The other day, evidently as a benefit of membership in AIGA, the largest professional organization for designers in the United States, I received a little booklet entitled An Ethnography Primer. I must admit some trepidation when I receive these types of mailings. I recalled an earlier AIGA pamphlet from years ago that delineated the design process as if it had been recently unearthed and rushed to designers, a gesture which fell somewhere between stating the obvious and, well, just plain patronizing.
This one seemed different. Although I've been thinking about ethnography and its relationship to design for many years, it still seemed significant that the subject warranted this kind of publication and distribution. I wondered: Does this mark some of turning point in the profession at large?
Lately, I've sensed that we're in a third phase of modern design, what I sometimes call its "ethnographic turn." We've seen periods of great formal experimentation, exploding the visual vocabulary of modernism. We've seen periods focused on the meaning-making of design, its content, symbolism, and narrative potential. For me, this new phase is preoccupied with design's effects, beyond its status as an object, and beyond the "authorship" or intentions of designers.
Like many broad linguistic brushstrokes, the concept of an "ethnographic turn" is meant to cover a lot of territory. For some it might mean "human-centered design," for others "contextual design" or "experience design," or simply those who consider design in its performative dimension, how it behaves in the world. It's a messy place populated with all types of designers and ideologies: you might see the famous IDEO-designed shopping cart from Nightline next to Dunne & Raby's GPS Table or the Disney Imagineers mixing it up with Koolhaas's AMO team. What all these different things have in common is their emphasis on the effects of design on people and culture, whether intended or not. Naturally, I was intrigued by what this booklet might offer.
The content of the booklet was developed in partnership with Cheskin, a consultancy whose founder brought us the fluorescent Tide package and put the man into Marlboro Man for Phillip Morris. So, what is ethnography, you may ask. "Ethnography is a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting." That alone should be welcome news, if for no other reason than to counter the sterile, out-of-context, rehearsed formalities of the dreaded focus group. Through observation of people in real contexts you can avoid the unreliability of "self-reporting" — what people say they do — and document what they really do. Ethnography, we are told, is also "a tool for design" that reveals "a deep understanding of people and how they make sense of their world."
The context for these definitions is an introductory guidebook for practicing designers, of course, and therefore I shouldn't be surprised by the instrumentality of it all. Accordingly, ethnography promises to unlock cultural perceptions and norms in a global marketplace, make communications more clear and effective, identify behaviors and impediments, and even evoke meaningful personal experiences. For some, it's the true pathway to design innovation.
You remember innovation, don't you? It was the business elixir of the new millennium. Of course, the problem has always been achieving innovation, not simply desiring it. Ethnographic research has thus become a cornerstone of contemporary product development (incremental innovation through iteration), as witnessed by the success of such firms as IDEO. Apparently, the answer to what do people really want lies in asking what do people really do. But there is something a little too tidy or simple about these definitions and promises of putting ethnography to work.
The ethnographer's primary endeavor is "fieldwork," specifically undertaken through observation and documentation. Ethnography developed as a research methodology in such realms as anthropology and sociology. Its history has been linked to problematic aspects of colonialism, as the ethnographer's Western gaze was often turned on "others." Despite this shady past, the field went through a phase of critical self-reflection, which among other things identified the ethnographer as an active rather than invisible agent in the field, lending him or her a kind of participant-observer status. It could not sustain the illusion of neutrality or its own biases. It is this kind of critical reflexivity that is missing in this truncation of what ethnography can do for design, designers, and culture at large; or that what is really being sold here as valuable — or perhaps, billable — is specifically consumer ethnography.
Thus, the questions being asked are also often framed within a specific economic paradigm of the client-with-problem mold. However, questions could also emanate from civic or cultural perspectives, not only business concerns. The field of study is dynamic, not static. Each new design changes the field in tiny or sometimes large ways. More often, forces beyond those of design change the nature of the field.
Ethnography promises to understand local culture. But how do you design to conform to existing local cultural norms even while those same norms are undergoing change wrought from other forces of globalization? Ethnography promises to discover meaning in people's lives so that what is of value can be emulated. But does the act of making meaning transfer from the user to the designer so readily? Is it hubris to think that it can? Is evoking a meaningful experience the same as having a meaningful experience? We're told that legitimate ethnographic research is undertaken by professionals who work with designers in a "team," because "the experienced ethnographer goes beyond the obvious" observation. If ethnography is so central to design, as the historical moment suggests, then why restrict its use? It was after all a method employed by a variety of differently trained people.
The brochure's most concrete example of applied ethnography is a coffee-cup holder, which research directs us to place on the left side of the steering wheel where it is easier to reach when driving. This example illustrates the promise that ethnography can identify barriers and provide clues to where problems exist: "Ethnography vividly identifies people's 'pain points' and guides the way towards solutions. For example, the obvious solution to improve the morning commute is a cup holder." But the "obvious solution" to improve the morning commute may be not adding a cup holder to the left side of the steering wheel, but actually shortening it. What we need isn't just an ethnography about observing people typecast in roles as consumers, but to ask the important questions that give that kind of research itself cultural significance and professional legitimacy in the first place.
Andrew Blauvelt is design director and curator of architecture and design at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A practicing designer, he also writes about the history, theory, and criticism of design for a variety of publications.