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Jo-Anne Bichard ‘What the Anthropologist sees: Public toilets as cultural spaces’

John Carter
March 26, 2019
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The Culture Cast
March 26, 2019

Jo-Anne Bichard ‘What the Anthropologist sees: Public toilets as cultural spaces’

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Episode Transcript

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John: Hello, and welcome to Ethno Pod on This is HCD.  My name is John Curran and I’m your guest host.  I’m a business anthropologist, executive coach, and CEO of JC and Associates, which is a consultancy that explores how culture shapes organisations and consumer behaviour.  For this first episode, I spoke to Dr.  Jo Anne Bichard, who was a design anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Helen Hamlin Centre for Design, at the Royal College of Art in London.  Jo Anne describes more about the centres role in the exclusive design later on, on the pod.  

We also had a fascinating chat about the role that design anthropology plays.  Jo Anne walked through the three key areas of where anthropology connects with design.  Both in relation to what anthropology gives design, but also what anthropology can learn from design.  Here, Jo Anne makes it clear that she is not a designer, which I think is a really important point.  Jo Anne then shares with me the research she did on public toilets and her holistic approach to understanding the different layers of meaning in this area.  

From produce design, to service design, to place-making, and to the cultural drivers that shape this area.  What was so powerful about this is that the project has grown from being a PhD thesis, to Jo Anne setting up a consultancy with her design partner, which provide research and strategy on public toilets to local governments, architects and brands.  Yes, they’ve created the great British public toilet map, which is the largest database of all public toilets in the UK.  

We’ll put links up on the website after the podcast, and also links to other books and talks that Jo Anne references.  Let’s get into the conversation with Jo Anne.  I hope you enjoy it.  Welcome Jo Anne to Ethno Pod on This is HCD.  

Jo Anne: Many thanks, John, it’s a pleasure to be there.  Thank you for inviting me.  

John: Fine, we’re in South London in Crystal Palace and I find out that you were born only about a mile away from here.  

Jo Anne: That’s true, yes, I’m in my home territory, or my birth territory.  

John: Fantastic.  Listen, Jo Anne, why don’t we just start off with you telling us a bit about yourself?

Jo Anne: Well, I am a social anthropologist.  When I first started working within design, as I currently do, there wasn’t an area called design anthropology, as such, we were just social anthropologists working with designers.  I’ve been in the field for about 16 years now.  In that time, it’s come up as its own sub-discipline, so to speak, which is absolutely fascinating for me, as somebody who’s actually immersed well and truly within the design world.  Whenever I introduce myself, I always have to say, I’m not a designer, because I do work with a lot of designers.  

John: Same here.  

Jo Anne: Yes.  Sometimes people automatically assume that you are, and you’ve crossed over into anthropology, which is great, but I actually come from the theoretical anthropological perspective in the first place.  Anyway, I left college, Goldsmiths where I did my undergrad, started actually as a researcher looking at brain imaging and got an experience there of working with people with disabilities.  Then from there, when to UCL to work on a project with architects, looking at certain aspects of city design, mainly public toilets.  That was at the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies.  

John: Okay, do you were an anthropologist doing your PhD there in the world of architecture.  

Jo Anne: Yes.  

John: Okay.  

Jo Anne: My PhD was on architecture rather than in architecture at the Bartlett.  From the Bartlett, I then moved onto the Royal College of Art, the Helen Hamlin Centre for Design, and have been working there ever since.  Looking at aspects of human-centred design and how designers might interact with their users, their participants, their co-creators, however the designers want to frame them, in various inclusive processes.  

John: The Helen Hamlin Centre, then, at the Royal College of Art, that’s all about inclusive design?  

Jo Anne: Yes, that’s what we focus on.  In the UK, we know it is inclusive design, in the U.S., it’s known as universal design.  In Europe, it might be participatory, co-creation, there are lots of different labels, but our basic format is that we bring people in, the users, the humans into the design process.  That can be quite a wild group of users.  At the Helen Hamlin Centre, we have three research spaces where work in healthcare, where we actually work with the doctors and the nurses and the practitioners of healthcare on how we might develop and design better healthcare services, products for them to use.  

We also have an age and diversity group that work with older people and people with disabilities, disabled people.  That tends to be a smaller research group, maybe one-to-one, maybe one-to-five.  Then we have a social global research group that works with communities on the community scale.  There, we’re working with larger groups.  In an old-fashioned anthropological term, in some ways, or sociological term, we work at a micro, meso, and macro level.  

John: I love that.  Micro, meso, macro level.  The three Ms, right?  

Jo Anne: The three Ms.  

John: Let’s go quickly back to what you said about 16 years ago when you were working as a social anthropologist in the world of design.  I think you said UCL and stuff.  There wasn’t really this term design anthropology.  When did this, not from a historical point of view, but when did design anthropology become a thing?  

Jo Anne: I find that quite hard to pin-point.  I know, I was actually discussing thing with a college the other day, that it emerged.  Design and anthropology sort of came together through IDO in the late 90s.  

John: The innovation agency?  

Jo Anne: Yes.  

John: That was a commercial endeavour.  Anthropologists were being brought in to try and understand the users, the humans, the people that the designers are designing for.  It hadn’t really morphed back into academia.  There was a text produced by Rabanau in I think the 90s, as well, that argued that whilst the designers were taking influence from anthropology, the anthropology department should take some influence from the designers.  

Almost a knowledge transfer or knowledge exchange sort of thing.  I found that text really influential for me.  I ended up writing a chapter on a book: Design Anthropology, that sort of referenced how anthropology could do with a redesign, so to speak, or think more designedly about its own discipline and practice.  

John: That’s anthropology learning from design?  

Jo Anne: Yes.  

John: Right, okay.  

Jo Anne: I think that’s now developed further.   It’s become more academic now.  UCL have almost a design anthropology MA, design culture.  

John: That’s the University College London.  

Jo Anne: Yes.  They have a design anthropology MA.  I believe Aberdeen have a design anthropology program, as well.  I know Scandinavia countries have really embraced it.  

John: They really are, yes.  

Jo Anne: They really do have some excellent programs there.  They are producing a lot of the theoretical work, as well, which is really exciting.  

John: Would you classify yourself still as a social anthropologist or as a design anthropologist, or is there really much difference there?  Are we saying the same thing?  

Jo Anne: I tend to stick between the two camps sometimes.  When I introduce myself to students, I call myself a social anthropologist, I think when I’m more working in the professional level, I’m a design anthropologist.  I think that makes more sense to those particular audiences.  I think you have to position yourself sometimes to how your audience expects you to be.  I think if I went in there as a design anthropologist to the students, they might have a different expectation to the kind of approach that I particularly have.  

I have had students come up to me and introduce themselves as design anthropologists, which I find really interesting, because there’s a whole generation who are immediately identifying with the particular sub-genre.  Whereas, I suppose because I come from social anthropology in the first place, there’s a tendency to support that particular home team, so to speak.  

John: I remember a few years ago when I was doing some work for the design council in the UK.  They said, well, I’m an anthropologist, so therefore, I’m a designer.  I naturally fall into that design world.  I took that as a great compliment.  I’m just thinking, how would you define or frame what design anthropology is?  

Jo Anne: Well, I really like Gunn and Donovan’s perspectives of design anthropology.  They call it Da-Da-Da.  

John: Tell us more about that.  That sounds enlightening.  

Jo Anne: Well, Da-dA-DA.  It’s D-A, D-A, D-A, and there are certain emphasises on the D and the A that position the role.  You start with a large D and a small A, capital D, small A.  

John: The D is for design; the A is for anthropology?  

Jo Anne: Yes.  Large D is when a designer, design consultancy might hire the anthropology to do some work for them.  Do some ethnographic study.  Do you participatory study.  Then the anthropologist feeds back into the design.  The anthropology is secondary, giving flavour to the design, but it’s not necessarily the chief thing.  That’s big D, little A, capital D, little A.  Then there’s a small D, little D, capital A, the second dA.  Where anthropology studies design, where the designers are the tribe that we interact with, we study them, we’re interested in their culture.  

John: We like doing that, don’t we?  

Jo Anne: We do.  We do.  We study their culture.  We study how they interact, how they approach their particular areas of investigation.  Then there’s the final DA, capital D, capital A, where design and anthropology come together, often in a creative way.  They have equal measure in the process and equal weight within the process.  I like to think that in my experience of 16 years of working that I’ve actually been through all of the various Das, das, and das.  That there’s not a weighting to them.  I think in some ways, you have to go through the beginning Da, to come to the end Da.  

John: I like that.  

Jo Anne: It’s a process.  

John: Yes, that resonates with me, actually.  

Jo Anne: In my particular research in toilets, where initially I was the anthropologist hired by the architects to study the research theme of toilets, I was capital D, little A.  Gradually, as my career progressed and I became to understand how design works, they became my tribe, so it was capital A, little D.  Taking the research that I’ve undertaken for most of my career, we’ve now come up with creative solutions to our research area.  That is definitely a joint partnership between the designer and the anthropologist.  We’ve got the capital D, the capital A.  

John: I think we should get t-shirts made with the Da, Da, da.  

Jo Anne: I think so, yes, I like that.  

John: We can walk around at the weekends in pubs and stuff, and people will go, “What does that mean?”

Jo Anne: I think it should also be a little bit like the chemistry table.  

John: Yes, one of those.  

Jo Anne: Yes, it should look like that, as we plot out the chemistry of design anthropology in some ways.  

John: One of the things about the last Da, the capital D and the capital A, it’s got that feeling of equality, it’s egalitarian, it’s the same weight.  I guess with us anthropologists, there’s always this thing where we tend to stand on the outside and look in.  How does that collaboration work then?  

Jo Anne: I don’t think you can ever stop standing on the outside looking in.  I think the designers, the designer I work with appreciates that.  They have an approach, they have a way of seeing.  We’re talking about ways of seeing in some ways.  They have a way of seeing that I appreciate.  That I come to know.  I don’t think you can come into a relationship that’s the final Da fresh.  I think it takes some time.  You’ve got to understand.  You’ve got to go through, well, you’re studying the design, so to speak.  To actually get there, to actually realise that you’re on a relationship of parity.  

That takes an equity, that takes a while to do.  I don’t think you could go straight in there and do that because as humans, we’re always vying for our position in some ways.  You’ve got a design team, in my experience, the experience that I’ve had, it’s just myself as the anthropologist with one other designer, but if you get into a team position, if you get into a team scenario, then you’re dealing with lots of different personalities all vying for their particular position.  That can make it a lot harder, really, for the relationship of equality to happen in some ways.  

Then you might have the one singular anthropologist, as we tend to be, and three or four designers.  You’re almost maintaining that in some ways, it could be quite difficult, but designers can appreciate the input and the collaboration anthropologists bring to the team, so recognise that the process is more of the final Da.  A lot of the designers that I meet really engage and appreciate anthropology.  

If anything, we’ve got a lot of designers crossing over into anthropology.  I don’t know of a lot of anthropologists who’ve become designers, but I know of a lot of designers who’ve become more anthropological.  

John: Yes, I think us anthropologists becoming designers would probably not a good route to go down.  I could imagine the weirdness abstraction of design, the solutions we would try and come up with.  Then it is great, it you think about it, the design world embracing the notion of multi-disciplinary thinking, collaboration, you know, as design traditionally being around solution.  The anthropology as part of that, rarely is about that human, about culture, about people.  That’s fascinating.  I want to now move onto the second part because something that’s really struck me about the work that you do, and one of your big projects on public toilets, why?  

Jo Anne: Well…

John: I could say a whole line of puns here, which I’m sure everyone has done, but I’m not, so tell me why public toilets?  

Jo Anne: Why public toilets?  Well, I did my undergraduate thesis on public baths.  I had an interest in the ritual of cleansing.  It was also an interest in women’s use of space, and women’s use of space for intimate activity, especially in public.  

John: You’re going to have to run with this one.  

Jo Anne: Yes.  I had an interest in that.  I develop that as an undergraduate.  Then, by chance, a position came up as a research fellow at the University College London, looking at the inclusive design of city centres focusing on public toilets.  I applied.  I had a background of working with people with disabilities, as well as having engaged with theoretical aspects in anthropology of rituals, the call, the actual job application was either looking for an architect or anthropologist.  

They had already thought of, “We might actually need an anthropologist on this project rather than an architect”, even though it was about urban design.” I applied, and I got the position.  This introduced me to the world of design.  Whereas, previously, I was more medically aligned.  It all started from there.  I decided after a year, it was a three-year project, I decided after a year, that, yes, I would like to follow this up as a PhD because we had so much data.  

Once we put a call for participants to collaborate with us in the research, I went away for a weekend and I’d difficulty recruiting people, and then I came up with an idea for a newsletter about the research, which I called, strangely enough, the toilet paper.  I put that out there and came back and just had an influx of people who wanted to engage with the research, who wanted to tell me about their experience of leaving home, finding an accessing and using toilet facilities.  It just ran from there.  

John: I saw you give a talk, I think it’s on YouTube, we’ll put a link and also a link to all the books you’ve referenced, as well.  You gave a talk, I think it was 2017, about some of the main things around the project, around public toilets that you were doing.  There were a lot of things that really stood out about the actual product design, to the wider system, and the cultural landscape.  Can you talk us through some of the interesting findings?  

Jo Anne: Well, one of the interesting things for me about the public toilet is, it’s like the petri dish of an environment.  In design, it’s got everything there.  We have product design, we have with things like the flush handle, the toilet paper dispenser, the tap, the sink, the WC pan, all of that.  These are all products.  They sit within an environment.  It has to be of a certain size.  It has to be laid out a certain way.  It has to be placed in a building in a certain position based on either access, or not only access for the user, but access to the pipework, the plumbing, etc.  

Then we’ve got service design in there because the place has to be managed, bins have to be emptied, toilet rolls have to be changed.  If you have one aspect of these designs that fails, the whole environment can fail.  Especially for people with disabilities.  It’s really important that you get this trilogy of design right, because if you get one bit wrong, it can fail, as an environment.  I find that absolutely fascinating from a design perspective.  

It’s at the micro, meso, and macro level again in some ways of design interaction of people.  One of my recent areas, which is one of the hot topics of toilets right now is gender neutral provision.  That’s becoming quite political in many ways.  

John: In which way, can you tell us?  

Jo Anne: In which ways?  Well, there are many women who don’t feel comfortable sharing provision with men.  They’ve been very vocal about there.  There’s also many men who don’t feel comfortable about sharing provision with women.  They don’t seem to be quite so vocal about it.  We think as long as, me and my research partner, we believe that as long as it might lead to more toilets, which is a really important thing for the city.  It might be a positive thing, but what’s important is, for the people who provide toilets to realise,

it’s not a matter of changing the signs on the doors, you can’t have a row of cubicles, toilets with urinals in them and suddenly say they’re gender neutral, because a bunch of women will not use toilets with urinals in.  You can’t just change what was previously the women’s toilets with a bunch of cubicles in and say it’s gender neutral, because men will prefer to use those toilets because we all want a toilet in privacy.  All of a sudden, you’ve got the queue scenario even larger than it previously was.  It’s about redesigning, thinking about how we might redesign the provision.  

John: This is the whole ecosystem again?  

Jo Anne: Yes.  

John: From products to service design.  You picked up then, I think you talked about it in your talk, as well, online, about that stereotype of women queuing and that they’re having a natter.  It’s the narrative of sexism there, but actually that’s not the case.  

Jo Anne: No.  

John: Tell us, why do we have this stereotype of the queue?  

Jo Anne: Well, that works from how buildings are designed from an equal perspective.  When the toilet is put in place, the position of the toilets are given a space in the design.  Then they’re broken up 50/50.  Male provision gets 50 percent of the space, and the women’s provision gets another 50 percent of the space.  In the male provision, they’ll put three cubicles.  Then in the women’s provision, they’ll put three cubicles.  

In the male provision, they’ll maybe three urinals, as well.  All of a sudden, you’ve got double the provision for men than you have for women.  We take twice as long to use the toilet because we have to get through those cultural things such as clothes to actually urinate or defecate.  We have half the provision and we take twice as long, so hence we have queues.  

John: Gender is a big thing that comes out of this piece of work, as well, you show some really cool innovative ways of having pop-up urinals on the street the Friday night the guys are all getting pissed and they need the toilet.  Some of them are rarely innovative.  You’ve got examples of that.  They look really good, as well.  There’s nothing for women.  

Jo Anne: Yes, the problem for that is, they’re considered innovative because they pop up, they come up out of the ground.  They come up at night and they go down at dusk, so they’re not an eye-sore during the day.  The problem with these things is that, there’s one problem, they’re only really tailored for certain men.  Men who have disabilities can’t use them, especially men who are wheelchair users.  

They can’t use them.  Older men won’t use them because they feel vulnerable peeing in public.  Men who have faith considerations and considerations of pollution won’t use them.  Really, it’s for a very small minority of people who are able to use these.  As you mentioned, most of them are drunk.  

John: Yes, piss-heads.  

Jo Anne: Yes.  Of course, women can’t use them at all.  They’re considered innovative, but they’re not really, because in the Victoria era, when we first had public toilets, the first toilets that appeared on our streets were urinals and were male only.  What that did in the Victorian era, was embed the knowledge, embed symbolically that the city was the space of men.  The city was a male space, the domestic was the female space.  This return to these pop-up urinals, again, once again, sort of represents the city as space for men.  It excludes, it actively excludes women.  Not only are women allowed to be out in the night time, they are allowed to pee in public in the night time.  Meanwhile, women, we shouldn’t be out in the night time.  

John: That’s really interesting.  That’s hits on the anthropology around the gendered space of public space, private, public.  The concept, it’s almost like an unconscious bias, we design the city for men.  It’s a really powerful image.  Also, then, you spoke about the actual, going down to the product of the flusher.  That’s also gendered.  Tell us about that.  

Jo Anne: Yes.  Well, we don’t know.  I mean, this is one of those things in my field, you’re just like crikey, please give me some money to do some research on this, it would be fabulous, but especially in the accessible toilet, the flush has been designated in the building regulations in the British standards, it’s been designated to be put on a certain side of the system.  That side is actually on the left-hand side, if it’s what’s known as a right-hand transferred toilet, where the transfer space is the big space where the wheelchair user, which will use to transfer onto the WC pan.  

The reasons it’s supposed to be on the transfer space side is so that if the person has limited mobility and can’t turn around, they can transfer back into their wheelchair, reach up, and flush the toilet after use.  Now, if the flush is on the opposite side, say, on the wall side, that person might not be able to reach up and flush the toilet.  I did have users tell me how mortified they were having used the toilet, they couldn’t flush after use and they’d have to go to customer service and say, “I’ve left the toilet in a terrible state, I’m embarrassed.” That’s a pretty awful thing to feel and to have to do.  

We were wondering in the research, well, why is this?  We were actually told by plumbers on British standards committees, that it was because plumbers who were mostly male, mostly men, when they are putting in a toilet, they automatically put it on the right-hand side or the wrong side because they’re mostly right-handed.  

John: I see, yes.  

Jo Anne: It’s an automatic reaction of not thinking.  They might even see the documents and actually think, “That’s on the wrong side”, because they actually don’t know why that should be on the opposite side to where it might normally be.  It’s based on the occupation of the people who are installing the toilets, their gender, and their tactic knowledge of when I flush, I flush with this hand.  

John: I think you’re really conveying here the power of the anthropological way of thinking within the design process.  We’re coming to the end, but what I would like to quickly as you is, where is this gone?  Where has this project on public toilets gone?  Is it now just finished on the archives as a PhD or…?

Jo Anne: No, what we did, because we’re design and anthropology, is we’ve designed a product, which is the Great British Public Toilet Map.  We collected all the data on all the toilets in the UK.  We hold the largest data of publicly accessible toilets.  Those are in both the public and the private sector.  We turned that into the Great British Public Toilet Map, which is accessible on the web.  

From that, we developed a business, a spin-out, a good university spin-out called: Public Convenience, which can be found at:  We act as a consultancy for anybody who has a toilet design or would like to know more about their toilets and how they might improve their provision.  We can come and help you make decisions about this.  

John: Listen, Jo Anne, thank you so much for being on the podcast.  We’re going to put all the links on the website.  We’re also going to put your website for the consultancy, as well.  

Jo Anne: Fantastic.  

John: It’s been absolutely fascinating talking.  

Jo Anne: My pleasure.  I’ve really enjoyed it.  Thanks, John.  

John: Thank you so much.  

Jo Anne: Thank you.  

John: Thanks for listening to Ethno Pod.  If you want to learn more about other shows on This is HCD Network, then feel free to visit:, where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel where you can connect with other human-centred designers around the world.  Thanks for listening and see you next time.  

End of Audio

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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