It all starts with experience. Many are the times when we have realized that we simply need to bridge theoretical understanding with actual action more efficiently. Imagine that you want to solve the fact that there are no urinals for women at public events, which forces women to choose between waiting in endless lines or holding it in at countless public events, festivals, concerts and demonstrations. How do you solve this absurdity?To approach this challenge we need to see things differently, using various skills and employing a number of practices. Firstly, we need to understand the needs of the women who might use it, and secondly we need to consider the actual three-dimensional solution that will need to materialize in order to solve the problem. In other words: We need to engage with understanding the culture of peeing in a public place as well as the tangible design.
Pollee prototype at Distortion Festival: Over the years we have produced several prototypes of female urinals
It is quite obvious that the act of peeing in a public place in itself, though fairly simple physically, is in fact also quite complex. It relates to a variety of practical issues in a public context: Where is the urinal placed? Where do I put my coat/bag/beer/whatever while peeing? How do I keep track of my friends? There is also a list of more specific cultural issues related to sex, safety, privacy, hygiene and so forth. In this seemingly specific design challenge, we discover a complexity of norms, habits, social expectations that affect how a human uses and interacts with the world around it.A similar complexity arises when you design for cities, companies or organisations and consider how they appear to themselves and the people who interact with them. What actually constitutes a liveable neighbourhood, for instance? Is it the architecture? The infrastructure? The economical conditions? The local enthusiasts that host the Sunday market? All of the above? The same goes for cultural institutions. Which physical, social, content-related and communicative aspects of an experience come together in the visitor’s mind and end up in a conclusion: I’ll be back soon/I’m never coming back!
Culture as such is a contested concept with a variety of meanings. Culture is often understood in two ways: 1. As a way of life, our everyday habits, actions and communication (the anthropological approach). 2. As artistic expression — namely the specific types of output that we consider “cultural” — e.g. music, film, literature, theatre, art (the narrow creative/artistic understanding of culture). In the first case, we talk about culture as relating to nationality (he is a typical Dane) or groups (she is into heavy metal) — in the latter we talk about culture as something we produce or practice (performing, expressing ourselves) or consume (going to a concert, buying an art book).
San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain
The art of understanding culture in the broadest sense is linked to anthropology, ethnography and sociology, while the more narrow artistic definition is affiliated with the humanities — e.g. comparative literature, film and theatre studies etc. This interpretation entails a certain level of curiosity, empathy and imagination. It involves an interest in symbols, objects, meaning, languages, people, norms, and ethics.
This interpretation entails a certain level of curiosity, empathy and imagination. It involves an interest in symbols, objects, meaning, languages, people, norms, and ethics.
It comes down to curiosity and to being aware of the multifaceted mixture of weirdness and pragmatism that constitutes the actions of mankind — the banality and complexity that goes into human existence. From the (seemingly) simplest facts (I am thirsty) to the decision that follows (I’m buying/not buying a Coke). Thinking about culture is a way to remember that the seemingly normal and familiar things we do are complex. The way in which we organize our workplaces, our institutions, our society is not a given. It could all be different.
The depth of interpretation: One of the great minds in analysing culture is the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, he unfolds with great precision many of the intricacies of actually reading and understanding what is going on — even in the simplest exchange between people.
The concept of culture refers to the world as something that is read, interpreted, negotiated — and pointing to the necessity of being skilled at analysing, thinking and producing with a certain cultural sensitivity. The traditions of analysing culture — both in the (broader) anthropological sense and in the (narrower) artistic sense — offers a rich world of strategies for deciphering the worlds and practices around us.
The humanistic tradition of interpreting the minds and actions of other people can inspire the way we see and act in the world. And the most inspiring cultural analysts make you aware of how wild and weird the world we make actually is.
However, the humanistic tradition rarely engages in the actual production of the world’s materiality — the buildings and objects around us. It generally offers little advice on how to actually change things and create new, tangible solutions. This is where we turn to the concept of design.
When most people hear the word design, they think furniture, accessories, fashion and beautiful spaces. The word design originally meant “marking out” and drawing, to make something stand out. The significant contributor to the history of design, John Heskett, describes design as “… the human capacity to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives”. A definition that opens up more than it narrows down, to say the least. Design as a concept can be sliced and diced in hundreds of ways and these years the concept of design is changing rapidly.
The popular understanding of design still relates to objects. But many will be familiar with the broader understanding of design where process and methodology are at the centre. Nowadays we talk about service design, business design, critical design — and we talk about design thinking, design management, design mindsets and design methodology.
Design is extensively turning towards what is referred to as the 3rd and 4th order of design, looking at systems, services and environments. Management consultants are engaging in design methodology and designers are increasingly gaining access to management floors.
Four orders of design: adapted from the ‘Four orders of design’ model developed by Richard Buchanan
Christian Bason, head of Danish Design Center, describes the design process as “visual and experimental, having people’s experiences and behaviour as its focal point”. He makes the case (as we do) that there is an immense potential in engaging in processes with the power of visuality and tangibility. The eye and the hand (as well as the other senses) play a crucial role when it comes to addressing complex and abstract problems. Employing even the most mundane tools such as sketching, using reference pictures or building models help tremendously. By bringing thoughts into the world with a body, they help clarify what we think and give us an inkling of how to address it. In order words, we find that the 1st and 2nd order of design is as valid and efficient as the 4th.
This is at the heart of solving problems, at the heart of creativity. The enemy of creativity is not critique. It is a lack of focus, of not knowing what we are talking about. To battle fluffiness you must be concrete. A mode to do this is to build scenarios, narratives, versions of the actual problem — and thereby discover potential solutions.
This exercise is very familiar to most designers and has increasingly proved its worth as a way of linking what is with what could be. But design is also still a craft that is mastered by years of training. The actual doing of design, let’s say graphic design, is often mastered by highly driven people who do not necessarily express themselves through words or tangible knowledge. There is a tacit capability, in the eye and the hand. At Urgent.Agency we insist on combining the two extremes of design: design as craft and design as process and mindset.
By employing the concept of culture design, we underscore the understanding of the cultures of the people involved — the stakeholders and (existing and potential) users — and dare to engage in the production of ideas, scenarios or versions of a solution. We aspire to a fundamental openness towards the type of results that might arise from our work. The output is relative to the challenge and can be anything from strategic directions, based on research of different sorts, to graphic design.
Of course we are not alone in mixing culture and design. In most versions of today’s wide concept of design thinking, culture analysis has become a quite integral part of the design toolbox. Many design schools and design companies claim to do user research and employ anthropological or ethnographic tools to gain insight. Though you might discuss the depth and rigour of how design research is actually done in some contexts, we are fundamentally on the same page.
So why don’t we just call ourselves a service design agency or strategic design agency? In a sense, we could, as we share the fundamental outset: the interest in human experience and the ambition to create human-centered solutions. We agree that the individual experience is a good place to start as it is the only place where experience takes place (that we know of). But beyond the joy of creating our own terminology, we like to stress a few nuances. Talking about culture implies an interest in the wider field of culture, which is more than just the individual, the “user”. We want to emphasize the importance of addressing conditions and contexts beyond the individual. We include the cultural and physical structures that connect and define us.
Culture design is a way to emphasize that whatever is to be designed must be connected to the complex cultures of everyday life. By linking the two words we also aim to underscore the need to combine understanding culture with acting on it. It’s about the need to fill the gap between knowing and doing and moving more dynamically from research to production.
This way we avoid two deadly sins: the serious research delivered in a report that nobody reads, and the superficial design with no real knowledge or insight into the world or the people it aims to engage.
Though there is no golden method of culture design, there is experience that comes from engaging with all kinds of projects and processes, including the blunders that makes you all the wiser. By insisting on human experience and curiosity — and fusing practices from a variety of skilled people — we can, in fact, come up with more creative, more humane, more meaningful solutions to the urgent challenges of today and tomorrow.