Co-designing: An ethnographic method for practice

Presented by: Dana Vaux, Kathleen Ryan

Relevance/Problem: As designers, it is easy to come in as the "expert" and provide a provocative design solution without considerations of end-user preferences. Conversely, the development of design solutions that are cautious and unassuming may not generate positive user response as clients re-envision their future. Using established theory addressing issues of community, a rural-community design studio serves as a laboratory for this case study to test ethnographic research tools that may promote social capital and place meaning through community co-design methods [1]. Context: Allowing influences from other fields of study to inform their process of inquiry can aid interior designer practitioners in the design process. While ethnography is an established method in design research, the way in which historians employ ethnographic techniques as "reading texts" is something new for designers [2; 3]. Designers can look to cultural forms of data as equivalent to an anthropologist's "texts" as a form of design ethnography in order to inform design inquiry. Proponents of design ethnography suggest that it "extends the cultural panorama" for designers, helping them to understand cultures beyond their own experience [4]. Method: This paper presents a sequence of community-based, co-design studio projects that serve as case studies for applying co-design methods as a form of design ethnography. The projects required novice designers to engage with rural communities in a co-design process, integrating social capital and place theory research into a design problem. Novice designers were introduced to social capital and place theories along with the concept of "doing-with" [5]. The project process, deliverables, and parameters were identified by rural community members and developed in conjunction with collaborative interactions and information-gathering exercises between community participants and novice designers. The novice designers gathered information and synthesized their findings from engagements with community members then categorized and applied findings to design solutions. Finally, they evaluated the process in order to understand how their role as designers might support community visionaries. Outcomes: Novice designers often focus on the "facts" of the program, forgetting or underestimating the needs of the end-user. The co-design process identified multiple issues with community stakeholders that initially inhibited design outcomes, but in a second stage of engagement resulted in higher levels of involvement from community end-users for enhanced design outcomes. The co-design process utilized as an ethnographic method increased novice designers' knowledge of end-user preferences and gave them a better understanding of the potential for design outcomes to meet those needs. Advancement of Design Knowledge: Design inquiry needs qualitative methods of analysis that allow us to tell the story not written in empirical data so that it might influence design outcomes. Designers must look to methods from other fields of study to inform their process of inquiry and design solutions. Understanding the rural culture and aesthetic is critical in order for designers to work effectively with rural community members. Applying co-design methods as a form of design ethnography serves as a means to collect multiple layers of data that designers can then employ for design inquiry and design solutions.


  • 1. Krikac, Robert, and Kathleen Ryan. "Co-Design methodologies in design studios." Interior Design Educators Council IDEC 2014 Conference Proceedings, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. March 6-8, (2014).
  • Geertz, Clifford. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
  • Hunt, Lynn, ed. The new cultural history. Berkeley: University of California press, 1989.
  • Salvador, Tony, Genevieve Bell and Ken Anderson. "Design ethnography." Design Management Journal, 10, no. 4 (1999): 35.
  • Wang D., Vaux D. & Xu M. "Better Bowling: 'doing with' for design studio instruction and public scholarship." Journal of Interior Design 39, 1 (2014): 33-45.
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