New book on ‘Design Ethnography’

Picture by Sebastien Fasel, Emphase Sàrl.

Picture by Sebastien Fasel, Emphase Sàrl.

This is a new book I just released with my colleagues Lysianne Léchot-Hirt (HEAD–Genève) and Fabienne Kilchör / Sebastien Fasel ( It's the result of a research project we conducted in 2013-2014 on how designers repurposed ethnography to their own needs and perspective. We basically conducted a series of interviews and observation session with designers to describe the approaches we encountered.

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Here's the book blurb:

"What do designers mean when they say they’re going to do “ethnography” and “field research”? What are the relationships between observing people and designing products or services? Is there such a thing as a “designerly” way of knowing people? This book is a report from a research project conducted at HEAD – Genève that addressed the role of people-knowing in interaction/media design. It describes the wide breadth of approaches used by designers to frame their work, get inspiration or speculate about plausible futures. This book presents practitioners’ tactics and illustrates them with several cases. Unlike many resources on user-centered design, it takes a broader approach to design by considering cases in which design is not only a problem-solving activity, but a tool to speculate about the near future, reformulate problems or propose a critical discourse on society. In doing so, this book helps designers, students and consultants to challenge their own perceptions and update their approaches."

The book is a collective effort, with texts from John Thackara, Julian Bleecker, Sara Ljungblad, Gilles Baudet, Anab Jain and Jon Ardern, James Auger, Virginia Cruz and Nicolas Gaudron, Liam Young, Fabian Hemmert, Steve Portigal, Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić, Anne-Catherine Sutermeister and Jean-Pierre Greff. 

It can be purchased online here at

Stephen Willats and photographic documentation


Few weeks ago, Joel recommended me the work of Stephen Willats, and more specifically this book called "Between Buildings and People". I found it this week in my mailbox  (I've bought a second-hand copy that the owner may have read in his bathtub, hence the concave look on the pics).

Based on a series of interviews, observations and photographic documentation, Willats examines the relationship between people and the built environment. His purpose was to investigate the influence of modernist architecture on people and how it's expressed materially. Although this goal is a tad deterministic for my taste, I find the result fascinating and inspiring. The most interesting bit IMO lays in the ways Willats present the material he produced. See for instance the use of pictures along with interviews, or the diagrams he draw on photographic depictions of the environment:

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"Living with practical realities" (1978) is another example of Willat's work that I enjoyed as well:

"Living with Practical Realities was made with an elderly woman who lived on her own in a tower block in Hayes, West London. The work centres on the isolation of the elderly symbolised, physically and socially, by the tower block. This is one of the early works in which Willats used the actual content of audio recordings and his photographic documentations that had been made with the co-operation of the woman, directly within the work"

Living with Practical Realities (Panel One)

Living with Practical Realities (Panel One)

Why do I blog this? I'm currently working on a follow-up to the Curious Rituals project. My goal is to investigate people's relationship and use of smartphones (with a focus on gestures). Willat's work is highly inspiring both as a research protocol and as a way to present research results in ethnographic research. The descriptive potential of this work is really interesting. Perhaps it's because of his artist background that I find this more advanced than what I usually see in visual sociology – it might appear non-academic from this POV as Willats do not necessarily follow all the "rules" but it's certainly stimulating.

For instance, I find the image diagrams clearly relevant and insightful. I haven't read the whole book so I'm not sure about the underlying methodology here, but it's compelling. It reminds me another example of design analysis that I find interesting: the use of photomontage and overlay annotation described by Dan Hill for a workshop he did back in 2009:

"last week I tried a technique with them that I've often used myself. Writing on photographs of an average street scene, we asked students to imagine all the data that could be derived from the scene via sensors (in the broadest sense of the word), and then go on to sketch interventions or hacks into those scenes, drawn from such data sources."

While Willat's approach is descriptive, Hill's proposal is projective (it's a design workshop) but both revolves around the idea of annotating images; which I find inspiring an relevant to my own research.

“ethical things”: crowdsourcing and networked objects


"Ethical Things" by Matthieu Cherubini and Simone Rebaudengo is a fascinating exploration of autonomous systems and "smart" objects:

"The 'Ethical Things' project looks at how an object, facing everyday ethical dilemmas, can keep a dose of humanity in its final decision while staying flexible enough to accommodate various ethical beliefs.In order to achieve that, our "ethical fan" connects to a crowd-sourcing website every time it faces an ethical dilemma. It posts the dilemma it's facing and awaits the help of one of the "workers", or mechanical turks, who will tell the fan how to behave. Thus, it assures that the decision executed by the system is the fruit of real human moral reasoning. Moreover, the fan is designed to let the user set various traits (such as religion, degree, sex, and age) as criterion to choose the worker who should respond to the dilemma, in order to assure that a part of the user's culture and belief system is in line with the worker, or ethical agent.(Should it be a middle-aged Muslim male with a PhD or a young Atheist female?)"


Why do I blog this? This is a curious investigation mundane and insignificant objects of our everyday lives. It's a good example of a human/non-human collaboration flux based on the articulation of networked objects and crowdsourcing.

Supercargo: an interview with Peter Moorsgard

In the last weeks of December, I blogged about this fascinating project called "Supercargo: a parable of desire". In this tumblr collecting intriguing examples of current cargo cults, Peter Moorsgard provides us with an exhaustive display of  what he calls "Supercargo". He defines it as "ritual appropriation + subversive mimickry". I'm definitely mesmerized by these examples, which I find both curious and revealing; which is why I started chatting with Peter. This is the resulting interview:

Nicolas Nova: Can you tell us more about your supercargo tumblr? What's the logic behind it and how did you become interested in this?

Peter Moorsgard: I think it was about 2005 in south-tirol when i read about cargo cults on a trivial persuit card. i was studying digital arts at that time and got extremely bored with technology. Media arts and digital culture seemed too much about technological progress at that time. everybody was just celebrating technology itself, but technology is never just a cool tool. its pure ideology. the artistic approaches on the other hand were extremely lame. do you know ars electronica festival? it became more and more of a toy expo. i was intrigued by the cargo cults because they celebrated and mocked technology, culture, imperialsim at the same time. i thought, well maybe theres a strategy! when i was crippled by a major depression and panic attacs in 2013 i started the Supercargo Blog. i found myself completely unable to work, but could still surf tumblr, repost stuff etc .. posting became a daily ritual for me and it still is. i just try to put together sets of images with found material, maybe some day i will be able to work again.

“These are LAVR-glasses (Lower Austrian Virtual Reality) I built together with local youngsters. after the image of 90ies VR promises, we buitt these for Supercargo (the movie), which is about the founding myth of the artistic cargo cult in Austria.”

NN: There seems to be a growing interest in this kind of projects, this sort of logic. I'm thinking about this Futur Archaïque exhibit in Belgium I mentioned, but also other art/design projects related to it. Why do you feel this is happening now?

PM: I think something like this is in the air, and its getting bigger. why, i dont know .. maybe its an archaic revival in connection with digital media. Terence McKenna described that conclusively decades ago, and i think he is still right. as advanced these technologies are, they set us back into a mystic perception, a general attraction to archaic forms. we just have to adapt to immense data income every day, logic has to be set aside simply to cope with a hypernervous global culture. it all becomes archaic and mythological. it is just a necessary strategy. another more mundane explanation would be, that people are just getting fed up with the slick, sterile utopia apple is trying to sell us.

these are cargo phones i found on tumblr, a kind of stone age communication, or maybe rebuilt from collective memory after the pulsar-apocalypse.

NN: Do you see this relate to this "post-digital" art scene that we see popping up these days? A need to go beyond the digital?

PM: Yes the postdigital aspect was always very important in my work. i started making postinternet stuff before it even had a name. i tried to see art and technology from the viewpoint of the simple consumer. basically because i myself had no skills at all, no programming skills, no crafting skills etc .. and i find everybody can relate to that everything else is not subversive/emancipatory in my eyes. in my view we´re more and more trying to work like machines, like computers. but how would a simple human do that, not trying to imitate a machine? the postdigital has many forms, and with "supercargo" i took my simplistic position. use only poor materials, embrace capitalist mythology, make a second hand utopia. its a free party from now on!

NN: Lots of these projects are fascinating because they interrogate us about the nature/culture debate. From your perspective, as an astute observer of such projects, what do they tell us about our relationship to technology?

PM: Culture, art and technology are basically utopia factories. you can relate and research (maybe subvert) that in form of simple products. messianic devices, artwork masterpieces, they are part of a larger system. they all have their histories, rules, all these invisible forces manifest in products. the way i see it, we are living in a time governed by cybernetics alone. it was allways in the interest of cybernetics to describe organisms and technology alike. to make a supersystem for processes be it biological or cultural. that is frightening in the end. anyway, maybe through cybernetic thinking we can realise that technology isn't artificial at all. we are just a material processing species, like bees producing honeycombs. i find it interesting to look at the material world again, as we are absorbed in informational worlds. Mcluhan said that every new medium absorbs the old media as its content, therefore making it visible AGAIN. Look at todays TV Shows, they became an artform after the internet absorbed TV. Now the World itelf is upon total simulation. The physical world is becoming visible for the first time i think, and material world will be a cult- a fetish.

these are so called “Dre Beets”. i couldnt figure out who built them, but they are kind of the asian brother of the cargo cult: Shanzhai

NN: It's interesting to see Cargo Cults as the new sort of belief, beyond the Western/non-Western distinction, a sort of general perspective on things with a strange relationship to consumerism and material culture, what's your take on this?

PM: As written in the Supercargo Manifesto: Surprisingly the local performers of the Cargo Cults succeeded: By remaking western technology with bamboo, they attracted actual planes full of tourists and anthropologists. People got interested in the exotic parades using western imagery. The John Frum Movement (“John from Merica”) suddenly had an audience, soon bringing actual stuff (cargo) to the island. The cargo shaman once said: You build your plane too and wait in faith. the waiting is the hardest part. According to some shamans the planes awaited will also bring weapons to throw off colonialist oppressors. The cargo cults are strange mockups of imperialism, at the same time keeping old traditions. But is the cult for real or just performance? It does not matter, no difference, it is about the act. The Tale of the Cargo ringing true on so many levels. The cult of the cargo is our world exactly: We perform meaningless routines we call work,in hope for future cargo. With a technology that could navigate us to the moon, we write LMAO. The western world itself is a giant cult of imitating things that somehow work: dressing in suits, using buzzword-vocabulary, mimicking old forms of art. who knows why.. The longing for godlike goodies on the horizon, the usage of things we don´t understand: a big parable of desire. The waiting, the waiting is the hardest part!

NN: thanks for your answers and good luck with the project, keep us posed.