My junior year of college, I took an anthropology of design course that completely changed the way I viewed design as well as the world around me. Our discussions about ethnography in design, collaboration, and improvisation have heavily influenced my design process, which I put to use for the final project of the class:
...you may do a “design anthropology” project in which you actually design a prototype. This can be of anything you wish, the only ground rule is that you actually have to produce it. You must also include a reflexive, ten page ethnographic report of this process: its context, aims, and collaborations, drawing on concepts from the class.
The following is a shortened version of this ethnographic report about my design process for Hello My Name Is, an ethnographic redesign of beer packaging.
For the most part, the time I had blocked out of my schedule for the purpose of this project wasn’t where I was most productive or inspired. As Jane Suri points out in her piece, “Poetic Observation: What Designers Make of What They See”, designers at the beginnings of their projects often don’t know what they need to know, or what they’re even looking for. Instead, my ideas and insights came unpredictably, emerging from “activity and thinking that was not part of a highly formalized research plan." Surely, I did not predict that I would find my design direction by noticing a six pack carrier at the bottom of a recycling bin, but that was indeed the moment I made the decision to prototype the packaging of beer.
Throughout the course of this semester, I’ve come to question the design of objects I encounter in my everyday, including my recycling.
I wasn’t looking for design inspiration in my kitchen, but Suri makes it clear that an unplanned observation like I experienced, “wasn’t random inspiration”. Instead, she explains that under the right circumstances, “a designer’s mind will process rich observations, stories, and insights from the field and crystallize these into design direction”, and recommends that designers should “leave room in project plans, daily schedules, and in designers’ heads for this kind of intuitive curiosity to play its magic”.
In this case, the unplanned allowed me to actually initialize my design direction, rather than change the direction. Further along in the process, however, I did indeed notice that unexpected observations and seemingly random recollections led to improvisatory changes in my design direction.
My prototype presents Hello My Name Is, a fictional craft brewery. The idea behind my design is that the bottle could be filled up with a beer on tap at the brewery and can be taken home to be enjoyed with others, the larger size of the bottle affording sharing. The front vinyl decal would be found on every bottle produced at the brewery, while the back label is changed and customized based on the different brew.
The longneck bottle is unambiguously a beer bottle. Given its silhouette, one can be certain that it contains beer. Beer and its bottle are inseparable, and consequently, the bottle itself carries with it the associated culture and expectations of drinking. To address this, I decided to use a glass milk bottle. I asked myself, “Why is it so strange to see beer in something other than a bottle, can, or pint glass?” I realized that this strangeness is a direct manifestation of alcohol being placed in its own category, when “in fact, it is perhaps more appropriate to think of alcohol as a special class of food with psychoactive properties resulting from the application of alternative culinary techniques” (Dietler). My decision to use a glass milk bottle is a reversal of this established separated category of alcohol. In this glass milk bottle, beer becomes more food-like. Its appearance would allow beer to fit in the domestic sphere.
The glass milk bottle is nostalgic in a sense, and much like the Pinterest aesthetic of mason jars, it evokes ideals of wholesomeness and family. Back when milk was delivered, the glass milk bottle was at the center of the relationship between the milkman and a family. In a similar fashion, I wanted the beer in the glass milk bottle to also construct a relationship, this time between brewer and drinker. Analogous to refilling the milk bottle on a weekly basis, once the beer drinker is finished, they can return back to the brewery to fill it back up, and perhaps try out a different brew. The bottle embodies a history of interactions between brewer and drinker, becoming a gift in a continual back-and-forth exchange, and “a particular transaction picks up the flow of social life and conveys it forward”, with its meaning “comprehended in the context of a history of previous exchanges of which it is but a singular moment” (Gatt and Ingold). Now, given a silhouette of this bottle, it is not immediate that it contains beer. When I showed my friends my prototype, the majority of them agreed that it felt a bit weird to imagine beer in this kind of bottle. It made them think, and that was exactly my point.
I decided on Hello My Name Is as the name of the brand after randomly remembering a party I had attended a couple of months prior. My friend Anna bought us (small) personal bottles of wine, and each of us stuck a “Hello, my name is…” label on the front of the bottle. Other guests would constantly come up to us and comment on how fun the labels were. I clearly remember meeting so many new people, all of whom approached us first. Having our names on our bottles allowed us to do so.
Remembering this moment was completely unexpected in my design process; I had originally planned on branding my beer with another name. But again, the unplanned transformed my design, pointing me in this direction. Hello, My Name Is is playful in this way, with the packaging including coasters that also say Hello My Name Is. The idea behind this is that through sharing the beer with others, they can use the coasters and write their names on them in the same way that Anna wrote our names on our wine bottles.
Similar to the coasters, the back label also plays with Hello My Name Is. While the drinkers can use the coasters to introduce themselves, in turn the beer uses the back label to introduce itself. The idea here is that the brewer can write in the name of the specific brew, the date, its flavor profile, its ingredients, and recommended food pairings. By doing so, I wanted to build a full experience of drinking while socializing, appreciating the beer itself, and perhaps eating as well. The back label itself is an homage to beer making as a design process. Morphogenetically, brewing involves the brewer, the ingredients, the environment, and countless other forces to create a specific beer. This is the “craft” in craft brewing. Within the process of brewing, there is inevitable revision and reworking. These “works in progress” are different types of beer coming into being; they are specific iterations or what one might even consider to be prototypes.
Reflecting back on the entirety of this design process, it truly took on a life of its own, making it hard to even articulate in a clear, longitudinal format. The process took unexpected twists and turns and was subject to randomness. Even after trying my best to document all of the people, moments, and forces that have influenced my design, I still undoubtedly omitted finer details that I have not even recognized as having shaped this process. Like Ingold’s woven baskets created by the confluence of daylight, wind, and the maker themselves, the prototype that I am submitting (I am reluctant to say “final”, because it truly is not) emerged from many forces. For starters, my initial decision to design a beer packaging prototype came about because someone else had recycled a six pack carrier. I had absolutely no control over this, but it was still a crucial part in my process of making.
My initial ideas and sketches looked nothing like what I ended up producing. For example, I thought of creating a bottle that needed another bottle to be opened, the thinking here being that this design would afford sharing. This concept would also address an issue that my friend Michelle brought up. In an unplanned conversation that we had, she mentioned that the people who typically carry bottle openers are predominantly male. Why is it that she needed someone else, particularly a male, to open her beer for her? In this way, males “control” when and how females drink, especially at college parties. If by design, beer bottles opened each other, then this helps blur the boundaries and lessen the power dynamic between genders.
However, despite my preliminary sketches of what this could physically look like, I was constrained by the fact that such designs seemed infeasible given my own technical skills. So I went in completely different directions, I sketched out ideas and slowly found a path around my technical non-realities that led me to my prototype. The idea here is that my design was truly about improvisation, not innovation. Gatt and Ingold remark that to equate creativity with innovation would be to to take the idea to be the design of the object. With this process, I’ve experienced that design is not as simple as having an idea and imposing it onto the material world.
My design process doesn’t end with the submission of my project. Referring back to the basket weaving story, Ingold remarks about unclear endpoints:
How would we know when to stop? There is no obvious point when a basket is finished. The end dawned for us, not when the form came to match initial expectations, for we had none. It came rather with failing light and the imminent prospect of heavy rain, increasing chill and stiffness in the limbs, and the sense that each additional strand was becoming somehow superfluous.
I faced a similar issue of not knowing when to “finish”. In both cases, temporality was a key factor. While I was not constrained by the setting sun, I did have to “finish” at a certain point in time so that I could submit everything by the established deadline. However, I believe that my Hello My Name Is beer packaging never is truly finished. This was an important fact that I had determined early in the process, when I was trying to figure out which of my sketched out plans I actually wanted to produce. This prototype is just one realization of many improvised iterations. In fact, the actual prototype I will have submitted is itself a work-in-progress.
It’s more of a byproduct than a product, but one still worthy of being designed.