Design and Temporality: Provocation

From the Series: Design and Temporality

Photo by Victor Garcia.

When it comes to design, we often think of engineers and experts, decorative objects and consumer goods, or architecture, aesthetics, and the arts—anything but anthropology. Type “anthropology of design” into a search engine, and you quickly head down a specialized and professionalized path: everyday engineering (Vinck 2003), design education, applied anthropology and design, or the uses of ethnography in diverse design practices. Emergent subfields are always intriguing, but before heading too far in that direction we might want to pause and broaden our view. Design, after all, can also return us to core concerns that have long driven anthropology, looking back into the discipline’s past while simultaneously providing a platform to think about possible future directions.

As a term, design (like culture) is deployed in divergent contexts; both indispensable and elusive, it is “full of incongruities, has innumerable manifestations, and lacks boundaries that give clarity and definition” (Hesketh 2005, 2). In everyday use, design simultaneously designates a thing (a blueprint, set of plans, or schematics), a process (a creative mode of imagination and innovation), and a field of practice or specialized expertise (industrial design, Web design, systems design, interior design, hair design, etc.). In this eclectic mix, it might seem challenging to discern any commonalities or connections, but let me try and tease out some potential points of convergence and lines of inquiry.

The concept of design points back to anthropology’s longstanding preoccupation with homo faber—the human that, in making things, fashions or fabricates cultural worlds while also shaping herself. These everyday arts of living are inextricably bound to our deep ethnographic engagement with material objects, commodities, spheres of circulation, and practices of consumption. Design gestures toward techne (see Boellstorff 2008): the sort of craft or art that allows us to leap from the here and now, taking the raw materials of the present and transforming them into something else (making, by means of design, models for an imagined and improved future). Design interventions come from different sources, from noted architects) to autoconstruction and vernacular improvisations. Anthropology’s most powerful contribution to the study of design is, I suggest, the turn away from experts and elites. Ethnography opens up analytic perspectives on designs for living and the making of the material world; no urban space, social context, or object is ever truly unplanned or devoid of design. The logic or aesthetics may not be immediately apparent, because commonplace design work often occurs out of sight or behind the scenes in habitual, ordinary, and everyday contexts. Indeed, this insight anticipates the recent critique of the fetish of innovation in high-tech capitalism.

The transmission of designs for living, the handing down or inheritance of ideas, images, modes of being, and material objects, is the ongoing work of cultural life writ large—contested, appropriated, sampled, hacked, and reworked in different contexts. Design, in this sense, is inevitably and inherently dialogic. It takes place in conversation with what has been crafted in the past, adding new layers or accretions through time (even in the case of modernist design, which was deeply motivated by strategies of erasure and historical rupture [Bissell 2015]).

In approaching design from an anthropological perspective, I offer a series of keywords intended to provide some provocative directions to explore. First, on the theme of temporality, I start with the question of delay. Design is always bound up with intentionality, that is, a more or less organized and planned effort to remake the present, which lays the groundwork (the architecture?) of the future. Visionary design can be anticipatory, avant-garde, or simply ahead of its time, but there is always the looming temporal gap between the ideal and its implementation. Foregrounding temporality opens up the social life of designs: how long it takes for schemes to leave the drawing board, what happens as they move in stages closer to realization or get revised, disrupted, and even derailed altogether.

Second, designs are always open to diversion. The intentions of designers are never sufficient to guarantee what might eventually result: designs are deflected, devoted to other purposes, or deconstructed. Here we might think of the Situationists’ détournement, the practice of bricolage, hijacking, or the performance of sapeurs. The gap between where things are conceived or made and where they eventually end up (and the inventive uses to which they may be put, in time) is precisely the space of the evocative ethnography of end users, which examines how objects are redeployed in unanticipated ways (see Turkle 2007).

Third, design is invariably haunted by the prospect of decay, especially with regard to the breakdown or disruption of complex systems, networks, and infrastructures. The future emerges from the ruins of the past, out of obsolete or outmoded objects, degraded and disused things, abandoned structures or spaces (see Stoler 2013; Gordillo 2014). Ruins open up a portal to the past, emphasizing the passage of time, but they also look forward to a future desolation that we know will inevitably occur but cannot yet foresee (Dillon 2011, 11).

Finally, much as we try to ignore or displace it, there is always the prospect of defeat: the failure of design, its incompletion, futility, or collapse. Breakdowns, making a shamble of things, bureaucratic involution, boondoggles, plans gone awry, systems collapse: from Baghdad to New Orleans (see Bissell 2008), we find striking rebukes to imperial ambitions and technocratic illusions of control. The ruins of Detroit find eerie echoes in Guy Tillim’s photographs of modernist remains in the Congo, not to mention the archaeology of socialist architecture— relics that seem hopelessly futuristic and yet oddly quaint (see Schube 2011), as if they look forward to a future already forgotten. We might decry or mourn the landscapes left behind by failures: utopias unrealized, zones abandoned, infrastructures unbuilt, or buildings falling apart. But in those environments, where most of the inhabitants of the globe actually live, we can also locate enduring resilience, restless energy, ad hoc improvisation, and the unruly desire to make the world anew, starting all over again.


Bissell, William Cunningham. 2008. “From Iraq to Katrina and Back: Bureaucratic Planning as Strategic Failure, Fiction, and Fantasy.” Sociology Compass 2, no. 5: 1431–61.

_____. 2015. “From ‘Progress’ to Post-colonial Relics: Modernist Architecture and Design in Africa.” In The Modernist World, edited by Stephen Ross and Allana C. Lindgren, 164–73. New York: Routledge.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Dillon, Brian, ed. 2011. Ruins. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gordillo, Gastón. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Heskett, John. 2005. Design: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schube, Inka, ed. 2011. Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

Stoler, Ann Laura, ed. 2013. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Turkle, Sherry, ed. 2007. Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Vinck, Dominique, ed. 2003. Everyday Engineering: An Ethnography of Design and Innovation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.