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Swin lecture notes: Methods of Investigation Week 04 Ethics

Swin lecture notes: Methods of Investigation Week 01

Note: If you haven't noticed, I've been neglecting my blog as of the past year. This is mostly due to the fact that while I've been writing quite prolifically, I am having to write lecture notes, accreditation documents, journal articles, grant proposals, and committee proposals. I've probably written two books worth of texts this year. Currently, I am teaching several classes, the undergraduate Methods of Investigation, and the two postgraduate units in the Design Anthropology program, Intro to Design Anthropology and Research Methods for Design. What I thought I would do to make up for my blog neglect is to post my lecture notes on my blog.

This one is for the introduction to the Methods of Investigation course aimed at first year undergraduate students. I paired it with a video of David Butler from the 2009 AIGA Make | Think Conference. I think the students got the message.

Intro: the Changing Landscape of Design

A scenario:

Once upon a time, there was a sole genius designer who would be asked by a client to design something for her (ex. a poster, a room, a product, a website, or even a service). This designer would go into his and her studio and begin sketching and brainstorming, only leaving the studio to go to a museum for inspiration. Maybe, the designer would go out for dinner with friends where they discuss the horrible state of design aesthetics today. Several months later the client would return and be shown a beautiful design, which they would be to intimidated by the designer to ever say she did not like it.

Today, a designer is likely to work with a team, perhaps even an interdisciplinary team. This requires that there be a shared process, so they create a model of a design process as Discovery, Concepting, Development, Execute, and Evaluate. They may do sketching and brainstorming in concepting, but this is preceded by interviews and observations in discovery. They may ask people, including the client, to participate in sketching and brainstorming and even final development with them. When the design is executed, they know it will be successful because they will have conducted evaluations on how it met the needs of the client, who is confident that she has hired the right team for many projects in the future.

QAME, a Framework for a New Theory of Design

In the book the History and Theory of Anthropology (2000), Alan Barnard talks about theory as consisting of a set of questions, assumption, methods, and evidence, QAME. Everyone has a set of questions they seek to answer, make assumptions about how the world works, has methods or a process to answer the questions, and provides evidence to convince other people that one knows what one knows. Design practice has had its own theory, which we can use QAME to make clear:

Q: The question used to be, "How can I [the designer] design a successful communication, object, environment, or interaction?"

A: The assumptions were that the client would provide the brief and the designer would use his and her technical skills, creativity, and pure gut instincts to meet the design challenge. A prime example of this assumption playing out is on the show Project Runway. Henry Roth provides "the brief" or challenge for the week. The designers primarily have only their talent (e.g. technical skills, creativity, and pure gut instinct) to come up with an inspiring design that meets the brief. They create their final design which is evaluated by the panel of judges.

M: Methods would consist of reading or listening to the brief, brainstorming ideas, maybe doing some visual research for inspiration, doing some sketches, and then working on the final layout, prototype, or model.

E: Evidence of success would be winning design awards and/or the client making lots of money off the designs.

Now what has changed in the design landscape today is the definition of success. It is no longer about just winning design awards or making lots of money off a design by any means necessary. Today, a designer has to pay attention to the potential positive and negative impacts of your design decisions on the environment, on society and culture, as well as the economics of the client. Thus the assumptions, methods, and evidence has changed.

New Assumptions: The designer has a client's brief, but now has to reframe it so that he or she makes sure it takes in account what Paul du Gay and others call the "circuit of culture" (1997)-- processes of production (how things are made), consumption (how things are purchased, used, and disposed), regulation (how governments create rules), representation (how things come to symbolize ideas), and identity (how things help shape our understanding and communication of who we are).

The complexity of having to take in account all aspects of the circuit of culture means that the designer can not just rely on technical skills and gut instincts anymore. He or she may be an expert on how things are made, but has to now work with the consumers or users to understand how things are purchases and used, work with lawyers and politicians to understand regulation, work with social scientists and communities to understand how things come to symbolize ideas and shape our senses of who we are. The designer now needs to know how to investigate the aspects of the design brief (who, where, when, how, and what for) so that he or she can justify the design decisions made not just to the client, but to all the other stakeholders who may be affected by those decisions, including the end customer or users, as well as the environment and society.

Methods: Brainstorming and sketching is not enough. The designer has to know how to conduct interviews, observe people, environments, and interactions; use self-documentation and participatory games to include users and clients in the design process. The designer needs to know how to analyze the information gathered and synthesize them into compelling stories, visuals, and performances that convince the client and other stakeholders that the designs will be successful to the client's economics, to principles of sustainability, and to social and cultural respect for peoples. In this unit, you will be exposed to various methods of interviewing, observation, self-documentation and participatory games, analysis, storytelling, visualization, and performance to met the challenges of the new landscape of design.

Evidence: One may still win design awards or make the client lots of money, but today's designer will also need to provide evidence that the design does not harm the environment, that consumers and users will buy, use, and properly dispose of what one has created, and that it enriches the cultural experiences of many people. This unit will help you convince your various clients that your design ideas can accomplish all of those things.


Barnard, A 2000, History and Theory of Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

du Gay, P, Hall, S, Janes, L, Mackay, H, and Negus, K 1997, Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.


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