Design and Temporality: Reaction

From the Series: Design and Temporality

Photo by Victor Garcia.

I have to say: I’m a little surprised at the direction this discussion has taken. I’ll stick to three main points.

First, much of the citational infrastructure that’s been drawn upon across all four contributions is composed of literature that implicates design without conceptually (or otherwise) engaging design itself. There also isn’t much recognition that anthropologists have been looking at design in its various forms for quite some time. In the subfield of design anthropology, for instance, three important volumes (Clarke 2010; Gunn and Donovan 2012; Gunn, Otto, and Smith 2013) have been published in recent years addressing the seductive, but also fraught, relationships that emerge when anthropology and design come together. The contributions in these volumes vary along many dimensions, but they collectively demonstrate the wide range of complexities inherent in examining design—and even doing design—from an anthropological point of view.

In a similar vein, there are many anthropologists working in industry and the nonprofit world—most prominently represented by EPIC (see also Cefkin 2009)—who are explicitly concerned with theorizing, critiquing, and transforming design in their everyday practice. Finally, a number of anthropologists have attempted to probe and conceptualize design in the context of wider ethnographic projects, including Lochlann Jain’s (2006) work on the intersection of law and product design, Natasha Dow Schüll’s (2012) exploration of the clash between gambling addiction and slot-machine and casino design, my own work (Murphy 2013, 2015) on the role of design in the development and maintenance of Swedish welfare politics, Lily Chumley’s (2016) study of art and design schools in contemporary China, and basically anything written by Lucy Suchman (2007, 2011). My point here is that we don’t need to repurpose literatures that are tangentially related to design—although, of course, they also matter—when the foundation for examining design anthropologically has already been laid.

Second, there is no coherent conceptualization of design in use across the four contributions. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that we all tend to see design from the point of view of our own fieldsites. If you work with fashion designers, design looks different than it does if you work with urban planners, architects, or industrial designers. Indeed, lots of different social actors claim to be doing design, from typographers to furniture designers to NASA engineers. In theory, it’s reasonable to assume that if all of our interlocutors are using the same term, then it’s fine for anthropologists to talk about design abstractly, as a portable phenomenon that manifests similarly in different contexts. The thing is, I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. There are certainly plenty of overlaps among various design disciplines, but (to state the obvious) there are also many more meaningful divergences. What this suggests, I think, is that if we are to develop a robust anthropological sense of design, we need to first think comparatively, to examine variously scaled design contexts alongside one another to see what matches and what doesn’t; what makes certain practices designerly and others not; what grants design prestige in one context but forecloses prestige in others; and so on. In other words, rather than assuming a universal-ish and transposable concept of design, we need to slow the analysis down, to think through carefully what design is or can be on a fundamental level.

In fairness, these contributions do try to get at the fundamentals of design. Samuel Shearer, for instance, describes design in terms of “practices that humans employ to arrange, engineer, fashion, create, mitigate, forestall, and imagine their near and distant futures.” William Bissell and Amelia Hassoun both invoke techne in their discussions; Claudia Gastrow sees design as “inherently about world-making,” while Brent Luvaas prefers conceiving it simply as “making.” All of these takes on design are undoubtedly right, but do they apply in every design-related context? What makes design different from (or a specification of) mere making or creativity; why is it not engineering or art or planning, and what actually counts as a world in the world-making that design is doing? My guess is that if we look for answers to these sorts of questions by examining how design manifests differently in specific social, cultural, political, and historical contexts before setting our priors too firmly, then we’ll be better equipped to more fully understand what design actually is and does in human worlds.

Case in point: many conceptual excavations of design are built around binary distinctions that are experientially resonant, but largely artificial. Across the preceding contributions, for instance, design is described as steered by expert elites, but also as democratized to include “everyone.” It’s characterized with overtly optimistic affect—“aspirational order,” “an age of active coproduction”—but also explicit pessimism—“decay,” “failure,” “inherently unequal.” It exists both in obviously designed things, like fashion, architecture, and technology, but also, almost ominously, “everywhere.” Relying on such polarized readings, swinging between two points while disregarding the shadowy space between them, compels us to choose a version of design before we fully apprehend the extent of the conceptual terrain we’re traversing.

Finally, this discussion of design and temporality is predominantly (though not entirely) attuned to the future, without giving much consideration either to what that implies or to other temporal frames. This raises the question: is design somehow more inherently about the future than other kinds of creation, production, or otherwise putting things (broadly defined) out into the world to be bought, sold, touched, and generally experienced at some point after their birth? That is to say, all forms of making, not just design, are at least a little about the future in that once things are made, their biographies commence. So what makes design’s particular future orientation significant? Moreover, could too strong an emphasis on design’s relation to the future prevent us from exploring how design relates to the past, the present, or to anachronistic formations of social order? In my own research, for example, I examine how the forms, discourses, and ideologies of Swedish design have remained remarkably prominent and consistent over many decades, continuously giving shape to a contemporary political world by explicitly echoing backwards through time (Murphy 2015). Both Melanie van der Hoorn (2009) and Krisztina Fehérváry (2013), in different ways, explore situations in which structures and styles originally designed for yesterday’s world are repurposed and resignified for today—sometimes when it seems as if they can’t, or even shouldn’t, be repurposed.

I started out by saying that I was surprised by this discussion, but I want to be more specific here: I’m surprised by the form it’s taken, and not by the fact that it’s happening. Anthropologists have for too long ignored design as a phenomenon sitting right in plain sight, choosing to examine a world of designed things while treating the designedness of those things as an unremarkable feature rather than a crucial modality through which humans build their social worlds (Murphy, forthcoming). Despite my critical quibbles above, I think this set of contributions furthers the development of a rich debate in anthropology about the position(s) of design in human life, and I hope that more voices will join in to help push our collective analysis in new directions.


Cefkin, Melissa, ed. 2009. Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations. New York: Berghahn.

Chumley, Lily. 2016. Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Clarke, Alison J., ed. 2010. Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Springer.

Fehérváry, Krisztina. 2013. Politics in Color and Concrete: Socialist Materialities and the Middle Class in Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gunn, Wendy, and Jared Donovan, ed. 2012. Design and Anthropology. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.

Gunn, Wendy, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, eds. 2013. Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury.

Jain, Sarah S. Lochlann. 2006. Injury: The Politics of Product Design and Safety Law in the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Murphy, Keith M. 2013. “A Cultural Geometry: Designing Political Things in Sweden.” American Ethnologist 40, no. 1: 118–31.

_____. 2015. Swedish Design: An Ethnography. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

_____. Forthcoming. “Design and Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology.

Schüll, Natasha Dow. 2012. Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Suchman, Lucy A. 2007. Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Action. 2nd edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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

van der Hoorn, Melanie. 2009. Indispensable Eyesores: An Anthropology of Undesired Buildings. New York: Berghahn.