Culture-first design: A process to tap in

Published 08/11/21
︎ 5 min read

I've been exploring the works of famous designers, as I often do, to gather inspiration and pick up gems from the giants. And there’s this common thread that I don’t think is written or talked about enough.

It's not all that novel, but it's something that I think many have trouble articulating, understanding, and defending, including myself.

So, I decided it's worthwhile to write about, both as a resource and reminder for those out there to leverage on their journey.

Cultural Capital

Often things are created that, for some reason or another, become highly successful in reach, popularity, profit — whatever metric you want to use — but that same thing may not have been successful, say ten years, five years, one year, or even yesterday. And I'm not necessarily taking into account technological limitations here — I'm more so referring to the cultural limitations.

I've been diving into the sociological concept of cultural capital, first coined by Pierre Bourdieu. If you're interested, I would watch this quick intro and this explainer.

The TL;DR here is that culture itself is capital. We see this in streetwear, NFTs, exculsive communities, etc.

How this ties back to us is that what these things are able to do is tap into a particular cultural zeitgeist that strikes the chord of the public narrative, whether intentionally or not, and produce an enlarged, exponential amount of return.

The need, the timing, and the aesthetic all coincide into a perfect moment for this idea to take off.

So, I started wondering what lessons we can extract and potentially begin developing a framework that helps create cultural capital for whatever it is that we're designing and prepping for that moment it catches.


But first, why does this even matter? Who does it impact?

Well, in art, it doesn't, unless maybe your end goal is widespread appreciation or fame and wealth. Otherwise, it's a random occurrence that puts you on an upward trajectory.

But in business, it's different.

As designers, technologists, and entrepreneurs, we've learned the behavior that you're building to solve a problem for a specific user. And that problem and customer you're servicing, although often a moving target, can be synthesized into one clear statement, prime for a beautifully articulated slide. But, it's never that simple and often the wrong approach because you miss the big picture.

You miss the potential of what this could be, who this will serve, and even possibly the cultural moment that ultimately takes it over the hill.

But to make it just a little bit more tangible, there's this theory called Ontological Design by Anne-Marie Wills that postulates that we design our world, and our world turns around and designs us.

We can point to examples such as the Instagram selfie, Youtube content creator, or Soundcloud rapper as technology that came before acknowledging the culture and has since evolved with the culture itself in a back-and-forth, signal-noise dance.

When this happens, we sometimes get amazing cultural step-changes, but equally, dangerous implications that come with it in the form of narcissism, doing it for the gram, cancel culture, and mumble rap. It's here within these implications that I wonder how more cultural thinking could better impact outcomes.

Something Different

I don't think culture is at all this elusory holy grail. If you doomscroll through Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or Youtube, you're bound to find a heartbeat if you're looking closely. The question is, once you find it, how do you unpack then synthesize it, and what do you do with it?

As the name of this post mentions, I want to relate this to design and propose a concept of how you can begin to implement this in your workflow.

I've been calling it 'Culture-first design,' but maybe it'll change in the future, I'm not sure.

To me, culture-first design is a meta-design mental model that emphasizes the importance of cultural understanding, integration, and design from a community-centric approach. The best design understands the history, mentality, evolution, artifacts, and capital of the culture it touches and leverages it in its favor.

At large, this is what the typical research and design process looks like:
    1. Start user discovery
    2. Collect interviews
    3. Identify pains, needs, and wants
    4. Synthesize
    5. Develop spec
    6. Begin design
    7. Test designs
    8. Get feedback
    9. Iterate
    10. Hand-off

This workflow is a standardized, tried-and-true model, but again, it misses the emphasis on culture, and more often than not, depriortizes it.

Instead, a culture-first research and design approach could look something like this:
    1. Start user discovery
    2. Define the subcultures
    3. Listen to the stories of the community members
    4. Note key players, communities, artifacts, and subsequent values and behaviors
    5. Collect interviews
    6. Observe internal trends
    7. Draw lines from macro trends
    8. Identify pains, needs, and wants
    9. Synthesize
    10. Develop spec
    11. Begin design
    12. Get feedback from purists and tourists
    13. Iterate
    14. Hand-off

This workflow instead places importance on cultural exploration. To me, this comes in the form of truly immersing yourself in the community of the culture without compromising the study. It's combining what you know about the community that pushes the culture, where it's trending, and taking those learnings to implement into your work.

The goal is to build up a sort of ever-evolving knowledge culture.

How you go about implementing it into your work is a whole separate topic and likely depends on your discipline, form factor, etc., but I think you get it.

The Future

We already see many compelling examples of this in the real world with projects like seasonal fashion collections (Louis Vuitton), music releases (DONDA), shows (Kerwin Frost Talks), and films (A24).

Cases also exist within technology, but again, we've operated on the Silicon Valley model for so long that there aren't as many.

A few technology projects, teams, and companies that are progressively operating in this direction include $FWB, MSCHF, Zora, Foundation, Axie Infinity, Roam Research, Rainbow, and PartyDAO.

What you may notice from this list is that many of them operate in the web3 space whose operational models are perfectly encapsulated by this tweet:

(Note: Expect a write-up that expands on this soon.)

Ultimately, I think our world is trending towards more widespread cultural consciousness, and the next generation of builders intrinsically have and value high cultural IQs (as shown by Gen Z).

At present though, the importance of 'tapping in' is highly undervalued, but I foresee a massive shift occurring soon.

However you choose to implement this model or take inspiration from it in something similar, I'd love to hear about it. My DMs are always open for suggestions and collaboration on expanding this.

Thanks for reading.

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