Mapping Design Policy Landscape
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Response to Design Observer's "Ethnographic Turn in Design"

Posted on today's Design Observer, guest observer, Andrew Blauvelt offers his comments of the Ethnography Primer published by AIGA and Cheskin. People from the anthrodesign list posted comments (Bob Jacobson and Mark Rogers), below is the comment that I posted.

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This means something.

At E-lab in the 1990s, this is the statement they would place in the opening slide of many presentations. Normally, the text would be overlayed on an image of teenagers wearing backpacks, or a desk full of files.

One of the things that I most appreciate about the contribution the Rick Robinson, John Cain, and others made at E-lab was that they talked about ethnography in terms of how it uncovered the meaning of people's experiences. More importantly, they articulated, in ways that did not require a Ph.D. in Anthropology, how by understanding and modeling those experiences, you can create the conditions to support and enhance new experiences.

What I find interesting in Andrew's comments is while his/your analysis of the content of the text is accurate, his/your analysis of what it means for designing and designers - in terms of the question about the restriction of use and the selection of the coffee cup holder as the most concrete example for critique - seems to miss key points about the publication.

Why restrict its use?

According to Ric Grefé's Walker Art Center presentation last October, ethnographic professionals are part of the expanded constituency of "designers" within AIGA. As an anthropologist who has been involved with AIGA for 5 years and design for now 8 years, the publication is part of making professional ethnographers like myself see themselves as part of AIGA.

As an early reviewer of the publication, it was an important distinction to make that not everyone can do ethnography well, especially the client, so your best bet is to hire a professional, who has training in both the theories and the techniques of ethnographic research and analysis. Just like if you want someone to design your corporate identity, you might want to go to a credentialed professional designer and not a $199 logo shop.

If that person also happens to be someone with design credentials, as well as social science ones, all the better. In fact, in most places that use ethnography as part of marketing research, user experience design, and product innovation, people end up cross-training over time. Designers learn to do research. Ethnographers learn to do design. But each one not with the same efficiency or depth of knowledge as the other one.

I find that idea that everyone can do ethnography is based on a misconception that ethnography is just about observing what people do. Ethnography is not about data collection, which is what everyone designers and researchers can share in because we all observe different things. Ethnography is about understanding the meanings of objects, environments, social interactions, beliefs, values, cosmologies, and communications from the perspective of the people studied. This is hard analytical work that because of ethical considerations of misrepresentation and cultural appropriation requires a certain amount of sensitivity, both broad and deep social knowledge, and constant self-reflection. Professional ethnographers generally ought to possess these attributes whether they hail from design or social sciences, but you gain this through training.

Beyond Cup Holders

This critique feels a bit disingenuous because the other points about what ethnography does is about  the important questions:

How do people make sense of their world?
What are our assumptions about normative values in one culture versus another?
How do people communicate with one another, through objects? What is the most effective way to do it?
What are the cultural codes that have to be adopted and adapted as you bring an experience from one place to another place?

These seem to me to be the important questions of not just design, but of life. These are the questions that ethnography asks, analyses, answers, and helps translate (through design communication) to others. In fact, all of the very socially-relevant, civic based, Design for Democracy work was built on an ethnographic foundation made up of ethnographers and design students trained in ethnographic approaches.

This is just to say that this publication marks a particular milestone in terms of AIGA's relationship with the professional ethnographic community, who since the UX days have been part of AIGA, but have not always been "represented" or particularly felt welcomed. Now I can say, I am part of AIGA without choking on the words.

 

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