On Design, Management & Anthropology

I recall some early conversations I’ve had last year with the President of the Zollverein School, Prof. Ralph Bruder about the intentions and goals of the Zollverein School Blog.

In contrast to other recently founded schools at the intersection of business & design like Stanford’s d.school (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford), the Zollverein School of management and design has no big backup organization like Stanford University from which it could directly leverage in terms of teaching methods, models or reputation. In some ways everything is fresh from staff over lecturers to the new Zollverein School building to be opened this summer. This situation is challenging & charming and at the same time loaded with many elements of evolution.

No surprise that we see the development of the Zollverein School Blog as a central means to discuss, reflect and communicate this evolution in an authentic way. Part of the concept is that over time you will see the various stakeholder groups of the Zollverein School (Students, Alumni, Lecturers, Staff, Management, etc.) being involved in this blog as well. However one of the central elements of the School are its students and the way their business & design thinking is developing throughout the 2–year MBA programme.

In order to reflect and share this development one of the next projects or add-ons for this blog is a sort of library where our current MBA students present their favourite books as well as edited postings about their projects just like the BuddyGuide project Martin Mangold has written about recently. In the course of these developments Zollverein MBA student Hannes Hofmann from Italy (S├╝dtirol) contacted me earlier this week with two challenging questions or statements:

  • Design has such a broad scope of definitions. Among them is the perspective that design is reflecting social and cultural developments. However by the same token design has always been trying to anticipate developments as well. So where do we pass the line from design as (current) problem solving to Design as trend anticipating?
  • Consequently: If and how can we achieve to address and anticipate future problems by design in contrast to using design as tool for solving current problems?

While these two statements read quite broad and maybe blurry at first sight, they pose some serious questions about the future qualifications of designers and somehow address a paradox designers have get acquainted with as well.

Call it serendipity, but this week NextD (NextDesign Leadership Institute) has released a highly recommendable interview with Peter Merholz, Director of Practice Development and Founding Partner of Adaptive Path, San Francisco. In this conversation Merholz is somehow addressing Hannes’ statements from a variety of perspectives. GK van Patter and Peter Merholz are not explicitly addressing the question how and if design is manageable (in terms of present and future), but far more interestingly they discuss how the discipline of anthropology might stimulate the design discipline to form a more coherent “body of knowledge” than “body of practice”. By the same token management is referring to management theories Design needs to be able to refer to theories as well (which it actually already does). Maybe the field of anthropology is able to serve as a “boundary object” in order to understand design both as a means to “re-act” as well as a tool to “pro-act” in the context of problem solving. Here’s a related quote from the interview:

“…Design is much more a body of practice than it is knowledge, and as such, it lacks the depth of a field like anthropology. I mean, compare the number of Ph.D. programs in design and anthropology. Unlike anthropology, design is not a research discipline. I also don’t think design is nuanced the way anthropology is. By nuanced, I mean that in anthropology there are many different shades and perspectives that revolve around a central core. The distinct sub-fields of cultural anthropology -medical anthropology, applied anthropology, visual anthropology, folklore - all draw from a core appreciation of “anthropology.” Whereas, I think our discussion has demonstrated there’s nothing nearly as coherent in the field of design. Interaction design, industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, environmental design, architecture, etc., etc. are not tied together by a recognised core. Instead, each is learned and practiced pretty much distinct from the others, and often are set in competition to one another.”

While there are many other quotable paragraphs about the purpose and usefulness of anthropology (more to be found here) in the light of Hannes’ second statement from above I would like to formulate the following hypothesis:

“Design Management is a meta concept and not a theory in itself. If you understand “management” in the sense of early twentieth-century management writer Mary Parker Follett then management is the “the art of getting things done through people” (quoted from Wikipedia). In addition if Design is more closely connected to Socio-Cultural Anthropology then it will better understand why people in different cultures do things differently. Consequently the notion of Design Management seen from these two poles enables a Design Manager both managing current problems (-> getting things done …) as well as understanding current phenomena and extrapolating future issues (-> Design in the context of anthropology)”

 So, Hannes or anyone else interested in this (OK, I admit it it’s quite meta thinking ;-) hypothesis what are your views? Any comments?

2 Responses to “On Design, Management & Anthropology”

  1. Zollverein School Blog » Blog Archive » More Sources on Athropology & Design from Nico Beucker Says:

    […] In the context of my posting from last week titled “On Design, Management & Anthropology” Nicolas Beucker a new colleague at the Zollverein School and a Professor for public & social Design at the Hochschule Niederrhein in Krefeld/Germany contacted me recently. […]

  2. Zollverein School Blog » Blog Archive » Blog Posting Debut | MBA student: Hannes Hofmann Says:

    […] This week it’s a pleasure to introduce a posting MBA student Hannes Hofmann has submitted some days ago. In some sort of response to an earlier posting of mine here on this blog Hannes shares his recent musings on the meaning and definition of design with us. […]

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