Beyond objects: an anthropological dialogue with design

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis, an anthropological dialogue with design, seeks to explore the formation of the material world beyond objects. The work is situated within the fields of design studies and social anthropology, and contributes to the emerging interdisciplinary field of design anthropology. It draws on my education and perspective as a designer and engineer, my field dialogues with contemporary practitioners and the writings of the media philosopher Vilém Flusser, the social anthropologist Tim Ingold and the architect Kengo Kuma.

I begin with a consideration of the material world as all matter which forms the earth, its atmospheres and the dwellings and features of many organisms. Such a notion of the material world is abundant with life, energy and potential and recognises human perception as entwined with lineages of materials, making and transformation. However design has evolved, I argue, to become a practice that tends to obscure the energetic and entangled conditions of the world, by way of presenting materials in the form of objects; discrete and enclosed material entities. This results in an impoverishment of environmental perception and a clotting of the ecological currency of materials.

To understand how materials come to be formed into objects, I attend to a site of contemporary engineering practice where designers work with materials, tools and computational media in the formation of a product: in this case the royal relay baton for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Drawing on a period of sustained participant observation with one Glasgow-based company, I observe how lines of practice course through intention, gesture, conversation, writing, drawing, modelling and making, as materials are projected and presented in object form. I highlight the specific dispositions and activities of individual practitioners as they orient their perception towards different ways of knowing materials and specific practices of formation. Here, it becomes evident that design is, fundamentally, a social practice, constituted in an ongoing dialogue between people, matter and energy.

Drawing the strands together, I argue that design is not so much a point-to-point procedural process, as an active matrix of social, material and energetic interchange, in which performance and form are intertwined in the transformation of people, materials and surrounds. Within this matrix of activity, the condition of the object is notably evident - and often dominating - but not absolute or inevitable, and there always exist possibilities for manifestations of form beyond objects. Following this prospect, the thesis rounds not to a closure, but to an opening: to the possibility of design as a practice of material performance led by the attentiveness, critique and imagination of an anthropological education.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Aberdeen
  • Ingold, Tim, Supervisor, External person
  • Vergunst, Jo, Supervisor, External person
Award date8 Feb 2018
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018


  • anthropology
  • design
  • objects
  • ethnography
  • glasgow
  • form
  • surface
  • practice
  • making
  • product design
  • commonwealth games
  • design theory
  • perception
  • phenomenology
  • tim ingold
  • vilem flusser
  • kengo kuma


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