A few weeks ago I attended an event that focused on service design, and offered an opportunity for a small group of people to share experiences and thoughts on this growing field of design. A conversation arose around changing career paths, how experience translates into new areas of work, and what transferable skills apply to working within service design.
This made me think about the evolving field of design ethnography, and its roots in anthropology. Many of us studying and working in DE do not have this background, but what else can we bring to the field?
Speaking to the rest of our class, it is clear that we all bring a complex and diverse personality to each project. My own experience and knowledge is mainly based in design – interaction and graphic design, but like many other people I’ve had a myriad of jobs and experiences that contribute to the way I work. As we are hoping to practice DE in the near future, I think it’s important that we consider how these transferable skills could influence and shape this evolving field.
For me, being educated and working in ‘design’ has had a huge impact on my thinking and my methods, in relation to how I approach a problem. There are numerous debates and opinions on ‘thinking creatively’ or ‘design thinking’ that it’s not relevant to discuss here and now, but from my own experience, the design process in practice is an extremely valuable tool in understanding and thinking differently about any type of problem. Of course the design process is not something that can be so easily defined, and when I make this statement I’m referring to the overarching principles that exist within all areas of design, from service to product to system. Different disciplines certainly have different approaches, but the thinking and understanding involved in each of their processes is similar.
Seeing things differently
Going back to the conversation that provoked this thinking, one contributor noted that naïvety can be an advantage when it comes to approaching a problem. In the same way that we as ethnographers attempt to see the world (or a part of the world) through a different lens, it can also be true that as a newcomer to a certain field, we come with fresh eyes. Seeing a problem, or a culture, or a person in a different light often uncovers insight that is invisible to an experienced eye. I like to think about it as similar to the familiarity we might have with our own homes. When you live in a place for a long time, you stop seeing the objects around you, as they almost become part of your plane of vision. You stop noticing the details and shifts that a visitor would immediately pick up on. In the same way, when methods become familiar, we lose the precision in practicing them that once made them magical.
The flip side of this argument is that experience brings a type of sensitivity to a subject, and an understanding of what is relevant and important. In particular, when it comes to filtering data or finding opportunities from insights. Expertise in a certain field is an invaluable asset, one that provides the knowledge required to become natives in the land that we practice. Those finding their feet and exploring this land could be compared to tourists; if they find the right local to ask for directions, they’ll discover the hidden streets and unspoken treasures that make the place special. In the same way we can all learn from the masters of our ‘craft’.
And so what about a compromise? Where is the middle ground when it comes to navigating your way through an industry? A common ‘tool’ in design is intuition – a skill that many believe cannot be learned. In Design Anthropology, Jane Fulton Suri suggests that “design and innovation are creative endeavours that defy entirely rational and linear processes. Human intelligence, skill and leaps of imagination are required to grapple with multiple variables and uncertainties to make future sense”.
This idea of ‘intuition’ could be a boundary between the naïve approach and the experienced approach. Finding that boundary and remaining on the thin line is a balancing act; some may learn it, some may possess it already but we can always improve it through practice.
When we observe, question and try to understand people and cultures, our interpretations of what we’ve uncovered are what leads us to potential opportunities. Interpreting is a personal, almost ‘bespoke’ skill whereby experience, mood, naïvety and many other factors influence what we, as individuals, find meaningful and interesting. And that’s our intuition. In some respects this is the one skill that we can all have – beginner’s and professionals alike.
So what can we as explorers of design ethnography, take from this? Yes, anthropological theory and practice has an integral role in defining this emerging practice, but we can also look to other disciplines to establish a diverse toolkit of methods. On a wider level this becomes relevant when applying for jobs after university, moving into a new industry or career path, and even when starting a new project and working in a new team of people. In a ‘problem space’ multi-disciplinary working can bring new perspectives and often a synergy that does not exist when working alone. All of us bring knowledge and expertise in one field, and are learning to have alongside that a broad empathy towards other skills and disciplines. More than anything, design has taught me to have trust in the experience and intuition that drives our thinking.