With this entry, we are closing the series of interviews on Design Anthropology that we have published this year 2018 on the occasion of Why the world needs Anthropologists: Designing the future. For this last interview, we have talked with a very special person. She is a designer and anthropologist and has been applying her knowledge of anthropological and design theory, marketing and semiotics to the resolution of brand problems for more than 15 years, helping entrepreneurs and clients to understand and anticipate cultural changes through the identification, immersion, exploration, interpretation, and evaluation of cultural and visual phenomena.
Her name is Lucia Laurent Neva, and she is a designer and anthropologist specializing in design semiotics and material culture. She is experienced in the development of tools for cultural analysis and design innovation through the application of design theoretical principles, anthropological and semiotic thinking. She is skilled in strategy, product & brand innovation. Lucia’s interest in the practical applications of cultural semiotics began while she was a professor and lecturer at a Colombian university and evolved through senior roles at two London marketing-strategic consultancies. As she says: “There is no better training for the experience of having to convert complex cultural data and analyses into clear and relevant design insights”. As the owner of Visual Signo and co-founder of Semiofest, she is now responsible for demonstrating semiotics’ increasing relevance to global brand strategy in commercial organizations.
How did you first get into Design Anthropology?
I have backgrounds in both Design and Anthropology so it was very easy to make the connection. Back in 2005 while studying Material and Visual Culture at UCL, I started to explore the idea of Design Anthropology further. At that time, different approaches from anthropology to cultural and design analysis were already developing in highly productive ways. However, these tended to be limited and developed largely from a specific anthropological viewpoint. Anthropologists seemed to be oblivious that there was also a grown-up an indigenous theoretical perspective from the viewpoint of design itself. There were models and approaches to the nature of structural complexity and design processes which only become evident when one has training and practice in design and may not, therefore, be known within anthropology. At the same time, I knew in commercial design environments the focus was too much on ‘practice’ and not enough on ‘research’.
I started to play with the idea of integrating anthropological and design approaches commercially to investigate better design cultures and spaces and understand the dynamics of design production and consumption. I started to develop these concepts further and introduced them to our commercial clients in the UK and globally.
What is Design Anthropology to you?
The discipline has different definitions but for me, Design Anthropology is about opening meanings and helping to create deeper and better connections between people and products or service solutions. It is an action-oriented discipline interested in enquiring as well as bringing tangible actions. It is inspired in the observation, process, and critical thinking relevant in both design and anthropology.
What is respectful, ethical and conscious design and how can we nudge it?
Ethical and respectful design is showing that you care for people and their habitat from beginning to the end of any project. Making sure that you are integrating their views and their narratives in a transparent non-biased manner throughout the process and proposing solutions that won’t harm their communities. Internally, I firmly believe that ethical design is also about honest and transparent conversations around the process and outputs considering the cause and effect relationship between – consumers, clients, colleagues, society, culture, and environment as a whole.
This is a very difficult topic, as we should always consider ethics in our work, and always take into account the balance between personal and professional ethics. It is also important that Design Anthropologists realize the power we have in our profession and that we have a choice to be ethical and respectful with the communities we engage in our daily practice. We have the strength to help conceptualize and to bring solutions and positively impact the communities we work with. Shaping the future is as important as working in the present and understanding the past – we cannot be oblivious of the different journeys we are touching with our decisions.
What are the tools and methods combined which form anthropology and design that you mostly apply to your projects?
Tools and methods are always evolving but at Visual Signo, we are mainly guided by anthropology and culturally-informed design theories. We apply accessible and actionable participatory tools and design methods that enable us to identify, understand and evaluate various visual and cultural phenomena. We also use semiotics (commercial) in most of our projects, as it provides a powerful assessment of the ways design impacts upon many significant areas of social and cultural life.
Beyond the above, I believe in the power of global and local collaboration, egos left behind boardroom, organic, intuitive and non-intrusive immersion into participant’s world, and honest and open conversations.
Design Anthropology is about opening meanings and helping to create deeper and better connections between people and products or service solutions.
Tell us about one of your favourite projects involving design + anthropology.
There are various projects I could mention but there is a project that really gets into my heart. I was part of the team helping to develop a brand for young people in Malawi, we had to understand the power of visuals, music and oral narratives with the objective of closing a strong gender gap in the country and helping to change perceptions on sexual health and relationships, affecting especially young girls.
We worked with local cultural leaders and influencers as well as immersing ourselves into different cultural settings to get an understanding of Malawian-ness from a visual and aural point of view. It was critical to gain the trust of the community and to reassure them we were just not another ‘NGO’ trying to take advantage of the community and never return. The brand is now really successful in the country, it is meaningful as the project shows there is always an opportunity to be amazed by your own culture, to allow communities to reflect on their own traditions and to re-examine their daily struggles.
And what are you currently working on?
I’ve just come back from fieldwork in East Asia working on a project for a global auto brand helping them to understand how consumers connect with vehicles at a cultural level. It might sound simple, but it implies lots of layers about mobility and cultural design expectations.
Imagine the world in 2050 – what are some of the challenges that design anthropologists will be facing and dealing with?
I believe design anthropologists will need to step up their game and challenge ideas around technology and ethics. The demand on technology will be higher as it will be the desire for creating more meaningful and rich stories through design. Objects and services that communicate across different cultures will be in high demand.
Next is a question left by Alisson Avila (from Beta-i):
Who took longer to realize the decisive role of this collaboration between anthropology, innovation, and business: the companies or the academic community?
There has been simultaneous openness and resistance from both sides, but I have seen more barriers and challenges coming from academic environments purely because it is a new and unfamiliar practice for some. There has been a positive shift in the last couple of years from the academic community towards business anthropology. The recent Business Anthropology Summit held in Wayne State University Detroit in April this year is just one example of this shift. However, there is still lots to do to open up possibilities in academic environments around business education and anthropology for innovation.
Although the use of anthropological approaches for commercial and business endeavours has been widely applied in global companies for some time, there is still a thread of doubt from companies around practicality and actionability of findings when dealing with some academic projects. Industries and human ecologies are rapidly changing which is making collaboration even more important now than ever, companies act and innovate by bringing in different perspectives into their future driven processes.