Design Ethnography II (SIDN333 2020)

During pandemic lockdowns, animals have ventured into cities around the world. This herd of mountain goats in Wales boldly occupies empty city streets.

Image: Mountain goats in Welsh streets under lockdown  (Credit: Twitter @AndrewStuart)


The always elusive Bigfoot is captured in this photo, with the text: "Social Distancing World Champ". Social distancing memes first appeared in early 2020 in response to coronavirus protection measures.

Image: COVID-19 social distancing Bigfoot meme (Credit: unknown)

July 2020: We come together in the uncertainty of a global pandemic. What does it mean to do ‘good design’ today? What kind of designers does the world need us to be?

As Arundhati Roy reminds us, “the pandemic is a portal” :

“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

In this course, we focus our critical thinking on design and culture. This means we ask hard questions about who we are and what we do, and that can be pretty challenging!

But don’t worry – our goal is self-awareness and accountability, not purity or perfection.

And we’re committed to reparative critique – the kind of critical practice that engages the world in good faith to carefully tend faults and repair wounds.

The online version of DESIGN ETHNOGRAPHY II offers students the opportunity to develop their cultural research skills through a range of observations, interpretations, and reflections – all able to be done alone and at a distance.

Students are introduced to key concepts in digital ethnography (the study of online cultures) and auto-ethnography (connecting personal experience to broader cultural practices and meanings), as well as values-based design.

Instead of seminars, weekly multimedia materials and summaries are shared online, with group discussions and activities run asynchronously.

Instead of studios, students sign up for regular one-on-one feedback sessions on their portfolio development.

For the major project, each student selects a social, political, environmental or ethical issue that matters to them, and creates a 3-part design ethnography portfolio demonstrating the following skills:

1) how to expand design research from a “tame problem” to a “wicked problem”;

2) how to conduct empirical research using narrative, visual, audio, and/or sensory methods;

3) how to creatively explore and critically assess types and scales of design intervention; and

4) how to create a value proposition and prototype a values-based design intervention.

Design Ethnography I (SIDN233 2020)

Beside a drawing of a Muslim prayer rug are the words: "It was a strange yet welcoming feeling that I was performing something that felt so precise yet so obscure."

Image: “Sacred Spaces” by Ronia Ibrahim.


In this two-page magazine layout a vintage Barbie sits in the middle of the page with background material to the left and a discussion of imagination and play to the right.

Image: “Barbie” by Sochetha Meng.


DESIGN ETHNOGRAPHY I introduces students to the ways in which design shapes – and is shaped by – cultural beliefs, values, and norms. Students critically explore different worldviews and their potential to support greater social justice through design.

The course is divided into three parts: material culture, digital culture, and visual culture. Engaging with weekly readings, podcasts, and videos, students learn to ask critical questions about how things are designed, made, used, and disposed of – along with the responsibilities of designers at each step.

In the first assignment, students write object biographies, or creative non-fiction stories about how products come to be and who we can, and cannot, become when we engage with them.

The second assignment logs one week of their interactions with a product or service, to create a journey map that represents their experience, and a critical reflection on how the design’s value, and embedded values, shape their everyday lives.

In the final assignment, students critically reflect on design justice principles, connect them to what design ethnography offers, and articulate, through a short text and original meme, their “design ethnography worldview”.



“Guidebook to Practical Earth Skills” (2019)

Guidebook to Practical Earth Skills - Made by the students of CCDN233 Design Ethnography, Victoria University of Wellington, June 2019.

Image: “Guidebook to Practical Earth Skills” by Students of CCDN233: Design Ethnography, 2019.

Part 1 (pdf)
Part 2 (pdf)
Part 3 (pdf)
Part 4 (pdf)

The “Guidebook to Practical Earth Skills” was researched and designed by students in CCDN233: Design Ethnography in Trimester 1, 2019.

They wish to thank the research participants – without whom this wouldn’t have been possible – and acknowledge the expert guidance and encouragement of tutor Madi Mañetto Quick.

This design ethnography brief was created with two tikanga Māori principles guiding our practice:

1) manaakitanga, or hospitality, kindness, generosity, support; and the process of showing respect, generosity, and care for others.

2) kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, stewardship, trusteeship of land, water, and sky as the responsibilities, duties, and social obligations that arise from holding no distinction between people and their environment.

Students were asked to find a non-designer who knew how to make something they didn’t, and to learn from them. The goal was to find new ways of thinking, doing and making with others—ways that honour different kinds of knowledge and might mean the difference between surviving and thriving under difficult circumstances. 

Combining background research, participant observation, interview and personal reflection, the “Guidebook to Practical Earth Skills” distills and shares what students learnt about bee-keeping and kororā conservation; raranga, sewing, embroidery, and knitting; shoe and electrical repairs; candle-making, woodworking and glass casting; harvesting wood for fuel, fishing and pāua gathering; beer brewing and food preservation… and much more!

We hope you share this collaborative document with anyone you think might find it useful or interesting – but we’d be even more chuffed if you started making and sharing your own, local versions!

Kia ora rawa atu. Many thanks.
Anne Galloway, Wellington, June 2019


Multispecies Design Ethnography (CCDN372/DSDN488 2019)

This page of the report focuses son animal welfare, including a pyramid of needs and photos of otters in a zoo.

Image: “Caring for Wildlife” by Courtney Naismith.


The "Hunt Like An Otter" prototype features a box with a cutout so someone can reach inside with a hand and pull out wooden creatures eaten by otters.

Image: “Hunt Like An Otter” by Kelsy Boyle, Maddi Jessop-Benseman, Liliana Manetto-Quick & William Shaw.


Design ethnography is a critical and creative practice that works directly with others to maintain the diversity of human experience and promote justice. The multispecies element seeks to enrich relations between humans and other forms of life.

Bringing together undergraduate and postgraduate students from all fields of design, we work with Wellington Zoo to propose design interventions that mutually benefit human and non human animals.

This course is a combination of seminars, fieldwork, and studios in which students are introduced to key concepts and methods in multispecies ethnography and design. 

Students first compile a portfolio of background research ranging from zoo history, politics and ethics, to zoo design, economics, and animal welfare.

Students then conduct multiple observations of a selected animal habitat, followed by in-person interviews with animal welfare and public engagement staff.

The results of both activities are used to guide a collaborative design process, resulting in iterative group proposals and prototypes for presentation to Wellington Zoo staff.

In addition to an overwhelmingly positive response from the Zoo to all projects, “Hunt Like An Otter” won the Gibson Group Prize for Innovation and Excellence in Design for Social Innovation.


Speculative Design (CCDN242 2019)

A traditional Maori Kete, or woven flax bag, spills out fungus-based food samples in small transparent containers.

Image: “Mother Mycelium” by Danielle Endacott, Alex Hunter & Molly Snowden.



In this introductory course, students explore the potential of design to question, critique and provoke complex cultural, political, and ethical issues. Through research, writing and making, students articulate speculative approaches to, and for, public engagement.

In the first assignment, students:

1) demonstrate familiarity with a range of speculative design approaches and projects;

2) identify and critically assess a set of design opportunities and challenges;

3) creatively communicate a personal speculative design position or set of guiding principles.

To apply this knowledge, students then iteratively design, prototype, and produce a set of artefacts from another world.

This year’s theme was “Re-Imagining Kinship: Humans and NonHumans”.

Student projects ranged from an ancestor worship toolkit for skinning the dead and preserving their scent, to communal food and lighting produced with, and from, mycelial networks.


“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” 

― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed