and makers. For example, in one workshop for a health-focused summer program in Brooklyn, four small groups of teens created stakeholder maps, discussed the values associated with a specific health topic (e.g.,obesity or HIV), and prototyped ideas for new platforms, products, and services. One group wrote the lyrics to a song about future technologies that they might use at the dentist, another wrote the script for a play about HIV, another created a Lego model of community health services and, finally, another created a series of iPad wireframes for a new application.

Luckily, design is a field in which all of these identities–scholar, activist and maker–can coexist. In fact, I believe that all of these are necessary in order to combine a reflective and critical social science perspective with a future-oriented generative process that results in some kind of change in the world. This can sometimes be mistaken for a kind of technological determinism. Yet if you are asking critical questions along the way and have a keen sense of the values trade-offs that you are making, I am hopeful that it is possible to create new ways of knowing things, doing things, and making things that can contribute to the world.



Anthropology and design have been in dialogue for several decades, but one of the most obvious examples is in the human-centered (or user-centered) design research tradition. This tradition is based on empathy and primary research through field studies and qualitative interviews as a fundamental starting point for a design research project. Design, in this case, is not about the aesthetic qualities of a particular logo, product, service, or system but about its ability to serve user needs and develop solutions.

The shift toward a human-centered approach has been an important one for many companies attempting to innovate through the creation of new products and services. This approach was pioneered by anthropologists and sociologists working in the Bay Area at companies, such as Xerox PARC and IBM, in the 80s and 90s to design computer interfaces. More recently, companies such as Microsoft, Intel, and Yahoo! continue to employ social scientists, designers, as well as people with hybrid skill sets, such as interaction design, in order to conduct user research. Over the past two decades, many design consulting firms that originally focused on industrial design such as IDEO, frog design, and Smart Design have promoted the use of a human-centered approach based on design research. One of the main professional conferences that bring together practitioners and academics working in the field of user research is EPIC, now in its 10th year.

One thing that I think anthropologists might learn from design is the idea of creating a more generative form of critique that makes the project better. In design, a critique is not a peer review, it is a collaboration. I recently got peer review comments back from a design journal and was surprised at the level of engagement with the work in a very deep, helpful, generative and productive manner. Often, in my experience, peer review in the social sciences is more about defining a field by policing insiders and outsiders. A more generative conversation, starting with “Yes, and” rather than “But” could help all of us do better work. Also, in the model of a design critique, it is possible to guide the conversation to focus only on certain aspects of the work such as the style or the content or the process. Adopting and/or developing a design critique model in anthropology might be a productive and interesting direction.

Another thing that I think anthropologists might draw from design is experimentation with more collaborative ways of working in teams, from graduate school though faculty positions and professional practice. In graduate school, I did very few team projects for courses and, at the time, there were not any opportunities to participate in collaborative research projects in my department. In addition, there is a lot of emphasis on doing your own project, collecting your own data and writing it up on your own. Since becoming a faculty member in a design school, I’ve seen the many ways in which student teams collaborate successfully and, sometimes, unsuccessfully. It is always exciting to see students working together to achieve a common goal.

Designers would benefit from a more rigorous incorporation of theories of culture as well as a more in-depth understanding of ethnographic research methods. Finally, while anthropologists are skilled storytellers through text, photography, and film, designers are trained in visual storytelling that includes images, charts, graphs, and artifacts. Greater collaboration across literary and visual traditions would result in better storytelling in both fields.



The human-centered design tradition is already built considerably on anthropology through the appropriation of field research and ethnographic methods (to the dismay of many anthropologists!). But a deeper engagement between design and anthropology might allow anthropologists to explore broader implications of their work beyond the academy through exhibits, artifacts, and workshops that engage different communities.

Human “needs” have been the focus of design work for far too long and we are beginning to see the planetary limits of our unevenly distributed needs. It is important to go beyond the human-centered focus and towards a perspective in which it is possible to empathize with and see the world through the lens of other kinds of entities (e.g., objects, artifacts, animals, nature, and the environment). While there are many design frameworks that break up the world into discrete categories for observation, it is time that we consider hybrid categories as new ways of seeing. For example, what of the human-object and the animal-technology? I’ve tried to do this by introducing new terms by which to understand these hybrid categories. For example, in one project, after studying Wi-Fi networks, community activists and mobile workers in a range of settings were struggling with ways to describe socio-technical and spatial phenomenon. I created the term codescapes as a way of referring to technological and spatial things simultaneously.



I use design to engage with broader and different audiences beyond academic journals. One of the things that I learned from the Breakout! project is how difficult it is to engage the public on the streets of New York in spontaneous collaborative activities. The project was unique in that it was the only project in the The Architecture League of New York’s Towards the Sentient City exhibition that was specifically about people’s behavior and emergent forms of collaboration. The other projects were about the display of specific artifacts in the built or natural environment (e.g., garbage, plants, fish, street furniture).

In the codesign project about urban technology, my collaborator and I, along with the help of several graduate students at the Institute of Design, produced a visual “Designing Policy” toolkit. We introduced participants to the intersection of urban technology, values in design, and co-design methods. The toolkit was a prototype, a visual artifact that contains a theoretical argument and a methodological approach, as my colleague Stan Ruecker and his coauthor Alan Galey have argued here.

Since the social sciences are still primarily focused on the book or the journal article as the primary mode of dissemination, recognition, and publication, I have found that design offers a wide range of more visual modes such as exhibitions, artifacts, and workshops through which to engage communities. Lastly, I have found short articles and blog posts on scholarly blogs like Savage Minds, Culture Digitally, and Ethnography Matters to be an engaging and fast way of disseminating ideas and learning about relevant communities of practice.



Hackerspace Material Practices
Hackerspace Material Practices


It is difficult to be critical and descriptive as a scholar while at the same time generative and future-oriented as a maker, all along maintaining a strong sense of core values as an activist. Yet this is exactly what is needed in order to develop a methodology that more deeply combines design and anthropology. In many ways, these three different mindsets are at odds with one another: the analytical mind of a social scientist, the exploratory mind of an artist, and the action-oriented mind of an activist.

Our institutions, academic or otherwise, do not allow use to cross these boundaries easily. I think that designers could benefit from a deeper and more rigorous engagement in the context of their projects, but this does not necessarily need to be through conducting fieldwork with ethnographic observations and interviews. What is more important is that designers know how to combine different methodologies in order to answer their research questions. For example, they need to know how to use secondary data, how to understand broader shifts in society, how to derive design principles from a range of sources. That is important.

I draw a lot of inspiration from generative, future-oriented methods such as design fiction, critical design, and speculative design. These methods were pioneered by London-based designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby at the Royal College of Art in the 1990s. (For examples, see their new book Speculative Everything). These methods draw on critical traditions from art and architecture over the last century, such as surrealism and situationism, to use design as a means to ask questions, seek out alternative possible futures, and intervene in society through the creation of material artifacts.

While critical design has been criticized as elitist and apolitical, the purpose of these methods is to pose questions about alternative future possibilities, often in the form of dystopias. When you encounter critical design projects, your first reaction might be to laugh but you quickly encounter a sense of wonder, surprise, horror, or fear about the state of the human condition.


Design Policy Toolkit
Design Policy Toolkit


In my teaching, I encourage students to conduct fieldwork but I also believe that they can draw on their own experiences and still create very interesting work. By conducting ethnographic observations, they can become the creators and owners of their own data rather than believe that experts are the only people that can create knowledge.

But, overall, I’m more interested in fostering discussions of theory that allow my students to develop a more critical view of the world around them in order to inform their process of documenting, analyzing, and making. In order to design in and for a world of emerging technologies, it is necessary to be both skeptical and optimistic. By remaining skeptical, designers can be more aware of the ways in which sociopolitical values are embedded in design.

In my teaching, I encourage students to create artifacts that raise important questions around emerging technologies, such as cultured meat and networked objects. Some examples include a dynamic lighting system such as Philips Hue or a thermostat like Nest that is controlled by an iPhone application, commonly referred to as the ‘internet of things’ type projects. For the cultured meat project, my students created an event called “Meat Up: A Cultured Evening” that included a mini-exhibition of a series of artifacts where they asked participants to document their reactions in a small booklet and hosted a dinner party in order to spur conversation about cultured meat.


Designing Policy Mapping Exercise
Designing Policy Mapping Exercise



Laura Forlano is a writer, design researcher, and founder of Mobile Atelier. She is an Assistant Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Previously, she was a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2012-2013. Her research is focused on the intersection between emerging technologies, material practices, and the future of cities. She is co-editor with Marcus Foth, Christine Satchell and Martin Gibbs of From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement (MIT Press 2011). Forlano’s research and writing has been published in peer-reviewed journals including First Monday, The Information Society, Journal of Community Informatics, IEEE Pervasive Computing, Design Issues and Science and Public Policy. She has published chapters for books including editor Mark Shepard’s Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space (MIT Press 2011) and The Architecture League of New York’s Situated Technologies pamphlet series and is a regular contributor to their Urban Omnibus blog. She received her Ph.D. in communications from Columbia University.



Forlano, Laura. 2013. Digital Fabrication and Hybrid Materialities. Culture Digitally. December.

Forlano, Laura. 2013. Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design? Ethnography Matters. September.

Forlano, Laura. 2013. Making Waves: Wireless Technology and the Coproduction of Place. First Monday, Special Issue on “Media and the City.”

Foth, M. and Laura Forlano, Martin Gibbs and Christine Satchell. 2011. From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Forlano, Laura. 2009. WiFi Geographies: When Code Meets Place. The Information Society 25:1-9.

Forlano, Laura. 2009. Work and the Open Source City. Urban Omnibus, The Architecture League of New York. New York, NY. June.


Rachel Carmen Ceasar is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Medical Anthropology Program at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco. Her research focuses on contemporary Spain and Morocco as a lens through which we may come to understand how people deal with the aftermath of war and repression. For her next project, she will investigate the unmarked graves of Berber war corpses that remain in Spain today as a critical aspect of the historical and contemporary tensions between Spain, Morocco, and Berber Morocco.

One thought on “anthropology + design: laura forlano.

  1. Great, great piece. But if I had to pick out one point, it would be the following:

    “In design, a critique is not a peer review, it is a collaboration.”

    Shibata Tsunefumi, a Japanese creative director with whom I have had the pleasure of working, says that he is always waiting for that moment in a brainstorming session when someone says so shitara…(In that case….) and starts building on someone else’s idea.

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