On dogs and design ethnography

My colleague Sarah Baker and I are heading up the School of Design‘s new postgraduate Design Ethnography research stream, and we gave a brief presentation this week to new students.

When I was searching for less obvious examples of this kind of work, I came across a lovely project by Malavika Reddy and Taylor Lowe. The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng: A Tale of Unspeakability and Thai Politics is all about Khun Tongdaeng, the royal canine companion of King Bhumipol Adulyadej of Thailand. But, of course, this dog is much more than just a dog:

“Enter Khun Tongdaeng. Her mobilization through a variety of media is ripe with the unsayable. The Tongdaeng images and paraphernalia that flooded Bangkok in the early part of the decade “spoke” to, but also around the anxieties of the monarchy in a way that no amount of paternal speechifying could ever do. At the same time, the manifestation of Tongdaeng in a variety of objects makes connections between His Majesty and significant political economic developments of the day, including copyright regimes, branding, and the ongoing project to make Thais more ‘modern.’ Tongdaeng became a device that was seen to impart the King’s luster to these bureaucratic and business endeavors, ostensibly legitimating them. What follows then is a look at the politics of Thailand in the early 2000s, and the unspeakability at its heart, via the King’s favorite dog.”

Choosing a non-traditional social subject like a dog offers, I think, a unique and rich opportunity for both cultural and design research. This particular dog, as manifested through a published biography, commemorative statues and t-shirts, and the King’s annual greeting cards, exemplifies the material, visual and discursive elements found in all human-nonhuman assemblages–and presents a fascinating subject of, and for, design ethnography.

I highly recommend checking out the project for yourself, but what I wanted to highlight to the students, and draw attention to again now, is the use of visuals to re/present research.

For example, I love this updated version of a traditional ethnographic kinship chart:

Tongdaeng's Kinship Chart

And this collage does a good job of showing what a story of A Story can look like:

The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng

I particularly like the balance of written academic analysis and visual materials, and the design’s pop culture aesthetics are consistent with the cultural research, so I think it all comes together quite nicely. As Reddy and Lowe note: “Despite being spoken for by an excess of words and actors, there persists around Tongdaeng a critical silence,” and I think their project offers interesting visual possibilities for both engaging with, and responding to, this silence.