Design Anthropology as Bridge between Respectful Knowing and Making

Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall

Swinburne University of Technology


“Design translates values into tangible experiences. What are your values?” This is a question that Dori Tunstall, Associate Professor of Design Anthropology at Swinburne University of Technology asks the students who take her courses in the Design Anthropology Program. Marking the boundaries between respectful knowing and making, design anthropology lives across and within design’s desire to serve as a positive force in the universe by drawing attention across evolving human values, the making of environments, objects, communications, and interactions that express those values, and the experiences that give interpretation to those values and their meanings. But design must learn to tread respectfully in order to avoid becoming another colonizing practice. In this presentation, Dori Tunstall explores the teaching of design anthropology as a hybrid praxis of (1) critical anthropological and design theory, (2) anthropological and participatory design research methods, and (3) design studio and social systems making. She outlines eight principles of design anthropology as a decolonized practice that seeks to be respectful of different ways of knowing and making. The showcasing of projects completed by students in her Transcultural Aesthetics and Contemporary Design course marks the limitations and possibilities of the discipline as a bridge between respectful knowing and making.

Principles of Design Anthropology to be theorized and exemplified:

  • Value systems and cultures ought to be accepted as dynamic, not static. Each generation goes through the process of negotiating the elements that make up their value systems and cultures.
  • One ought to recognize the mutual borrowing that happens among value systems and cultures, and seek to mitigate or eliminate the unequal circumstances in which that borrowing takes place.
  • One must look simultaneously at what is expressed as that to be gained, lost, and created new in the recombination of value systems and cultures by a group of people.
  • One should seek to eliminate false distinctions between art, craft, and design in order to better recognize all culturally important forms of making as a way in which people make value systems tangible to themselves and others.
  • One ought to create processes that enable respectful dialogue and relational interactions such that everyone is able to contribute their expertise equally to the process of designing and those contributions are properly recognized and remunerated.
  • Projects should use design processes and artifacts to work with groups to shift hegemonic value systems that are detrimental to the holistic well-being of vulnerable groups, dominant groups, and their extended environments.
  • The ultimate criteria for success of any Design Anthropology engagement are the recognized creation of conditions of compassion among the participants in the project and in harmony with their wider environments. 

About the author

Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall is Associate Professor of Design Anthropology, Faculty of Design, and Associate Dean, Learning and Teaching, at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. She is responsible for the strategic planning of academic quality and curriculum innovation for over 2,200 students and 150 academic staff. Dori is passionate about civically-engaged design that creates politically informed and enfranchised people. She served as a director of AIGA’s Design for Democracy and is currently organizer of the U.S. National Design Policy Summit and Initiative. She consults regularly on the design policy efforts of the Australian Design Alliance. She has worked as a senior experience modeler at Sapient Corporation and senior experience planner at Arc Worldwide—a Publicis Company. She holds a PhD and MA in Anthropology from Stanford University and a BA in Anthropology from Bryn Mawr College.