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Design insight through culture mapping

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Big data – it’s a term we hear a lot, but not necessarily one we understand. Tim Stock, an expert in turning big data trends into brand insight, says it doesn’t matter. “We need to remove the term big data,” Stock explains. “That term just means: the world. Big data helps us see our lives, both on and offline.”

If big data is the world, we’re going to need a good map to get around. Stock is an assistant professor at Parsons The New School for Design and co-founder of the consultancy scenarioDNA, where he uses a methodology known as culture mapping to show clients like Nike and IKEA how to analyse data and predict trends better than ever before.

“History is full of hidden stories,” Stock says, explaining that culture mapping removes bias and allows us to see the past with more accuracy and insight by showing us patterns we hadn’t seen before. “Culture mapping means understanding language, connections and relationships. It describes how we’re connecting as people in the past, present and future.”

That glimpse at detailed cultural networks is achieved through analysis of the vast amounts of data flowing across digitised media, communications and consumption. All that data is offering designers and brands an unprecedented understanding of customer needs and future trends – especially important in a globalised world.

“On a global scale, culture mapping is vital,” Stock says. “With culture mapping we can connect local perspective to global data. The old way, in the 20th century, was to assume culture would spread in a kind of colonising way. Now we can localise and respond to unique differences in every market.”

What’s more, culture mapping allows brands to see what’s happening in design and innovation around the world. “The really interesting markets are the emerging ones. Thanks to their growing middle classes, they are far more dynamic. This is where we will find the next great ideas.”

Stock emphasises that culture mapping is by no means just an analysis of what is popular. In fact, it is dissent and outright protest that often provide the most insight. “When we do culture mapping we’re not looking for obvious signifiers. We’re looking for unexpected clues. Language is a system – it migrates, it changes, you see dissent. That’s what’s influencing the future and that’s what we’re interested in.”

“Companies don’t make trends, people do. That’s the trend that never changes,” Stock says, while also explaining how smart brands tap into trends to accelerate and improve on them, especially with the use of design thinking.

“Culture mapping is abstract, but design thinking pulls it all together. With design thinking it’s possible to create something, to turn the insight of culture mapping into a viable product.”

In a kitchen for example, some designers might think screened surfaces are the future – but culture mapping tells a different story. “I had a company back in the 90s who thought we would do our banking from our microwave,” Stock says. “But actually, kitchen design trends are more influenced by the fact that people are now using their kitchens to grow food rather than just store it.”

It is not about making a product just because the technology is available, Stock says. Designers need a broad understanding of how people live and what they need. “Before, designers would draw for a perfect world, but the true value of design isn’t felt until you’ve put it in the real world. That’s why designers need to understand the world – and that’s what culture mapping helps us do.”

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