Deconstructing the world of culture to solve design problems
Dominika moved to the UK from Poland at the age of 19. She studied Drama and English Literature at the University of Manchester followed by an MA in translation studies. Her interest in Semiotics led her to her current role as a freelance Narrative Strategist, for the Bright Harbour research agency among others. She also founded the Meaningful map project to map out Glasgow based on the stories and memories of its residents.
To Dominika, UX has become elevated over the past few years where it's now commonly accepted as part of a design process for new products and services. It's time to take a step back and consider something beyond an object's usability.
Signs and doors
For example, Don Norman's famous example of the Norman door in the 1990s has arguably led us to the point where doors only have to fulfill their function of opening in a predictable way, having a handle on the correct side and displaying the right sign. To semioticians, a door is a sign in itself: a portal which tells you what's inside a building as well as part of a system of designs within a culture. Dominika's practice tends towards not taking culture for granted - everything is a sign which can be interpreted and used as part of a design process. Culture is all around us and we make decisions based on what we take things to mean.
As an outsider living in England at a young age she couldn't take culture for granted, unlike her peers. The English practice of 'smalltalk' is hard to pick up as it follows cultural rules and conventions. Native speakers who have spent their lives in England will take things for granted: when to mention difficult subjects, for example. Instead of discussiing class directly, people who have just met might discuss house prices in an area or where they went to University, for example.
How are you finding the transition to working from home?
I have been working remotely for most of my career since the majority of my clients have been London based. Insights industry does not really exist in Scotland. That’s why there wasn't much transition to speak of. Although sharing a one bedroom flat with my partner (who used to work in the community as a music therapist) meant that we had to get creative with dividing the space. There's no office so we tend to swap rooms - sometimes I work at the kitchen table and sometimes on a small desk in the living room. I have been guilty of taking Zoom calls from bed as well though! (it's 100% because the colour of the wall is nice in the bedroom, yuup).
Persuade us to hire a Semiotician. Go!
Semiotics as both a lens and a methodology has been used by some of the largest brands out there but for some reason it hasn't trickled down to design or social research yet. I would like to change that.
"I'm an expert in tracking (usually) subtle changes in culture, society and ideology, which got accelerated during the pandemic."
However, none of the trends that we're seeing now came from a vacuum - they were all already happening on the peripheries of culture. People didn't have to be caught off guard by them. Things like mask wearing, mindfulness, remote working, online deliveries were all already here. What’s different is how they are manifested in the changed context of our lives. So understanding the trajectory of change through the past, present and potential future is one reason to hire a semiotician.
It doesn't end there though. Another reason is to do with context and how it impacts out design choices and interpretation. Anyone who's dealing with communication, whether in relation to products or services, should be interested in semiotics as well. Semiotics can tell us how we habitually communicate certain concepts (premium, honesty, naturalness etc.) so that people understand them the way we intended them to or to innovate towards their more emergent representation.
"People are meaning makers first and foremost - we create and interpret it on daily basis, often unconsciously."
Semiotics simply allows us to make those processes explicit. It can also help us to move away from the stereotypical positioning based on binary thinking and open up new creative possibilities. What we consider as a product of genius in design can actually be taught, once we move away from a purely intuitive design to a more critical one.
Anyone can use a semiotic lens, they just have to start observing the products of culture more critically and see how their meanings evolve over time and space. It's also a missing link between what people are saying and why they might be saying it - what's the context? Asking people for their needs is often not enough. Understanding where those needs might be coming from and how they relate to the society as a whole can really help us start addressing the root causes rather than pushing short term solutions to perceived problems, which might have unintended consequences.
Talk us through your workflow / process ...
The usual process is that rather than talking directly to people (as most qualitative researchers would be), I examine the products of culture. It can be absolutely anything - films, Tweets, images, architecture, blog posts, TikTok videos, magazines and even transcripts from interviews. They always tell a story, which can reveal something about the people that created them. It is possible to read images and objects as if they were written texts, we simply aren’t taught how to do it at school.
Why did they choose to use a certain colour or a certain turn of phrase? What wider trends or ideas do they relate to? I never treat them in a vacuum but rather relate them to a bigger picture - in other words, context is key. There is a famous quote by Derrida which is often misunderstood - 'there is nothing outside the text'. What it means is that everything is a text that we read and interpret on a daily basis and the context of other texts informs those interpretation. It may seem confusing but the idea is actually really simple - value is always interconnected.
The signs are collated into codes, which simply put are the ways in which we habitually communicate ideas. E.g. the code of nature is often communicated through the use of signs like green colour, grass and livestock imagery, the sound of birds ... But that can also change as culture evolves. When we gather enough of those stimuli a wider narration of society starts to emerge. It's possible to trace the progression of ideas and assumptions that we often take for granted but which may differ across cultures and time. It gives us a map of the category that we're trying to work with - whether that's technology, health, transportation, hospitality ...
I like to say that rather than thinking outside of the box, I carefully examine the box itself, to first understand its assumptions, limitations and expectations before getting creative and borrowing from other boxes lying around. You can see that in the latest health start-ups. Many of them are adapting the visual language of the Silicon Valley to move away from the traditional clinical associations towards a more sleek and technologically focused reality, fuelled by the idea of mindfulness: e.g. Humanity - [A project, currently at the Alpha phase which tries to help its customers slow their ageing, help their immunity and in turn, help all humanity].
In market research, this method is often combined with more traditional consumer/user interviews as it can offer great visual and conceptual stimuli for a more focused and deep discussion that goes beyond extracting opinions and needs.
What's your best piece of advice for someone entering the design / research field?
Talk to people that came before you. Don't try to reinvent the wheel - there will always be someone that thought about what you're thinking and will be happy to share their insight, and maybe even mentor you. Don't limit those conversations to your 'discipline' or niche. One problem with both research and design now is that we have loads of bubbles of expertise where people attend separate conferences and go to separate events rather than pull the knowledge from diverse sources together to develop their methods and thinking in tandem. Networking does not need to be cynical and if you're too introverted to feel comfortable during meet ups, ask people for a one-on-one coffee. Be interested. E.g. the Bright Harbour collective I'm part of has just announced free mentoring chats.
What inspires you?
Reading thoughts of others and having discussions about a wide range of topics. Being Polish I had many heated debates with my friends when in my teens. It's just what we do; there's a cultural assumption that it's rarely personal and people don’t always get offended if you contradict them. Obviously I had to modify that approach after moving to the UK! Also going outside of my specialism and learning about new methods, ways of thinking and perspectives. I'm always amazed with how much is out there and how much more I can discover - it really feels that I might never be done developing myself as a professional.
Equally, it can be quite overwhelming sometimes, especially since most people usually try to project the best version of themselves; a cultural construct of the working self. It's easy to start comparing yourself to others. Thankfully, the more emergent paradigm of work finally sees people admitting their weaknesses without fear of being ostracised, which is healthier to everyone involved I think. Last but not least, learning about cultural norms that are unfamiliar to me. It always reminds me that what we consider to be common sense and natural is very rarely so and always worth examining critically. Consider for example that I had to learn how to small talk when I moved here!
Best experience from working in the field?
It might be a massive cliche but honestly every project I do teaches me something new, both about my native culture (Polish) and adapted UK one. It never gets old as you always start by trying to look at the world around with fresh eyes, as if everything was strange and alien. Being an immigrant does help because that's precisely what you experience during the infamous culture shock. My most memorable project though has to be my very first one - helping a foreign toilet paper brand enter the UK market. I looked at a lot of toilet paper commercials and had to consider how the ideas of absorbency, cleanliness, softness are communicated. Obviously this had to include conversations (or lack of thereof) around stool health and healthy hydration.
If you're cringing right now that's interesting as well - it tells us something about how this topic makes us feel as a culture and what strategies we use to go around those feelings. Why else use cuddly, human-like (but crucially not human) toys on packaging and in ads? Why most British commercials, when addressing the topic directly at all, do so behind the shield of humour and irony, or even better still let kids talk about it instead? Kids are often allowed to express ideas that would be unthinkable for an adult. Etc.
Biggest mistake you've made?
Not moving to London like any sane person would do and instead freelancing straight after university (it was the only way to work remotely in my chosen methodology). Just joking, I don't regret that in the slightest although it did make my life a bit harder without a clear career progression or on the job training. The eventual positives were that I learned how to deal with uncertainty and were able to mix many different approaches in my practice, rather than just working for a branding or cultural research agency for a few years. The only thing I wish I was doing more of is being in touch with the Polish research community; I haven't done much of that since I started my career in the UK. Perhaps this year.
How might your working practice change in the future?
I hope that semiotic lens will be better understood and used more widely in other fields than just marketing and branding. That's my aim for the next few years - to see how far it could stretch and how it could assist diverse teams and applications, adding unique value to their research. There is no reason to why it should (measurably) help brands but not help us imagine better society or services - e.g. Estonia is already known for using it in policy development.