Post 5: An international perspective

by Erland Howden

Following the earlier tasks, largely concerned with finding and analysing the perspectives of journalists and experts on the issue of asylum seekers and refugees, I was excited to undertake the peer semi-structured interview exercise to dive into this “design ethnography” methodology and find out what people who had no specific interest in the issue thought about different aspects of it.

I have to admit first, I drafted the questions for my peer interview in discussion with my research group but without a lot of thought for the individual I might be interviewing. However, the semi-structured nature of the process allowed me to take it in an interesting direction.


My initial questions, referencing the news media research and analysis of authors and perspectives, as well as trying to draw on the unique perspective of a peer, were as follows:

  1. Do you have a general personal view about asylum seekers and refugees?
  2. Do you feel like some media outlets have a particular bias on this issue? If so, in what way?
  3. Do you think there’s a need for policy change in Australia on asylum seekers and refugees?
  4. How would you characterise the issue of refugees globally today?
  5. What responsibilities do you think Australia has as a country toward people seeking asylum?
  6. Do you think there is a common view of this issue among your friends and peers?
  7. What aspects of this issue do you think would benefit from design interventions? Can you think of an example?


Some of the key insights from this ethnographic research were as follows:

  • Perception and information is seen as a key issue – that there is (negative) misinformation about asylum seekers, that to make a change or design intervention in this area, people’s perception of the problem and the people involved needs to change.
  • (Lack of) proximity to the issue (physically and emotionally) is an impediment to engaging with it – and peers of the interviewee are seen as not engaged or interested.
  • Broadly, “refugees” as an issue is seen within the frames of disaster and humanitarian crisis response.
  • The language used in the media consistently reinforces the ‘othering’ of migrants – that they are different to ‘us’ and by implication won’t ‘fit in’
  • In terms of helping refugees, leaving aside the punitive issues related to mandatory detention, Australia should be providing more practical assistance – healthcare, long-term support and employment opportunities.
  • Despite the thesis that the key problem is awareness/perception/attitude of host-country residents, design interventions should focus on outcomes for asylum seekers and refugees themselves – ie. making them feel more visibly welcome.
  • That Australia is actually seen as dealing with this issue better than another country – in this case, the interviewee’s home country, Korea which was described as more racist and less caring (or perhaps less people that care) about the plight of refugees.

What I found most interesting about the interview process and the places it went, is that I hadn’t properly considered the prospect of interviewing someone who didn’t have some political stake in Australia. Of course, to an international student who didn’t necessarily plan to stay in Australia after their study, the response of their own country is of more interest than Australia’s. Diving into attitudes to refugees and migrants in South Korea was an unexpected tangent that brought insights into Australia’s situation by comparison – that even if our treatment of asylum seekers in detention centres is some of the worst among refugee intake countries, it may be that attitudes of the general public are actually more sympathetic than some other places. This gives rise to the interesting tension about where to consider applying design interventions that seek to make some change on the issue – whether towards improving attitudes of host-country residents, focusing on the immediate needs of asylum seekers and refugees themselves, or some other intervention that targets government policy and the possible disconnect between it and the views of the public.


The probe exercise that my interviewee conducted for me was to review two refugee support organisations and provide a brief analysis of their functions and the relationship to their visual design.

Design ethnography probe: interviewee's report on refugee support organisations, comparing and contrasting their visual communication styles.
Design ethnography probe: interviewee’s report on refugee support organisations, comparing and contrasting their visual communication styles.

What this revealed, looking at Refugees International and the UNHCR, is a commonality of symbols – particularly the use of hands to indicate help and humanitarianism – and also some typographical alignment, using simple sans-serifs to convey a straight-forward, practical approach.

The choice of these two organisations by my interviewee is itself interesting, as it diverges from most of the core of what we discussed in the interview, having no strong relationship to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers (other than the UNHCR’s criticism of Australia’s regime) or attitudes to migrants in South Korea. Instead, the two profiles are focused on practical assistance by large organisations closer to the source of crisis that drives refugees to leave their home country.


Author: Erland Howden

Graphic designer, photographer & facilitator. 💚 enviro justice, community organising, travel, vego food & wildlife.

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