Department of Anthropology Alumni
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Turns out an anthropology degree isn’t a bad gig for a designer
I have an anthropology degree, and a minor in art and design. For a bunch of years I thought it was art history. When I moved to Costa Rica and taught art at a school and actually saw my degree, it turns out it was art and design. Handy.
Anyway, I’m a designer now. Graphic designer. When I think about how I approach a design problem, and my own philosophy for running my biz, I realize how connected my solution process is to the study of anthropology. My thing is this: you make what the audience wants, and match those desires with the desires of the organization/business who’s trying to give them something. Choices are made in a useful context and then, bam, everybody’s happy. The root of it is, know your audience. You study who these groups are, who they think they are, their likes, dislikes, demographics, their ideas around certain topics, political leanings, moral leanings, their own cultural context, the greater cultural context, and anything else you can think of that might be useful to the piece of work you’re building or the product you’re putting into the world. The designer is just the vessel for one group to get an idea/product/resource out to another group. My personal stance is to make sure both of those groups succeed in a way that seems useful to the world and doesn’t blow it up.
The reason this practice of marrying the groups’ desires works AT ALL is because design is reflective of its culture. Well...and it’s reflexive inside its own culture - it’s a chicken and egg thing. Design reflects its culture’s desires and has the potential to influence it.
To be clear, design, in its most glorious expression, is functional communication. Currently, a giant chunk of functional design is expressed digitally—just because of where we are with technology. In this time, design has become a cosmic dance of reflex and reflection. Our desires are reflected in the things we like to look at and those things (expressions) get iterated like mad, ping ponging around based on our real-time reflexes of things we like to look at. Design follows culture, but can also push it around.
Consider for a moment infinite scrolling. I mean...ALL of UI (user interface design) would be 100% different if that weren’t a thing. I’ve heard the guy that thought of it feels remorse about it (Netflix’s Abstract—Ian Spalter: Digital Product Design). That ALONE tells you something about the impact of design on our brains—and our thoughts—and our actions and interactions—and so our culture. I mean, dang, no wonder that guy feels remorse. He pretty much figured out how to enable the “addiction” button in our brains. What an a-hole! But not really...what he really did was solve a design problem - he answered the question, “how do I make this easier for the user? How do I make the user want to stay?” Booyah! He saw it. Do you feel like you could shop on amazon or cruise around social media without infinite scrolling and content automatically populating? Would you even want to? Can you imagine what it means to have made the decision that has changed the way we buy stuff? The way we see people and talk to them? The way we absorb content at all? Turns out design choices, and their impact, are not a small thing.
There are a million more design choices like that. Like the dude that figured out making the toothpaste hole wider would make the toothpaste company more money because it would run out faster. That was a design decision. One made mostly for the sake of itself, but still – it’s a thing!
Basically, what I’ve learned over a few years as a designer, is that the cross-section of design and culture is super blurry. One informs the other. Back and forth indefinitely.
I don’t always know what that blurriness means, but to me, as a designer, it feels like I have a responsibility to understand the potential impact my decisions may have on the world. I’m small potatoes, so I’m not as likely to hit a big bomber like the infinite scrolling guy, but I think if you’re putting something, anything into the world, you ought to have a think about its implications.
While we as designers can’t by any means see the future, I believe we’ll have a considerable impact on it. *Cue booming voice* ...and with great design comes great responsibility! For me, it’s like recycling; it’s another layer of the everyday stuff where I can try to be a good and useful human. So I’m gonna try.
Erin Morton is a creative director, designer and runs her own design business. She’s a catalyst for creative thinking and collaboration, a mom of two awesome kids and wife to a totally rad husband. You can connect with her via linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/erinmortoncreative/ or see her work on http://www.erinmortoncreative.com.