Design’s ethnographic turn

Ethnography Primer
The Design Observer posted a very good article on design ethnography by Andrew Blauvelt, design director and curator of architecture and design at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

It was provoked by the AIGA/Cheskin Ethnography Primer (pdf, 4 mb, 31 pages) that I wrote about earlier and raises some very valid questions:

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.

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(Make sure to read the reactions, especially the one by Elizabeth “Dori” Tunstall)

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