The Cultural Canvas: User Guide

The Cultural Canvas: User Guide

Click here to view all nine decodes

A couple of years ago, I designed the Cultural Canvas to help organisations, start-ups and students understand the transformative logic of culture.

My aim was to help people embrace cultural complexity, and to help civic and creative organisations move towards a holistic, sustainable and symbiotic relationship with cultural energy.

Since then, the canvas has been deployed by a range of innovators and designers to map a variety of cultural groupings: from British Muslims to American consumerism; tattoo fans to cannabis users: from Singapore to Saudi Arabia; and from the global response to the Corona virus, to a new age of wellness.

Through repeated usage, the canvas has matured and strengthened its value. In this article I will outline key learnings to help people navigate through the nine key 'decodes' that make up the Cultural Canvas.

(The term 'decode' is taken from theorist Stuart Hall, and refers to obtaining, absorbing, understanding and using visual and verbal data)

Use culture as a Swiss Army knife

Culture can be thought about as a toolkit. It emerged from the arts and humanities, which makes it unique and perfect for making sense of complex situations.

The Cultural Canvas is an attempt to write an instruction manual for these cultural tools.

It's far from comprehensive - culture is always providing us with unimagined novelty. But it is a start. The diagram below sketches out how an organisation can use different aspects of culture to get closer to people:

How the Cultural Canvas helps with innovation and communication

It's important to remember that cultural insight, in order to be most effective, should work both ways. This means allowing it to reshape and modernise organisations. This type of cultural transformation is a necessary (and often overlooked) accompaniment to digital transformation:

How the Cultural Canvas challenges organisations

The nine aspects

There is a narrative to the nine aspects: from small scale things (personal identity) to larger things (global commerce). The below list provides a link and brief description of each aspect:

  • Identity: we start with the nucleus of cultural energy
  • Care: how we look after ourselves and others
  • Rhythm: shifts attention to patterns of motion and timing
  • Space: focuses on our lived environments ¬†
  • Style: expands our scope to trends and aesthetics
  • Media: looks at digital and analogue forms of communication
  • Globe: prompts us towards thinking internationally
  • Purpose: helps us work out what really matters
  • Commerce: ¬†thinking about business models

When using the canvas, each project will be different. Some might dial up the focus on 'style' and play down the 'globe' focus. There aren't rules here, only guidance and patterning. The process should be emergent. Allow the cultural group you are analysing to shape what happens.

A key mindset: 'complex' not 'complicated'

To get a handle on the value of the Cultural Canvas, we can distinguish between the words 'complicated' and 'complex':

Machines are 'complicated', predictable, and require engineers: for example a jet engine or a computer algorithm.
Systems are 'complex', unpredictable, and require system thinkers: for example a city, market or an institution.

The classic example of complexity is the 'butterfly effect': where a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world causes a tornado in another. This is about situations that have countless components and defy simple cause and effect.

In short, the Cultural Canvas is a tool for complexity.

Become a systems thinker

We can move towards seeing the cultural canvas as a tool for systems thinkers. We can start sketching out how a systems thinking process will approach any given 'research topic'.

  1. A systems-thinking analysis will explore the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental (PESTLE) aspects of a research topic
  2. It will relate these to a model of the 'human' as a complex arrangement of biological, psychological and social forces (bio-psycho-social)
  3. The cultural canvas situates the research topic in relation to peoples cultural identity: the spaces they inhabit, the rhythms and rituals of their life, their media usage, and the things that matter to them
  4. The research topic will go through a process of reflection that connects to contemporary theoretical discussions around gender, race, sexuality and structural inequality
  5. The output will be a comprehensive analysis that provides strategic implications in the form of 'performative statements' (statements that create change)
Click here to head to the first decode: Identity

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