Fresh: An intro to research photography


Fresh: An introduction to research photography

The results of a seven-week seminar exploring the practice and potential of photography in design research.





August - October 2017


Photographer & researcher
Lead storyteller




User research
Communication design


Adobe Photoshop
Adobe InDesign


What I initially imagined as a skill-building class on in-context photography became one of the most influential courses I’ve taken at the Institute of Design. In the hands of our professor Dan Chichester, photography became a means through which we understood and processed design problems. Through this course, I realized that Dan uses photography as a means to disarm research participants into thoughtful conversations. It’s his Trojan horse to encourage both research participants and clients to open up to the design process.

In his hands, we honed both our photography craft and interview manner to become more thoughtful researchers and project managers. We tackled both questions around the process of photography and how to translate the images into meaning.

As Dan says frequently, research is the prelude to the real value of design and innovation work. It’s a valuable tool in a designer’s kit.



How might we use photography to build context, deeply understand people’s experiences, and illustrate those experiences to key stakeholders?



Key questions

Through the course, we explored the following questions:

How does the role of photography support design research?
In what situations is photography best used?
In what situations are other documentation methods preferred?
How do you prepare yourself for the field?
How do you prepare clients for the field?
How do you quickly create photography-based deliverables to illustrate value to the client?




Preparation for the field / dan’s design philosophy

A summary of some of the brilliant comments made by Dan

Research is the prelude to the real value of design and innovation work.

KISS - Keep it simple, stupid.

Think through your participant’s eyes. Empathy is your #1 skill in research.

You are never the only observer. People will want to figure out their relationship to you during an interview.

Meet your participant where they are. Authenticity cannot be manufactured.

People generally want to tell you things. Be sure you’re in the position where you are ready to receive it.

Don’t risk your humanity in order to get it right. Care more about the person than the process.

Fresh cover.png

fresh: grocery storage habits among millennials

Fresh is a client deliverable focused on individual habits around fruit and vegetable storage. This work comes out of shop-alongs and home visits with three individuals over the course of four weeks. Along with individual profiles, the deliverable sets the context of the research and identifies some themes emerging from the work.

If this were a full-time project, I would have built out our sample size and diversified our interview subjects to get a more comprehensive sampling of user experiences. The purposes of this document, however, are to practice field research and photography and illustrate how to package that work for client use.

Download the PDF here.

Doing the interviews and photography at the same time was extremely difficult! I definitely learned the importance of planning ahead and researching in the field as a team.

Research fieldguide cover.png

Guide to research photography

Along with our “client deliverable,” Dan asked us to package our learnings from the seminar into a guide for others to use. This guide serves as a distillation of my growth over the course and as a deliverable I can share with clients or teammates who may appreciate pointers on research photography. I’ve even used it myself as a refresher when I’m feeling nervous about a particular research project.

Download the PDF here.