Andrew Blauvelt | Essays

Design's Ethnographic Turn

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.

Comments [30]

"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."


Ethnography as espoused by the likes of William "Holly" Whyte, Jane Jacobs, or even Paco Underhill is, like many other "scientific" disciplines, a method of measuring or defining. It is not generative.

For example, in the practice of someone like Merce Cunningham, everyday gestures -- like the hip movement of someone stepping off a curb -- are identified and then brought into his choreographic vocabulary. The gesture is given context and commented upon, elaborated upon, multiplied, or just simply noted. There may be a degree of creativity when initially identifying the gesture, but that's the point where it ceases to be ethnography.

Your point about whether the obvious solution to the morning commute should be a shorter drive rather than installing a cup holder, is a straw-man argument to a badly written passage. The bulk of "scientific" inquiry is made up of small experiments and observations which are rational, and often pedantic. They are also colored by the intent of study's creator. A study funded by a car manufacturer would come to different conclusions than one funded by an environmental group.

In the case of this brochure, consider the sources: a design organization that suddenly finds itself having to rationalize a whole profession, and a consultancy looking for some sweet self-promo action. Their intended audience is business; thus the wording of the brochure.

Yes, I remember "innovation." I even remember other verbal bijoux like "semiotics." These things come and go. They're helpful to a point and offer good party conversation topics -- if not self-agrandizing puffery for that next client meeting -- but they don't replace the basic truths of design practice: the time spent looking (a.k.a. "observation") and the time your ass spends in a chair at your desk (or "creative exploration").

Consider them all as lovely ways to gild yer lilies.
m. kingsley

The topics or categories of questions raised by this post are many. So many that it occurs to me that perhaps such a list is a legitimate post by itself.

First, I must admit to finding the term designer bordering on silly. Who out here, in all the world, is not a designer, and second, and ironically, I find the term ethnographer, outright silly. The first term couldn't be broader, or the second narrower.

All of this legitimacy seeking posturing consumes so much time, that little is left to perfect the skills that would otherwise infer credibility in the first place. How long before we get to the question of licensing ethnographers?

I remember being tortured while studying industrial design under disciples of the Bauhaus, by repeated interrogation as to how I empirically justified my proposal through field research. Whether pay phones, gasoline pumps, or escalators, as industrial designers our job was to know how these devices were used; not how we wished them to be used.
I wonder how many times one can delegate his/her inherent responsibilities before both he/she or the work product lose all credibility. I offer the Mercedes cup holder as exhibit.

If ultimately one shall be required to have a staff ethnographer in order to claim a full service enterprise, does that staff member get an assistant with a minor in administration design, in order that the field efforts are maximized (greatest "bang for the buck"). Fine. May I suggest that to truly make the argument for ever greater delegation and task segmentation, ethnographers submit 100 examples of their efforts having successfully informed a product for its betterment.

In the end, a professional is one who acts on behalf of another as their representative; in their stead within an area of knowledge too deep and technical to be DIY. That is our primary function. I believe that those who excel are those who recognize which tasks are fundamental to those endeavors and crucial to those representations. Those who sleep through ethnography class , Miss R.,will just have to delegate.

I am required by law to have a license in order that I may practice architecture, but I have never considered that license as inferring credibility, probably due to the fact that the vast majority of my brother architects choose shortcuts in lieu of the rigor required by their chosen field. I suggest that designers perfect their chosen specialty through the doing of it, all of it; respect, even if it's only in the self, will follow.

there is irony here.
to be had.

i thought this was an excellent critical look at the various tropes that rationalize *how* design is done nowadays. and a previous poster is right - it is about observation, combined with creative exploration. suddenly a discipline with "methods" does the formal job of observing (use eyes, they do look-jobs), which leads designers to do what exactly (use hands, we do hand-jobs)?

it makes me think of dr, seuss' "star-bellied-sneetches" story. (wikipedia's condensed take: The story is an obvious parable for the cycle of fashion and how snobbery and insecurity drive consumerism to consumers' own detriment. It contains the messages that all people regardless of race, class or clothing, are equal, and that the human temptation to judge people by their appearance or by the company they seem to keep is full of pitfalls.)

designers design the stars (pretty stars they are), ethnographers tell us which direction the sneetches are currently travelling (people are putting stars on, no, now they are taking them OFF, no...), but what i want to know is who in this parable is the "maker of the star-adding-removing machine"? is it business? is it the random winds of cultural change? or is it history laughing as we simply repeat ourselves year in and year out, same pattern, different colors?

somebody's making a pretty nickel on all our follies methinks.
Gong Szeto

(NOTE: To put the following comments in context, I'm an urban designer by training with a strong critical-communications and environmental-psychology background, currently immersed in research to understand how design creates human experiences and how, despite the designers' best intentions, experiences more often create themselves. For a future column... -- Bob)

Wow. Them's pretty harsh words, Andrew, for an applied social science that's just getting its design legs. Let's see, wasn't it designers, when design as a field first sought to become a "profession" -- an appellation still in dispute -- who were considered by advertising folks and engineers to be pretentious and self-serving? Within the last half-century? One thing you can say for ethnographers, they've been around awhile.

We agree on one point: there remains a sizable lacuna separating how people experience the world in which they live and act, and the experiences dreamed up for them, as events, environments, and artifacts, by designers of different ilk -- and so far, as longtooth comments, the jury's out on ethnography's contribution to filling the void. Is it the right tool for the job? Maybe, maybe not, but what does design as a Profession offer in its place? Nada.

(Architects, btw -- a species of designers -- are the last professionals to talk about clients' and publics' needs and desires. There's reform in the air, but Frank Lloyd Wright set the imperial tone for the practice of modern architecture with his Architect Über Alles approach to design.)

Don't depend on brand strategists like Cheskin or the AIGA to accurately define ethnography. As M. Kingsley points out, they have a motive for painting ethnography in a certain light. Why not ask the ethnographers themselves how they define their discipline and its value?

Or, since this blog is a community of designers, instead of excoriating ethnography, which at least tries to be self-critical, why not take a crack at specifying what it would take for designers to be more in touch with their clients and the ultimate beneficiaries/victims of their labors? Now, that would be a very interesting conversation.

In fact, in research I'm doing for a forthcoming book on designing for experience, I'm examining the fit of designers' canons and products with the theory of experience. My research is only in its early stages, but so far, within this framework, I've found a lot of gaps and friction where design practice, literature, and public claims for its efficacy collide with science. So don't be a design pot calling the ethnography kettle black.

Rather than opining that others shouldn't be involved in the design enterprise, how about proposing how designers, in collaboration with complementary disciplines, can be better connected with those they design for? There certainly are enough best practices in other fields to observe and adapt if they make sense for design. Who knows,there may even be aspects of ethnography, not least its empathy for its subjects' state of mind and cultural milieu, that designers could learn from -- and one hopes, something that designers could teach ethnographers about the practical consequences of shaping realities. For one, I can see how ethnographers (or urban designers) would be in a good position to negotiate co-creation of products and services among designers and end-users.

Yes, we're seeking understanding in a dynamic environment, all flux and change, but who isn't these days? The Heisenberg Principle rules: deal with it. As the Firesign Theatre once sagely advised, "The Future? Live it, or live with it!" The whole world is watching. It's time to call off this dogpile.

Bob Jacobson

I agree with the author completely.

My question to his critics is this:

If we are so great at gathering and processing ethnographic research, then why are we still designing and producing so much crap?

If we are so great at gathering and processing ethnographic research, then why are we still designing and producing so much crap?

Because good design is expensive and people buy crap anyway. As wonderful as great design is, never forget the Wal-Mart factor: people would rather buy more things at lower individual costs than fewer things that cost more.

A great goal for the AIGA would be to educate consumers about design. Educating businesses and designers is great, and expanding the role of ethnography is really cool on a geeky level, but nothing has the potential for increasing the demand for design like teaching consumers to care.
james puckett

Thanks for writing this article, Andrew. It pulls out a lot of the critical issues that those of us working to bring social research together design and business strategy face in communicating the work we do. Ethnography made a major impact on the way products were developed in the 1990s during IDEO's heyday, but as you are surely discovering, ethnography has often been restricted to "incremental innovation through iteration."

This need not be so. I would argue that we have had our romance with ethnography in design already. It's table stakes these days. Design has also made overtures toward the business world, which has got everyone looking het up about the possibilities of innovation and design thinking, whatever those things are.

Despite all this hype, there actually is a major shift happening in the design world right now, and it's not so simple as an ethnographic turn. It's far more subtle. We're moving to the era of the explicit. Primary and secondary social research should not be a tool to observe behavior and recognize that, say, a cup-holder should be moved but instead an entry point for theories of culture. If we listen to the stories people tell us, we can interpret what they really need; I hardly think it's news that the answer won't be "a better toaster."

The discovery of meaningful activity is one thing. Taking that meaningful activity and clustering it with any number of other meaningful activities can paint a rich picture of the forces competing in people's lives right now. What this landscape gives the designer and strategist is not a simple path to creating new products (though you can do that, too). Instead, it imbues a company's product developers with a profound sense of empathy for the people that use their products and services. The consequences of specific actions are made evident. You understand your customers AND how to meet their needs.

Now, granted, many of the best products came from a team or single designer's insight about the world. Usually, that insight came not from formal fieldwork, but from gut instinct. As good as gut instinct is, it can have a low hit rate, and the CEOs of companies are often resistant to invest in an idea based on gut any more. With a really thick dossier of insights, that designer and strategist has the evidence required to make that case to the guys with the money. It provides the courage of convictions to do what's best for customers.

Anyway, that's my soapbox. I'll get off now. Ethnography has had a profound impact on design, but I think the entire animal is changing even further. It's no longer enough to know what people do. We all need to know why they do it, and what we can do about it.
Pete Mortensen

I think Pete has it almost right, except that the listening to stories (and observing activities) and finding the meaning in them is what ethnography actually is, rather than a new development or departure from it. I would argue that things like observing that a cup holder would be good on the left because it's easier to reach is FAR from ethnographic.

Rather, real ethnography is actually very similar to what Pete describes:

"The discovery of meaningful activity is one thing. Taking that meaningful activity and clustering it with any number of other meaningful activities can paint a rich picture of the forces competing in people's lives right now."

And ethnographers are actually trained to do this meaning-elucidation; like design, it actually takes learning and experience (and some skill) to do it well. To Bob's point, why not go ahead and work with (and maybe learn something from) someone who is differently trained and skilled than you are?
Mark Rogers

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.
Dori Tunstall

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 are questions that designers should be asking. They are central. By claiming that ethnographers are specially equipped to answer them only seems to further isolate the activity/function/expectations of designers. I never thought I would borrow a line from this administration, but: Does the activity of design suffer from "the soft bigotry of low expectations?"
Andrew Blauvelt

Cup Holder: "I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us we both know you're a cup. You're the thing that keeps cups going."

Cup: "But what about us?"

CH: "Wow cup, you're really tiny. I could hold four of you. We'll always have Starbucks."

C: "Yeah? The other day I was in a different car -- and that cupholder -- it could barely fit me. You know what happened? A spill."

CH: "Wow. That's rotten."

C: "Yeah, they should have hired an ethnographer to study the situation, observe my circumference, and made an appropriate receptacle for me."

CH: "But different people all over the world use different sized cups. No one can make a "universal" cup holder. That's zany."

C: "I'm the only cup that matters. Right?"

CH: "No, sorry."

C: "Wow. I thought I was just like everyone else."

CH: "Sorry again."

C: -- empties self all over floor and crotch of driver --

C: "My ethnographer and designer really should have compensated and made a cupholder that could accommodate several different cup sizes."

CH: "Don't feel bad. The ashtray and cigarette lighter got replaced by an iPod plug."

C: "Wow!"

CH: "It don't take much to see that the problems of three little amenities don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

C: "Here's looking at ... Whatever! Get me a lid that works"

--- the end ---

Joe Moran

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 are questions that designers should be asking. They are central. By claiming that ethnographers are specially equipped to answer them only seems to further isolate the activity/function/expectations of designers. I never thought I would borrow a line from this administration, but: Does the activity of design suffer from "the soft bigotry of low expectations?"

Aren't these questions everyone should be asking, regardless of profession? Of course, some words can be shifted to cater to individual professions, but the search for meaning inside and outside your local culture isnt simply a design problem—its a life problem.
Derrick Schultz

I really liked Joe Moran's capture (two postings above) of the exchange between the coffee cup and the cup holder. It's very aromatic.

But typically, just like a designer, he forgot to interview the coffee.
Bob Jacobson

Hi Derrick,

While designers should be asking this questions as professionals (not just as human beings), professional ethnographers (as anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, etc.) have been asking these questions for over 150 year in every country in the world, if you count philosophy it's about 3000 years. Ethnographers have come up with some pretty useful answers that design should be able to draw upon as they begin to start asking these questions.

Why reinvent the stone wheel cup holder, when you can use your skills to develop intergalactic coffee teleportation devices.

Designers should not be afraid to draw upon the well-developed expertise of others. Just as I should not hesitate to draw upon designers' clarification, visualization, and adaptive thinking skills to communicate with others.
Dori Tunstall

As an avid reader of Design Observer and other design-oriented sites, and as someone who studies and writes about cultures all the time (I'm a comparative literature professor) I must admit that I thought the AIGA text was some kind of April fools joke...as I scrolled through the pages I kept thinking that the "punchline" was going to be revealed.

why did I think it was composed in jest? Because the way it so blatantly juxtaposed culture and consumerism. The side-by-side images of a church, a "day of the dead" alter, and a pile of "past due" notices seemed so obviously constructed to say that "the job of designers is to find people's weaknesses and exploit them." I assume this kind of rhetoric would be an anathema to designers with any kind of social consciousness.

thus, I thought it was an attempt to take a current buzzword, "ethnography", and explode it to reveal its most craven intentions.

Just an observation from an outsider: you all seem too smart for this kind of pamphlet to really represent your art/work/industry.
Trixi Triceratops

I am new to this vehicle, and as such I felt that a certain amount of due diligent research was necessary to understand the various postures and opinions I see represented here; some of which I find unabashedly self-serving at the expense, I suspect, of the interests of quality design. In that research I have had some difficulty in finding the basis for the acronym AIGA. I initially thought that it was a graphic design association, but is in fact, the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

"AIGA, the professional association for design, is the place design professionals turn to first to exchange ideas and information, participate in critical analysis and research and advance education and ethical practice."

In other words, one stop shopping for all your DESIGN needs. My immediate thought was Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part 1. But, oddly, under that premise, AIGA's inclusion of ethnography makes sense as one contributor to the holistic world within which design takes place. In other words, if an agency would attempt to co-opt, as its authority, an entire facet of human endeavor, it must, like a non-partisan politician, remove itself from the day to day minutiae of one discipline or another i.e. industrial design, graphic design, environmental design etc. Not to do so creates too many variables in the equation, including self serving interest groups.

"AIGA, the professional association for design, is the place design professionals turn to first to exchange ideas and information, participate in critical analysis and research and advance education and ethical practice."

Does any of this make any sense? Perhaps another example. The study of visual arts best operates in an environment of abstraction rather the many layers of reality. Hence Design 101. Ethnography, as one potential contributor, could be applied to these exercises in a rarified environment where its impact could be isolated as the only variable. This would create a kind of algebraic language where one could properly analyze the quality and efficacy of ethnographic research instead of inciting arguments over cup holders. AIGA, then, serves the role of advancing the art of all design through the inclusion of advances made in other non-design disciplines, filtered through AIGA's research and development of those advances as they apply to the art of design.

"AIGA, the professional association for design, is the place design professionals turn to first to exchange ideas and information, participate in critical analysis and research and advance education and ethical practice."

An association whose origination was based upon the conveyance of meaning through language and its representations, ought not to be cavalier about its own means and mandate.


AIGA was the American Institute for Graphic Arts... but has since dropped it and just calls itself AIGA.
ed mckim

the aiga ethnography primer maintains that "to truly connect, designers need to have compassion and empathy for their audiences" and "what's required is patience and attention to another person's reality." while these are admirable — and even necessary — goals, oftentimes the materials gathered and presented by ethnographers do not reflect this ideal. rather than a careful, thoughtfully paced communication that creates a narrative and allows the audience to develop empathy for the subject, the resulting presentation is an incoherent hodge-podge.

of course, if the designer is present throughout the exploration, than he or she has had a chance to develop empathy for the respondents first-hand, but this is not always possible. since all team members usually can't attend the entire exploration, the ones that do must then return to the parties concerned and effectively communicate their findings in order to develop the crucial empathy and deep appreciation vital to effective ethnography.

burnley vest, director
burnley vest

A View from An Anthropologist:
I am so happy to have stumbled onto this website and this revealing and insightful discussion. As the "middle" posts (Bob Jacobson, Pete) clarify, ethnography is much more than observation. That sort of definition was perhaps true 50 years ago. Ethnography is about participation; it is not simply interviews and surveys. In my opinion, ethnography should be generative (referring to an earlier post) as culture is generative (not a set of traits, belief systems, etc. but a dynamic process of social interaction) Therefore, as cultural anthropolgists have written for the past decades, ethnography is always about issues of ethics, power, social hierarchy, and so on...But, that's the way all social interactions are to varying degrees.

I am happily surprised to see designers discussing these issues, for back in the late 90s, when I took a couple of graphic design classes, the idea of "culture" among graphic designers appeared to me to mean the psychology of human perception, how the eye sees an image - in other words, quite universal and not anthropological.

I write from the other side, I am trying to get anthropologists to appreciate the material aspects of meaning-making and ideology. Thus, my interest in design. I work on hip hop in Brazil and Portugal. Thank you all for a wonderful discussion...
derek p
Washington University
derek p

Dori Tunstall wrote ´over time...designers learn to do research and researchers learn to design´ I believe we should aknowledge that perhaps designers need to learn more research skills already during their studies to be able to design taking into account the bigger societal picture (as well) - and that way creating more meaningful products and services for the consumers and companies.

There is definitely a change taking place in design profession and it is bigger than just an ethnographic turn. I think it is a more holistic turn...
Pirjo H

This post compelled me to go look at the AIGA pamphlet, a useful exercise to those that are critical of Andrew's thoughts. The Mercedes cup holder not withstanding (is it truly safe to drive a $40,000 - $60,000 SUV while enjoying a cup of coffee, between your legs or otherwise? - I guess Mercedes' "design ethnographers" have research backing that one up), the pamphlet does not include one reference or footnote that leads the designer or the prospective ethnographer interested in design to a more substantive discussion of the subject.

In essence the idea is presented for what it is, a tool to "design products and services that evoke meaningful experiences for them." As Andrew correctly points out the possibility that the questions raised in the first place by the approach might challenge the efficacy of the product, service, indeed the design realized is never a possibility and the rich concerns that ethnography in the service of design might raise are never a consideration.

On the cover is a simple circle showing a binary relationship between design at the 3 o'clock position and ethnography at the 9 o'clock position, the two spinning in perpetiual relationship to each other. If only design and ethnography were this simple. It is the simpletoness of the pamphlet and what it seems to say about design dialogue and pursuits that is so uncomfortable. These are valuable subjects and approaches and even in the form of a pamphlet should be richer guideposts to a more nuanced and networked design discourse.

First let me say that I think it's great that the AIGA is taking this step, and hopefully it is just a first. It's more than the IDSA (industrial designers society) has done, that I'm aware of. I've been doing user research for over 15 years and even created my own masters degree around it at University of Chicago before there was much academic attention to design research, so I'm glad to see ethnography getting more emphasis.

Reading through the brochure it's only scratching the surface, obviously, but a major flag went up for me on page 25: Step 1 - Define the Problem. Not much is given as to how to do this, but this step is a major enabler or inhibitor to finding new opportunities through the methods that ethnography brings to the table.

In most of the work that I do, ethnography is done in order to understand the problem. Most problems that are worth doing ethnography for are complex enough that you cannot understand them with a traditional waterfall approach of data gathering, data analysis, recommedations, and concept implementation. You have to do all four of those things in parallel, feeding off each other in iterative cycles.

You obviously need some boundaries within which you are going to go exploring with ethnography, but you are missing a large part of its value if you presume that you've already defined the problem before you go into the field.
Adam Richardson

My interest has peaked at the post of Mr. Richardson, who apparently uses ethnographers regularly and can offer examples to support their value in the team design process. All of the posts thus far who support the cause of ethnographers have failed to provide evidence of their argument. Please, Mr. Richardson, make simple, by example, your argument.

Longtooth, here's one example from a few years ago (more recent ones are hard to talk about due to confidentiality)

The firm I was working at the time (no longer around) was hired by toothbrush manufacturer to develop a new line of children's toothbrushes. I was the lead researcher and designer.

We started the project with a couple of major efforts: Reviewing about 40 videotapes of focus group footage from an earlier study that the client had done, asking mothers about their wants/needs for their children's dental care and toothbrushes specifically. We also did concept sketching that was pretty blue sky. In parallel we began recruiting for the in-home research.

One thing that came through loud and clear from the focus groups was that hygene was a big issue for the mothers - they were concerned about bacteria build up on the brushes, and the heads getting gunky. So many of our design concepts began exploring this, often creating features that added more cost to the brush, but it seemed like it was a strong unmet need.

Once out in the field, however, things appeared very different. We saw a dozen toothbrushes crammed together into a cup, the heads of all the different family members' heads crushed together. And we saw children take the brushes out of their mouths and toss them in a drawer without even rinsing them off, with the mother standing right there.

This led us to adjust our problem scope, and focused our efforts on other areas. We realized that hygene was expressed in focus groups because that was what they were expected or supposed to say, and at the shelf their priorities would be elsewhere.

The brushes went on to become the biggest sellers in every market worldwide.

Just one small example. There were a lot of other findings that led into the final designs as well, beyond this insight.
Adam Richardson

Thank you Mr. Richardson for your example. It would be interesting to hear from ethnographers regarding this example, and their own samples of contributions made.


Mr. Richardson, you needed an ethnography degree and/or ethnographer to figure this toothbrush example out? My teeth indeed are incredulous, and getting longer whilst I await a better example. Perhaps that's why the firm that did this work went out of business - too much windy overhead that could not be justified upon close scrutiny. Kudos Mr. Blauvelt.
Bernard Pez

Bernard, as I said this was a simple example. There was a lot else that went into it, such as insights into how children associate stories and friendships to objects, how parents and children "duel" over which products to purchase, and how children perceive their daily schedules.

This particular example was very valuable for the client in that it challenged their "conventional wisdom" gathered through another research technique (focus groups).

The fact that the brushes went on to become such good sellers (moving this client from #3 to #1 in less than a year) says to me that this "windy overhead" as you call it was well worth it.
Adam Richardson

Adam - sorry it took so long to get back to you. I was in the "real" world as opposed to this paradise of blogging where all opines are equal and attention to detail is not a must, or perhaps is just musty.

Your words:Reviewing about 40 videotapes of focus group footage from an earlier study that the client had done, asking mothers about their wants/needs for their children's dental care and toothbrushes specifically. We also did concept sketching that was pretty blue sky

Me still thinks you put the focus group and pure thinking cart before the ethnographic horse on this one though I have no doubt that an ethnographic approach would and will wield curious facts - such as why the English don't care as much about straght teeth as the pearl obsessed Americans.
Bernard Pez

Andrew Blauvelt Andrew Blauvelt is Curator of Architecture and Design and Chief of Communications and Audience Engagement at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A practicing graphic designer his work has received numerous awards and has been published and exhibited in North America, Europe, and Asia. He has organized numerous exhibitions.

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