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August 2007
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Reflections on Ulm: when does cultural method become style

One of the cool things about being in Ulm, Germany last week was to see why many of the decisions around the Modern, International methods of design make sense. For example, German words are very long, so condensed typefaces make sense. The Post-WWII relations between Germany and the rest of Europe were dismal, so it made sense to develop typefaces without national markers as German, Italian, French, especially in Switzerland where all "national" groups reside. So the erasure of ethnic markers was important to the development of Europe. You can see in the order of the farms, the towns, and the desire to distance oneself from an medieval past and the economy of space in the hyperdensity of Europe make more necessary the rationality of the grid. So to be in Ulm where the reason for this is clear and transparent makes me wonder the appropriateness of this method in an American context. In an American context, does it just become "style" because the cultural-historical meaning is not apparent nor relevant?

For example, American words are not especially long. The "erasure" of ethnic markers now has a negative connotation tied to cultural assimilationist policies. The vast expanse of space enables a certain flexibility that the grid does not allow for. So what is the cultural method of the US as it relates to design that is as aligned to the "values and needs" of American society as the Modern International methods were to Post-WWII Europe? Are these the experimentations of Cranbrook and the West Coast Schools?

The interesting thing is that with the EU, the context for design in Europe has changed.  Yes, you still have the long words, but will future generations need the "old" markers of national identity to engage in the superstructure of the EU? Will nationalist typefaces need to come back as a way to challenge the homogenizing force of the EU? Will the grid need to loosen as more flexibility in needed to accommodate Romanians going to school in England and the influx of immigrants from around the world?

What will be the EU cultural method of design? What is that of the US's?

Results from Ulm

So we/I did not receive the IFG Ulm award, which is a good thing in many ways. Their process is that you have a lot of discussion about what your project is about. The main questions about my project had to do with the panel of experts and the format of a conference to bring together the different communities. The discussion pointed to a mismatch between the work at IFG Ulm and where I am at in my evolution, which has a more grassroots basis or is wanting to feel more grassroots, than projects that are about meta-processes. I have been doing the on-the-ground work and continue to do so with Cook County and IRS, but it is reaching the need for greater scale and sustainability.

The In Designo Nos Fidus project was about setting the platform through examples and relationships to make this kind of design policy work scalable and sustainable. Unfortunately, I could not articulate that or come to that point before the jury, but I have clarity about it now.

So IFG Ulm was a great experience because I've met people like Ksenija Berk from Slovenia, Pierre Belanger from Toronto, and Christine Bechstein of Portland, Maine, whom I intend to work with in the future.


An image from the IFG Ulm building. I love Modernist architecture to take photos of. Unfortuately, it is always strange to imagine people living in them, but they do.

I took the bus from town to IFG. It is located on a picturesque hill above the town, near the fort.

It is a few minutes before the events start. I'm meeting the other presenters, who have equally exciting projects. More soon.

Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall, PhD +1 312.282.2893

Arrived in Ulm, Germany

Guten Tag. I arrived in Ulm, Germany to prepare for my presentation at IFG Ulm tomorrow. The train ride from Stuttgart was picturesque with rolling hills, small towns with red roofs (some with solar panels), people riding bikes on dirt roads, and even a couple of vineyards. Autumn is earlier here than in Chicago, so the leaves are already showing their red, golden, and purple colors.

Riding the train was sooooo romantic. When I think of Europe, I always think of riding trains. The DB trains are bright red with blue seats. I flipped down my tray and spent the hour looking out the window and finishing my work.

The flight from Chicago to Zurich was lovely. I sat next to Mike, who flies to Prague every 4 months to spend 2 months helping his sisters take care of his mother with Alzheimer's. His wife works for the airline industry, so he was full of information about planes. Did you know that it takes a 747 approximately 40-50 seconds from the engines to go from full throttle until lift off. I didn't either, but I will count every time I fly now.

I'm so excited about tomorrow's presentation.

AD418 Research Methods Podcase Week 03

A day late, but not a dollar short is the AD418 Podcast for week o3. This week was about the ethics of research with human subjects and sampling techniques. This week's lecture is a little longer (about one hour and a half,) but its because we got into very good discussions in the class. We discussed the Nazi medical experiments., the Tuskegee syphilis tests, and I showed them a video of the Milgram Experiments in obedience.

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Again, it was a good discussion.

I leave for Germany tomorrow to present at IFG Ulm, so I am podcasting my Friday's lecture and will upload it tonight for a double feature. I will address interviewing techniques. If I had more time, I would it in the style of the PSA from the 1950s. Interviewing! How to make friends in 1 hour! Maybe next time.

Arbitrary meanings: Ethnographic vs. marketing research

Yesterday, Mohammed, Humanur (a visiting design scholar from Turkey) and I were having a conversation about doing research for product design. Mohammed had made the comment about how research is using to manipulate people into buying things.

I argued that ethnographic research (which seeks to understand and represent life from the view of the people studied) does not do that. This is because when you seek to understand and represent people’s lives from their own perspective, the arbitrariness of meaning becomes apparent. People assign so many different meanings to things you cannot actually form a "market".

Humanur provided an example of a Turkish woman who loved her Plasma TV. Because her husband is very strict and she was socially isolated, the “human size” screen of the people on a large plasma make her feel immersed in a life with “friends.”

You’d might want to put the label of “Plasma TV as escapism” on the meaning of the TV, but it’s more and less than that. More because it is the size of the humans on the screen that resonate with her loneliness, not just the escaping into someone’s life story.

This kind of ethnographic approach to research is distinct from marketing research which will (1) count how many times a person saw an advertisement on TV, or  (2) ask if they were a car what brand of car would they be. Marketing research imposes a pattern of awareness, acquisition, conversion, retention on those experiences. Although it tries to get to mindset, motivations, behaviors, etc; it imposes much greater constraints on meaning of objects and relationships to meet this business framework, than ethnography does. 

The core assumption of ethnography is that by understanding the patterns of others we are less likely to, as Deng Ming-Dao in 365 Tao Daily Meditations says, “ruin the universe with our own patterns.” This is where perhaps they should teach ethnography and anthropology in K-12, beyond the social science courses that are taught.

AD418 Week 02 Podcast now available

This week, Week 02 Secondary Research, provides an overview of the (1) the five questions asked in proposal, (2) the four stages of research, (3) secondary vs. primary research and sources, (4) typology of research elements, (5) documentation sources, and (6) “text” beyond text.

There is an interesting discussion with students on how to use Russell Bernard's five elements of research:

  1. Internal states
  2. External states
  3. Behaviors
  4. Artifacts
  5. Environments

The point I was making is that it allows you to talk about your research within 2-3 words. My research is about people's internal states (beliefs) and artifacts for the elevator speech.

As I am preparing for a proposal at IFG Ulm next next week, I am going to use the 5 questions asked in a proposal as a basis:

  1. What are the questions or intentions of your research?
  2. How does it fit within a wider body of knowledge in the field?
  3. What will be your evidence and how will you gather it?
  4. What are your qualifications to conduct the research?
  5. What is its contribution to the field?

Cool stuff. We visited the library where librarian Steve Brantley walked the students through the UIC search systems. UIC has RefWorks which is a non-proprietary reference management software.  So now the students can manage their references for free.

The Power of Beauty: Response to DO "You're So Intelligent"

Micheal Bierut has written another thoughtful piece on the Sept. 5, 2007 Design Observer. The gist was:

Like Clarissa, designers yearn to be respected for our minds. Like Clarissa, we take our real gifts — our miraculous fluency with beauty, our ability to manipulate form in a way that can touch people's hearts — for granted. Those are the gifts that matter, and the paths through which we create things that truly endure.

My response echoed those sentiments:

Thank you Micheal for addressing that which I've always wondered about designers: "Why are they not content with being designers (i.e. individuals gifted with the ability to make skilled decisions that transform ideas into tangible forms both appropriate and beautiful)?"

I train design students to become hybrid anthro/design thinkers in order to better cloak themselves in the "respectable" social science and political science discourses and build confidence in their context knowledge to go with their formal skills. This is because in the interdisciplinary contexts in which I practice, we need designers who feel confident enough in their knowledge about political systems or marketing to engage and translate with their colleagues from other disciplines. Even when for me to talk of beauty is enough, I find that designers are not comfortable or feel they don't have anything to say without this contextual knowledge, so I train them to feel more confident.

Yet, I wonder why beauty seems to be so devalued these days. It seems that once upon a time beauty held tremendous power to move people to accomplish great and terrible things. Have we become so "rational" that we are no longer moved by our emotions? Behavioral economics even shows that business decision-making is not ration. Have you ever heard an MBA wax poetic about the beauty of her business case?

So perhaps for designers who are proud of being the makers of beautiful artifacts and don't want to get MBAs or PhDs in anthropology, the next AIGA campaign is to "rebrand" the power of beauty, so that designers can be both "authentically" beautiful and intelligent. There is an inherent intelligence to beauty which is about the depth of passion we feel for the world.

So beautiful and intelligent designers, to thy own self be true. 

Podcasts of Research Methods for Art + Design

Available for personal and educational use only are podcasts of my Research Methods for Art + Design lectures, based on the AD418 course I teach at UIC. I hope to post my lectures every week, so follow along if you like.

The first one is about 28 minutes and 41 MB and covers the conceptual values of the course: Alan Barnard's idea of theory as Questions, Assumptions, Methods, and Evidence; complexity and creative process; ethics and creative conceptualization; anthropology and ethnography as toolkits for ethical praxis; scope of impact of creative concepts in the digital age; and grounded making.

It is available on my new "page" on the blog, AD418 Research Methods Podcasts.