A highlight from Best of Design Matters: Dr. Dori Tunstall


Design matters comes from Marriott hotels, and we are thrilled to have them as our podcast partner. One of the main signatures of our species is that we make stuff. A lot of stuff. Everything from buildings and spaceships and highways to chairs and toothbrushes and websites. Every bit of it has been designed, maybe well designed, maybe indifferently designed, but someone somewhere put some thought into just about everything we touch taste and hear. What does all of this say about us and our values? This is the province of design anthropology, which looks at all of our stuff and the design process. Dory tunstall is an associate Professor of design anthropology at the Swinburne university of technology in Melbourne, Australia, and she joins me today at the school of visual arts in New York City. Welcome to design mattered story. Thank you. Great. Thank you. Yes. So design anthropology is the focus of your study and teaching. So I felt that the natural first question should be, what is design anthropology? I think you gave a really good summary of what it is is that if everything in the human world is made, then trying to understand what's the making of things means the way in which stuff from branding now to the use of red ochre on our bodies in the past helps us identify who we are, are we married or are we not married? Are we Hagrid or we not sacred? Are we at a higher social status or lower social status? All the ways in which we literally mark our world is something that other species have not done to the same extent. And so that places us in a very unusual situation in terms of the impact that we've had. But it also provides us with a lot of opportunities because we understand the power and influence that we have had and with the right types of thinking and the right types of values. We actually can redirect them. I understand that when you were younger before you found your way to design anthropology, you wanted to become a medical doctor. He wanted to become a neurosurgeon, but that you felt that you would be a great neurosurgeon, but you wouldn't be a very good human being. So why, why is that? Well, I think trying to understand the varieties of the ways in which we can be human is really important. And you learn, you know, that being human is maybe very different if you're, you know, a Japanese woman at the turn of the century, then you are a modern American woman living in New York City. And so understanding the differences between that is actually something helpful in terms of becoming a better human because a lot of our behaviors that are inhumane are about not really understanding other people's perspective on things and understanding the diversity of the ways in which people can be in the world. So do you feel that if you were a good neurosurgeon, you would have missed out on the ability to be empathic? Well, I think training and neurosurgeon, at least in their way, imaginative that you focus on the sort of very narrow synapses between the brain and so that sort of microscopic focus. There's a certain technical brilliance that you bring to that. But you lose the big picture and at the particular time I was much more interested in being able to see the big picture of things because both of that interest in neurosurgery and the interest in anthropology is really I was trying to understand what is it, how do people think? How do people act in the world? Neurosurgery is one way to describe that. But I found I was much more compelled by the explanation for that that came out of anthropology. So would you say that empathy is a basic human trait? Or is that something? Because designers talk a lot about needing to have very highly refined modes of empathy in their practices. Do you think that that's something that's learned? Do you think that that's a basic human trait that's ingrained in us? Well, there's a lot of studies that are coming out now in sort of evolutionary anthropology, which like before there was a lot of writing about survival of the fittest, and it's all about competition. And there's been a huge shift in probably the last 5 or ten years where they're actually looking at cooperation and empathy. And so now there's a strong narrative that empathy is hardwired. In such a way because it allows us to relate to one another and that their survival of the species has to do as much with cooperation among each other as well as competition over resources. And in fact, you can actually compete for resources and a group of people are cooperating. Interesting. So you have to cooperate to be competitive. And so there's a shift in that narrative, which I think reflects a general shift in values where we're saying, well, perhaps we need to be valuing empathy more, perhaps we need to be valuing cooperation more because we've exhausted ourselves on this competition. So it's definitely in my belief hardwired, but I also believe that competition is. It's kind of to what extent are we living those values and we're in a shift now where we're trying to live the values of empathy. And I think this is reflected in design as well, where I think the myth of the individual design genius is a myth of competition where your genius is based on your competing with other designers and everyone else being inferior to your creativity and your ability

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