If I had a penny for each weird look I receive for the answer to “what are you studding”…
This post aims to show how getting these two fields together just make a lot of sense.
Firstly, “design ethnography” is formed by two terms. The well known “Design” and the not-as-popular “Ethnography”, which is for the anthropologist a basic method as drawing is for designers. Hence, to talk about this subject it is necessary to talk about both design and anthropology.
1 – Design
The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) defends that:
Design is a creative activity whose aim is to establish the multi-faceted qualities of objects, processes, services and their systems in whole life cycles. Therefore, design is the central factor of innovative humanisation of technologies and the crucial factor of cultural and economic exchange.[emphasis added]
ICSID also list a series of tasks delegated to the design field:
Enhancing global sustainability and environmental protection (global ethics)
Giving benefits and freedom to the entire human community, individual and collective
Final users, producers and market protagonists (social ethics)
Supporting cultural diversity despite the globalisation of the world (cultural ethics)
Giving products, services and systems, those forms that are expressive of (semiology) and coherent with (aesthetics) their proper complexity.
As presented by Brenda Laurel’s book Design Research “if they [designers] desire to attract and delight customers or audiences for their work, they need to understand the people for whom they design.” It is also defended that until the 1990’s it was quite simple, populations – people from the same country or region, for example – were, in general, exposed to the same brands, products and media references, hence, sharing the same culture. Well… we know that it is not as true as it used to be…
2 – Anthropology
According to AAA (American Anthropological Association), “anthropology is the study of humans, past and present” and the “central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems”[emphasis added]. Anthropology can also be divided in four areas: Linguistic, Archeology, Biological/Physical – and Sociocultural.
The AAA describes sociocultural anthropology as a practice which “seeks to understand the internal logic of societies through ethnography”[emphasis added], define in more details they state:
Sociocultural anthropologists examine social patterns and practices across cultures, with a special interest in how people live in particular places and how they organize, govern, and create meaning.[...] Research in sociocultural anthropology is distinguished by its emphasis on participant observation, which involves placing oneself in the research context for extended periods of time to gain a first-hand sense of how local knowledge is put to work in grappling with practical problems of everyday life and with basic philosophical problems of knowledge, truth, power, and justice. Topics of concern to sociocultural anthropologists include such areas as health, work, ecology and environment, education, agriculture and development, and social change. [emphasis added].
3 – Design Ethnography
Given these definitions, it is straightforward to come with a simple logical relation and conclusion:
- if designers must understand peoples’ cultures in order to generate relevant and marketable solutions;
- if anthropology is the area of knowledge covering this subject;
- and both seek to apply their knowledge to create solutions to human problems;
- it is reasonable to suppose that designers could – or even should – apply social-anthropology methods – such as ethnography – to better understand the users of their future creations.
As AIGA’s Ethnography Primer summarizes “Ethnography is a tool for better design.”
And I think it is not just that. The extremely applied characteristic of design helps to turn research findings into down-to-earth outcomes as products, services and media.
For me it is this simple. What do you think?