hugo rocha

Anthropology can give designers the tools to do better their job

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Hugo Rocha is a graphic designer with an MBA in marketing. Even though he told me that nowadays he thinks design shouldn’t really fit with marketing. For him, design loses its essence when thinking too much about sales and profits, instead of focusing on people. Hugo has also been a teacher in Brazil since 2006 and he is fond of design education. He is currently on a leave to conduct his Ph.D. in Lisbon. And he is part of the organizing team of Why the World Needs Anthropologists: Designing the Future.

I recently had a wonderful conversation with him about Design Anthropology and this is what he told me:


What are you currently doing?

My main occupation right now is my working on my Ph.D. which focus on Design Higher Education. Specifically, thinking about a paradigm shift in the world where I think the designer needs to be more social active and more aware of its impact on society. So I’m thinking about this paradigm shift in the world, and how it affects to design. I am also one of the partners in a design studio in Brazil named Vínculo which I founded in 2007, so I kind of work from Portugal with them. But I am more dedicated to my Ph.D. than anything else right now. I’ve been a teacher for 12 years and in 2016 I asked to leave for three years for my research… I’ve been living in Portugal for a year and a half now and I’ve changed a lot already.

How so?

I’ve been slightly away from my business which gives me time to think about design without the business aspect being so present all the time. In a more pure way. What design is, what should it do if it wasn’t attached to business. So that is what I am thinking about when I’m working with education. I don’t think designers should be technicians, they should be people who can think critically about the world and provide answers that fit into society – Not people who design and develop products just for the sake of it – Just because we need to design a new chair, or a new package or whatever it is. I think design should be a little more for society and less for business, and that might even mean good business. It’s not about growth all the time. It’s about being sustainable. And that means dealing with people,culture, society, and having a positive impact. Because now design has a huge impact on society, but not necessarily a good one. It can have a negative impact. For example: With social media people get addicted to likes, and being seen, and thinking they are great and the centre of attention… And design is doing that in a way. Designing experiences in order to getting people addicted, and that’s not healthy in so many levels. So I understand that there is a big responsibility for designers to think about what they are really doing. That is my goal right now.

What role do you think anthropology plays in this new approach of design?

I believe that when we are talking about design and if we go way back… Not too early back when humans started developing some artifacts, when they were hunters or anything like that, because then they needed to do things for surviving. But when design was defined as a profession much later, after the wars, after needing to readjust and redesign the lives which had been destroyed by the conflicts. And when we see the big picture, we always think about how we can answer the needs of society, understanding culture and habits. So, if I am designing something it’s quite hard to do it right from far away, from my desk. If I’m doing something for Brazil for example, and I’ve never been to Brazil. Or if I’m working on something that’s going to end up being used in Spain, and I have never been there… It’s risky to do that. And, yeah, we still do it! Even though it’s not ok. I don’t think its ok. But anthropology gives designers the tools to dive into culture, to dive into people’s lives, learn about the user or consumer, the human interacting with a product or a service. So applied anthropology can give designers the tools to do our job better. And not to be “creative gods” which come up with great solutions because they think it’s beautiful even though it doesn’t work or it’s impractical mainly because they didn’t listen to the people they were designing it for, they didn’t observe enough. Anthropology can help us better design products, services, cities and our relationship with the world. It’s about observing culture, respecting culture and bringing people into the process.

Since you mention respecting culture, what is for you respectful and ethical design?

That’s a hard one! Because when you are talking about ethics and respect it doesn’t seem to go well with business. Why is that? Sometimes, to make a living, a lot of design studios need to do what the companies want. To be ethical you need to understand how to say `no`. And that is risky for your business. “I am not going to design something that is harmful to people. I am not going to put profit ahead of society, ahead of people”. So to be respectful and ethical is about being people centred. We need to understand that first of all, we can be very harmful, we need to realize that we can make bad things in our design process. For instance, a lot of good ideas turn out to be bad. We’ve been talking about AirBnb or Uber.  Those are great ideas that were born from real needs. In Brazil we had horrible taxi services and uber came and kind of changed that. Airbnb helped a lot of cities to get more tourists, people to rent their houses… But there is a lot of backfire from that. People being thrown away from their cities because they can’t afford to pay their rents anymore… And the problem is when you close your eyes to these issues. When you don’t do the things you are supposed to do in order to protect and respect the people and the environment. You close your eyes because of the money, capital ventures, all the reimbursement you have to give to the people that invested in your idea. So to be ethical, first I should decide what is right or wrong. Should I take that project just because its profitable? Or, is that project going to be harmful to someone? Who? How?… As I said before, it’s very risky because you can lose your client, or even get thrown out of business. It’s a huge challenge to be ethical and responsible in design right now. And it needs to come from a good place… You are probably not going to make as much money as other companies, but I really think, it’s worth it. We, as a company, are not there yet, but I  have a plan to shift the profile of clients I have into a more impactful kind of ones. Businesses that have a real impact. Positive impact. I still don’t know how I’m going to do that. There are a lot of examples out there.

Are we talking about social enterprises?

Yeah, but also… Business, like the educational business that give back a return of some kind to the society. We have a really good example here in Lisbon is Cozinha do Bem, which is like “Cooking for good”. I think they are non-profit, but I don’t believe it needs to be a non-profit. It’s a service for take-away food, and they also have families supported by them. They have clients who pay for the food, but also others that get it for the discount or so. But it is not charity, the non-pay clients also are coached to leave their risky situation. They have workshops on how to improve their CV and on personal finance, things like that… It’s help, but in exchange, you need to do something for yourself to get out of that situation. Another example: I have a client in Brazil: It’s a Rural Banking, so it’s a bank that focuses on plantation and food and all that. And they do workshops with their clients so that they practice a more sustainable farming. So, in general, business with a positive outcome. Not business for the sake of business.

When you are working with other companies that are not so socially oriented, how do you nudge an ethical approach to design?

One of the things we always do is, we talk. When we feel like we are doing a job that we think its harmful, we sit with our client and we say “That was not ok. We don’t like this, we should do it differently next time”. We’ve done that many times. From my experience, the bigger the company, the worst the environment, because usually the people you are talking to don’t have any power of change. Smaller companies are easier to talk to about purpose, how they can help shape society.

For example, there was a client of ours with whom we had a really bad time. They forced us to work late hours, which wasn’t good for my team, and me and my partner decided to talk to them even though we knew we were risking losing the client. But, we decided to tell them that we were not going to carry on with it, because by accepting that we were reinforcing that behaviour and also kind of saying that’s ok. They took it very well, they said they understood and the relationship improved after that actually. When we felt like things were going back the same road, we sat again with them. So, sometimes they will listen, sometimes they will hate you, but that is part of the process.

What is your definition of Design Anthropology?

I think design and anthropology, specially applied anthropology, go very well together. That is why people started thinking that there could be an overlapping. For me Design Anthropology is problem solving in a design way, but with anthropological skills. Taking the tools that anthropologists have and applying it to design. Helping design to get a better picture of the problem so that we can make better decisions. I think design relies a lot on research. We need to understand the full picture before we can propose a solution. And anthropology can really help us understand the big picture. So, Design Anthropology is about doing design but with more anthropological approach, tools, and skills.

So, in your opinion, is it actually a new discipline? Or is it just a combined used of tools from two disciplines?

I don’t think it’s a new discipline. I think it’s a reencounter of the essence of design, which was originally meant for people, and because of marketing and all the pop star CEOs kind of drifted away from its original purpose . So, I see it as being a step back. It is design done right again, properly. Design done for people. It is just a good way for people to understand what has been lost. It’s almost a rebranding of design so that it is human-centered again. So you need to put anthropology in the middle of it. I’ve been a teacher in a design school, so I know that those anthropological tools have been lost during the past decade, and we feel that we need to bring them back. And to bring them back, it’s nice to present them as a new thing. Because people like novelties. But I don’t agree that it’s really a new thing.

It seems to me that from your point of view Design Anthropology has more to do with design rather than with anthropology

Probably because I am a designer. Maybe not… But from this side of the ship, where I see it, probably yes.

So, since you´ve had experience working with anthropologists and designers, what can we learn from each other?

Designers can learn a lot from anthropologists: How to better observe, how to empathize, take people into consideration and bring them into the process. I think that the thing that anthropologists can learn from designers is mostly our fast and good decision-making process. We need to be strategic, take all this information and make a decision, build a path. And from my experience working with some anthropologists, they are really good at observing and understanding people,  but are, maybe, lacking some skills on what to do with that. And designers can help anthropologists making decisions and doing something with all that information that anthropologists gather. So it’s really a win-win situation. We can learn how to do research, look at people and bring them into the design process, and anthropologists can learn how to make better decisions and do something really useful with all the qualitative data that they gathered.

How do you see 2050- challenges?

Another hard question! Specially because I don’t think we’ve never seen a change in the world like the one we’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years. The world used to go at a certain pace, and suddenly, with all the technological revolution, things are changing every day. So we don’t know what’s going to happen in 30 years. But I believe that Anthropology is going to have a big impact in Design, because design as a technician, as a graphic designer or as a person who only handles software, is not going to have a bright future. The future designer has to think critically about society and its complexity.

Some authors point to a  food crisis in 2050 because all the people that are going to live in the world and we won’t be able to farm for all of them. We will probably have even bigger problems with immigration, terrorism and safety, privacy, technology taking over jobs, and so on. So I think that the challenge is: if design wants to survive as a profession it needs to reinvent itself. I think by 2050 the status quo for design is going to be design and anthropology working together and solving complex problems for society. Because crisis are going to rise in a way that we’ve never seen before. So, I don’t really know what’s going to happen in that long… I even believe that design is going to die because machines will do most of the operational work done by professionals today.  Right now you can have a machine web designing. You don’t need to know anything about design or coding, you have an algorithm that does that for you. So design is going to be replaced for a more critical thinking, real problem-solving… Not which color is this or that going to be. I don’t mean to simplify the designers work by saying that, I’m a designer after all, but I understand that in the future we are going to be thinking more like, how are we going to solve housing problem or food problem. And that has a lot to do with anthropology because we constantly have to be looking at people.

Following up with the cross questions between interviewees. What question would you like the next person to answer?

Why should businesses care about Design Anthropology?

Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

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