Note to the reader: This essay was written in the spring of 2019. It produced an incendiary response in some readers and I had doubts about it in any case. So I stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it. A couple of weeks ago I was doing a podcast with Lee Sankey and we began to talk about it. This was enough to prompt me to put it into “print.” (Thank you, Lee.) Here goes:
Culture and Design Thinking: Welcome to the Orphanage
Grant McCracken (firstname.lastname@example.org)
June 24, 2019
I was surprised to see IDEO release a statement on Design thinking recently that does not use the term “culture.” I started hunting, and it turns out the McKinsey Design thinking team doesn’t use it either. Nor do Christian Bason and Robert D. Austin in their recent essay “The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking.” In Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage, Roger Martin talks about “car cultures,” “leisure cultures,” “beach cultures,” and “corporate cultures,” without giving us a way to think about what culture is.
“That’s odd!” I thought. Surely this is an oversight. A Design thinker who doesn’t talk about culture is like a physicist who doesn’t talk about energy or an economist who doesn’t talk about value.
What’s odder still is that the term “culture” was there, earnest and useful, in the earliest days of Design thinking. Indeed, Richard Buchanan, the man who coined the term “Design thinking,” was committed to the concept. In his seminal “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” “culture” appears some 20 times in 18 pages. (And no, he wasn’t talking about corporate culture, but culture culture.)
Culture was there at the beginning of the Design thinking revolution. Now it’s gone.
Neglected abroad, culture is diminished by the very social sciences that birthed it. Philosopher Michel Foucault reduced culture to power. Sociologist Jean Baudrillard emptied it out altogether. The Frankfurt school declared it manipulative and false. The culture idea is routinely hectored and scorned in the hallways of the academy. This supplies a second reason for designers to take up the culture idea. They can rescue it.
More than anthropologists, designers know the contexts in which culture must flourish to make itself useful, and the problems it must learn to solve. Designers are not only downstream clients of the concept. They can be upstream innovators. Designers can do more than rescue the culture idea. They can reform it.
What is the culture idea?
There are as many definitions of “culture” as “design.” Here’s mine.
Culture is three things: meanings, rules, trends.
The meanings are the periodic table that defines everything in our culture. And this table is large.
Gender is one case in point. The English think about (i.e., define) maleness in one way. Americans define it another. And this difference makes for many differences in the world. For instance, how men will conduct themselves in an office meeting, in the home, at the pub, er, bar.
We use these meanings all the time. We say “isn’t that a little too masculine?” The cultural definition of maleness is changing at speed, so this calculation of whether, how, and how much an instance of design can or should read “male,” that’s a more complicated matter than it used to be. Getting maleness right, if that is what the design project calls for, takes a knowledge of culture and a finesse. We take for granted that when it comes to meanings, designers have this finesse. The question is whether they are working with these cultural materials in an ad hoc or a systematic way.
Gender is merely one thing culture defines. All the ways we define and categorize people are supplied by culture. So are all the ways we define things like status and class, time and space. Culture establishes the way we define animals, wild and domestic. (Our practice of classifying some animals as “pets” is, to some cultures, simply hilarious.) Culture supplies the many ways we distinguish one group of humans from other groups, by activity, lifestyle, point of view, story telling conventions. Here too there are now many disputed classifications and lots of emerging ones.
Culture thus supplies the entire “pattern book” from which conceptual order and intelligibility come. This is why things feel a little woozy when we visit another culture. (Recall your first visit to North Africa or South America.) There are new meanings in place. It takes awhile for us to learn them. And then of course we come home to find the meanings we used to take for granted now revealed in all their shameless arbitrariness.
Designers use meanings. Take the case of a watch called the Optimef Fărăzece. This was designed for MoMA by Andrei Morariu and Bogdan Costea. The MoMA catalog says: “The mismatched hour, minute, and second hands reflect the playful postmodernism of the early 1980s Memphis design group, tempered by the primary colors of the Soviet Bloc aesthetic.” In this case, the cultural meanings in question were actually created by designers. They now circulate, ready to be pressed into service by designers like Morariu and Costea.
There are some people, hard-headed CEOs, economists, and strategists, who believe that design (and culture) are superficial, literally things of the surface. But in fact, the designer makes value when making and managing meaning. There are hundreds of thousands of styles of watch in the world. It is possible to buy one that’s accurate and durable for $20. The Fărăzece costs $175 ($157.50 if you are a MoMA member). Take away the costs of manufacture, distribution and marketing, and the difference is meaning. Meaning adds value, and we can actually say how much. Meaning is measurable. These things of this surface show in the spreadsheet. Philistines take note.
Some acts of meaning creation can be turbulent, as when Alexander McQueen brought new meanings to the world of fashion. This meant less theater (“Pirates by Yves Saint Laurent!”), and the infusion of the visceral, ferocious, tragic, even. (When a car bursts into flames at a fashion show, McQueen thinks “perfect” and shouts “let it burn.”)
Meanings are mutual. They establish themselves relative to one another. They come in groups. They travel in packs. (It would be wrong to go too far. Meanings are also multiple, conflicting, contradicting, overlapping, and messy. This makes them all the more richly evocative.) So it’s not enough for us to know one meaning. We want to know all the meanings, the full periodic table, and their current state of play. A full knowledge of culture is, to this extent, part of the designer’s professional competence. (Knowing the latest trend is no longer enough.)
For any given design project, there are thousands of available meanings, some good, some ill advised, and some hilariously wrong. Once chosen, they are skillfully combined and presented, or not. It is precisely because meanings are mutual that we have three structural outcomes. 1) Meaning choices can be redundant and therefore boring. 2) They can be slightly at odds and therefore effervescent. 3) Or they can be wildly at odds and therefore, for all but the most sophisticated viewer, “disturbational” (Arthur Danto’s term).
The designer’s art is a cunning combination of meanings that are thus mutual, post-mutual and anti-mutual. Combining these structural possibilities is to work, as it were, in the pocket, on the verge, or beyond the pale. The artist draws the client into meanings and meaning combinations that are relatively unprecedented. The designer has a more difficult task: to honor the intelligible and take us someplace new and illuminating. To act upon culture in this designerly way, even as clients and consumers become more diverse and meanings more multiple, that’s the mark of greatness, a finer order of cultural engagement than art typically manages.
Designers are not merely working with meanings. Sometimes they invent entire cultures. Take for instance, the designers like Raymond Loewy who crafted mid-century modernism. Fifties consumers were new born. They had survived the instability, privation, and terror of World War II. The lucky ones sought upward mobility and a flight to the suburbs. Waiting for them there was a world of immaculate objects gleaming with promise. Designers had crafted an entire envelope of meanings, making a world make sense.
Or take the artisanal movement that came out of northern California in the early 1970s, thanks to the culinary work and cultural invention of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. This was simultaneously a new way of thinking about food, food production, food preparation, restaurants, chefs and the hand made and human scale. It gave us new aesthetics and type faces, new strategies of branding and marketing, and new approaches to the definition of community and the presentation of self. This was culture of the most ambitious, imperial kind. Alice was our Mao. (She may or may not see herself as a designer but I believe this is a sensible way to see her. “Chef” is laughably too small.)
Or take the triumph of Streetwear. This has disrupted the world of fashion. Much of this design work has been accomplished through blogs, instagram posts, odd duck enterprises like Highsnobiety, counter intuitive brands like Supreme, and designers such as Virgil Abloh and, in a sense, Kanye West, and especially local hip-hop, punk and skater scenes in Japan, Europe and the US. Certainly this is not the first time we have seen deep change come from surface tumult. As the immortal French geographer Fernand Braudel told us, this is one of the hidden secrets of the Western world.
Streetwear is a sustained attack on conventional practices of meaning manufacture in a consumer society, and it has largely taken place outside the ambit of professional design. As Cameron Laux says, it belongs to,
average people on the street, distinguished only by minute but obsessive refinements in taste that require them to master a large array of technicalities of pedigree and design, and then bond over them.
Or put it this way. Like so many categories in the present day, “designer” is a broader tent than it used to be. It is occupied by the daring newcomers emboldened by their technical inexpertise. (More on this below.) Design thinking has a choice. To scorn these people for their cluelessness, or to master the cultural meanings they have created. The latter represents an opportunity for cooperation and collaboration but it exists only for the designer who has a deep knowledge of the cultures from which Streetwear comes.
Americans, they are always up to something. They recently installed great rooms in the home. Their intent was clear: they were reforming the home to reform the family to answer the ways parenthood, childrearing, and marriage are now challenged. It’s worth emphasizing how spontaneous this trend was. It did not come from a best seller, an Oprah episode, or anyone with design credentials. It came from ordinary Americans who undertook a revolution. In anthropology we would call this ethno-design. (The term applies when amateurs take on a professional activity: “ethno-archaeologists,” “ethno-pharmacists,” etc.) This, too, is broad tent stuff. The question for Design thinkers might be ‘do we want to participate in this amateur world? Can we learn from it (as we once did from Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas)? What’s the right way to divide the labor between the ethno-designer and the professional?’ In any case, canvassing what is happening outside the official world of design, this now becomes a part of our culture watch.
Meanings are mostly invisible. We do not see their operation in the world, any more than we are aware of the streams of meaning that make up language. When this failure in the case of language is pointed out to us (i.e., that we speak without any awareness of our use of a complicated meaning mechanism) we get all sheepish. Suddenly we’re a rube mugged by the obvious. But when someone says culture shapes our world, and without it many acts of comprehension and navigation would be impossible, we get all shrewd, dubious, and “prove it to me.” Suddenly we’re all from Missouri.
There might be a hierarchy of visibility here (from least to most visible): culture, language, design. Do the limits of awareness that cloak culture and language, do these conceal design too? Is this the reason the CEO and CFO (they’re the worst) can be so skeptical about the value of design? And if so, is there some way Design thinkers could improve the visibility of design? (On the whole, anthropologists have failed to make culture more visible. Indeed, the concept is less visible than it was in the time of Margaret Mead. Hence the “orphanage” strategy I have mounted here. )
Rules are the behavioral instructions that follow from meanings. A man is like this, we say. So he should act like this, we say. Social behavior is rule bound. My favorite example was the one discovered by the Mass Observation project in British pubs in the 1930s. Everyone at a table managed, they discovered, to finish their drinks at roughly the same moment.
No pub dweller could report this rule. And when prompted, pub dwellers said, “Oh, that’s just an accident. It’s a coincidence.” The researchers then watched this “accident” occur hundreds and hundreds of times over the course of the research. This was a rule, supplied by culture, to govern behavior. Together, all these social rules make up a beautiful machinery for the articulation of human behavior. (See Erving Goffman and Eviatar Zerubavel for an inventory of American rules. And Kate Fox [pictured below] for English ones.)
In a diverse, truly heterogeneous social world like ours, there are contradictory rules in play. And these rules are under constant scrutiny and reformation. Cultural rules governing gender behavior are especially under revision in a #metoo era. That these are reforms proposed by suffragettes one hundred years ago suggests how hard it is to make progress here. More’s the pity. It is precisely when cultural meanings are inscribed in reflexive activity, in our social muscle memory, so to speak, that they are so hard to reform.
All the social rules in the digital space are “on the table,” as a particular class of designers work on the construction of social networks and the digital world. And they are critical to the way in which we imagine and construct UX (user experience), VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), MR (mixed reality) and virtual life (robots, game-space creatures, etc.) A mastery of cultural rules is often precisely the thing that allows us to make artificial constructions feel like human realities. They’re a good way to cross what Reichardt calls the “uncanny valley.”
The study of cultural rules is relatively quiet at the moment. And it may be that the field of design could undertake its own Mass Observation movement. Perhaps it’s time to send out hundreds of design students as ethnographers to map American life.
Trends are meanings in transit. Some culture is a fleeting consensus (aka “fast culture”). Some of it is more lasting (aka “slow culture”). And there is a continual process by which fast culture, having survived the audition, becomes slow culture and “locks in.” (The artisanal movement is approaching its 50th birthday. Hip hop is 45 or so.) But most change flows through. (God willing, this will include electric scooters.)
Trends are the domain of the cool hunter, a creature who knows the “latest thing” but cares not at all for the deeper forces or the bigger picture of American culture. The cool hunter’s authority comes from the manual of life according to high school. He knows. We don’t.
The cool hunter’s gift is not always a fad or passing fancy. In the right hands, it could be an early warning of some deep change in American culture. But, to be fair, the cool hunter is the last person likely to extract this strategic insight. After all, theirs is a Peter Pan mission designed to keep them young and, oh, off they go again, hot in pursuit of the latest latest thing.
I sometimes think that “current” might be better than “trend.” This occurred to me as I was standing on a local beach staring at water in motion. I took this photo. At the top, 40 yards out, is a diving platform for scale. We can see four waves as well as several other motions, counter movements, and a fine patina of surface activity. The water is responding to the shape and slope of the beach, tidal movements, its own motions, and the surfaces created by winds, some steady, some various.
Yes, but insisting on your own language is never a good idea. You are merely forcing the reader to perform a gloss. “Ok, when he says ‘current,’ what he really means is ‘trends.’” You have made work at the very moment you are trying to eliminate it. (Bad writing is also bad design.)
So I will stick with “trends.”
But let’s not fail to observe how much and often this term has hampered our ability to grasp the future.
When we use the term “trends,” we focus our attention on the right hand side of the horizontal axis below. We focus on fast culture, the changes in play since the advent of the 21st century. This is where the hipster and the cool hunter love to locate their professional competence. This is where the identity riches are. Who doesn’t wish to know the latest thing? But this ignores all the pieces of Western culture that are, some of them, centuries old! Who would willingly forsake all this precious data? Well, the cool hunter would, happily. The cool hunter is a philistine of the first order. He is in this sense the last person who should be charged with studying culture.
Trends also focus our attention on the middle of the vertical axis. It asks us to concentrate on individual developments, and this forces us to forego two pieces of the bigger picture: the larger whole above and the more particular pieces below.
In short, trends give us a narrow prism on culture as it changes.
Here’s a visualization of the problem the “trends” approach creates for us.
There is lots going on in culture. The time for picking and choosing, for selective selection, has passed. We have to move beyond trend hunting. We want the bigger picture and a glimpse of a larger system at work.
Here’s my solution. I’m calling it The Griff after the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. (This works metaphorically, I hope, because the Griffith contains a map of all the heavens.) It is created with an application called TheBrain. This allows for the display of a top level and, for each node, a succession of levels below. Here’s a facsimile. (You can see the fuller details of this system at www.mapping-the-future.com.)
A critical change has taken place in the last couple of decades. We have moved from a “stop and go” model of change to something more liquid. The “new” used to come to us dressed up as the “final word.” Each new major trend said in effect, “Embrace me, then you’re done.” Hippies never believed they would be supplanted by punks, still less by preppies. They believed their culture would endure. Each change said, “I’m the last change.” (We were wedded to an “end of history” model well before Fukuyama made it a book title.) But this pattern of change itself has changed. Change no longer triumphs, it merely inflects. Each new iteration is contingent and temporary. Change flows in, pauses briefly, then moves on.
For every trend like mid century modernism, the artisanal movement, Streetwear, or the great room, there are many lesser possibilities. Those scooters from Lime and Bird that now litter city street corners. (These are top of mind for me because my wife and I were nearly mowed down by a pack of them in Venice Beach.) Are these an advance in urban transport or an innovation just months away from Segway-scale failure? At this writing (01 we can’t say. There are always lots of little currents struggling to get started. At this point they are more noise than signal. American culture is under constant reformation.
This dynamism opens up a new order of design challenges. Indeed it is very good for business. Many things the client could once take for granted are now “on the table.” All of us are forced back on fundamental questions. For Herman Miller, I was hired to ask “What’s an office place?” (This used to be a needless question.) For Simon and Schuster: “What’s a book?” For State Farm: “Who is the volunteer?” For Barclay’s: “What’s a bank?”
Not very long ago, questing questions of this kind were restricted to reefer-fueled beatniks and the occasional college seminar. Now they are standard objects of curiosity. And not just for the anthropologist and the designer. These questions exist for anyone who wants to survive an economy that bucks and weaves with change, for those obliged to live with the terrible knowledge that somewhere out there, there is a black swan (i.e., an unimaginable disruption) “on approach.” But asking these questions is probably not the kind of thing you want to “try at home.” Better to hire battle-toughened professionals like designers and anthropologists who are especially good at dynamic, complex data sets of the cultural kind.
Meanings are in motion. But this does not make ours a random world or even a maximally various one. It is not the “long tail” universe imagined by Chris Anderson, where the world devolves into absolutely discrete events. Nor is this the blizzard of “latest things” imagined by the cool hunter. The meanings with which we work as creatives, strategists and designers, are more numerous than they used to be, but nowhere near infinite. They split much more finely than they used to. But, praise God, they still lump.
Culture is changing
As late as the 1950s, anthropologists could still argue that culture exhibits a certain harmony. In their magisterial review of the literature, Albert Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn said, “there seems to be general agreement that every culture possesses a considerable degree of integration of both its content and its form.” Yale anthropologist, Edward Sapir spoke of culture as something “inherently harmonious, balanced, and self-satisfactory,” as something that expressed a “unified and consistent attitude toward life.” What culture cannot be, Sapir said, is a “spiritual hybrid of contradictory patches.”
That was then. “A hybrid of contradictory patches” is actually a pretty good way to describe American culture. At some point in the late 20th century, culture changed. We have noted some of these differences already, but it might be a good idea to dig down.
1. Culture explodes
Fewer than 70 years ago, American culture was positively tidy. There were clear status differences, a hierarchy that stretched from elites above to the rest of us below. And, apart from a persistent and argumentative series of avant-grade and youth cultures, Americans were prepared to take their cue from their social betters.
What was not fashioned by the status hierarchy was crafted by Hollywood, a more democratic influence that prized certain kinds of charisma some of which could be claimed or cultivated by the audience. Celebrity culture colonized vast stretches of American culture. Eventually every TV show at 7:00 would be dedicated to a detailed and deferential treatment of celebrities. We were star struck and to some extent remain so.
In all of this there were clear insiders and relative outsiders, the latter being defined by gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity. Except for those argumentative people on the margin, there was a consensus here. People on the inside wanted to rise. People on the outside wanted to merge. There was lots of diversity here but it was organized as if by a gravitational field.
Less than a lifetime later, most of this has changed. Status hierarchies struggle to sustain their influence. The avant-garde have lost much of their standing as useful outsiders. Youth cultures are fewer and less influential. As the laboratory responsible for the creation of these cultures, music has lost much of its formative power. This is true, too, of fashion, with the dazzling exception of Streetwear.
Hollywood continues from strength to strength. But two things are true. Hollywood is forsaking genre culture for a different, more sophisticated kind of story telling which diminishes its ability to form culture. And, two, a continual stream of PR disasters has created “celebrity fatigue.” Celebs, once revered, are suddenly mortal and increasingly annoying. Hollywood is running out of gas. Or put it this way. The fascination continues. Some of the magic is gone.
As for the old hierarchies, most insiders are now asked to “check their privilege” and outsiders are no longer disapproved even if they remain disadvantaged. The very idea of a mainstream surrounded by a margin has broken down. In its place we have seen a rapid speciation of possibility.
Culture used to produce a succession of social groups (hippie, preppie, punk, goth, steampunk, etc). Most of these have lost their powers of influence. They continue as fashion looks, if they exist at all. The trouble? They proved too large, too much like Macy’s parade floats, to supply anyone with credible identity meanings. Indeed, “lifestyles” now look like the relic of another age. They were once the enemies of a mass society governed by mass media and mass marketing. Now we’re inclined to think they lump too much and split too little.
We are kids let out for recess. Everyone’s running, yelling. There are thousands of definitional possibilities. We self-publish more than 1 million books each year. We attend 2 million Eventbrite events each year. We post 58 million votes on Reddit every day. We upload 400 hours of video on YouTube every minute. In the course of 5 years, podcasts have gone from an obscure enthusiasm to a mainstream medium. We just exploded.
But this new multiplicity does not merely characterize the group. It also defines the individual. “I contain multitudes” is no longer a watchword of the 19th century poet. Some of the most aggressive exploration happens in the LGBTQ community. But virtually any festival that matters (Afropunk, Burning Man, even Coachella) is a live experiment, a veritable laboratory.
Multiplicity is an ancient idea, sponsored by Plato, Hume and, yes, Whitman. But it is now so active and robust as a cultural meaning that it is reshaping language. The actor Nico Tortorella feels his multiplicity so intensely he refers to himself as “they” and “them.” Talk about a trend. Multiplicity is now simultaneously a way to voice the expressive self, work the gig economy, and explore our “expansionary individualism.”
With this comes the great objective of the liberal arts education: the ability to shift perspective. And surely this is precisely the thing that designers (and anthropologists) bring to the strategic party in a way competitors cannot dream of doing, whatever their newly fashionable claims to “empathy.” Oh, please. It’s not about feeling someone’s pain. It’s about understanding who they are as this is made possible by a knowledge of their cultural meanings, rules and trendss. Empathy is a neurological event (apparently). Being multi-perspectival, this is a professional accomplishment that requires cultural knowledge.
Change came. It changed us. It changed itself. Then it built itself in.
Everything now has the same structural properties: world, group, and individual. Each of these is more open, diverse, unfastened, transformational, capacious, explorational and dynamic. Some of this looks like noise in the system. For some people, it feels like the end of order, civility and civilization. But that’s wrong. And panicky. After all, these are precisely the structural properties we should expect to find in a world that’s “gone” liquid.
I call these “structural properties,” but a Design thinker might call them design properties. A shift like this would mean the designer was designed not just to the culture in place, but from it.
2. Culture gets creative
There is a second change to culture. Culture used to serve as a bulwark against change. Now it’s a cause, an instrument, an agent of change.
Duke sociologist Kieran Healy tells us how. Culture, he says, used to be the thing that helped explain why things remained the same. It was ballast. It supplied the deep scripts and instructions, the grammar, out of which culture came day in and day out. (All those meanings, rules, and trends in action.) Culture was made up of millions of acts of compliance and relatively few acts of creativity. Culture was mostly course setting and course correction.
But now, Healy says, culture is also a cause of change. It is the supplier of various instruments and scripts for change. It is one of the things that helps keep our world in a constant state of uproar.
Christopher Alexander wrote about the effects of this kind of culture some 50 years ago. He identified a “selfconscious culture” in which:
The firmness of tradition…dissolves. The resistance to willful change weakens, and change for its own sake becomes acceptable. Instead of forms being held constant in all respects but one, so that correction can be immediately effective, the interplay of simultaneous changes is now uncontrolled. … And as a result the system’s drive to equilibrium is no longer irreversible; any equilibrium the system finds will not now be sustained; those aspects of the process which could sustain in have dropped away. In any case, the culture that once was slow-moving, and allowed ample time for adaptation, now changes so rapidly that adaptation cannot keep up with it.
Disequilibria, this is how we do things. Culture makers say, “you know, here’s a meaning or a rule or a trend, I can mix, match, collide or depart from.” This was once enough to get us burned at the stake. Now people say, “You know, that could work.”
Now a new cultural convention says the “freshest” culture comes from people who work across conventions. The entertaining Killing Eve (BBC) uses genre as a punch line. Every episode is an almost unpredictable piece of storytelling. Even when made for mass media and mass audiences, culture now routinely sits closer to novelty than convention. This is a hallmark of a culture dedicated to producing new culture (instead of reproducing itself).
Thus begins a destruction of the Los Angeles Aqueducts in which creativity once was obliged to flow. We live in a more dynamic culture and we have a more creative part to play. Some of the pleasure of invention comes from the rolling quality of the play of meanings, rules, and trends. Virtually anyone can act as a “designer” or “anthropologist” of some kind, using culture to reinvent things like living rooms, street style, or, gulp, the presidency. Not only does the system not say “no.” It says, “Yeah, sure, go for it.’
With the rise of punk, everyone was invited to get on stage and have a go. Even when we turned out to be the Ramones, our efforts were welcome. Digital technology accelerated this democratization by making creative devices cheaper and easier to master. Distribution, once the barrier to entry, was now free. Turn loose this horde of producers and withhold the rules of genre. A hundred flowers were bound to bloom. The hegemony of Hollywood is diminished. Culture lets loose.
Culture, once it was ballast. Now it has achieved lift off, altitude, multitude. It no longer files a flight plan, and it’s not coming back. The culture of the 1950s was a Cape Canaveral, a place we made ready for take-off.
3. Culture gets wicked
When culture explodes and begins to host new powers of creativity, it becomes more challenging as an intellectual problem. There are more parts to the whole. The wholes themselves multiply and change shape. Figuring out what to study and how to study it, these are vexing problems. And because the culture is question is so dynamic, the “problem set” is never still.
Some people have reacted by insisting that culture is done for as an idea. I can’t help feeling this should be read as a failure of the nerve, the imagination and the intellect. That culture no longer looks like anything a Victorian Matthew Arnold or the 20th century anthropologists would approve doesn’t mean that it isn’t a culture or that it can’t be studied as one. Time for the academics to do a little changing of their own.
Let’s be honest, academics scare easy. They live in a tranquil world. They don’t know the hot breath of competition or the wintery blasts of an unhappy client. Instead they remain well siloed and talk mostly to one another. The designers’ professional practice, on the other hand, requires them to deal daily with complicated sets of problems and solutions. The variety of stakeholders oblige them to be multi-perspectival, swapping assumptions in and out as they go. Perhaps most important, the field is on good terms with chaos. It was some 50 years ago that design theorist Horst Rittel swore off tame problems for “wicked ones.” Designers are good at complexity. This is one of several reasons they should be better at culture.
Culture: friends and enemies
Culture is not universally adored as an idea. Some people in the competitive universe especially do not like it. Economists, MBAs, data jockeys and a certain kind of strategist believe that it is better to see the world as a series of transactions, that self interest, narrowly defined, supplies all motive, and that problem solving works best when defined by a certain pragmatic functionalism.
The best data, this gang says, are numerical and therefore colorless, abstract, liquid, general and anonymous. These data are beautiful to work with but positively Platonic in their detachment from the world. Metrics are good at precision, proportion, tracking, analysis and pattern seeking, but much less useful as a way to capture, or speak to, the reality of the user, consumer, or audience. And they are usually pointless as a way to engage with the creative materials most designers care most about.
There’s no place for culture in the C-suite Olympus, unless the C suite in question happens to belong to a film studio, an advertising agency, or really, really sophisticated CPG brands. At best, it’s “excess to requirement” and otherwise a burden, a distraction and or a mystification of the things that count. Economics is a beautiful idea, filled, to be sure, with beautiful minds, but economics as economics is not an observer of, or contributor to, the beauty of the world. It has a way of bleaching away meaning. Over and over again it is the creative’s job to restore this meaning, at the moment of research, analysis, innovation, communication, and design. So the case for culture is an opportunity for every creative to define the value they “bring to the table.” And this case is easier to make when we can give a formal account of what culture is. Will the C-Suite care? In my experience they do. It’s like finding an extra dragon in your basement.
If there are enemies, there are also friends. For some, the culture idea has celebrity standing. I was doing ethnographies recently in Kentucky and I was interviewing a woman from Eastern Kentucky about coal country and the world of the “holler.” She used “culture” effortlessly and well. Why? I wondered. There were at least two reasons. First, her culture is routinely mocked by mainstream American culture. So she can see American culture inside and out. Second, her culture is in crisis (in ways reported by J.D. Vance). As Marshall Sahlins points out, this is the anthropological version of Minerva taking wing at dusk. A culture in crisis is a culture made manifest.
Many outsiders are able to see culture in a way insiders cannot. This is the classic “outsider’s advantage.” This status is especially marked when we are not just outside of, but marginalized and stigmatized by, the mainstream. If we identify as African American, LGBTQ, feminist, or the member of some style of life (biker, goth, homesteader), we know about culture because, often, someone has contrived to use its semantic authority against us. A punishing culture becomes a visible culture.
Many use “culture” routinely to talk about what they do. At a recent Business of Fashion Voices event, the designer Christopher Wylie said, “We all make and define these cultural narratives. We depend on you to not only make our culture but protect our culture.” Terence Winter, the showrunner responsible for The Sopranos, uses the term precisely. David Brooks of the New York Times uses it routinely. Megan Garber is identified as a “staff writer at the Atlantic where she covers culture.” New York Magazine’s The Cut describes itself as “a digital magazine devoted to style, self, culture, and power.” In Culture Is Not Always Popular, the term “culture” is everywhere in evidence. For instance, Michael Bierut says, “[A]s we sit squarely in a culture intoxicated by sampling and appropriation, can we expect no less from graphic design?”
But sometimes there’s a simpler reason for culture consciousness. Brazilians really get culture. This is because there are lots of cultures flourishing in Brazil. We Americans are just learning to live in a world where lots of cultures flourish. So we’re a little behind the culture consciousness curve. But we are getting there.
The younger you are, the more likely you are to grasp the culture idea. This is because over the last several decades we have seen pop culture and high culture turn into culture plain and simple. For Generations X, Y, and Z, culture has ceased to be a distant objective or a guilty pleasure. It’s a simple truth, the thing you consume and construct without apology. (These generations are still waiting for the economy to value their knowledge and for the corporation to appoint them as culture strategists. It has been a very long wait. Boomers heal thyself.)
On balance, as students of culture, I think we have to say that the culture camp has the edge. They are more numerous, better informed and eventually they will rise to the top of the organization and then they will be more powerful. The “contra-culture” party has made a trade off with the devil. Ignoring culture gives a certain clarity and simplicity. But as the world gets richer and more dynamic, this proves to be a bad bargain. It’s the stuff of Taleb’s “black swans,” of changes you can’t see coming because the parapet on which you stand systematically obscures the approach of danger.
Put it this way, Design thinkers can “stay” with culture or “exit” it. I can’t believe there are any good theoretical grounds for the latter. Plus, you should know, the parties are much, much better.
Welcome to the orphanage
Culture is the dark matter of capitalism. It is largely invisible to the algorithm, the spreadsheet, the C suite, the functional, pragmatic problem-solving paradigm.
Invisible perhaps but so active! Culture is there helping to shape consumer taste and preference. It’s there helping to decide which innovation takes and which one fails. It’s there supplying the trends that will inflect the course of change. Indeed, as we have seen, culture is sometimes the very source from which change comes.
Anthropology created the culture idea but it has been a neglectful parent. To be sure, some good souls continue to use the idea for illuminating purposes. But many anthropologists have surrendered to continental philosophers, embracing a series of political, moral and epistemological anxieties. Thus did they talk themselves out of their great intellectual accomplishment and heritage. Thus did they put themselves in breach of parental responsibility. Thus did they leave you, designer, an idea in need of a home.
Let a designer have the last word. As a founder of Designer Observer, William Drenttel grasped the significance of culture entirely.
“We want to propose a different view of culture, one that presupposes a more expansive view of the world that design inhabits, not limited by form or function, budget or brief, process or style. This notion of culture — which we call intellectual culture — operates from a different premise, and quite possibly, demands a different educational approach: for at its core, it suggests that in order for design to really matter, designers need to think and know more about things besides design.”
The culture concept is an orphan. It’s looking for a home. Everyone would be well served if designers were prepared to step up.
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Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 14 books including most recently The New Honor Code and The Return of the Artisan. He has also written Chief Culture Officer, Culturematic, and Dark Value. He was the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum and, more recently, with Sam Ford, the Artisanal Economies Project. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He has advised Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Boston Book Festival, Nike, and the White House.