Culture Sensitive Design

Reviewed by Roben Allong, Lightbeam Communications, New York, New York, robena@lightbeamnyc.com

Culture Sensitive Design by Annemiek van Boeijen and Yvo Zijlstra, BIS Book Publishers, 2020

Every now and then a book comes across my desk that surprises me in a good way. I am an avid reader, but a very busy business executive with little time to spare. Culture Sensitive Design: A Guide to Culture in Practice, by Dutch authors Annemiek van Boeijen and Yvo Zijlstra, surprises with a comprehensive, compelling look at design through the ages, its impact for better or worse, and proposed rethinking processes to better incorporate culture for smarter, more meaningful design.

With the rapidly evolving demographics of the United States and the globe, Culture Sensitive Design makes a powerful argument for the reader to get engaged and utilize various cultural models to better observe, explore, and discover their own and other cultures to gain greater understanding of humankind.

The authors present a holistic view of the influence of culture on design through the ages and its potential future impact as it relates to today’s product designers, their considerations, and processes when designing. This is particularly relevant to designers and researchers when thinking about the user experience.

This book is well-researched and written as well as aesthetically pleasing with a beautiful, easy-to-read layout with striking photography of museum artifacts, cultural totems, art, and historical and pop culture references that make it a compelling read. Visuals and imagery bring to life the argument the authors make that the influence of culture is inherent not only in design but in the way we approach and see the world and relate to everything and everyone around us. So, it makes sense that designers consider that cultural orientation is of equal, if not greater, value than systems, preconditions, and prior considerations when thinking about and executing design.

Culture Sensitive Design takes the reader on a fascinating journey through time, examining art, design, innovations, and products through the ages that serve as examples and ways to look at cultural differences that impact our behavior, values, codes, and traditions. The book is divided into four sections: first is determining the lens by which we see culture; second is establishing a code or language by which to better understand and talk about culture; third is identifying a more formal framework by which to measure cultural impact; and fourth, examples of design’s impact on culture. According to the authors, understanding the diverse roles that cultural traditions, rituals, and codes play in influencing how objects are created, used, and become obsolete is critical to overall design success. They expound on the value conflicts that various cultures set up internally and externally, the relationships between cultures, the notions of acculturation, and stereotyping.

Van Boeijen and Zijlstra are clearly committed to encouraging designers to raise awareness that all cultures deserve attention and to sharpen our lenses when exploring value orientations. For example, the authors use the Tuckman culture shock model, which focuses on team dynamics to improve performance as a way to enhance the design development process. They feel that designers can achieve better innovation performance by going through the four stages of getting to know users, pushing against culture boundaries, resolving issues on the basis of understanding, and finally working toward solutions once understanding has been established. This is especially important not just for brands and product designers but also for researchers interested in gaining a much deeper understanding of diverse cultures and elevating insight discovery.

Various other methods used to explore culture and when to use them, such as the Cultura model developed by Chen Hao, are highlighted to develop personas and insights for potential design users. Role mapping is another tool that can be employed to better understand the various roles a user plays at different life stages, such as mother, daughter, grandparent, or aunt.

An added bonus, if you’re a reader who likes to peruse the pages before you read, you’ll enjoy the rich visual treat that Culture Sensitive Design provides.

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