why the world needs anthropologists

Design Anthropology at Phillips. Interview with Jose Manuel Dos Santos

Since the last interview we posted, when we inaugurated the Series of Interviews on Design Anthropology, we have new good news all of you who are interested in this topic. The team of the Applied Anthropology Network of EASA has been working hard and have announced this year´s Why the World Need Anthropologists top speakers. If you don´t know what I am talking about, check out the new website of WWNA and don´t miss any information about this event. We have asked one of these speakers to answer our questions on Design Anthropology. In this case, the interviewee is not an anthropologist or an ethnographer, but a designer with over 20 years of experience.

Phillips lightingJose Manuel Dos Santos started his career in Portugal in 1989 as an industrial designer, and since then he has formed and sold two product design companies, worked as a product Design Director in Barcelona and led as Chief Design Officer in a large Internet company. In 2016 he joined Philips Lighting as their Head of Design and User Experience/Americas, demonstrating that they can design the way we interact with light and that will define how light impacts our everyday life at home, at work or in public spaces.

He has also been very involved in and passionate about design education and entrepreneurship. Among other initiatives, he started a network of talented Portuguese industrial designers and co-founded a non-profit organization dedicated to young entrepreneurship.

I am a designer, thought leader, a passionate entrepreneur and a speaker at Why the World needs Anthropologists!


Hi, Jose Manuel. Tell us, how did you first get into Design Anthropology?

Like most industrial designers, I was trained to take into account what users need/ want/ aspire, but we were not given methods nor tools and ended up focusing much more on customers than users themselves. Later in life, I started searching for methods that would allow me to understand users and came across anthropologists that were using their training helping organizations understand their users/ customers. At that point I believe it was called commercial anthropology, there weren’t many professionals that did this and they were hated by the other ‘serious’ anthropologists.

As a designer, I started to rely on these professionals to present a credible approach to understanding users and would engage them when I needed help. Later Design Research started popping up in design schools, they used anthropology as a starting point and presented a set of tools more or less focused on users, now with a focus more on people in general, society at large. In the last 5 years, we are seeing a boom in UX/ User Experience, which uses bits and pieces of anthropology methods and tools but strictly focused on digital experiences. Corporations now talk of Experience in a broader sense, and try to map those experience in several ways, creating personas/ archetypes, identifying major ‘stakeholders’ (hate this term!), all of this with some vague reliance on anthropology and its offerings. The future seems to be about big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, while much of this seems technology driven, the fuel for all of its success lies in people data. It seems all of this has been happening outside Anthropology itself, society has used what they needed/ wanted from this area but never embraced it with full knowledge of its potential, this way also avoiding its code of conduct. Funny enough, or not, but the reasons why many entities avoid design and designers are pretty similar to why they avoid anthropology and anthropologists: too fluffy, too complicated, too long to get to results, too expensive. And sad enough, when designers use anthropology they tend to do the same with it as entities that do design themselves, they simplify and generalize without a full understanding of its potential, providing shallow and incomplete results.

What does Design Anthropology mean to you?

Human-centric design mindset, supported by structured methods and tools to access and learn about people beyond your natural empathy as a designer. I still think designers need to work with anthropologists that understand the needs of designers in a project/ professional context. Design itself has been accused of wanting to do more and offer more than it is capable of, diluting its core offer and doing a sloppy job at things that end up weakening their credibility. Maybe Design Anthropology is a good idea, maybe it’s another of those hybrids that do not serve neither design nor anthropology. Design thinking is supposed to be human-centric, is design thinking the same as design anthropology? Just as the debate on design thinking not being a separate activity from design doing, is design anthropology also deeply connected to design doing? Food for thought and discussion…

What is respectful, ethical and conscious design and how can we nudge it?

I never thought designers have a bigger role than anyone else, or any other profession, regarding ethics and conscience. I think it’s been presumptuous of our part thinking we play a bigger role than we do in modern capitalism and consumer society, and if we accept that as a group we might start asking ourselves, as human beings, what is our respectful, ethical and conscious way of exercising our professional activity within our standards of success. This is not the same for all designers, not even the same through your entire professional life, and many times does not require grandiose gestures, but rather informed and precise actions that have some sort of positive impact.

“People-centred” has become a buzzword in design, and in many times projects end up leaning more into user/consumer-centered.. Not only that, but all of these approaches seem to be totally anthropocentric. What do you think of all of this?

User-centric is inherently people-centric, just a smaller, limited way of looking at consumers. These terms get thrown around and people don’t question what they mean, for the sake of making it easy language gets inundated with these generic terms that supposedly help people embrace and adopt. But using terms like anthropocentric also doesn’t help, except within academia. If we mean a vision of the world that focuses exclusively on people without understanding their part in the vast ecosystem we belong to, then a selfish, people centered approach to solutions may be an excuse for indulgence and irresponsible consumerism. But we need to discuss this in context, corporations operate in a framework with a pretty straightforward and basic way to measure success, they tend to embrace anything aligned with their private principles as long as these do not affect the way they are perceived and evaluated. That’s why you need to work on both sides, the system that evaluates and the valuation itself, the means to be truly people-centered and valuable.

What are the tools and methods combined which form anthropology and design that you mostly apply to your projects? Why?

I rely on anthropology professionals that work with designers to help me and my teams understand people that have some sort of engagement with what we are in charge of designing, maybe these are a new breed of anthropologists the ones you call design anthropologists. Today, we are more focused than ever on systems than just the products or interfaces, more on full-blown experiences than just a couple of touch points. You need to keep asking the right questions and find ways to get to the answers without actually asking these questions, through observation and other direct and indirect means of engagement that allow collection of as many relevant data points that serve as quality ingredients for insight generation. This process itself, human-centric in its approach and also human-centric in its deployment, is at the basis of this partnership between design and anthropology.

Tell us about one of your favourite projects involving design + anthropology.

Right now I am in a process of using a mix of cocreate + anthropology + system design to define experiences in urban spaces. Under a large umbrella of Smart Cities, working with many partners with a citizen/ people-centric approach to understanding what exactly is a smart city, why smart, smart for whom, beyond smart how.

Imagine the world in 2050 – what are some of the challenges that design anthropologists will be facing and dealing with?

We are either progressing into a future of extreme hybridism with all its consequences of everyone being knowledgeable of everything but only a part, the part that matters to them, or a future of extreme specialism and all its consequences, where anthropologists and designers will be like vinyl stores that specialize in very minute, specific parts of understanding the world we live in. Perhaps we will have both, living side by side. Designers and anthropologists, either as separate professionals of a new species altogether, will have to evaluate how they want to play in these apparently opposite scenarios, find their role and their value. This future is tied to the future of humanity itself, to the value we will place on human beings, on each one independently from where they are since we will migrate more and more no matter the attempts to create barriers.

At the session in the Why the World Needs Anthropologists, I intend to present 4 future Smart City scenarios developed by Philips Lighting, available for download here, I want to use these as a backdrop for a future for design anthropology.


Thanks for taking the time for this Jose Manuel! We can´t wait to listen to you in a few months in Lisbon.


Don´t forget to check out the NEW website of Why the World Needs Anthropologists: Designing the Future! 

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