Research as a way to check assumptions and
Drawing on ‘all your relations’
Dr. Dori (Elisabeth) Tunstall is a US-born design anthropologist. After obtaining her MA in Anthropology and a PhD from Stanford University, Dori worked in advertising and for marketing companies, incorporating ethnographic research methods in order to better understand how people experience designed objects, before returning to academia and design education. Among many other things, she was an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology at Swinburne University in Australia. As the Dean of the Design Faculty at Ontario College of Art & Design University (OCAD University) in Toronto, Canada, she has implemented reforms in order to decolonise design education by, among other things, cluster-hiring indigenous staff and people of colour, as well as changing the curriculum and centering what she calls ‘respectful design’. She is interested in understanding how design translates values into tangible experiences. In this conversation we speak about what design research can learn from anthropology.
Rosa: How does your background as an anthropologist translate to design?
Dori: I’m a classically trained anthropologist. Traditionally, anthropology has been seen to have four fields: physical anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and social and cultural anthropology. Physical anthropology is a field of inquiry that studies the human body or the bodies of other animals and pre-humans. It is a field that I always tie very closely to Industrial Design because when you start looking at the practices of ergonomics, you start to look at some of the practices of usability. Linguistics is about language and how language evolves over time and space. It’s a field that I closely relate to graphic design because it relates to the visual communication of languages and messages. Archaeology in anthropology studies human remains and all things over time and space, but in anthropology we tend to focus on the human part. Both are closely related to Industrial Design when you think of artefacts and design before it was ‘industrialised’. What’s important to the field of design is the work that anthropologists do around the morphology and the change of forms over time and space.
Lastly, I look at social and cultural anthropology from the perspective of design. People make things in order to communicate, and one of my favourite books that I always use to teach research methods is Thinking with Things by Esther Pasztory, who is an anthropologist and art-historian. What I find very powerful, and which still influences my way of thinking, is the notion that aesthetics are our first technology of control. Aesthetics is the way in which we try to control our relationships with the natural world, and how we try to control our social relationships.
RtV: How do you unpack these relationships through research? How to do research into the aesthetics and their relation to the social organisation and the power structures that control them?
DT: You should always be doing research to make sure that the assumptions around your decisions will not have harmful effects. Aesthetic decisions are being made because design has power in the world, because it can control social relations, because it can affect our relationship not only to the natural world but also the supernatural world – the things that we can’t see. Research allows you to address that process with a greater sense of intentionality and a greater sense of what the potential outcomes of those decisions are.
RtV: Would you say doing research as a designer is about ethics?
DT: Yes. And I’d say also morality! Research helps you check your ethics, to check your assumption that “this is going to be extremely helpful in the entire world!”
RtV: Could you distinguish different phases in the research process?
DT: There are a couple of ways to break it down. One of the frameworks that I use to help students understand research, is QAME: questions, assumptions, methods, and evidence. I actually made a music video to explain QAME! QAME is based on the anthropologist Alan Barnard’s framework as outlined in his book History and Theory in Anthropology (2000).
It starts with defining what your research question is. It’s important that it’s a question, because it should represent something you don’t know! You have to be on this journey of going from not knowing to knowing more. Then, what I talk about with designers is, “What is the intervention you want to make in the world? What is it that you want to change for the better, and for whom?” Is it a ‘how’, a ‘when’, a ‘what’ or a ‘who’ question? Is your question related to exploratory research or is meant to understand a specific phenomenon? Are you just exploring this, are you trying to generate new ideas, are you evaluating something that already exists with the intention of trying to make it better? Secondary research becomes really important because it helps to understand if other people have asked this question before: “Did they already answer my question, and if so, do I have to create another question?” You’re wanting to see what other people know about this idea, this approach, this thing you’re trying to understand in the world. When I teach research methods, the first output that we do is what I call a ‘visual annotative bibliography’. References show who you’re in conversation with, so that other people can say “I want to join in on that conversation” or “there’s a more interesting conversation that’s happening here you should probably bring that into your conversation”.
After this, you move to assumptions. You have your own experiences, intentions, and interventions. What’s important is that you make them clear and apparent for yourself and for others. Select methods that will ground your assumptions in some kind of reality, and some kind of data. You might start with secondary research, and then tie it to that assumption. Secondary research is not just about looking at journal articles, it could be looking at existing products. Let’s say my assumption is that it is more cloudy in the spring than in the summer in Toronto, which is going to affect the way in which I design an umbrella, for example. What are the almanacs that exist that say how many days of sunshine there are in the month of May in Toronto? Maybe I should do some observation, so I start counting and every day I take a photo of the sky in May. Then I decide maybe I should talk to some people, and I’ll start doing interviews or I’ll start doing a survey. I collect more and more data to ground my assumption: What do people say, what people do, what do people feel? The next step is, what is the evidence I need in order to convince others, because if I want to make this intervention I need to convince other people that this is sound and it makes sense. And then, I ask who am I talking to, who do I want to have conversations with? If I’m talking to my mom, that’s going to be very different, I can show my pretty observation photos and she will be like “yeah that’s great!” If I’m talking to a scientist, then I might need to show the almanac data that is related to the weather temperature that is set for each day, and I might need different evidence for them.
The way students present their projects take different forms. When we do ‘final presentations’, I say let’s not do presentations, let’s do performances. In some ways, you’re performing an experience that is meant to move people intellectually, emotionally, and generate some sort of action in a group of people that you want to embrace. I put emphasis on the performance, which can also just be a slideshow presentation. The (written) documentation is supplementary, it’s never worth more points than the presentation or object. And that’s part of decolonisation for me: moving away from logo-centricity as the only or the preferred mode of interaction, communication and engagement.
RtV: How do you then guide students into making an intervention or design project from this research phase?
DT: Even when formulating a question I’m already asking what the intervention is you want to make. In the process of doing research, you are thinking about the design decisions you’re having to make. How concept and research work together is that the concept should be an answer to one or many of the things that you’ve discovered in the process of doing research, and now you’re giving it a tangible form.
The challenge is to not jump ahead of the research. You have assumptions, so every idea that you have, you should be willing to put down, you just shouldn’t be wedded to your ideas. You have to filter out some ideas that are not aligned with the intention of the goal and audience that you’re wanting to embrace.
RtV: You make it sound doable and easy!
DT: Many of my design students have been told that research is hard and that they can’t do it. But it is just like all of the stuff that you do on an everyday basis in order to live and evaluate your own world, so it’s not a high-level expertise that you have to have.
RtV: Design practice, especially in the Netherlands is still very much related to the modernist project. Could you speak a bit more about your attempts to ‘decolonise design’ and ‘design research’ specifically?
DT: What I did this year during a graduate research methods course, was to put every methodology in dialogue with indigenous writers and thinkers. What are the differences between doing a structured interview versus doing a sharing circle where everyone holds the stick that can be passed? What are the affordances of one versus the other, in terms of the kinds of outcomes that can be generated? With the structured interview, you get more information that addresses your research question, but it can be stressful for the participants as well as the interviewers. With the sharing circle, you feel more intimate and get more stories rather than just answers.
We talked about how in many indigenous cultures you learn from observing in a different way than in for example, commercial design research. You learn what the weather patterns are by observing the birds and animals. You learn how to do something by watching someone do something and then they make you do errands to learn what to fetch or use, without asking questions but just through watching and observing. Asking a question says “I’m entitled to that knowledge,” whereas if you observe, listen and follow, and if you do something wrong they may just gently correct you so you’ve learned in that moment. What is the kind of empathy that you can build when you follow, and not just by watching it on some remote camera or having some sensors provide you with some remote data as to what’s going on? For example, bees are sensors for telling us what’s going on in our environment just as computer chips provide us with information on what’s going on. The difference is that bees don’t provide the information in a number at the end of that knowledge journey.
We also drew deeply on the notion of ‘all my relations’, so that the research is not human-centred. What effect does your research have on the water, the air, the land, the animals, the plants, and everything else. Why are you doing this research and what for? For the questions and assumptions in the research, in terms of indigenous ways of knowing and decolonisation, it is really about how the research framework sits outside of human-centeredness, understanding the ethical impact not just on yourself and your users, but on all of those who will be affected by you putting the product out into the world. How do you observe not just through the eyes, but through the ears, the body, and how the body feels? How are you truly present in your observation? If one of the approaches of colonisation is the separation of the mind and the body, then bringing that together in your observational practices is part of the way in which you decolonise that method.
RtV: This is what you call ‘old ways of knowing’?
DT: Yes. The saddest part of our understanding of colonization as a particular phenomenon that came out of Europe, is that indigenous practices are just the practices of the people of the land who are connected and understand their obligations to the land. And by understanding their sense of place to the land, they understand the relationships and their sense of place with others. That was the knowledge of the world.
There’s something that happened in the culture of Europe that began to pull away from that. I always put the locus of this shift in what happened with the European aristocracy, where this notion of the separation of the land – “I’m off in my castle somewhere and there are peasants who work the land, and they are who I consider to be lower to me” – which then led to the separation between the people and their land, and all of the obligations that come from being part of that wholeness of the land and environment.
Going back to ‘all my relations’ and the connectivity and obligation to place, understanding all the things that are part of that place is part of decolonising our mindsets and approaches. By doing that, we create space for indigenous peoples to take back their sovereignty over the land which has been taken from them through that process of settlers coming from one place to build a better life for themselves on the land of someone else, and through the labour of someone else so that they can live like the aristocracy.
This is where the responsibility of design, and especially of product and Industrial Design becomes so important because what we need to change is our aspirations. We still live in a society, and I say a colonial society, where our notion of a ‘good life’ is based on lifestyle of the medieval aristocrat. When we begin to design, and this is where the research helps, we must question ‘what is a good life’? A good life is based on a product that keeps me in connection with all the things that are around me. A good life is a set of interactions that deepen my knowledge of the land. That make me present and connected. Those are the two values in any design.