Norman – Rethinking Design Thinking (again)

I like his catholic priest vibe.

In 2010 Don “Design of Everyday Things” Norman posted “Design Thinking – A useful myth” on Core77. Now he is rethinking design thinking. Apparently the process of revisiting his book and writing new chapters, bringing more examples and making stronger links to the business side of design made him reconsider the whole argument.

Bruce Nussbaum, a the big responsible for the presence of term design thinking (and by consequence design) in the business agenda in the last couple of years also wrote about design thinking been a failed experiment in 2011.

I think both have a huge point. “Design thinking” have reached such level as a buzzword that it kind of get us tired of it. As I have said other times when I got involved in arguments about design thinking been something new or not, if it is valid or not, bla bla bla. For me it was always about finding people who were doing a better design, more empathetic and human centered than the use of the term “design” (an expression even more misused than “design thinking”).

A more efficient keyword / #hashtag. Just it.

Don Norman talks about “the power of the stupid question” as the main asset designers have as outsiders who can challenge the status quo. In this sense I am really happy to be studying in a place where we call ourselves professional idiots – exactly because we learn to ask stupid questions for a living.

Meteors, Culture and Natural Selection

You are probably aware of the meteor falling in Russia this week. You probably also watched lots of high-definition videos of the fire-ball tearing the sky.

As me you probably thought “how did they manage to get all this footage?”. In summary,  because of violent roads, corrupted police and skeptic justice system, dash-cameras are a must have in Russia.

A compilation of outstanding Russian dash-camera videos.

As we sometimes forget technology are tools serving people. People inhabit certain contexts that are important for what they choose or avoid to use. These contexts are made of different factors, but the global/local cultures are crucial to understand why certain innovations arise, are adopted and kept, or vanish away. Therefore, the right innovation needs the right context to flourish.

Just like living creatures in nature, new products/services are trying to survive following rules that resemble natural selection. If in Darwin’s theory the environment plays a major role – with predators, mating rituals and food scarcity – at the innovation field the socio-cultural context is the “environment” determining who thrives an who vanishes. In this particular case the Russian historical, social, cultural, juridical and economical context are setting a stage where small digital cameras fit perfectly.

The good thing about it is that using tools from social sciences (such as ethnography) we can study these socio-cultural contexts using findings to design products/services to fit in these scenarios. Is as if species could plan beforehand how they should be to have better chances of success in a certain environment. True intelligent design.


Now that we had this deep impact on the culture of visual documentation, maybe the habit of 24/7 footage arise in other countries, both to better deal with lawsuits, or just to be ready in case pure awesomeness knocks at your door.

UPDATE: Why is it not happening in Brazil? 

With the famous corrupt police and technology adoption Brazil should be doing the same thing as Russia. Right? Maybe not.

I guess this phenomenon is not happening in Brazil because of the cultural context. Bribing is usually carried by the person committing the infraction, being the least interested on document it.

Talking about traffic fee for example. Usually the owner of the car is the one trying to get out of the situation. The driver would be the one using the famous “jeitinho Brasileiro” (Brazilian workarounds) to bribe the police officer avoiding a more severe fee.

As far as I know Brazilian corruption have a subtle, almost friendly spirit. A police officer will never openly ask a driver for money, instead what happens is a favor exchange. Starting with a small double-sense chit-chat to feel if the other side would prefer an “alternative solution”. This bribe is called “o dinheirinho da cerveja” or just “pra cervejinha“, which means just a change for a couple of beers (of course many times it is way more than that).

Roberto DaMatta is one of the most respected Brazilian anthropologists and wrote a lot about this behavior.

Extreme Documentation on Ethnography


Big Data was one of the hottest topics in 2012, and probably will keep trending for sometime.

Maybe what make people so exited about it is the numerical proof of things we sometimes “feel” happening, but have a hard time explaining how we came to this conclusion.

At this post Andy Polaine talks about “Self ethnography and the quantified life”, referring to the vast range of products and apps helping people to have an Excel view of their own existence. He also links Gary Wolf’s talk “The Quantified Self” discussing how easy is to document our daily lives and how it have being changing the way people behave.

This week I came across this TED talk from the MIT researcher Deb Roy shows how he used powerful cameras, microphones and data servers to turn his house into a laboratory (Big Brother style). He fully documented in audio and video the whole process of how his newborn learned to speak. Amazing!

But where does it lead us? Are we close to a time where qualitative and quantitative data collection can turn our world in a high-tech version of Kitchen Stories?


It can be frightening depending on your techno-phobia levels, but can kids who were born with their Facebook profiles care much about having their live documented 24/7? I guess they gonna love it!

Furthermore, I dare to say that somewhere out there someone is already trying this kind of extreme approach with a business/innovation focus.



Illustrated Debate: The Future of British High St.

Since quite a long time I want to develop some quick graphic representation skills. Something like visual note-taking. As I started attending to the University of Dundee Debate Union it looked like a pretty good idea to illustrate the debates as they go.

Last debate addressed the question “Is there a future to High Street?“. In this case it is not a particular address, “High Street is a metonym for the generic name of the primary business street of towns or cities, especially in the United Kingdom”. Wikipedia

So the debaters were discussing if the government support should be applied to help medium and small commercial businesses against the threats of e-commerce and gigantic retail chains.

And this is my quickie representation:

DundeeDebateSociety_HighSt_lowAt the left side those defending a governmental aid in order to save jobs and the British High Street culture itself. At the right side those defending that no aid should be given, and old-fashioned obsolete business models should fail because eventually new ones would take their place.

I felt a “vibe” of a famous Scottish invention, the invisible hand, but didn’t found a way to use it properly. However the idea that some companies must die and others survive in a “natural selection” pushed me to another strong British reference, Charles Darwin.

I with I could think about more icons than the flag… But nothing was coming to my mind ate the moment.

Lets see if I can keep doing these illustrations.

Why Design Ethnography?

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: 

  1. Enhancing global sustainability and environmental protection (global ethics)

  2. Giving benefits and freedom to the entire human community, individual and collective

  3. Final users, producers and market protagonists (social ethics)

  4. Supporting cultural diversity despite the globalisation of the world (cultural ethics)

  5. Giving products, services and systems, those forms that are expressive of (semiology) and coherent with (aesthetics) their proper complexity.

[emphasis added]

As presented by Brenda Laurel’s book Design Researchif 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: 

  1. if designers must understand peoples’ cultures in order to generate relevant and marketable solutions;
  2. if anthropology is the area of knowledge covering this subject;
  3. and both seek to apply their knowledge to create solutions to human problems;
  4. 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?

The rise of the Washing Machine

As someone who tries to balance the “treehugger”, business and pseudo-anthropologist together getting involved in discussion with people from this 3 extremes it is always hard to explain or defend that:

  1. there is no way everybody will have access to the same comfort the developed word has today without a CRITICAL behavior and production change;
  2. people want to access it, in many cases because the western civilization sell them these values (in Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon, people turn air-conditioners on just to end up using duvets. Does it make sense?)

Hans Rosling can help me out:

As he points ou: How to deliver these conveniences to a greater population with the same or less materials / energy?

My bet is dematerialization, or turning products into services (yes, service design goes here).

However it is only possible if we manage to drive people into it, if we understand not just the direct practical need (washing clothes, as in his example) but the cultural values and possibilities behind that, like having more time as he pointed out, or even prestige in the neighborhood as I have seen many times in Brazilian laundries (Yep. Brazilian women are proud of their washing machines and other house appliances).

This my friend, is a work for us “design ethnographers” (or other label of your preference).

It reminds me the time when I used to design professional laundry appliances (2009 feels so long ago…)

Stainless Steel = Durability ladies and gents.

Man… I have spent a loooong time in this washing machine…

Yes, it is big.


References – Catching up

Every now and then someone ask me for references on “Design Thinking”. This is an attempt to share some of what I gathered during the years and you can check for free in our beautiful interwebs.

First, I don’t care much about names and labels, for me all these terms are related to research about people and develop better solutions. So I don’t mind if you call it Design Thinking, Design Research, Applied Ethnography, Design Ethnography, Service Design, Innovation or magic. Most of these things drink in the same references so it is quite useful to have them together.


Materials to get you from zero knowledge to somewhere in this area.

Resonance – A short video showing why and how this kind of work is done. Very good start.

Continuum Resonance Video: Getting to the right idea from Continuum on Vimeo.


Design Research – Brenda Laurel – Great book. Can give you basis to start studying the field, quite accessible writing, few jargon and alike.

Bootcamp Bootleg – Developed by Stanford’s D.School it is a very clear, straight forward guide for this kind of innovation project, describing the most used tools in a very simple and accessible way.

Ethnography Primer – Publication made in partnership between AIGA and Cheskin (now part of Added Value), one of the first companies in the field. Very simple, clear and insightful. Also very competent showing how a designer and an anthropologist / ethnographer can complete themselves in a project.

In general the research phase aims to create empathy with those addressed by your solution, your clients, costumers or users (each field likes to call people differently, what can I do?). This video about empathy is pretty good.

It is very hard to talk about “Design Thinking” without talking about IDEO. In this TED talk their CEO Tim Brown call designers to think BIG, to go for bigger problems and get involved.


Research and Fieldwork

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer – Great source created by IIT guys, it is really good for those with few or no experience on fieldwork. Dori, the woman been interviewed most of the time is now head of the Design Anthropology master course at the Swinbourne University.

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer from Gabe & Kristy on Vimeo.

“What People Are Really Doing”. Another video from IIT. Extremely clear and enlightening.

What People Are Really Doing from IIT Institute of Design on Vimeo.

Luis Arnal: Field Stories from Latin America – Quite funny lecture from Luis Arnal on how to perform fieldwork in Latin America (obviously, many of this observations are also valid for other places).

Luis Arnal: Field Stories from Latin America, IIT Design Research Conference 2008 from IIT Institute of Design on Vimeo.

Jan Chipchase is one of the most famous “design anthropologists” in the world. Became a star in the field during his years at Nokia and now is part of Frog Design team. Make sure you check his website and blog. Lots of material and he is always posting.

Here he is at TED.

Jan Chipchase: Design anthropology – Another great lecture addressing the field work world with special attention to ethics.

(The second video is much newer the TED, apparently he manages to find time to workout. Well done Mr. Chip!)


Services, products, businesses and other output examples as shown as cases.

“Reassessing Information and Comunication Technologies and Development:The Social Forces of Consumption” – From Intel.

Keep the Change – From IDEO. One of my preferred cases to exemplify how ethnographic research can create great solutions beyond products and with meaningful impact in business.

Havaianas – This one is pretty interesting in the brand and product fields. IDEO working with the Brazilian flip-flop brand. You can see the case here, video with how the products work below.

Havaianas bags from IDEO on Vimeo.

Colorblind – A research from Continuum on how people perceive sustainability. You can have a look at their warm-up video and check the report here.

Sustainability by Design: Continuum’s Colorblind Project from Continuum on Vimeo.

Business focused

Roger Martin – Along with Bruce Nussbaum this Rotman School professor is one of the biggest defenders of the “design thinking” inside the business world. Very good lecture at the AIGA event in 2009.

David Butler : Redesigning Design – He is the design mind behind the most valuable brand on earth. In this lecture he talks about about how design is been approach by him and his team inside Coca-Cola.

Luis Arnal from INSITUM on insights in a more business-related vision of the field.

DRC X – 2011 – Luis Arnal from IIT Institute of Design on Vimeo.


More acid discussions on “Design Thinking”

There are a lot of love and hate around the expression “design thinking”. Here we have some articles against this term (personally, I don’t care much)


Why Design Thinking Won’t Save You by Peter Merholz. It is a post on HBR kind of fighting design thinking as a buzz word. Bare in mind that Peter was at Adaptive Path at the moment and “design thinking” is almost an branded offer from IDEO. Via Cuducos.

Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next by Bruce Nussbaum – He was one of the biggest supporters of “Design Thinking”, but with this article he claims that it has failed. Again, keep in mind that he still point out how useful it was for many reasons and try to sell a new idea – actually not that new – creative intelligence.

How to Lie with Design Thinking.

Be fully aware that most of this is joke and it is easy to lie with classic design too. What do you think is the porpoise of a beautiful render?

Dan Saffer: How to Lie With Design Thinking from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

This is it for now. This post will be filled every now and then.

Stay classy.

How can 3D printing really emerge as a trend?


This time of the year we usually see many efforts to predict the future, to discover “what is next”. It is probably way older than that (as you can see in Paleo Future), but I believe Faith Popcorn’s Brain Reserve with the Cocooning in the 90’s got “trend hunting” on the hot spot and it is still there. Everyone wants to own the future by predicting what is next, but nobody wants to be the one to bet on something that will not come up great in a few months / years in order to keep their credibility. Therefore, we have many forecasters, designers, researchers and trend hunters predicting the predictable, coming up with obvious visions of a future very likely to occur, making these trends just common sense for those a little bit more informed.

In general, these trend reports are just the consultancy version of advertising or free sample, trying to reach and attract new clients. Which is not bad, but I believe they could try some longer shots. They could risk a little more. Well… I have way less to lose so there goes my idea:

My guess for 2013: 3D Printing as a service

For a couple of years people have predicted the 3D printing as “the next thing”, that we are all going to download and print personalized objects at the comfort of our own home. Well… I strongly disagree with that. Not because of technology, but because of what people really want from today’s economy. There are several non-technological barriers for that:

  1. The usual term for this is “3D printer”. Well. We have paper printers, why not 3D ones? Quite reasonable. The thing is that we are not going to have an awesome 3D printer at home for the same reason we have no cutting-edge Xerox machine on our desks. You sure do some printing, but when it comes to serious business you look for a bureau, mostly to have someone experienced editing and printing something with quality.
  2. Have you tried to make a 3D model? It is not just software, you have to THINK in 3D, understand measurements (specially if you want to assemble it to something else). In the end, it is way harder to learn how to deal 3D objects than it is to type in a text.  The day might come, but still far away.
  3. It is still seen as a gadget, a toy, a garage ornament, but not a useful piece of technology in the daily life.

However, the technology is knocking on the door and as Frog’s report shows bellow the price of these printers are getting lower and lower, so:

Demand for personalized printed 3D objects MINUS proper skills or stronger need to have it a home EQUALS a 3D printing as a local service.

Firstly, we have to consider how complicated it is to deal with physical objects. As you know, with few colors you can make all of them. Since we still cannot rearrange atoms and molecules to make a different materials from scratch, and that by default a printed object will be smaller than the printer itself, we probably need a printer big enough and space to stock raw materials (several types of plastic, for example). People will need a person to help them deal with the technology = we need something like a Product Design Clerk. A product designer + a clerk ladies and gents. Someone to link the ideas in your head to the real world, and with enough technical skill to preview and “print” the outcome. With everything been manufactured Asia nowadays, I think there are some designers out there to take the position.

How it might look like? When we talk about products that are easy to visualize or evaluate just based on specs (e.g. smart phones) it is easier to do everything online. It could sound weird, but I believe this business shall work as a store providing service. A place where you can walk in and ask for something. As an experience, if I may. You could take your memory stick there or send a 3D file by email, have a look in their portfolio of printable objects or have just some sketches of what you want to be designed, then our product design clerk can take care of the rest (charging you for it, of course). After a while you can pick it up when it is ready, or ask to be delivered. As simple as that. It is also possible that the big printer and the branch does not share the same space. Having small branches with designer attendants around busy areas (city centers / shopping malls) and a print facility somewhere else with more space and lower rent.

Who can do it? If we are talking about starting big, we can obviously consider Amazon because of the expertise in technology and online commerce. Zappos could also be a good bet with their high-standards service culture. Personally, I believe it will come from the bottom and maybe it is out there already, an evolution of projects like MetaMaquina or Form1 and then spread as a franchise by tech-business savvy geeks – a lot of unemployed recent grads to fit the profile.

Barriers: There is a looong discussions on legal treatsForm1 itself got KickStarter on the spot but I am not going to wright further about it. What I can say is that the first company to succeed in this field will present a smart way to work around this matters, maybe like Apple did with iTunes, maybe going to “creative commons” options, but for sure not just ignoring it. Beyond that, there is a whole lot of brand and offer problems. How assure the printed object will last? Does it have to last? Is it recyclable? Can I just give my product back so it can be re-molded? If not, why not?

References: Frog’s Tech Trends for 2013:

JWTIntelligence – 10 Trends for 2013 in 2 minutes A printer big enough: