DESIGN RESEARCH, SOCIAL INNOVATION

Why Design Research is Important for the Arab World Now

Photo by Ravy Shaker

The political scene in the MENA region is now at the epitome of historical breakthrough, we are the generation that is experiencing a revolution like none other in our region- on a multitude of dimensions and scales. The Arab Spring has revealed to the world that this region, whose peoples have been forced to deal with ongoing political strife and social conflict for decades, is now fervently undergoing a period of massive change. What is more surprising to the world however, is that for the first time we see the Western world taking initiative from the uprisings of the Arab peoples and re-manifesting that rage towards their own political and social systems. Considering the fact that the Arab world has almost always been the ‘follower’ or recipient of  the West in almost all matters until now, this new age of global activism is creating -in many ways- a new era and understanding  of politics.

So where does design  research come in? To most designers who specialize in social innovation, the answer is obvious and the possibilities are endless. First off, as designers we consider that the implications our actions may have on people should be preferably due to participatory and bottom-up design strategies. This means that we encourage the input of the people involved in the problem being tackled, by learning from them, working with them, and designing for them the right tools that they can use to create change in their communities. It is in fact the smaller circles of change and the meme effect they have on surrounding communities that lead to change in the whole system itself. In other words, designers can perhaps help the Arab communities redefine their systems by being the link between politics and the people. By going into each home and understanding the real underlying issues they face and gathering qualitative data, culture specific and innovative solutions can be formed and implemented.

Design does not promise grandeur illusions of instant solutions that fix all social and political problems simultaneously, but it offers people the empowerment to start making small changes in their communities  and understanding the design thinking process to problem solving. Most importantly, as this understanding of design and designers is a fairly new concept, it brings with it the motivation of a new idea and the enthusiasm of young designers who believe that on some microscopic level, they are saving the world.

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DESIGN RESEARCH, RESEARCH METHOD

Ethnography & Design

Since the 1980’s design educators have been trying to integrate concepts from other disciplines (literature, rhetorics, semantics, semiotics, sociology, psychology…) to form a design discourse which could push for design to be recognized as a field with a strong theoretic backbone; one that educates students to think of the intrinsic value of design in social context rather than just prepare them for the trade. In those terms, research takes center stage by backing up the design decisions and presenting them on solid ground instead of justifying them purely on a designer’s creative intuition and aesthetic taste.

Ethnography is an approach developed by the social sciences to aid the study of everyday culture through people, their behavior, and the ways in which they interact with the world. An ethnographer produces knowledge through observation of interactions. Most importantly, ethnography is a qualitative method of research, meaning that it does not rely on quantitative -numerical or statistical- data.

Some examples of ethnographic techniques are participant observation (e.g. using a video camera in a certain setting), non-participant observation (e.g. using hidden cameras), interviews (preferably semi-structured open-ended questions and based on previous observation), and artefact studies (e.g. cultural probes).

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