designinistanbul | interview | lucy suchman: “i think the collectives that are most promising are those whose basis is in ongoing and sustainable relationship and ways of living together, rather than a goal or a demonstrable product. this is another respect in which over generalizing the term ‘design’ to refer to all forms of invention and making is not only an anachronistic move, but one that claims future making as the privileged domain of commodity capitalism”
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interview | lucy suchman: “i think the collectives that are most promising are those whose basis is in ongoing and sustainable relationship and ways of living together, rather than a goal or a demonstrable product. this is another respect in which over generalizing the term ‘design’ to refer to all forms of invention and making is not only an anachronistic move, but one that claims future making as the privileged domain of commodity capitalism”


In these days, we are witnessing myriad attempts to re-name, re-conceptualize, re-layerize and re-functionalize design and arts, despite they are relatively limited and less profound for crafts. Observations of Professor Suchman open up a fresh, unique and critical window on the endless discussions taking place in this domain. We have met her during one of the most to-the-point examples of this witnessing, namely during the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial that started with a question (Are We Human), yet closed leaving numerous other questions behind. Our interview with her starts with the questions of the biennial, expands to the questions of designinistanbul. We sincerely thank to Professor Lucy Suchman for this inspiring interview, and her profound contribution.

Dear Professor Suchman. Thank you for your rewarding contribution to designinistanbul by accepting to be part of our interviews. We have greatly benefited from your article, “Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design” in questioning the latest Istanbul Design Biennial (20 October – 22 November 2016) that was curated under the question “Are We Human?”. As the title implies, the biennial had in some way a tendency to embrace the concept of design beyond time and space boundaries, and in relation to all the material artifacts produced through the human history. In your article, you also criticize the over-comprehensive tendencies in design, by arguing that the idea of “innovation” inherent in this conceptualization turns places, persons and things into “points of origin”, by universalizing novelty. And this in turn presents an obstacle in recognizing the specificities of time and space, also of cultures. Based on this approach, we would like to ask your opinions about the ways in which the domain of design can or should recognize these historical, geographical and cultural specificities, especially in terms of its relation with historically and locally meaningful, yet problematic category of crafts and craftsmanship?

In addressing this question, I’m of course drawing on my own experience within professional design worlds in the United States, and more specifically computer research and development in the Silicon Valley from 1980 to 2000. In this context I often quote American design historian Victor Margolin, who writes in his book The Politics of the Artificial: ‘If designers are going to realize the full potential of design thought, then they should also learn to analyze how the situations that frame design practice are themselves constructed’ (2002, p. 241). This simple statement is also, I believe, a radical one in its potential for the emergence of design as a critical practice, one that questions its own histories and premises, rather than taking them as given. Margolin’s book was a direct response to Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial, published 1969, which was arguably a founding text in the emergence of professional Design understood as something rational and cognitive, in ways that transcend history and culture. If we really take Margolin’s suggestion seriously, it opens up a rich set of questions regarding design history, theory and criticism. It also opens up the question of design practice, which brings us as well to the figures of ‘craft’ and ‘craftsmanship.’

As another form of human material culture, how do you define craft, and craftsmanship? Would this definition also be bounded by time and space?

The terms craft and craftsmanship are haunted by political economic orderings and gendered histories. So craft can be a way of setting up a subordinate practice to art and/or science, and in that and other ways diminishing a practice’s relative value and associated rewards. Craft can also be the privileged domain – along with skill – of only certain (male) workers, as a kind of counter-move in reclaiming value. (The construction craftsmanship of course reflects this history.) The characterization of a practice as a form of craft work, whether to diminish or valorize that practice, carries with it a particular (Western European) history of labour, however much that descriptor might be projected as relevant across time and space. At the same time, the virtue of craft is that it recognizes the inseparability of mind and hand in making things; I often tell my PhD students that writing a thesis is a form of craftwork. What I mean by that is that it is a thinking/writing practice that is always also material in ways that need to be acknowledged (for example in terms of bodily rhythms, workspaces, media) and a process of assembling, reworking, smoothing, fitting things together into a coherent and bounded, and also inevitably partial, whole. In that respect there are many ways in which analogies with craft practice, particularly for practices conventionally understood as narrowly intellectual or cognitive, seem to me very generative.

Seeking the possibility of a collectivity of craft, art and design with reference to their particular potentialities in value production, we would like to ask you a special designinistanbul question. What would you say about inconsistencies, layers, ambiguities, intersections, borders, and infusions of craft, art and design?

I need to start by acknowledging that this isn’t a question that I’ve thought about directly. But clearly when we name things as either ‘craft,’ ‘art,’ or ‘design’ we’re both signaling lines of identification, and also making differences among them. And making difference is always political, in its implications for inclusion/exclusion, ordering in terms of value, and the like. A long history and strong investments have gone into the creation of these as differentiable categories, rather than as always already integral to one another. At the same time we know that practices are messy ­– noncoherent in John Law’s sense in his book After Method (2004). Moreover, at the contemporary moment there seems a strong, transnational circulation of ideas about new forms of collectives (for example in the form of community-based maker spaces) dedicated to undoing these carefully drawn boundaries. The inevitable inconsistencies, layers, ambiguities, and intersections are a great resource for finding the spaces for that redrawing.

Your book chapter “Decentring the Manager/Designer” (in Managing as Designing ed. by Richard Boland Jr. and Fred Collopy) elaborates the similar orientations, also common challenges of design and management in our contemporary era. You highlight their most basic challenges as the “distance between the life worlds of professional managers and designers and those persons and places who are their objects.” And in order to overcome this problem, you are suggesting a move “from the designing manager as a singular and central actor, to managing and design as ongoing, collective achievements of differently located, mutually consequential persons and things”. Could you open up the nature, structure and characteristics of this collectivity, and the ways in which its elements (can) work together?

Yes, the similar orientations of (again professional) Management and Design that I’m drawing attention to here are the effects of a shared history, arising out of 19-20th century investments in the centralization of control of increasingly extended operations (transport systems, factories, bureaucracies, etc.), and in the idealisation of the rational human actor. Closely associated with this history is the rise of the professions, ideas of expertise and the like, which again differentiate those who are taken to have the requisite knowledge from those who don’t. One central aspect of this is a kind of action-at-a-distance, where those who are taken to be the ‘minds’ (in the case of management) conceive the operations of those taken to be the ‘hands’, or those who are figured as the conceivers of how the world should be (in the case of design) are differentiated from those who will be either the makers or the users/consumers. But if instead we shift from thinking of Management and Design with initial capitals (a sign of professionalization) to thinking of managing and designing as activities that permeate everyday labours of organizing and making, then the question is how to align those activities in a just and generative way. There are no general rules for how to do that, but there are bodies of wisdom that we can draw on both historically and in contemporary experiments; I think for example of the recent actions of Native American ‘Water Protectors’ opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States, who draw on their long history to invent new modes of organizing resistance and preserving futures. But there are many other examples in other parts of the world.

Could this collective bear a positive potentiality for human, nature, and societies other than the design outcome itself?

As you’ll see from my example above, I’ve shifted away from ‘design’ as such in thinking about transformative change. I’m not quite sure that I believe in ‘design outcomes’ in the sense of a specific moment at which we can say that a design process has realized itself, or at least not in any context other than a commodity object. And even then, arguably, the process continues. I think the collectives that are most promising are those whose basis is in ongoing and sustainable relationship and ways of living together, rather than a goal or a demonstrable product. This is another respect in which over generalizing the term ‘design’ to refer to all forms of invention and making is not only an anachronistic move, but one that claims future making as the privileged domain of commodity capitalism.

What about copyrights? How does a collective including design as one of its key elements deal with the copyright issue?

While I haven’t worked directly in this area myself, I think that some of the most creative and consequential initiatives at the moment are in alternatives to copyright. I’m thinking here, for example, of the cases discussed by anthropologist Anita Say Chan in her book Networking Peripheries (2013). In reporting on her research in the city of Lima and in the Northern Peruvian village of Chulucanas, Anita shows with poignant clarity how state-sponsored initiatives to create a form of IP called ‘Denomination of Origin,’ launched in the name of preserving traditional craft practices, can result instead in the selective, and highly divisive, transformation of both social relations and material artefacts. Chulucana ceramicists were urged to remake themselves as entrepreneurial producers with global connections, which in turn necessitated that their artefacts be remade into mass-produceable commodities for consumers in the global North. Along with the forces of resistance from within the Chulucana community, Networking Peripheries explores as well how Free, libre, and open source software (FLOSS) maker communities in Peru have hacked the One Laptop Per Child initiative in order to transform it from a project in replicating neoliberal subjects, to a medium for honouring and reanimating collective modes of creativity.

As an anthropologist, you have been actively involved in a quite unique field, namely human-computer interaction, and also run a managerial position for a long time at a science and technology oriented research group at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. How would you elaborate the ways in which the anthropological knowledge is expanded through this unique interaction with a quite technical field?

My thoughts about this are set out in two recent publications, one titled

‘Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design’ (2011) and the other ‘Consuming Anthropology’ (2013). The titles might suggest the contents of these reflections back on my 20 years in the design worlds of the Silicon Valley. I trace some genealogies of American anthropology’s engagements with industry, both historically and in the trajectory that brought me, in 1979, to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), as the field site for a PhD in anthropology. I sketch the shifting identities, alliances, politics, and contradictions that defined my subsequent life at PARC, but most importantly I hope that I contribute to the project of locating design ethnographically, and articulating the need for anthropologists to challenge design’s authority, and in that way help to refigure its place in processes and practices of transformational change.



Law, J. (2004). After Method: Mess in social science research. London and New York: Routledge.

Margolin, V. (2002). The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Say Chan, A. (2013). Networking Peripheries: Technological futures and the myth of digital universalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Simon, H. (1969). The sciences of the artificial. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Suchman, L. (2011). Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design. Annual Review of Anthropology, 40, 1-18. available at

Suchman, L. (2013). Consuming Anthropology. In A. Barry & G. Born (Eds.), Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences (pp. 141-160). London: Routledge. available at

Lucy Suchman

Lucy Suchman holds a Chair in the Anthropology of Science and Technology at Lancaster University, and is President of the international Society for Social Studies of Science (4S).  Before taking up her present post she was a Principal Scientist at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, where she spent twenty years as a researcher. Her current research extends her longstanding engagement with the field of human-computer interaction to the domain of contemporary war fighting, including problems of ‘situational awareness’ in remotely-controlled weapon systems. She has written for both social and information sciences audiences, and is the author of Human-Machine Reconfigurations (2007) and Plans and Situated Actions: the problem of human-machine communication (1987), both published by Cambridge University Press.  In 2002 she received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Sciences, in 2010 the ACM SIGCHI Lifetime Research Award, and in 2014 the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) Bernal Prize for Contributions to the Field. |