Design Anthropology in CA’s Central Valley

I’m happy to be living in Fresno, CA, USA, one of the major bread baskets of the US and a place that is much warmer than the last few places I’ve lived.  But the challenges faced in terms of educating members of this community are high.  I have been working to educate my students as to the value of inductive approaches to solving problems and to the usefullness of Design Anthropology and other types of participatory design that are highly regarded in industry.  But I was surprised to find that members of Fresno’s leadership is also missing the point regarding the value of these methods.

Note the following exchange from a local listserve:

Date: Mon, 10 Nov 2008 08:30:50 -0800
From: “Henry D. Delcore” <>
Subject: Re: [MindHub] Your tax dollars at work?
To: Mindhub <>
Message-ID: <003e01c94351$b1f1b6f0$15d524d0$@edu>

I don’t know enough to vouch for the value of the specific exercise that the
city’s managers went through, the quality of its delivery, or whether it’s
costs were reasonable.  But, there is nothing outrageous about using toys
for this kind of activity.  Let me explain.

What Councilman Duncan described sounds a lot like the participatory design
activities that my colleagues and I at the Institute for Public Anthropology
at Fresno State use to probe market opportunities for clients.  The basic
idea behind participatory design is that we are all designers, and that
engaging users in the design process results in better products and
services, and hence profitability.

Why use toys and other playful methods to try to get at what people want or
think about topic?  The idea, well founded in social and cognitive sciences,
is that people can’t readily talk explicitly about many aspects of their
needs, desires and experiences.  The talk they do produce tends to be not so
creative.  The more creative, yet submerged aspects of their beliefs and
ideas can be drawn out with the right methods, especially methods that get
away from merely writing or speaking about some topic.  Therefore, design
firms and in-house product design departments are using Legos and other
tools to get to the creative stuff that we all have inside of us, draw it
out, and incorporate the insights into innovative products and services.

You may have seen the Fresno Scrapers announcements I sent out to this list.
This is the kind of method we use at Scrapers meetings, and for non- and
for-profit clients here in the Valley.  These are the same methods used in
the most innovative sectors of the economy, like the technology industry.

Again, I don’t know enough about the specific activity the city’s people
went through, but using a toy like Legos is well-founded.

Finally, Lego itself has changed much, no longer “just” a toy, but a serious
educational tool and aid for innovation:

Hank Delcore

Henry D. Delcore, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
California State University, Fresno
5245 N. Backer Ave.
Fresno, CA? 93740
dept office:? (559) 278-3002
direct line:? (559) 278-2784
fax:? (559) 278-7234

—–Original Message—–
[] On Behalf Of Jerry Duncan
Sent: Sunday, November 09, 2008 10:26 AM
Subject: [MindHub] Your tax dollars at work?

Apparently on Friday, November 7th, all members of the City’s upper
management were taken off-site to go through a day long exercise of building
a united vision of the future of Fresno using Legos. Yes, the popular toy.

My understanding is THOUSANDS of dollars of Legos were purchased from
locations all over the valley and the intent was to build a Lego version of
Fresno that will actually be displayed in City Hall.


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