Culture Defines Meaning: an Anthropology in Global Design

Title image is a juxtaposition of elements. Ceremonial mask from the Kalimantan region of Indonesia used to scare the devil from the village. Photo by Shaun Fynn.
Second image, the pill.

The influence of culture on contemporary design is a complex affair but the significance of cultural value translated into products has long been relevant and is often the component that defines the meaning and points of distinction. If one is to consider a wider definition of product such as the term artifact (the product of man) then the historical and anthropological nature or objects can be more clearly observed.

The artifacts around us offer windows into our own belief systems and the belief systems of others. These artifacts also reflect the eras within which they were created and the rituals, ceremonies and practices of the times.  Also within this equation is how artifacts incorporate long practiced traditions of craft, support societal needs or the state of technological advancement of the times.

The need to understand cultural indicators and markers of rapidly growing markets and societies and how these translate into work, social or leisure practices is the foundation to understanding opportunity.

The complexity of societies current and past means there are multiple ways in which we find methods of identification with the artifact or see them as a way of providing meaning within our own system of beliefs. Of course, belief can mean many things, if we are to consider artifacts of the animist belief system they posses the potency of image that clearly reflects the belief in a primal spirit world which is a fundamental component of a society not concerned with modern definitions of technology as advancement.  If we dig deeper on the subject there can be found universal messages, images and myths across so called primitive societies that relate to one another or the idea of the collective unconscious (as Jung coined the term) even where there is no apparent communication or connection between the cultures. According to Jung, there exists a pre-experiential set of “mythological motifs, combinations of ideas or images which can be found in the myths of one's own folk or in those of other races which yield a collective meaning, a meaning which is the common property of mankind”

The ancient or primitive artifact is a long way from most of todays recognized and practiced belief systems, however, the point is that they are of no lesser value than the products and brands that represent the pervasive notion that technology defines advancement.  In the contemporary context there are products that can be so significant that they can change the behavior and structures of a society or generation. An interesting example of this is the contraceptive pill introduced in the US in 1960 and the UK in 1961 and there is probably no clearer example of where technological advancement and cultural shift come together in one product that has a fundamental and irreversible impact on societal behavior.  In this case, culture and technology define a product of such impact that the whole pattern of how women live, work and plan their lives is revolutionized.

Today, our concept of the artifact has clearly progressed and migrated into the concept of brand but within the umbrella of the brand it is still important to understand how the components of culture can define meaning. This is an especially important debate in our current times and for this generation where due the drastic economic shift of the last few years we are now looking clearly towards emerging markets where we know economic growth will significantly outstrip that of developed economies. 

So, how do we move into and design for these emerging market areas and arenas? Historically, not a great deal of attention or interest has been given to the emerging market and most companies involvement has been on a tertiary level where only issues of export to luxury markets, supporting expat industries located there or the simple preoccupation of cost reduction are supported. These methodologies are still relevant but if used alone will miss the bigger picture and opportunity. The need to understand cultural indicators and markers of rapidly growing markets and societies and how these translate into work, social or leisure practices is the foundation to understanding opportunity, 

Also, understanding the value of precedents (or what has gone before) is another ingredient to the approach. For example, if you are Apple your technologies and products have few competitors and virtually no precedents wherever they are exported in the world due to the level of innovation and their inherent nature as a technological product.  However, if you are a company concerned with products for cooking then you will have to study global culture in great detail in order to export to those markets as cooking has thousands of years of practice and tradition that varies significantly by region and culture therefore considerable precedents have been set.

This approach combined with a respect for difference and the belief that the preservation of difference is a vital component of enriching our world offers access to understanding the traditions and aspirations of others.