How To Draw Critical Design Insights From A Single Photograph: Lessons From Frog

Jon Freach, design research director at frog, explains why snapping pictures can make all the difference for you and your client.

Henri Cartier Bresson once said, “Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself.”


During the 1970s and 1980s, social scientists at Xerox Parc and other technology corporations paved the way for the use of ethnography in the research and design process. During the 1990s, consumer anthropology started to make its way into mainstream business consulting partly because of the transformative impact of an all-of-a-sudden networked and more complex world. Design research, the popularized practice of understanding what makes people tick in order to design meaningfully for them, is born of these histories. Visual anthropology, the use of photography, film, video, and other media to capture the social and cultural context of people and their native environments, is a subfield that along with photojournalism has provided designers with another powerful method of inquiry.

At frog, we draw upon both of these histories, blending contemporary techniques and tools with our own considered ethics as we tackle wicked problems found in industry, education, health care, and social policy, among others. Every study is different and comes with its own set of challenges: What are the most conducive spaces for collecting meaningful data; what permissions are required to collect and store participant data; how much data is just enough but not too much; can outliers teach a design research team about what is happening in the mainstream; once the study is over, can the data be used for something else?

It’s common for our teams to visit a wide variety of places to understand people and their behaviors: the city and suburb; home and car; bike, bus, and train; classroom, operating room, and washroom. During these interviews, we collect a lot of data, which gets externalized and organized. A typical project room contains scenes like the one above, with team members combing through mountains of data points, observations, and insights. Photographs–of people, places, things, and situations–are an important kind of data we collect. On a recent project, we snapped over 4,000 photographs, a rather normal amount. And from that total, we selected about 150 photos that provided insight or evidence about who and what we were studying. And from that total, we found 10 that really got to the heart of the matter, revealing something new and informing design. But it was, and often is, one photo that sticks. One picture, that Bresson says, “tells a whole story in itself”–to us as the design team, and to our clients who are seeking a deeper understanding of things.

What does this one image provide us?

Empathy: It gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else, and tell that story back to people who don’t really know.

Knowledge: It makes us smarter about the situation we’re designing for. It reveals the nuance inherent in people’s behavior that you can’t uncover from behind a desk.


Context: It helps us see where and how people’s lives unfold.

Meaning: It provides insight into what actually does make someone tick, what inspires them, what motivates and shapes their way of thinking and acting in the world.

But perhaps the biggest thing the picture story does for design is make an impact. It has a way of shifting mindsets–our own, and our clients’–as it gets shared and retold, making its way through the organization and across the design team. The reams of statistics we so often rely on might inform but don’t often inspire. The picture story does. See the slide show above for examples of the ways one picture can tell a story.

About the author

Jon Freach is a Design Research Director at frog.