“Anthropology and Fashion Design Seen Through Foresight Eyes”

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Hello and welcome back to the Dr. Nilda Business Foresight Show. With me today is my co-host Rachel Calderon say hello Rachel.

Hello everyone.

And a very special guest from the fashion industry who is also a foresight strategist. I’m going to read you her bio. She’s an amazing lady. Her name is Dr. Natlie Nixon. She’s the CEO of Figure 8 Thinking, LLC a company that helps organizations accelerate innovation and growth by developing meaningful strategy through design thinking and ethnographic research. She’s a design strategist and a hybrid thinker with a background in anthropology and fashion. She’s the editor of Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences and Beyond; a regular contributor to INC online magazine. Natlie is a Fellow at the Paris d.School and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Natlie earned a BA (Cum Laude) in Anthropology and Africana Studies from Vassar College and a PhD in Design Management from the University of Westminster in London. Welcome Dr. Natlie.

Hi, thank you so much thank you so much for having me.

I just want to jump into this because I’m quite fascinated by the fact that your background is in anthropology and it’s also in fashion. And you’re a foresight strategist. How did you get involved in foresight explain that?

Maybe I could take it back to my roots in anthropology. Anthropology unlike other social sciences like sociology, political science and economics which I always say give us the bird’s-eye view of society anthropology trains you to see from the perspective of the worm’s-eye view. Should be on the ground and to understand units of society and culture that are a bit smaller. So, you begin to observe. You get trained in observation and you begin to look for different signals. Then later when I worked in the fashion industry we use a lot of trend research in the fashion business in order to better anticipate customer’s needs. I would say that my introduction really began with a shift in my mind site that was informed by being educated in anthropology and becoming an ethnographer using ethnography in my work and my industry experience in fashion.

That’s interesting. How did you match foresight and fashion together?

Foresight as a term really came a bit later. I was a professor for 16 years and one of my last contributions was to start something called the strategic design MBA program. Part of that curriculum we offered a course in foresight strategy. I was already doing scenario planning in the way that I was teaching strategy and business model innovation. Actually, pretty recently I did the formal work of getting certified by the Institute for the future as a foresight strategy. So, there was a really nice way to bring together and converge all of these other skills I have been gathering in my toolkit so to speak.

I want you to explain to the to the audience what is an ethnographic researcher.

Ethnography is the methodology that anthropologists are trained in to use I would say kind of three basic tools that are brought to the fore. The primary one is observation which is a lot harder than it may initially sound because there’s a big difference between observing and then interpreting what you observe. You spend a lot of time in the front and really try to identify what the questions are that you could be curious about and that you could be investigating. You try to go in with a very open mind. There’s this whole principle in anthropology called cultural relativism. There’s a lot of terminology but reflexivity and being very self-aware of yourself in the process of observing what’s called the other people who are different from you. That could be in a corporation, that could be of the people in a very different country from where you live and work etc. interviewing is another tool that’s used in ethnography. Interviewing is a bit more proactive. It’s a method of inquiry where you’re asking questions to help you understand some phenomena. It could be a ritual. It could be an interaction. It could be an artifact from the perspective of the people whom you’re trying to understand and learn about. You have to also be very aware of the types of questions that you frame and form. Then there’s also something called contextual inquiry where within the context you are asking people how they are making a certain type of meal or administering a drug or doing a process. So, it’s within the context of the person you’re also asking kind of clarifying questions. From a traditional anthropologist, perspective ethnography can last years. It’s interesting now that ethnographies are being much more welcomed in corporate environments. I think there’s a bit of a split in the field of anthropology. There is definitely anthropologist who aren’t as happy about anthropology being used in a corporate environment. I think they want there to be some compromises that happen in that context. I think that having anthropologists being hired by corporations to help them have a different lens and understanding of the way they go about doing work and designing their organizations is pretty important and helpful. So, ethnography is a methodology that tries to understand from an objective perspective as possible how phenomena are working. I don’t really believe in the objectivity. I think it’s very hard to completely remove your own bias and your own opinion from something but anthropologists try.

Why do you think that foresight matters?

Foresight is a tool for strategy in my view. It’s important to try to lay out multiple possible futures. I always remind people that foresight work isn’t about looking into a crystal ball or trying to identify one singular future. But, it’s more to help people be prepared and to anticipate multiple futures. What I think is cool about foresight work is that it forces you to be hyper-focused on the present state actually because you have to be much more observant and aware of phenomena. You might just have an intuitive response and you can’t always explain it but it’s a bit of a variation the way things have been happening.

Exactly and this is why I think of the ethnographic background that research is a beautiful marriage with foresight. Because foresight looks at the past, it looks at the present and it looks at the future. So, with ethnography, I think bringing it all together is a beautiful marriage. You get the most well-rounded which is very necessary for foresight work. I love it. When you go into a company you do the ethnography research and you also do the foresight research. So, you’re looking at trends but again you look at it from a very well-rounded almost a 360 perspective.


You look at ethnography and foresight and that sort of makes sense. Now we’re talking about fashion. How does your background in fashion inform you in your work as a foresight practitioner? How did that come in? how does that help if it does help?

Fashion definitely plays a very useful part in my work in the way I approach things. A lot of people underestimate the power and legitimacy and robustness of fashion. So, people don’t understand it as a business and as a system think it’s kind of a frilly foo-foo venture or area of design. And there is a hierarchy in design where kind of architecture is at the top of the hierarchy. Then other forms of design like product design, industrial design, graphic design. UX design etc. come after. Then there’s fashion. Even in the way the academic literature refers to it will refer to it as architecture and design or design and fashion so it’s definitely an underestimated field. What I have found so valuable about my experience in fashion and I was an entrepreneurial hat designer. My mom taught me and my sister how to sew. The women in my family are very gifted in the fiber arts. My mother was, my grandmother was and my great aunts were very gifted seamstresses. My mother was a weaver so I really grew up in that type of environment. For me it was functional art. Later in my early 20s I went back to it because for very practical reasons I needed a wardrobe. I was living in New York City one couldn’t afford all the pretty frocks in Manhattan. I started Nat’s Hats really out of need ironically. Later I worked in a more corporate fashion environment. I worked for a division of the Limited brands and I worked in the area of global fashion sourcing. Sourcing is a logistical arm of the fashion business and it is the engine of the business. It is the hub. So, you were working constantly. The design teams, the buyers, the mills, the factories and the logistics freight forwarding companies. I had the opportunity to live and work in Sri Lanka in Southeast Asia and in Portugal when I worked on Victoria’s Secret account. But, what all that experience taught me is that fashion requires you to have a point of view because it’s not about being copycat although knockoff culture is prevalent in fashion. There is a whole group people who believe and I agree with them that the knockoff culture actually compels you to be more innovative because as soon as you want something you could be knocked off. But, fashion really requires you to have a point of View. It really requires you to pay attention. I love the way fashion is a wonderful blend of an aesthetic know-how, a sensitivity to the arts, as well as having some business savvy and having some practical element as well. So, for all those reasons I have found my background in fashion should be really helpful and gives a lot of added value to the work that I do.

I find also that the what they would fashion is that it’s very focused on trends. But, not only is it focused on trends when a fashion or style comes out that’s really outdated because you guys are 5 10 15 years ahead of that season. So, that’s what I found. I wrote an article the other day about that. That when you look at fashion they really were the first foresight strategists in a way. Then in the car industry. Those are two industries that are prevalent in understanding trends and understanding the importance of trends. And understanding that if you know what’s going to happen in a year you’re too late. It’s already too late it’s that far ahead. Would you agree?

I do and the product life cycle in fashion is much shorter than the automotive industry. In some ways I don’t know which is harder the work of trend teens in the auto or in fashion. Even since the time when I worked for mast industries the diminutive Limited Brands the lifecycle of a product has shrunk even further so that it might have been six months out that you would be preparing. Now because of fast fashion you’re preparing a month out three weeks out from concept to the product being on the shelf. In auto on other hand you have because the componentry of making automobile is a bit more. The materiality the engineering. It’s a bit more involved. You’re talking about maybe a two-year lifecycle maybe a year for probably two-three years. So, we’re talking about color and fabrication yes you really have to be really seeing far around the corner. The other cool thing about fashion is fashion has to pay attention to trends and it simultaneously sets trends. Which is very interesting especially those fashion designers that are more on the margins they’re kind of the emerging designers. They have this wonderful ability and gift to be able to set trends because they’re seeing things from a totally different perspective than the more the mainstream fashion designers might be. That’s why the mainstream fashion designers really want to have people on their team who are really quirky weird divergent thinkers to help them stay ahead.

As a design thinker, what is design thinking and what do you as a design strategist do?

As a design strategist I’m working at the intersection of creativity and strategy. I would use design thinking to help me do that. I would say design thinking is about 50% ethnography and 50% of the application of design principles. In design thinking you’re using a human centered problem framing and problem-solving process to identify the needs of people. You start with empathy. You ask a lot of questions. We’ve probably spent 80% of our time obsessed with did we even ask the right question before we go buy our rabbit hole of assumptions. So, the 50% ethnography part is the ability to frame the problem through a method of inquiry that uses observation, interviewing and etc. The design principles are when you’re trying to really visualize a concept. Which could be as low fidelity as a doodle which everybody can do to really high-fidelity visualizations like a 3d digital printed version of something. But it’s being really comfortable visualizing a concept because you want to have something more tangible to which people can respond and give you feedback. One of the distinctions between a design strategy approach and what may be a more traditional management consultancy approach might do is that there’s a real emphasis on building to learn and getting feedback on a new service, a new experience, a new process in inter stages. So, while the traditional design is about designing tangible objects like clothing, buildings and products in design thinking we’re designing the intangible. We are designing services and experiences and processes. We’re using a need finding process that involves ethnography and then we validate our ideas through a lot of design principles of utilization and prototyping.

When you go into a company where do you start with them?

I like to start with questions ask a lot of questions. I always ask and build into the process making sure they’re on the same page. I do some need finding because I want to understand as we do and foresight work. I want to understand the present state because if I don’t understand the present state how can we possibly start talking about where you want to go. You have to have a real clear understanding of the present state. A lot of my clients find it very helpful to have someone like me come in because I bring what’s called fresh eyes. A child’s gaze. I ask the naive stupid questions that when you’ve been in the business for years certain assumptions start getting built in. Which can be dangerous so it’s good to have someone come in and help you and ask why do you do it that way, what if you did it another way, let’s try it. So, the first stage is a level setting and it’s doing what I call a mini-ethnography. Emphasis on mini. It’s a very short kind of ethnography. Then it’s a process of co-creating with the client because I don’t know how to do cookie cutter solutions. So, it is much more about us co-creating a process. Now to be honest a lot of clients when they hear this they think oh wow that’s great let’s do that. This is what our team needs that our company needs. But when they actually go through the process it’s very uncomfortable because when you’ve been used to having a consultant come in and say okay based on what I’ve seen this is what you should do. My next step is okay I like to teach you to fish so let’s have you also practice these methods. You practice having fresh eyes. What are you starting to see? Then let’s start to build some prototypes of a new type of meeting process or a new way to engage clients on their business or a new way to develop a marketing strategy. The reason why there’s some resistance sometimes at the beginning is because it’s time intensive. You’re learning something new. When we learn new things, we are not necessarily good at it right away. It’s also a very ambiguous process so at the very beginning stages it’s not always clear where all this is leading. My students have heard me say this a lot my clients hear me say this which is to suspend judgment. To trust the process things really will start to emerge that will be indicators of the of the direction to go. So, the process I use is much more airing on the side of co-creating with the group with the company with the client because ultimately, we tend to own those things as we’ve had a hand in creating those things. We have been part of the evidence.

Have you ever had the experience that when you go into a company and you’re talking about solving their problems, that what they think is the problem is not always the problem?

Absolutely. That’s why I said we’re obsessed with framing the problem. They might have thought initially that the focus of our work needs to be on breaking down silos. Which is a common need and it also can be a bit abstract. They may realize that the real focus if we do some kind of journey mapping of a typical day in the life or a year in the life the challenge starts on the onboarding process. So, maybe the focus has to be on how we even do our recruiting hiring and onboarding because that’s going to set the entire tone for how people ultimately work together. Another colleague of mine gave an example of this was about shilling in line for a major vendor at a stadium. They said our problem is something’s wrong with our cash register. We need a better cash register system we need to invest in better software technology for our cash registers. Well through the observation process they realized maybe they could bump up the technology in the cash register. But it was actually also a big bottleneck that was happening. The design of the line queue and that only was revealed through observation. So, you’re absolutely right often time what we initially think is the question of the problem is what we should be looking at is different but we don’t know that until we start to investigate.

What’s the intersection then between design thinking and foresight work?

I think the intersection is really they are both methods of inquiry that value as I was just kind of mapping out. We need to do some present state level setting. We need to understand context or do some bat casting in order to understand how to move forward. The opportunity that forecast gives to companies in terms of giving them some flexibility and optimism about understanding how did how what multiple scenarios could be and how to be more responsive instead of reactionary. It’s also an optimism that comes from the design thinking process largely in part because people have a hand in designing and identifying those opportunities.

Give two takeaways for the for the audience today.

One takeaway is that it’s all in the questions we ask. So, the yield of information and insight we get is only going to be as good as the questions we asked. So, how can we get better at questions? We have to become better observers and better listeners. A bullet point under that takeaway that I would really recommend a wonderful book I’ve almost finished reading called A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. I really love this book and I like it because he actually credits a lot of design thinking in his work. But, he basically talks about three basic questions that intelligent people and companies pose to problem solve which is why, what if and how. Then the second takeaway I would give is just to my favorite adage which is to suspend judgment.

I love it. Thank you so much Dr. Natlie. This was awesome. You are a wealth of knowledge. I love your background. I think your background is so fascinating because I feel that it has really solidified where you are today and how you can help people from so many different perspectives. From the design to graphic research there’s so much that you bring to the table. This is amazing thank you so much for being with us.

Thank you for having me I appreciate it.

This was wonderful. So, this is another foresight specialist that we have another foresight researcher. We want to thank you guys for being here with us once again. We look forward to seeing you next week with another futurist. Until then we will see you bye.

Our Guest

Dr. Natalie Nixon is a design strategist and a hybrid thinker with a background in anthropology and fashion. At Figure 8 Thinking, LLC she helps organizations accelerate innovation and growth by developing meaningful strategy through design thinking and ethnographic research. She’s the editor of Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences and Beyond; a regular contributor to INC online magazine; a Fellow at the Paris d.School and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Natalie earned a BA (Cum Laude) in Anthropology and Africana Studies from Vassar College and a PhD in Design Management from the University of Westminster in London.

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