Author Archives | nicolasnova

An interview about ‘Unpleasant Design’

Unpleasant Design

The Unpleasant Design, Picture by the editors.

Unpleasant Design” is a stunning book by Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic (@unpleasanting). It’s a collection of different research approaches to the pervasive presence of “defensible space”, i.e. physical features that prevent people from doing certain activities. With contributions by Adam Rothstein, Francesco Morace and Heather Stewart Feldman, Vladan Jeremic, Dan Lockton, Yasmine Abbas, Gilles Paté, Adam Harvey the book is made of various case studies, photographs and essays about these “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities.

Given the relevance of this theme to the “Infra/Extraordinary” column of Ethnography Matters, I took this opportunity to ask the two editors a couple of questions.

EM: I have always been fascinated by the type of anti-design features you describe in the book, collecting examples myself in my travels. Both because it says something about our society and because of the design process behind them. On your side, what made you focus on this?

Unpleasant or anti-design is present all around the globe. We could observe a particularly widespread use of them in Europe. At the time we started this research, we were living between Rotterdam and The Hague and we still think that the Netherlands are at the forefront of applying Unpleasant Design. Unpleasant Design is of course not something that is practised on a national level, but it is very typical of Dutch cities to have strong control over public space and to regulate what can or cannot be done within it. This might have something to do with the weather not permitting a vibrant life on the street, but it also has something to do with the distribution of shared common goods (reflected in the lack of common staircases in buildings, each apartment havin their own street number). So we decided to give it a try, to start collecting and categorising unpleasant applications; hoping that we will arrive at a theory of Unpleasant Design – how is it made, by whom, against what and what does it bring to public space.

Anti-skateboard devices, Picture by Nicolas Nova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

EM:If you had to summarize your typology of anti-design features, how would you express it in terms of design as well as purposes?

On our blog, http://unpleasant.pravi.me we collected some typical unpleasant applications which we divided up into devices and objects. Within the devices group, we have light, sound and surveillance devices, while in the objects group we observe static things, such as benches, obstacles, surfaces and tactile objects. Typically, objects from the device group are addressing our basic human senses. This is by no means a final typology. It is a way to orient oneself within a wide variety of Unpleasant Design applications. It is also a way to distinguish Unpleasant Design from unsuccessful or failed design. What is really important in our research is that Unpleasant Design is foremost intentional. It is not a chair gone wrong. It is a chair which should make you get up after 15-20 minutes (in fast-food chains, this was reinforced by the design of uncomfortable seats, to keep up the fluctuation of customers and faster turnovers.)

The second very important thing about Unpleasant Design is that it always has a target audience, a group of people or a behaviour that it aims to discourage. In our research, we discovered it is usually one or all of these: homeless, youngsters, drug addicts (hello target group!). There is a funny metaphor for this in our case study of repellent systems against pigeons, which represent a paradigm for homeless, someone dirty and unwanted in your proximity. It is quite normal not to want to run into drug addicts injecting themselves in a public toilet, but there is something intrinsically mean about installing a blue light to discourage this behaviour. It is also a question of limits – today these three groups are the ones organised targeted by Unpleasant Design. Tomorrow it can be women on high heels, or men wearing a tie or a pair of glasses. Or it can be you.

EM:The resistance strategies you address in the book are also very informative. My best example for this is a pillow used on a very nasty fence in Lima so that people can go from one house to another. In your research, did you encounter this type of reaction? What do you think of them?

This is a great challenge for anyone with a critical mind and affinity for speculative design. So as soon as we identified the unpleasant agenda in urban spaces, we started thinking about ways to subvert it. In many cases, the resistance strategies highlight the very gist of the problem.

No one can sit under the Cross in Peru, Picture by Nicolas Nova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Travelling to different cities, we encountered some humorous interventions and adaptations to unfriendly surfaces and objects. We also organised a competition for Unpleasant Designs, asking for both pleasant and unpleasant submissions. Some very good ideas came out of this. There are also artworks that offer fun ways to overcome Unpleasantness which are featured in our book. From strategies addressing people’s basic needs and conditions (like the BAUM Lav’s SI8DO ‘pleasant’ urban furniture for immigrants or Michael Rakowitz’s ParaSITE housing units for homeless) to the more technology oriented interventions (like the CV Dazzle surveillance camouflage by Adam Harvey) they all uncover subtle attempts at conditioning or designing our behaviour in public space.

EM:Who benefit from these? Is there a class of citizen/institution that benefit from these anti-design features?

In the beginning we assumed all unpleasant installations are orchestrated by the city authorities, to secure order and raise the image of the city. For example, one of the most basic and most pervasive cases of Unpleasant Design is a park bench with armrests. When parks and metro stops are redesigned these days, they are equipped with such benches to ensure no one is going to use them as a bed.
After some research, we found that there is a whole other world of applications that are designed for private persons and companies to address unwanted users of space or unwanted behaviour. For example, shopping malls use unpleasant objects and devices to prevent young people from loitering. In some cases, we could argue that their video surveillance systems also begin to discriminate people who are potentially “no-consumers”. Systems equipped with computer vision software can target persons wearing hoodies or look for faces from a database of known criminals. A very popular device used by property owners – both private and commercial – was the infamous “Mosquito”, a buzzing teen deterrent that emits high frequency noise to ensue youngsters under 25 won’t spend too much time in their vicinity. All these examples are described in the essay “Technology Enabled Discrimination” in our book.
Unpleasant Design could also influence property value as an relational parameter on rental prices in the city, for example.
As we can see, both city policy makers, private property owners and citizens benefit to some extent from Unpleasant Design. But the application of these systems is not subject to any global standard for public spaces or human rights legislation. Subsequently, private interest groups start using unpleasant applications to influence the demographics of a place, and they can just do it on their own. What is the human scale of those installations? As a side-effect, by looking for Unpleasant Design we found out that public space is very often semi-privatized.

September 2013: Ethnography, Speculative Fiction and Design

This month’s theme is about the relationships between ethnography and fiction. It is not necessarily something that we explored a lot here at Ethnography Matters, which is why it seemed an interesting topic for this September edition. Another reason to address this now is because of recent experimental ways of “doing ethnography” (e.g. the work by Ellis & Bochner or Denzin), as well as curious interdisciplinary work at the cross-roads of design, science-fiction and ethnography (e.g. design fiction).

Of course, in Anthropology, the border between ethnography and fiction has always been very thin. Consider how ethnographers have written fictional novels or made speculative films, more or less based on field research. Also think about “docufictions” by Jean Rouch, a blend of documentary and fictional film in the area of visual anthropology. There are lots of reasons for using fictional methods, but there’s a general interest in going beyond scientific format/language by making ethnographic accounts more “engaging, palatable, and effective“.

For that matter, Tobias Hecht gives a rather good definition of what we will address in this month’s edition:

Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.

What’s interesting here is that “storytelling” can take many narrative forms. Of course, a great deal of ethnographic fiction corresponds to short stories, novels, films and documentary. However, there are plenty of other possibilities. People interested in fantasy role-playing games are used to thick bestiaries of fictional creatures. In such documents, animals or monsters are described with drawings, a fictional background, statistics (frequency, magic resistance, armor class…) and a profusion of material concerning their habitat, their rituals and their behavior. The level of details provided by the authors is generally tremendous. Another interesting example here is the “Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual” by Franz Joseph. This book, presented as a collection of factual documents, presents the spacecraft of Start Trek, with uniforms, weapons, devices and military protocols. To some extent, it describes the author’s take on this fictional universe, and it’s sometimes inaccurate according to Trekkies. However, for an ethnographer like me, this manual is incredibly intriguing as it shows a peculiar way to present fieldwork, and makes me wonder about the most convincing and engaging formats.

Star Trek

Artifacts from Star Trek, Picture by Julian Bleecker CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Both role-playing game bestiaries and SciFi tech manuals are interesting because they have a certain format and use particular conventions: technical diagrams and schematics, zoological-like classification, etc. By making things appear factual they attempt to suspend the reader’s disbelief. However, they are still textual, which leads us to wonder whether other artifacts might have the same power of attraction. Obviously, there are plenty of good examples of designed objects that can count as “fictional ethnographies”: maps of fictional universes (e.g. Lord of the Rings), and museum exhibits presenting props from science fiction films can be seen as similar vehicles.

In design circles, the current interest in “design fiction” is geared towards exploring how prototyping and storytelling can benefit from each other. Design fiction use standard objects and media conventions as a way to express ideas about the future: a fake product catalogue, a map of a fictional area, a journal, a short video showing a day in the life of a person, etc. One can see design fiction as similar to science fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, as well as speculating about the course of events… which is obviously close to what a certain kind of ethnography is interested in. This ability to flesh out the details of alternative futures can be seen as an intriguing form of speculative ethnography with a specific focus on original format.

In this edition, we’ll address ethnography and fiction with the following contributors:

  • Anne Galloway, an ethnographer interested in material, visual and discursive aspects of technology, will give her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction.
  • Laura Forlano, from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, will address what ethnographers can learn from science fiction and speculative design. Based on examples from design and popular culture, she will explore the generative and analytic potential of “design fiction”.
  • Jan-Hendrik Passoth, sociologist at TU Berlin and Nicholas Rowland, Associate Professor at PSU, will address post-ironic ethnography, reportage style and David Foster Wallace.

Check out past posts from guest contributors! Join our email groups for ongoing conversations. Follow us on twitter and facebook.

April 2013: Ethnomining and the combination of qualitative & quantitative data

Rows of quantitative data with visualizations

Image from Fabien Girardin

After the two previous editions (Openness and Stories to action), it’s now time for our April edition on combining qualitative and quantitative data.

While ethnography generally draws on qualitative data, it does not not mean that quantitative approaches shouldn’t be employed in the research process. Combining the two leads to a “mixed-method approach” that can take various forms: data collection and analysis can be either separated or addressed together, and each of them can be used in service of the other. Of course, this isn’t new in academic circles and corporate ethnography but there seems to be a renewed interest lately in this topic.

One of the driving forces of this renewed interest is the huge amount of information produced by people, things, space and their interactions — what some have called “Big Data“. The large data sets created by people’s activity on digital devices has indeed led to a surge of “traces” from smartphone apps, computer programs and environmental sensors. Such information is currently expected to transform how we study human behavior and culture, with, as usual, utopian hopes, dystopian fears and *critical sighs* from pundits.

Although most of the work of Big Data has focused on quantitative analysis, it is interesting to observe how ethnographers relate to it. Some offer a critical perspective, but others see it as an opportunity to create innovative methodologies to benefit from this situation. See for instance the notion of “Ethnomining” described by Aipperspach et al. (2006) in their insightful paper Ethno-Mining: Integrating Numbers and Words from the Ground Up:

Ethno-mining, as the name suggests, combines techniques from ethnography and data mining. Specifically, the integration of ethnographic and data mining techniques in ethno-mining includes a blending of their perspectives (on what interpretations are valid and interesting and how they should be characterized) and their processes (what selections and transformations are applied to the data to find and validate the interpretations).

Read More…

Infra/Extraordinary: Pedibus, a school bus without a bus

The Infra/Extraordinary column is devoted to zooming in on intriguing objects and practices of the 21st Century. Adopting a design-ethnography perspective, we will question informal urban bricolage, weird cameras, curious gestures and wonder about their cultural implications.

Pedibus1

, “Lausanne Pedibus” by Nicolas Nova, CC BY-NC on Flickr.

Running across this “pedibus” sign on the streets of Lausanne the other day made me think about the cultural implications for such practice.

Pedibus are commonly found in European cities such as Geneva, Lausanne or Lyon and one can see them as an intriguing type of school bus line that collects students at scheduled stops located in the city, except there’s no actual “bus”. Children are “picked-up” in accordance with a predefined and fixed timetable. They are then brought to school on foot by volunteers (parents or people from the neighborhood).

The name is a portmanteau word formed from the latin root “pedester” (which means “going on foot“) and “bus”. This semantic combination highlights the ambulatory character of the system, with the participants walking without any other mean of transport (that being said, I sometimes see kids on scooters when “in” the pedibus).

In general, pedibus systems can be created by urban institutions, or by a group of parents who are interested in a healthy and cheap way to deal with pupils’ schedules. Of course, such collective services are necessarily bound to the structure of urban environment. They are indeed more likely to be found in dense (and safe) city centers than sprawl-like suburbs, but one can also run across a pedibus in the countryside in France or Switzerland.

Pedibus2

“Lausanne Pedibus” by Nicolas Nova, CC BY-NC on Flickr.

The pictures above have been taken in Lausanne, a Swiss city with a population of nearly 130’000 inhabitants making it the fourth largest city of the country and 41.38 square km2 (15.98 sq mi). The website about the pedibus in this town indicates that the network is 21 km/13 miles long with 40 “lines” (approximately 575 m/0.3 mile long).

These numbers are intriguing but that’s not what I’m most interested in. Looking at the picture above, several elements caught my eye:

  • A very casual form of signage: it’s made of a wooden plaque with bright colors and a hand-drawn typeface, which is a bit unusual in Switzerland with its high standard of graphic design. It is also attached to existing urban infrastructures (signage, wall, etc.). This highlights the informal character of this system: disconnected from the other urban signs (which have a more structured visual identity). Pedibus stops like this one are sometimes removed during summer vacations, as if to tell us the temporary existence of this means of transport (and the rythm of the “school season”).
  • Unlike other bus stops, the timetable is pretty basic and limited to certain moments of day: morning, end of morning, beginning of the afternoon and end of afternoon (based on school schedules).
  • There’s a short description of what a pedibus is (with words and a drawing representing the bus): even if the system is 14 years old in Lausanne, it may tell us that it’s still important to explain what it is; probably for newcomers.

Beyond my interest in alternatives means of transports, I find pedibus systems fascinating for two reasons. First and foremost, they show the importance of bottom-up innovation as well as citizen participation. That’s probably what could be called a “Smart City” from a human perspective. Second, they also reveal how innovation can be based on “removing” elements from an existing system. In this case, and because it makes sense in terms of distance, this mean of transport corresponds with the removal of the main artifact that was involved in the process: the bus. I think that this is more than the “less is more” ethos commonly found in design circles, and which strives for minimalism. To some extent, the pedibus may be another example of “innovation through subtraction“, a sociological concept that I recently encountered in this research paper: “innovation founded on reducing a practice or ceasing to use – subtracting, detaching – a given artefact.“. From a design POV, I’m fascinated by this move: you take an existing technological system (e.g. school bus), you remove the main component (i.e. the bus), and then you try to find a workaround.

Do you see any other examples in your everyday life? Can you invent other examples of pedibus-like innovation with other technological artifacts/services?

Infra/Extraordinary: From GoPros to vanity camera drones

The Infra/Extraordinary column is devoted to zooming in on intriguing objects and practices of the 21st Century. Adopting a design-ethnography perspective, we will question informal urban bricolage, weird cameras, curious gestures and wonder about their cultural implications.

GoPro Helmet

GoPro helmet in the Swiss Alps

The other day in the Swiss Alps, among the crowd of heavily-protected people skiing and snowboarding, I couldn’t help noticing a peculiar type of people: the ones with a camera attached to the top of their helmets. It’s hard to miss them as this apparatus gives them extra inches as well as an odd robomechanical look. For those unaware of this intriguing outfit, this device is a “GoPro“, a camera named after the brand of “wearable” camcorders one can add on different types of gear for sport/adventure video and photography. Common usage of GoPros range from surfboarding to bungee jumping, snowboarding or just driving your car in memorable places.

Contemplating such devices during my day skiing, I started noticing a certain amount of GoPro-enabled people around me each time I was in the line for a ski-lift, or at the outdoor restaurants (which left me wondering about the type of video the users might get when seated sipping their coffee). What does the recent surge in such devices indicate? What does it mean with regards to the evolution of photography?

A SUV with a GoPro cam attached on it, encountered in Monument Valley, UT.

In the last fifteen years, we have seen an exponential growth of digital photography. Compact cameras, SLRs and cameras available on cell phones have become ubiquitous and are used by increasing numbers of people. This situation has led to a wide range of practices, as shown by various studies in sociology or human-computer interaction. Wearable camcorders seem to be an extension of the tendency some people have to copiously document their activities on platforms such as Flickr, Instagram or social networks in general. But there’s an important difference here: the documentation is no longer discrete; it’s continuous, as long as there’s enough battery. To some extent, this documentation is delegated to a machine that is also no longer gripped by the users; it’s attached to our clothes or to specific gear such as an helmet or your skateboard.

Gordon Bell

Gordon Bell, Photography by Dan Tuffs.

For people interested in Human-Computer Interaction, this practice does not come out of the blue. Certain projects conducted by Microsoft in the last ten years have dealt with this already. Gordon Bell, principal researcher in the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Laboratory, is a long-time defender of what he calls “extreme lifelogging”, i.e. the exhaustive collection of data and content about one’s life in order to create a personal archive. This type of project also corresponds to existing products such as Vicon Revue or Memoto. And of course, readers of “As we may think” by Vannevar Bush in 1945 may find some similarities with the Memex project, a “device in which individuals would compress and store all of their books, records, and communications“.

Beyond tracing the genealogy of such an idea, what interests me here rather deals with the evolution of such practices. Talking with GoPro users and observing their use in my daily environment, I recently noticed a shift: the camera is sometimes pointed at the user(s). So, instead of filming the mountains, the ocean or the road, wearable cameras are also employed to collect footage about the people using it. Look for instance at this YouTube video called “GoPro Hero 2 rear view facing driver, Suzuki GSF 650N”:

Of course, cameras have always been used to shoot people, but what is relevant here is to see how users can do that on their own, without the help of friends or relatives. From an Actor-Network perspective, one might say that this function has been delegated to a non-human: the camera mounted on an arm attached to something close enough to frame the user. This situation is reflected in the design of the “arm” with plenty of what they call “mounting accessories” which are aimed at different contexts. There’s a whole ecosystem of artifacts and practices to observe here!

MeCamMeCam Finally, being interested in design and futures practices, I also can’t help being intrigued by the next logical move. Given this practice of filming one’s self and the recent surge in personal drones, we’re only a few steps away from what I’d call “Vanity drones”, flying robots that would film users and stream the data on social networks… But, wait a minute, I just stumbled across this MeCam, a $49 camera “designed to follow you around and stream live video to your smartphone, allowing you to upload videos to YouTube, Facebook, or other sites“.

Head-mounted cameras, necklace cams, vanity drones… all these artefacts highlight how digital photography evolved and how their design encapsulates assumptions about their use. One can see a trend towards the automation of data collection, which correspond to common practices on the Web and social media. To put it differently, these devices reveal the intricate relationships between their design and our information ecosystem.

“Curious Rituals”: behind the scenes of a speculative ethnographic project

Cell phone inserted in a helmet

Cell phone usage by a courier in Seoul, Korea.

Curious rituals” is a research project I’ve conducted last summer as a visiting researcher at the Art Center School of Design (Media Design Practice program) in Pasadena, CA. The aim was to (a) investigate the gestures and postures people do when using digital devices,  and (b) speculate about their near future. The project book can be found for free as a PDF and printed as a book on Lulu.
General interest

There’s a quote by Science-Fiction author William Gibson that I like a lot; it reflects what I am interested in.

I’m trying to make the moment accessible. I’m not even trying to explain the moment, I’m just trying to make the moment accessible.” (from a documentary film called No Maps for These Territories“).

The reason I find it fascinating is simply that there’s a great value in producing description and making social situations and people’s behavior intelligible. Although the field studies conducted in ethnographic research can (and do) help craft theoretical constructs or models, the accurate and detailed description of what happens before our eyes is also important. This descriptive dimension is probably of interest to me because I work in the design department of an art school. A descriptive understanding of reality may be sufficient enough to inspire or frame the work of practitioners (while theories may be a bit more difficult to be digested). This is a general starting point in my work, which does not necessarily means that it’s a-theoretical (this choice itself emerges out of my interest in Grounded Theory anyways).

Why this topic?

Over the last five years, I’ve worked on different projects related to digital technologies: gesture-based interface in video-games, remote-control as gaming devices, touch interfaces, the user experience of virtual reality goggles, etc. The investigation addressed various angles but I noticed a common thread in the results: the body language people develop when using digital devices such as cell phones, laptops, robots, game controllers, sensors or any interface that involved ICTs. I started compiling examples, mostly via pictures one can find in my Flickr stream. The intuition was that it would be intriguing to explore that domain, and understand the underlying issues related to such habits. The opportunity to spend two months at the Media Design Practice department at Art Center College of Design in California then came as relevant context to investigate this topic more thoroughly.

With the team (Kathy Myiake, Nancy Kwon and Walton Chiu), we chose to use the term “rituals” without the religious or solemn connotation, referring instead to a series of actions regularly and invariably followed by someone. Read More…

The Ethnographer’s Reading List: Nicolas Nova takes us back to objects, public spaces, and lines….yes lines [guest contributor]

Credit: Matt Cottam

A few months ago we interviewed Nicolas Nova in A Retrospective of Talks by Ethnographers at Lift Conference. Now we finally  have Nicolas grace  us with a peek into his brain with his summer reading list.  A bit more about Nicolas from his bio: 

Nicolas Nova is a consultant and researcher at the Near Future Laboratory. He undertakes field studies to inform and evaluate the creation of innovative products and services. His work is about exploring and understanding people’s needs, motivations and contexts to map new design opportunities and help designers and engineers. Nicolas applies this in the domains of video games, mobile and location-based media as well as networked objects/robots. He also teaches user research in interaction design at HEAD-Geneva and ENSCI-Les Ateliers in Paris. He holds a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from the Swiss Institute of Technology (EPFL, Switzerland). He is also editorial consultant for the Lift Conference. In his free time, he collects video game controllers and peculiar interfaces dug up in flea markets here and there.

If you would like to contribute to the “Ethnographer’s Reading List,” send us an email! – Tricia

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This summer I’m spending the months of July and August in California for a visiting researcher’s residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, working on a project about rituals and gestures of the digital everyday. Because of that topic, the books I’ve bought for the summer are quite influenced by this project. They’re not about methodologies, but more about case studies concerning design, material culture, ethnography and architecture. Each of them seems to be feeding our investigation here:


Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century (Alison J. Clarke Ed.)

An interesting anthology describing various case studies about how different designers benefit from observing people when making new things. What caught my attention here is the wide breadth of examples presented and the description of what happens beyond data collection. As a matter of fact, several books (and presentations) I’ve read recently address the data part but are less verbose about how to turn this into “something”. And I have to admit that I’m interested in that “something”, be it a commercial product, a design fiction or a good discussion with friends. Some essays are of course more relevant to me than others but it was overall a good compilation that also covers examples beyond commercial products sold next year.

Read More…