How as anthropologists might we locate design ethnographically, as a critical and generative project? What does it mean to move from a discourse of design as a signifier that erases its own cultural, historical, and political specificity to an understanding of design as a modest contributor to collective efforts toward transformational change? In The Politics of the Artificial, design historian Victor Margolin (2002, 241) proposes that “if designers are going to realize the full potential of design thought, then they should also learn to analyze how the situations that frame design practice are themselves constructed” (see also Kalantidou and Fry 2014).

My own engagement with these questions began with the first conference on the participatory design of computer systems in 1990. Our aim was to introduce computer scientists to ideas of codesign emerging from the global (far) North, specifically Scandinavian collaborations between academic designers and trade unions. These initiatives acknowledged that while technical expertise might be necessary for the design of (in this case) computer systems, it was not sufficient. Rather, professional design expertise needed to find its place as one among other relevant knowledges. Now expanded to the wider premise that we are all designers (Manzini 2015, 1), this reopens the question of just what the role of the professional designer might be.

It is impossible for me to engage the keyword design (or its evil twin, innovation) without reference to a brilliant work of feminist economics titled The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), by J. K. Gibson- Graham (1996). Gibson and Graham remind us of the performative effects of words with initial capitals: Capitalism, in their case. It is in the disjuncture between the singularity of figures and their enacted multiplicities, Gibson-Graham suggest, that the interesting possibilities lie. This argument is not uniquely theirs, of course, but I think that they articulate it eloquently. I want to suggest that the same could hold for those of us who want to be engaged in a critical and also generative way with the figure of Design, allowing us to extricate ourselves from the extraordinarily repetitive terms that have been available for articulating practices and processes of change.

We need to attend to the ways in which the professionalization of Design in the last century has included a legacy of hegemonic claims to adjudicate the question of whose knowledges are relevant to our collective future-making. We might agree to reclaim the keyword design in order to refashion it, but we need to do that deliberately, with an eye to the tensions inherent in articulating projects in transformational change as “small d” design, without reproducing the supremacy of Design with that initial capital letter.

More specifically, we need to mark a set of historical tendencies in professional Design discourses that I take to be antithetical to the ethnographic, as well as to sustainable future-making:

1. grandiosity, or a tendency toward universal propositions and ambitions; 

2. progressivism, or the obdurate tendency to map trajectories of development from them, to us, to a new us;

3. parochialism, or the tendency to engage in conversations with each other, on behalf of everyone;

and finally,

4. politics as the constitutive outside, or the tendency to remain silent with respect to politics in favor of ethics and values, rather than seeing these as always already entangled.

In an essay for the Annual Review of Anthropology (Suchman 2011), I offered a reflection on my twenty years of intensive participant-observation in the design worlds of Silicon Valley from 1980 to 2000. I traced genealogies of American anthropology’s engagements with industry, both historically and in the trajectory that brought me, in 1979, to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) as the field site for an anthropology dissertation. I sketched the shifting identities, alliances, politics, and contradictions that defined my subsequent life at PARC. But, more importantly, I expressed the hope that I have contributed to the project of locating design ethnographically, articulating the need for anthropologists to challenge design’s authority and to refigure its place in processes and practices of transformational change.

In Designs for the Pluriverse, Arturo Escobar (2018) observes that the question of how we might render the insights of relationality into effective transformative forces is a key question for critical design studies. He also reminds us of the difference between progressive projects in alternative development and more radical initiatives in alternatives to development. With that question in mind, he turns to discourses of transition as a promising alternative to development—one based in a cosmopolitan localism that relies upon the political mobilization of relational worlds by communities and social movements in both the global North (with an emphasis on degrowth) and global South (with an emphasis on alternatives to development). He provides examples, including postdevelopment projects in Latin America based in indigenous struggles in alliance with wider social movements for social change.

For me, the uneasy question remains: Has design now displaced development as the dominant term for deliberative, transformational change? And to the extent that it has, what are the implications for our engagement, as ethnographers and activists, with the politics of this keyword? Why design, and what might be the alternatives to design, including the worldwide processes and projects of transition that this keyword might work to obscure?


Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.

Kalantidou, Eleni, and Tony Fry, eds. 2014. Design in the Borderlands. New York: Routledge.

Manzini, Ezio. 2015. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Translated by Rachel Coad. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Margolin, Victor. 2002. The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Suchman, Lucy. 2011. “Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 1–18.