Design: getting out the coffee stains

Having received a "primer" on ethnography from the AIGA, Andrew Blauvelt expresses some discomfort. What is the relationship between ethnography and design?

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.... 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.

Can design be made better through the application of social science? Blauvelt has his doubts, asking this terrific question:

Is evoking a meaningful experience the same as having a meaningful experience?

The ethnographic design guidance offered by the brochure he received in the mail suggests one solution to a vexing problem for many professionals, myself included. Where's the best place for the coffee cup during the morning commute?

Applying the science, the guide recommends the left side of the steering wheel. But Blauvelt is having none of it and counters with his own, a less rigorous, less scientific solution.

Why not just shorten the commute?


Hat tip: Putting People First