Elizabeth Tunstall, known as Dori, had some wide-ranging career plans as a kid. She started out thinking it would be pretty cool to be an exobiological specialist for the Mars mission until she “realized that you had to actually join the military to become a NASA astronaut,” she says. “I'm not very good with dealing with authority, so that busted that idea.” She also considered becoming a neurosurgeon. Fortunately for the design world, she found she was more interested in understanding people through the external manifestations of who they are in terms of culture and design and language, rather than through the brain’s internal synapses. From there it was easy. Job title? Design anthropologist, exploring how the methods and products of design help define human culture.
“Becoming a design anthropologist captured what I most wanted to do in my imagination,” says Tunstall. “To use design as a bridge between the differences among people, helping communicate across different languages and around different ways of seeing things.”
Tunstall is an associate professor of design anthropology (as well as associate dean of learning and teaching in the faculty of design) at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. After studying anthropology at Bryn Mawr College and getting her PhD from Stanford University, she decided to get a little work experience before heading into teaching. At her first job defining user experience and strategy at Chicago-based E Lab, she undertook ethnographic anthropological research on everything from men’s grooming to community use of telecommunications. Next, she worked as an experience planner for Arc Worldwide, which handled the integrated services for Leo Burnett (or as she puts it, immersed herself in hardcore advertising and marketing).
When it felt like the right time for a return to academia, the adventure of moving to Australia to teach at Swinburne held tremendous appeal. Born in Columbia, South Carolina and raised in Indianapolis, Tunstall’s family is scattered across the United States, from Georgia to California. When she comes back for a visit, she says, “I’m all across the map just to see everybody.”
In the summer of 2015, she traveled to India, where she and 12 Indian students paired up with artisans producing traditional block-printed textiles in order to figure out how design anthropology fit within the local cultural context. Their goal for the four-week program was to expand the artists’ own knowledge and encourage them to branch out and take risks without disrupting their well-established and already effective design processes. The biggest challenge lay in the fact that the block printers had lots of ideas, but were too risk averse to implement them; since they supported their families with this centuries-old form of design, they were hesitant to deviate from proven ways of earning a living.
Tunstall says, “If you're too risky you might miss the market, which means you don't provide for your family. For us, the problem was: how do you structure participatory exercises to make an artisan’s internal thoughts explicit, so that he can negotiate for himself what it is he wants to do in terms of taking his ideas and making them real? How can we assist him in addressing his emotional concerns and fears, to get the inspiration and the clarity in his own decision making to become more innovative in his art?”
First, the students established systems that identified all the factors in the decision-making process: what cloth to use, what different printing blocks are available, what are the color options, what are the different products to apply the prints to, and what are the different patterns or layouts at hand? Next the students made two-inch sample squares, collaborating with the artisans to choose the colors, patterns, and materials, defining along the way what level of market risk it would represent to pursue each one.
The students then made a set of all the printed designs and presented it to the artisans in a beautiful box, designed as a kit to enable the block printers to work in teams. Now each artisan can use the kit to communicate his ideas in a tangible, visible form, allowing him to share his thought processes much more easily and visibly with his workers. The next step is to use the kit to develop unified collections instead of one-off pieces, that can be shown to retailers to expand the business further.
“To me,” says Tunstall, “this was an ideal design anthropology project, because it’s not about making some objects. In this case, the object was developing the tools for the artisans themselves to externalize their own design thought processes. We want to take the values of people's cultures and find a way to use design to support them so that others can engage with them and scale the work to another level. It's not about disruption. In many of the communities that we engage with, disruption has meant colonization.”
She feels that the shift towards focusing on social impact will encourage people from a wider spectrum of cultural and racial backgrounds to pursue design-related career paths. “As an African-American, if you’re intelligent, creative, and talented, your community expects you to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or teacher—one of the occupations the community feels it needs,” she says. “But design, in many examples, is the mark of exploitation. For instance, why are all the ads in black communities for cigarettes, alcohol, malt liquor, or $200 designer jeans? Why should designers use their creativity to support businesses that exploit their communities?” But as business models change and become more responsive and responsible to social conditions, diversity in design will flourish. Tunstall says, “As long as [the design world] is perceived as an art club, you know, just beautiful posters in a gallery, creative people in communities of color will find other venues of self expression and community empowerment. But they're more optimistic now in terms of the changes that are going on in design and how it resonates with their lives.”
Tunstall remains hopeful and excited about the diversification of design and the ways in which her work as a design anthropologist fosters this kind of ongoing dialog around non-disruptive change. “I've accomplished what I wanted to do,” she says. “I just didn't have to go to Mars to do it.”