Decoding culture

Amishi Parekh, 2011
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As designers, we seem to be producing tremendous amounts of ‘stuff’, with little consideration as to how it fits into the lives of the people who use it. Increasingly, we design for cultures that are fundamentally different from our own, and which are continuously changing.

“The human life of a country disappears to the exclusive benefit of its monuments…men exist only as ‘types’.” –Roland Barthes, Mythologies

 

As designers, we seem to be producing tremendous amounts of ‘stuff’, with little consideration as to how it fits into the lives of the people who use it. Increasingly, we design for cultures that are fundamentally different from our own, and which are continuously changing. The failure of many foreign companies to successfully launch products and services in countries such as India and China is an argument for acknowledging that people from different cultures have diverse needs and motivations, which dictate their behaviour and purchasing decisions. Country and culture seem to be viewed as interchangeable concepts. There exists a tension between the desire to maintain an authentic expression of identity and ‘locality’, and a tendency among designers towards a unified form language.

 

Culture, and similarly innovation, is not about the artefact, but what it alludes to for the people who interact with it. Designers can take a more granular approach that accommodates broader, international trends and smaller, regional variations. However, the deeper aspects of culture are complex and difficult to condense into easily digestible units.

 

Field research results in the generation of vast amounts and varieties of data, ranging from videos, images and ecosystem maps, to written notes and analyses. The value of these insights may only be known months and years later. To understand culturally specific behavior, designers need to visualise the interconnections between underlying drivers and shifts.

 

Jon Kolko states that innovation is the ability to “appropriately interpret subjective data to create “new and successful design ideas”. His use of the word “appropriate” is significant. The social implications of developing and introducing new products and services into markets also need to be considered, through a dialogue between the people who make, solve, and do, and those who consume, use, and customise. This is only possible by engaging with local researchers and designers in the research and insight development process – whether it is to develop a low-cost prosthesis made with bamboo components for patients in Indonesia, or in the case of IKEA, to create a strategy tailored to launch stores in China.  It is an effort to ensure that the outcomes of such a process are “appropriate” for both sides.

 

Meet other experts on the topic, and check out their ideas in the following video: http://bit.ly/12CBKJ4

 

Interested in finding out more about building a creative economy? Be sure to attend the MA Innovation Management Grad Show June 19-23 at Central St. Martins College of Arts & Design.