The Architecture of Life: Anthropology, Design and the Big Picture

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Anthropology, Design and the Big Picture

I have recently been asked to participate on a panel that will be presenting before the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association next November.

I came by this honor as the result of an invitation from Dr. Elizabeth Tunstall of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Tunstall, known as "Dori" to those she works with, has a background in both anthropology and design.

Her blog is here if you want to learn more about design anthropology.

Dori's panel at the AAA meeting is exploring a subject she technically calls "Trans-disciplinary theory and praxis" of design. In plain language, that means our panel - which includes both academics and "real world" practitioners like me - will be exploring how a multi-disciplinary approach might uncover practical ways to inform the design of products, and in my case, of buildings.

If you are a reader of the posts on this blog, you will know I am way into that conversation.

The panel includes a NASA anthropologist (did you know those existed), a business consultant, an innovative designer, a socio-cultural anthropologist and a guy who runs an architecture firm and an Internet startup (me), so there will be a variety of perspectives presented.

The framework for the discussion about design theory - set up for us by Dori - follows Alan Barnard's QAME format. (See History and Theory in Anthropology)

Barnard defines theory as made up for four elements: questions, assumption, methods and evidence. (QAME)

I expect to learn a lot. Every day it seems I find this conversation about how design and human factors are being explored in new ways in another discipline. For someone like me who runs a Google Alert search on keywords related to this subject daily - and has for almost 18 months - it is clear to me there is a very large trend in this direction not only in academia, but in business.

It only makes sense that it would be a major focus in anthropology, given the perspective of ethnology, but until the last couple of months, I honestly had no idea.

I am sure this will cause me to brush up on my anthropology. It has been a long time since those two anthropology courses I had in college, and for the most part my attention as a freshman was on beer, ping pong and poker...which perhaps explains my misbegotten academic past.

Here's the abstract for my small portion of that discussion.

Truehome - A Transdisciplinary Approach
to Designing Homes as Fitting Eco-systems


The eco-system humans call “home” is the most endemic environmental niche created by large organisms on the planet. Yet in academic architecture and the many academic disciplines that study behavior and environment - it is sadly neglected.

Consequences of this are:

Home improvement consistently tops all industry sectors in the U.S. as a source of consumer complaints. Architectural services remain beyond the means of a majority of the population, yet there is high demand for habitats that fit consumer needs, values and sensibilities. Correlations between ill-adapted living space, increased stressors, and health effects have been well established, but research in health care and corporate environments is seldom applied to the fragmented housing industry.

Design criteria self-reported by clients are notoriously inaccurate. To solve this problem, the presenter went on a decade long multi-disciplinary quest through fields as diverse as environmental and clinical psychology, human factors, physiology, neuroscience, ecology, personality research and evolutionary theory to find answers.

The result was a workshop with a “systems” approach to creating home environments that fit inhabitants. Results of anecdotal research in the field - and an emerging theory - will be discussed using the Barnard's QAME framework. Client case studies and images of projects designed will be displayed.

The process is currently being adapted to web-based software that combines surveying tools, a value-based recursive database, and high level analytics. The challenges of such an approach in an online medium – and how they are being faced – will also be discussed.