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InsightJul 01, 2022

The way forward in design education: Experiential low-stakes learning with Dr. AnneMarie Dorland

Written by Diana Varma RGD, Toronto Metropolitan University

What do Australian rule football, The Bachelor, the Miss America crowning ceremony and Heavy Metal Parking Lot (a 1986 documentary featuring Judas Priest fans) have in common?

Read on to learn the answer as I distill a rich 30-minute conversation with Dr. AnneMarie Dorland, Assistant Professor in the Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. The following contains her insights about teaching design ethnography experiential, including the importance of offering students low-stakes opportunities to practice new skills.

What is Design Ethnography?

Design ethnography is a research method rooted in the practice of studying others to gain first-hand insights about a community. “Ethno” and “graphic” literally translate to writing down a culture. It helps designers step outside their own headspace to remove assumptions and learn from direct observations. An old saying about ethnography is that it’s the practice of making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

AnneMarie started her career as a designer and then studied designers and design ethnography in her graduate degrees. She now teaches business students who will work with designers and therefore must be ‘fluent’ in the language of design to be effective partners in agency spaces.

Why Teaching Design Ethnography is so Important?

AnneMarie’s senior capstone class includes a project that requires them to work with a real client, finding a way to translate a business problem into a design solution. It’s a big challenge, especially for students whose major isn’t design.

She explains that “business students are often asked to think of their target markets as segments and not humans”. AnneMarie believes that her students must expand their understanding of ‘target market,’ beyond simply what they will pay and their demographic or psychographic habits, to learn about their core social values, how they communicate as a culture and what is meaningful to them. The final deliverables in this capstone project include a series of artifacts that will be part of a culture and carry meaning in that culture (vs targeted communication devices) for their client.

This learning is so important for students because they often skip the first step in the design process (empathy) and replace it with research. AnneMarie poignantly identifies that “as we try to learn how to design in a world that's more international and more intercultural – that also has a new respect for the partnerships and the acts of reconciliation that we're trying to bring to life in our world – assuming that we know best is probably the worst step forward.”

How to Teach Design Ethnography to Non-Designers?

Ethnographic study is a practiced skill, versus something that can be taught strictly from a textbook. “If I just told you [about the community], you haven’t engaged in any sense-making whatsoever. You’re going to give me a design that speaks to the limits of your knowledge.”

Therefore, AnneMarie believes in the power of experiential learning for students to gain a first-hand understanding of how to practice design ethnography. It asks them to think about research processes they could use beyond secondary research, as well as how to integrate processes like shadowing, shop-along, interviews, social listening and documenting the practices of real people.

So what do Australian rules football, The Bachelor, the Miss America crowning ceremony and Heavy Metal Parking Lot (a 1986 documentary featuring fans of Judas Priest) have in common?

They all make an appearance in the lesson, teaching students how to think like ethnographers. The logistics of the learning environment are as follows:

  1. The class is split into 4 teams.
  2. Each team is given a screen and asked to watch a 10-minute video of a culture. The four samples are identified above and are the “weirdest subcultures” AnneMarie can find.
  3. Students are then asked to use an ethnographic field notes template to document the practices of that culture “as if they were aliens from space”.
  4. They then pair up with another group to teach them the rules of this culture.

Ultimately, students are learning how to think about subcultures to which they don’t belong, identifying the rules, patterns, artifacts and values of that subculture. For example, the rose holds significance on The Bachelor while there are very specific rules of play that seem foreign to most people who don’t intimately understand Australian rules football. By identifying the nuances of a given subculture, students can begin to understand what matters most to each of them.

“This is a safe, no-stakes way of trying [design ethnography] for the first time and I don’t know that you can be told the information you need to do that practice. I think you have to do it in collaboration with others, using artifacts of a culture not facts about a culture and preferably in the goofiest way possible so that what you're looking at is so surreal that it's easy to extrapolate the weirdness from it, because it is categorically an odd experience that you are watching.”

After students’ experiences with AnneMarie, they’re ready to meet the client and use these same design ethnography skills for the client’s target market. This year’s client is a local beard oil manufacturer in Calgary. “I need [students] to go out and understand the experience of bearded humans and 50% of my class are not bearded humans. I need them to have the tools to not just make assumptions about bearded humans, but to go out and understand this subculture of ‘beardiness’.”

AnnieMarie explains that the hardest thing about getting students to think about a design problem is getting them to understand that they are not the end user of the design at all times. By documenting what’s important to others in a specific group, it helps to prevent assumptions that the client’s target market is a university student and allows them to access the target market in different ways. Getting to the point of understanding groups different from oneself is a significant hurdle to overcome, even for seasoned designers. AnneMarie helps students understand the research tools at their disposal to allow them to pause and say: “Maybe I’m not designing for me. Maybe I’m designing for someone else. Maybe they have different rules than I do and what are those?”

The Way Forward in Design Education

When asked what design educators everywhere can learn from AnneMarie and her students’ dive into design ethnography, she said this: “Maybe this is something that designers know more than almost anybody, but 90% of what we're doing as designers is not about the design. 90% of what we're doing as designers is about sense-making, understanding and making connections between unrelated practices, ideas or cultural values… really only 10% of it is actually getting all of those ideas down on paper and then grinding it out.”

AnneMarie provides students with the tools and framework to bridge the gap between business problems and design solutions, allowing them to think of a target market not as ‘segments’, but as humans; humans with rules, patterns, artifacts and values different from their own. We can all learn from AnneMarie’s experiential techniques that give students the space to learn and grow in a low-stakes environment, one episode of The Bachelor at a time.

Diana Varma RGD

Toronto Metropolitan University

Diana Varma RGD is an award-winning design educator by day and a podcaster by night; getting creative with creatives about all things creative. She is a woman in STEAM who operates a traditional offset printing press, a variety of digital press technologies, as well as engaging in exploratory print-making practices such as LEGO letterpress. She teaches within the School of Graphic Communications Management (GCM) and the Master of Digital Media (MDM) program at Toronto Metropolitan University, as well as through digital learning platform, Domestika.

Diana has written 150+ published articles in Graphic Arts Magazine and through the Association of Registered Graphic Designers, as well as 170+ episodes through her podcast called Talk Paper Scissors, speaking with global experts about design, printing, typography, branding, books and publishing.

Diana holds the position of VP of Education on the RGD Board of Directors for Canada’s largest professional association for graphic designers and she’s actively involved in organizational initiatives, chairing the RGD’s Education Committee, regularly speaking at conferences and conducting workshops.


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