Over the past two decades, designers of all stripes have begun integrating the lessons of ethnography into their academic research and professional practices. Under the rubrics of “reflexive,” “participatory,” “human-centred,” “contextual,” and “transformation design,” the relationship between design studies and ethnographic approaches to cultural analysis has been progressively deepened and, at the same time, grown more complex. 

During this same period, key developments in anthropology, sociology, and studies of material and technological culture have transformed our understanding of both the context and the subject matter of ethnographic investigations. These developments include:
The critique of the colonial history of anthropology and the rise of relational and reflexive approaches to ethnography; the emergence of studies of contemporary work and expert practice as a distinctive area of ethnographic inquiry; and the rise of Science and Technology Studies (STS) as an interdisciplinary field that attends, among other things, to the complex relations between “human” and “non-human actors.”
Given these developments, there are strong grounds for claiming that design studies and ethnographically-informed studies of culture, human systems and technical practice have, for some time now, been on a steady path of convergence, and indeed, are now running on parallel tracks.
It is now commonplace for professional design associations to advocate for the incorporation of ethnographic skills and cultural awareness as part of design curricula. So, for example, the 2009 National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) standards for student educational outcomes establish criteria for “Critical Thinking and Representation” that include the development of skills and applied research strategies for “comprehending people, place, and context” across a range of cultures and cultural settings. AIGA—one of the major professional design associations in North America—has recently produced an “Ethnography Primer” as a resource for working professionals. In the introduction to this document, the authors state: “Designers need to understand the relationship between what they produce and the meaning their product has for others” and “ethnography informs design by revealing a deep understanding of people and how they make sense of their world.” The cover image for the “Primer”makes a visual argument for a dialogical relationship between ethnography and design.

At the same time, the version of ethnography and ethnographic methods outlined in the “Primer” are necessarily rather thin and utilitarian: Designers need to understand the complex human and cultural contexts, the meanings, and the implications of their proposed designs, but—faced with the demands of client specifications, project deadlines, limited budgets, etc.—these understandings need to be arrived at in ways that are relatively expedient and tuned to the problems designers are working on directly. As a practical matter, the recommendation of the “Primer” appears to be that it is worth bringing an ethnographer onto the team at some point, where the role of the designer is to develop a brief that focuses the trajectory of ethnographic analysis in ways that advance the project narrative and have demonstrated relevance to the design solution(s).

My aim in this essay is to demonstrate that this “thin” version is inadequate for understanding the appropriate place of ethnographic research in design education as well as the relevance of cultural analysis to the actual issues and problems that designers face in their daily practice. My central argument is that—whether or not they are academically trained in ethnographic research—all designers are “implicit ethnographers” in the sense that they routinely employ methods of cultural analysis and documentation in ways that inform the design process, often in unseen ways.
Rather than conceiving ethnography as a set of expert methods that are somehow separate from design, I wish to claim that these methods are always already present in the design process. As a consequence, I want to advocate on behalf of a fully integrated—or “thick”[11]—conception of the relationship between ethnography and design in which the ongoing cultivation of our capacities for cultural analysis and ethnographic understanding is a core element in the education and practice of all designers.
In short, rather than merely being two fields running on parallel tracks, I aim to demonstrate that there are strong grounds for claiming that ethnographic studies of culture, systems, and technical practice are, in fact, intrinsic to design.

We Are All Ethnographers

By saying all designers are “implicit ethnographers” I do not mean to imply that designers are alone in paying attention to the cultural context of their work. On the contrary, the argument I am making is that “attending to cultural context” is a pervasive feature of any socially organized activity, where what I mean by “cultural context” is the local and immediate conditions of “just what we are up to” in some specific setting. How these local analyses and shared understandings are made available within the context of their production is a matter of rather complex, if familiar, ethnographic work. Here, an example will perhaps be helpful.
Games and game structures are a fairly universal feature of human societies. One general thing that can be said about game structures is that they consist minimally in a set of conventions that mark certain actions as part of the game and certain others as peripheral or irrelevant to the state of play. So, for instance, if I am playing chess and I move my pawn one square forward, that is a move in the game. If, alternatively, I move my coffee cup to my mouth, that is something I am doing “while playing chess,” but it is not part of the game, at least not directly so. Further, games have routine ways of beginning and ending, and within these, typical cycles of play (“moves” in chess, “innings” in baseball, etc.) Practically speaking, this means that—from a player’s perspective—a game consists in a kind of alternation between periods of intense focus on game relevant activities, punctuated by periods of more relaxed focus, disengagement, or rest.  And typically these alternations between highly focused and relatively disengaged periods are well marked and monitored within the overall conduct of the game.
Take, for instance, the case of card games, and more specifically the game of bridge. Bridge is a game typically played by four people, with two people on each team. Team members sit across from one another on opposite sides of a square table. This physical design eliminates the ability of team members to see each other’s cards, but (interestingly) maximizes their ability to see each other’s bodies and facial expressions,
The play of bridge takes place in cycles, called “hands.” Once a hand begins, it is inappropriate for any player to say anything that would allow other players to know what cards they are holding or what they are thinking about in terms of their strategy of play. And, indeed, players monitor one another to ensure that no one gives away information unfairly, and a large part of the game of bridge is about being able to figure out what people have in their hands and what strategies they are following solely with reference to the bids they make and the cards they play.
It is in this sense that the mastery of the game of bridge consists in a very specific, context-sensitive form of cultural analysis: You need to understand the rules of the game, but you also need to understand how those rules play out in specific game situations and specific strategies, and you need to be able to analyze the behavior of other players, as well as your own, relative to an understanding of both the rules of play and the social rules that constitute the larger social and material ecology of the game.

The Problem of Other Cultures

From this example it can be seen that bridge players invoke close-order cultural analyses as part of their demonstrated mastery of the game. This notion can be extended to other games and other kinds of socially organized activities such that, we are all, in a sense, engaged in practices of cultural analysis all of the time as participants in the ongoing constitution and coordination of our lives together. The issue for designers—and, by extension, for all of us—is that each of us possesses different kinds of expertise and different areas of cultural mastery, and while it is interesting to deepen our understanding of those areas with which we are already familiar, our concern is also—perhaps predominantly—to understand the workings of cultures, settings and ecologies of action that are, in specific ways, different from our own.
The so-called “problem of other cultures” is perhaps the defining problematic of professional ethnography. In simplest form, it consists in the idea that cultures are relatively bounded systems and that the job of ethnography is to assist members of one culture to interpret and understand the practices and their meanings of another culture through the application of professional methods of ethnographic inquiry and analysis.
However, as Bourdieu has pointed out, cultures do not just sit there waiting to be understood, they come to the table with ready-made practices for self-representation. What he discusses as the special position of the “informant”—a person who is engaged by the ethnographer as representative of the larger cultural group—is one example of how conditions for cultural permeability and cross-cultural understanding are built into the local orders of practice that ethnographers are seeking to understand in the first place.[12] The notion of expert “informants” is, of course, notoriously problematic insofar as different members of a cultural group occupy different positions and will have different versions of what they are up to, the meaning of their actions, and so on. The important point here, however, is that, in addition to what they are doing, people are all the time reflecting on and talking about what they are doing, and this “discourse on practice that is built into practice” provides an indefinitely large resource for persons—such as ethnographers and other novices—who are trying to understand what the experts are up to in any given cultural group. Indeed, were it not the case that these kinds of resources are built into our ordinary structures of social activity it would be impossible for us to accomplish one of the central tasks of any culture: To transmit local knowledge and cultural practice to a next generation of members.

Distributed Cognition

My aim in the foregoing has been to point out that the so-called “problem of other cultures” is not just an issue for ethnographers, it is an issue we all face as persons who, at different points in our lives, need to learn the language, practices, rules and sensibilities of unfamiliar cultural groups. We learn these things not just by asking people to tell us what they are up to, but by immersing ourselves in courses of practical activity—by doing things—and by engaging with others in constructing reflective accounts and understandings of what we have done. Although ethnographers have built important specialized knowledge around these practices of learning, in the end, these methods represent amplifications and refinements of practical methods of communication and analysis that are part of the rich and complex fabric of ordinary social life.
A further issue concerns the fact that not all members of a specific cultural or expert group share the same perspective, position, knowledge, etc., vis-à-vis the system of knowledge and practice we, as implicit ethnographers, are seeking to comprehend.  The issue here is more than the simple fact that different members of a culture or area of expertise have different versions of what they are up to. In complex societies and organizations, different people occupy different roles or positions that require different sorts of specialized knowledge and practice.
In his book Cognition in the Wild, Edwin Hutchins provides a lengthy account of the steering of large ocean vessels (navy ships) as a highly complex achievement involving the coordination of many different people with very different kinds of technical expertise. [13] Critical here is that no one person actually possesses all of the knowledge it takes to maneuver a ship. Rather, the ship works as a kind of technological apparatus for coordinating and communicating the distributed knowledge and expertise of the crew such that they can collectively accomplish the tasks of steering and navigation.
The situation with a ship is not unlike other kinds of human organizations. Corporations, hospitals, universities, laboratories, municipal governments, and the rest, represent complex organizations that bring together persons of massively different skill sets and experience around common projects, physical and technological environments, and institutional identities. It is in this sense that any specific design—whether of a building, an artifact, a communication system, or a process—needs to address the conditions of its own embeddedness within this larger context of culturally distributed knowledge and expertise.


My aim in this brief essay has been to give some initial sense of how cultural analysis is embedded in our routine social activities and to begin to imagine the implications this holds for ethnography, as well as for our understanding of the relationship between ethnography and design. My central argument has been that professional ethnography is, in its own right, a culturally embedded practice that draws upon pre-existing resources for learning and cultural understanding that are always already present in the social settings and cultural practices ethnographers are seeking to comprehend. Further, I have argued that the relevance of ethnography for design consists at the very least in the ability of cultural analysis to draw attention to the depth and complexity of socially distributed knowledge and expertise in contemporary organizations, and, one might say, in contemporary social and cultural life.
As I was writing this essay, I attended a gathering organized by the City of Vancouver called the “Cities Summit,”[14] where the mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, told a story about what he described as the “best investment in open technology” ever made by his administration. As one of their initiatives in open information government, the City of Calgary equipped every snow-plow truck with GPS and developed an application that would provide the locational data of all the plows to the city’s public website. Not only did this almost eliminate phone calls to the City to find out when the streets would be plowed, it changed the way that people organized their days and their traffic patterns in the aftermath of snowstorms.
Although not world-changing, it is an excellent example of how a specific technological intervention can be used to mobilize the massively distributed intelligence of a city and its citizens. It is well worth noting that this “design solution” did not come from the city planners or the IT people, it came from the maintenance department.


  • [1] Donald A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
  • [2] Douglas Schuler and Aki Namioka (eds.), Participatory Design: Principles and Practices (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993).
  • [3] Donald A. Norman and Stephen W. Draper, User Centered System Design (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986); Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition (New Jersey: Ablex Publishers, 1986); Brenda Laurel (ed.), Design Research: Method and Perspectives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003); Bill Moggridge, Designing Interactions (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
  • [4] Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt, Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems (San Francisco: Morgan Kauffman Publishers, 1998).
  • [5] Colin Burns, Hilary Cottam, Chris Vanstone, and Jennie Winhall, “Red Paper 02: Transformation Design,” Design Council, February 2006 (www.designcouncil.cino/wt/RED/tranformation/TransformationDesignFinalDraft.pdf)
  • [6] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Richard Nice (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
  • [7] Lucy Suchman, Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem or Human-Machine Communication (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Graham Button (ed.), Technology in Working Order: Studies of Work, Interaction, and Technology (London: Routledge, 1993)
  • [8] Michel Callon, “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fisherman of St. Brieuc Bay,” in John Law (ed.) Power, Action, and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? (London: Routledge, 1986), pp. 196-229; Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987).
  • [9] “2009 Conditions for Accreditation,” National Architectural Accrediting Board, pp. 20-22 (http://www.naab.org/accreditation/2009_Conditions.aspx)
  • [10] http://www.aiga.org/ethnography-primer/
  • [11] This is an allusion to Geertz’s concept of “thick” descriptions, or ethnographic accounts that attend to the local contextual conditions of human social behavior. See Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic books, 1973).
  • [12] Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 18.
  • [13] Edwin Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).
  • [14] http://www.vancouvercitiessummit.org/

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