Generous Artifacts: Multimedia Ethnography and Design for Public Space

When we design public space, who do we design for? How do we ethically engage and disengage with our clients and informants to produce the outcomes we leave behind? How do we create generous outcomes with every exchange, every encounter of the design process, not just the outcome? If we turn to ethnographic practices when designing public space, we will produce an ethical re-calibration of design anchored in the human encounter.

This generous outcome of the (ethnographic) encounter / (design) transaction between designer and informant transforms an individual from a disengaged subject to an active political protagonist.

This transformation occurs as the informant begins to look, to see, to explain, and to name what is and what might be.

In an attempt to achieve this outcome, I incorporated participatory visual ethnography methods into the design process with the intent of pursuing socio-spatial justice.

I pursued a context that provides two features which I believed to be essential to a successful attempt:

  • a public interest organization with an agenda of intervening in public space
  • a location for ongoing and dedicated exchanges with individuals who have deep, situated knowledge

I secured an invitation to teach visual narrative techniques to a small group of 18-24 year old Brownsville residents at the Center for Court Innovation's Brownsville Community Justice Center. During our work together, referring to the time and spaces of our work as a studio, we attempted to see their environment in a way that allows us to make that environment, and their experience of it, seen with the goal of informing and directing our host organization's public space interventions.  What follows is the document of this work, and an attempt to codify the process in order for it to be replicated in other contexts.

the field Guide to Visual Media & Designing for public space

Artifacts as design probes




Best of Brownsville Photo Project: 11-month participatory documentation of Brownsville's best qualities.

The Switch Project: Three models for redesigning public space in a way that provokes a switch from passive subject to engaged protagonist in socio-spatial justice.