Archives for posts with tag: stokefire

While I don’t think I need to share pages upon pages of field notes, I do think it is of value to share these key points I took away from this 6-months experience:

- Nothing comes as planned: Those who know me, know that this is a valuable lesson my “hippie-dad” taught me when I was very young and one idea that I live my life by. I am an extreme type-A personality, an uber-punctual German planner with multiple to-do notes and lists going at all times, so this is a hugely important lesson for me to remember, no matter how frustrating. Sometimes I shake my head at how my life has progressed in the past 10 years – I would have called anyone mentally-unstable had they tried to convince me 10 years ago that at age 19 I would immigrate to the U.S. by myself, live in South Dakota for 5 years to study Journalism, just to find my path at 27 and, after living in the deep South and now the East Coast, would return to Europe to study Design Ethnography in Scotland. But here I am. Every time I have a moment of “How the hell did I get here?” I look back at the last time I thought that and realize that yet again, every single event, whether it was great or devastating at the time, has led me to another pausing point for reflecting. And these moments of reflection make me see that even though nothing comes as planned, everything comes the way it should.

- In any given situation, for any amount of time – try to be as creatively and purposefully engaged as you can. Coming into this internship I knew that I would be here for 6 months, and no longer than that. Throughout the changes of the company and additional undulations that come with life I saw moments of my creative drive dwindling and looking back it would have been easy to slip and miss out on opportunities to be fully engaged. It is hard and exhausting and frustrating sometimes, but the process has once more reminded me that it is HUGELY important to yank yourself back into the present moment and engage with as many people as you can. And learn from them. Any second that you possibly can.

Learn from the people you are surrounded by - directly and indirectly. This goes hand in hand with the previous point, but especially for someone like me, who is used to working independently (and fairly efficiently, if I may say so myself), it is important to take advantage of the many knowledgable people around you. Even if it is just 15-30 minutes here and there to learn something new. Everyone is a specialist in something and even if at first glance it looks like they don’t have anything specific to teach you that is of relevance to a current situation or project…they do. It is up to us individually to gather that knowledge from those who surround us and to make use of it. Learn as many things about as many different topics from as many people as possible.

Be flexible - take evolving situations for what they are and learn from them. Again, when things are evolving, it is often easy to get lost in the flow and process of transitions and change. If you have the ability to step back and see the whole picture, it makes it a whole lot easier to make sure you are placed in the right position to deal with, and hopefully, guide change.

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I feel extremely lucky to have found this internship, but I think more than anything the greatly positive experience I have had here (and I hope the rest of the team has had with me here) was merely a combination of preparation and opportunity. I prepared for this step for months in advance and applied for an internship with a company that at the time, didn’t even have any openings and Stokefire saw the opportunity to explore a new field like Design Ethnography within Branding and Strategy and offered me this internship.


My last blog post was focused on the philosophy behind Ray and Charles Eameses’ design (AND life) and I need to borrow Charles’ words once more to make better sense of this experience. This is an excerpt from a speech Charles gave at the end of one of the famous Norton Lectures that he delivered at Harvard.

“I can never think that our pleasures, our rewards from the things around us, could ever possibly be diminished by additional knowledge about it. And the contrary is true. I heard Richard Feynman describe waves on the beach. He’s a particle physicist and he was describing the waves in terms of insights that he felt and knew about the reactions of the particles within the wave, the relationship between the molecules of water, what happened as the light came into it, the forces of gravity and the inertia [that] was taking place – and it was a description of a breaking wave because he had a tremendous appreciation of the exquisite beauty of what was going on, not only on the surface of the wave, but what was going on inside the surface of the wave and what had gone beyond to make that wave possible. It was a delightful thing and no better pleasure or experience could I wish you all.”

I am thankful for the experience given, the insights shared, the knowledge gathered, and the connections made. I feel that my attempt to focus on simply learning valuable workplace skills has lead me back yet again to the very basics – observing and understanding human interactions and relationships.


This blog was originally posted on the Stokefire blog HERE! 


(Originally posted on the Stokefire blog HERE!)

This is my fifth post inspired by one of the essays in the book “Design Anthropology – Object Culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke. This chapter “The anthropological object in design: from Victor Papanek to Superstudio” is written by Alison J. Clarke (the mastermind herself).

I, like many, many others, have always found the designs by the iconic Charles and Ray Eames to be inspiring (to say the least).

The older I got and the more involved in the design community I became, the more I understood and appreciated the beauty of form and function in sync. I developed a lasting fascination with innovative and functional household and kitchen products and a love for simplistic, modern furniture and architecture. I think this appreciation came about mostly through my habit of what I would call “obsessive observing and analyzing” of my surroundings (and with that, it’s objects) and by exploring what the great designers who came before have accomplished.

So very fittingly, this chapter by Alison J. Clarke “explores the historical relation of design to anthropology, its objects and methodologies” and she points out that the tools and objects we use in our lives are much more meaningful once understood in the context of the user and society. Clarke explains that “objects and tools represent a particular field of investigation; they lend themselves much better to being used as keys in the interpretation of complex relationships. Objects are the direct witness of the creative drive.”

It is well known that the Eamses had a very anthropological approach to their design and Clarke refers to design historian Pat Kirmham, who knew that they were influenced by the mixing of objects of authentic origin and popular culture. “The Eamses changed the way people thought about objects, largely by presenting them in new ways and by encouraging different ways of perceiving, grouping, and displaying them [...] they used toys and everyday objects to illustrate design principles [...] and they emphasized the need to understand the contexts in which material culture was produced and used.”

In another happy coincidence, I am currently reading “An Eames Primer” by Eames Demetrios, who is Charles and Ray’s grandson. In this book, he “offers an in-depth look at the couple’s prolific legacy – one that has placed them among the most important American designers of the twentieth century.”

My husband and I both share an immense respect and admiration for what Charles and Ray Eames accomplished and for the life they led. I love the Eamses’ belief that “design is a process, rather than a single outcome – a process that’s never really over.” The Eamses, in my eyes, were real Design Ethnographers. They believed that you learn by doing and that through the process of one project a new project is often born (“each iteration offered another opportunity to hone the material tighter and tighter”). They understood that photography was an integral part of the design process as it was a way of discovering and exploring. And even when a task required new skills, the Eames office would “rather learn how to do it themselves than send it out.”

The author of this chapter suggests that “there has been a seismic shift in design culture of the last decades, whereby ‘users’ and methods of anthropological inquiry have emerged as the key means of deciphering the nuances of object/subject relations. But the anthropological object (…) has long been the critical designer’s favorite muse.

Eames Demetrios has a unique perspective on Charles and Ray’s work and life; he truly understands their slogan ‘innovate as a last resort’. Nowadays, many people throw around the word ‘innovation’ and call on companies to strive for innovation above all else. But I think today’s understanding of the term ‘innovation’ doesn’t take into account the things to be learned from the Eamses’ approach. To them, “the danger of innovation was the chance of losing the wisdom that had gone into the development of the idea to that point.”

A critical designer therefore understands that our everyday objects can only be truly understood within the context of the user and he gains wisdom from the process of developing an idea or product.

Aaaannnddd, we are live – the first ever Stokefire video Mark-up!

This has been my project @stokefire for the past few weeks! Check it out over on the Stokefire blog HERE! and let me know what you all think – I would love some feedback…

Step 1:

Read about my thoughts on Design Ethnography and some of the people who inspire me to move into this field…

Art by Charles Wilkin

Design Ethnography in the context of Brand Strategy

In my previous blog post, I introduced the concept of Design Ethnography in the context of Brand Strategy here at Stokefire.

I am currently reading a book called “Design Anthropology – Object culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke, who is professor and head of Design History and Theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna and research director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation.  As I started reading, I saw so many connections between the stories described and my personal observations and experiences that I wanted to share. First of all, there are companies out there who have used anthropological-style observation tools to better understand a market or consumer group for many years now. Some of the companies that were early adopters of Design Ethnography methods include Xerox PARC, Intel and IDEO, with their “design-thinking approach.” IDEO is one that I am paying extra close attention to and without fail, every time I do research relating to Design Ethnography, the name IDEO just keeps on popping up on my screen (or in this case, on the page).

Jane Fulton Suri talks about Design and Innovation

Chapter One of said-book introduces Jane Fulton Suri with this quote: “From Designers we ask for a designed world that has meaning beyond the resolution of purely functional needs, one that also has poetry, communicates subtly something that makes sense, not just by fitting in with the culture and environment in which it lives, but by adding a new dimension to it.” …Wow, right?  I was so intrigued by this statement alone that only a couple seconds and one google search later, I discovered this: Jane Fulton Suri is non other than the Chief Creative Officer at IDEO. In this essay, she talks about the “(…) importance of ensuring that design teams make space for designers to explore, to see, and otherwise sense the world in their own way, without the limitations of adhering strictly to some formal process or plan of ‘research’.”

I picked up this first bit of information she had put down and realized how relevant it was to my surroundings and observations. One of the benefits of working in a small design and advertising firm, which itself is still undergoing transformation, is that there is generally a lot more leeway in the approach to the design process. Fulton Suri describes Design and Innovation as “creative endeavors that defy entirely rational and linear processes.” According to her,  “Human intelligence, skill, and leaps of imagination are required to grapple with multiple variables and uncertainties to make future sense. And, as designers, we care about this future sense in more than a pragmatic way; we care also about its poetry.”

She goes on to describe four stories of designers who “were inspired by their personal observation of the world and saw beauty, poetry, or meaning in something that others hadn’t seen. (…) In each case their insights emerged from activity and thinking that was not part of highly formalized research plan.” Design firms everywhere, as they house creative people, are full of different (often strange but mostly interesting) people who inevitably see the world in their own way.  Fulton Suri knows: “Teams of designers, rather than individuals, allow more eyes to see more, and one would hope, differently.”

An approach to observation which involves respecting and reflecting upon a personal and intuitive point of view is the way to go! I know that within our small creative team, we try to make sure there is space for exploration and if we get stuck on something, it inevitably leads to a trip to one of the nearby coffee joints. Anyone who is in the creative field I’m sure, has had those experiences of finding the answer through a completely random experience or observation. And even more importantly, I know that our captains here at Stokefire value these experiences as they know that sometimes the greatest tagline can be born out of a conversation completely unrelated to the issue or that an important insight into a project can develop on a walk or a ride on the metro.

Annette Diefenthaler and how chance observations can lead to great design

The example that intrigued me the most was the one that told the story of how an unplanned observation by Annette Diefenthaler helped distill a set of design principles, in this case for a new bank space and service concept. The examples tells the story of how Annette’s cultural observations and her intuition to use them, led to a radical new concept for the layout of the branch and a service model to better support staff and customer interactions.

In this project, the client, a global financial institution, had set out to redesign bank branches to support a desirable experience for their customers in Central and Eastern Europe. They knew the challenge was that in those parts of the world, many citizens either saw no value in using banks or had a history of unpleasant interactions with them. The obvious solution for the research team would have been to observe the interactions between the bank staff and customers, and while those types of research did reveal some important information about problems, which arose from staff behaviors and spatial cues causing unwelcoming feelings for customers, Fulton Suri points out that one specific chance observation made by Annette Diefenthaler was much more powerful and that the solution in this case did not come from following a rational and predictable plan.

This chance observation came when one night, after a late interview, Diefenthaler stopped at a low-end shopping center, partially out of curiosity, and partially out of a gut feeling that simple insights gained through simple observation could be helpful. The way this shopping center was set up stood out to her: the mall featured plain, simple and separate stalls, of which each sold one specific item (one sold only black pants while another sold only light-colored skirts etc). She admits that “at first sight you might dismiss that as depressing or boring. I realized that there was something very honest and straightforward in this way of selling goods. Customer experience? Not here. You want black shoes? You get black shoes. No fuss about it.” This realization that while many of the ‘new world’ shopping centers offer a shopping ‘experience,’ this ‘old world’ society still preferred things to be straightforward and they wanted an honest offering, not an experience.
Fulton Suri explains: “Annette’s spontaneous curiosity yielded a dramatic observation that helped clarify an important design theme for the project. This wasn’t random inspiration. Given the right catalyst, a designer’s mind will process rich observations, stories, and insights from the field and crystallize these into design direction. What’s important is to make sure we leave room in project plans, daily schedules, and in designers’ heads for this kind of intuitive curiosity to play it’s magic.”

Observation is essential to design: It’s what you see and make of it

Here at Stokefire, as any other small firm, we go through transition stages (in staff, project plans and daily schedules) but I think that we as the core team are aware of the power of chance observations and how our individual personalities and characteristics take in and process these observations. At Stokefire, this applies not only to creative but to every part of the company, whether it’s the way we approach branding strategy for a client or developing a new Performance Review System. Fulton Suri sums up that in all the examples she talks about, “each case involved a similar pattern: a focused curiosity coupled with exposure to relevant contexts; attention to elements that invite intrigue; visual documentation and revisiting these records later; percolation and talking about what was significant with team members and clients; storytelling and exploration of design choices and details.”

The lesson learned is that we need to take time to observe, we need to have the ability and instinct to process these observations (in our own individual ways) and then apply them to the design and innovation process.  I will leave you all with these closing words from Jane Fulton Suri: “Observation of the world is natural and essential to design. But ultimately, its less what you look at that matters, its what you see and what you and the project make of it. “


Fun fact:
The artist of the image  I used in this post, Charles Wilkin, also observes that in design culture personal expression somehow has lost its place in the creative process.  He speaks to some of the same points Fulton Suri does in an Interview with Carole Guevin, founding partner of FYE creative continnum.  He talks about “relying on instinct rather than expectations as a means to find solutions. (…) We trust our instincts when buying goods, meeting people and assessing our environment. Seems logical to me and applicable to design. (…) Automatic has never been about following trends or being in annuals, but about finding a new and innovative ways to solve common problems. Sometimes design is not just black and white but more of an experience, something I believe all designers strive for regardless of style or method.”
Read the whole Interview here:

Growing up, I have always been fascinated by people’s stories.  When I moved to the US from Germany by myself at age 19, my “ethnographic curiosity” (as I now know to call it) only grew. Being placed in this new and foreign environment, I had to observe and analyze people’s behaviors and customs in order to properly function within that environment and to become a part of that new culture. My understanding of this new culture progressed from simply watching and listening, to asking questions and interacting, to finally acting within the actual boundaries of this society. The experience taught me a lot about the way people interact with each other: our actions are affected by our environments and by what we define as our comfort zones. It allowed me to begin with an outsider’s perspective of this culture and understand it as such. But slowly, I observed my own perceptions changing as I progressed to becoming an insider myself.

Then, on a long flight back home from Germany in 2007, I picked up the in-flight magazine and stumbled upon an article, which told the story of the OXO measuring cup and the rise in design companies using ethnographic methods to better their products.  That was my aha-moment; I knew Design Ethnography (also known as: Brand Anthropology, User Research, Strategic Planning) was something I wanted to pursue.

Prior to working at Stokefire, I was freelancing but craved the participation, learning, and real-life discussions of a creative environment. Knowing that I would go back to school to pursue a Master in Design Ethnography by the end of the summer, my goal was to find a way to spend the next 6 months as productively and creatively as possible.

When I first looked for places in the Washington DC area to apply, Stokefire’s “focus on what’s underneath it all” was what initially caught my eye.  Part of the core strategy here is helping brands and organizations figure out who they are underneath the logos, websites, and marketing speak.

Which brings us to present day and my Design and Marketing Internship at Stokefire where I also claim the title of “Design Ethnographer in training.” …So, what does that really mean?

From a Design Ethnography perspective, human behavior and the ways in which people understand and function within their worlds varies based on the specific culture and location (i.e. industry). Emily Eisenhart of Catapult Design, defines Ethnography as “a research method in which the researcher observes people in their natural environment so as to gain insight into the ways in which people inhabit their spaces, use their products and interact with the various physical, social, economic and ecological systems around them. It is a heavily qualitative research method, involving much participant-observation — observing and recording the actions and decision-making processes of individuals and groups in a given environment.”

My first experience of understanding a complex situation and culture from an outsider’s perspective and later from an insider’s view has strongly influenced my approach to the world around me. The Design Ethnography program at the University of Dundee, which is where I will be studying later this year, understands this concept as “outsider intelligence and insider knowledge” and they discuss it in their blog on “Strategic Duality: Reflections on what design ethnography can offer.” And as Cora Albrecht, author of the post concludes “(…) skilled design ethnographers are valuable in that they combine the right mix of outsider intelligence and insider knowledge to see the problem from the most effective angle, or as Lehrer describes it, “from slightly askance”.  Here’s to establishing ourselves as strategically placed problem solvers.” Here is to it indeed!

In the Design world, the goal is to apply the learnings about customer assumptions and needs gained from this approach to the creation of a brand, product, or solution.

This perspective seemed to fit well with what Stokefire is doing in Branding and Strategy. In my opinion, Stokefire’s work is effective because it is built around the genuine core identity of a client. By figuring out not only WHO, but also WHY and HOW, they ensure that the user is center stage in the design process. Stokefire focuses on the meaning, rather than focusing on the mere form and function of stuff. After all, “design without added value is just art”.

So how (and why?) do YOU assure that the user is center stage in your process?

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