POST A: Designing for local contexts through primary research

As designers, we do not only carry the responsibility to design for functional and aesthetic purposes, we also bear the weight of developing solutions that respect the contexts we are designing for. To do so, we must realise that “We individually and collectively make the city through our daily actions and our political, intellectual and economic engagements. But, in return, the city makes us” (Harvey 2003) and thus it is our duty to immerse ourselves into the culture and its traditions to gain a holistic understanding. ‘The city’ in this case, refers to Banjarmasin, Indonesia, the capital of South Kalimantan and otherwise known as the ‘River City’ or ‘City of a Thousand Rivers’.

When placing Indonesia’s social and political contexts under a microscope, it is revealed that each island has a unique identity that has “an aura of beauty, sensuality, chaos and violence” (McDonald 2014) as it is an archipelago. Through observing Banjarmasin and the way local inhabitants moved amongst its urban spaces, it became apparent that designing successfully for different contexts requires “cultural competence and awareness” and “[breaking] free of culturally bound positions” (Piper 2008). This can be achieved by conducting primary research through interacting with local inhabitants and exposing oneself to local events and traditions; both of which provide experiences that secondary research cannot.

Through observing the interactions between local market vendors and tourists in Banjarmasin, it was revealed that it is not only the physical urban landscape that shapes a city’s charm, it is the people that inhabit the space. Their determination to take pictures with bule (Piper 2008) highlighted that Banjarmasin was a city untouched by tourism, rather, it was a city that was embedded in its traditions. This ultimately impacts the design process as it must be ensured that the local people and their traditions are respected. As designers originating from a different context, this may prove to be challenging as it may defy our own values and cultures. Hence, it is crucial that we undertake primary research that allows us to immerse ourselves in the culture practically.

Local market vendor at Banjarmasin’s traditional markets (San 2018)
Local traditional markets in Banjarmasin (San 2018)

An example of this is was our visit to the local floating markets, an iconic part of Banjarmasin’s identity. In interacting with the women in the boats selling locally grown produce, the status of women in Banjarmasin was observed and realised. While the typical ideology of ‘the good wife and mother’ (Robinson & Bessell 2002, p.69) continues to exist in Banjarmasin, witnessing women operating the floating markets is a testament to the changing roles of women in Indonesia overall. Such realisations are detrimental to designing for the local people and could not have been realised without engaging in local traditions.

Pasar Terapung – Banjarmasin’s floating markets (San 2018)
Women of Pasar Terapung (San 2018)

There is no ‘correct’ answer for what design means for local contexts however it is apparent that they are shaped by the people who inhabit the space we are designing for. Ultimately, the role of a designer is not limited to developing a solution to a problem, instead it requires understanding the context they are designing for through interaction with local inhabitants and participation in local traditions. This fills the void that is left behind by secondary research and ensures that what is produced satisfies the people utilising the local space.


Harvey, D. 2003, ‘The Right to the City’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 27, no. 4, pp.939-941.

McDonald, H. 2014, Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century, Black Inc, Collingwood, Victoria.

Piper, S. 2008, gang re:Publik Indonesia-australia creative adventures, Gang Festival Inc. Newtown.

Robinson, K. & Bessell, S. 2002, Women in Indonesia: Gender, Equity and Development, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, viewed 31 January, <>

San, W. 2018, Local market vendor at Banjarmasin’s traditional markets.

San, W. 2018, Local traditional markets in Banjarmasin.

San, W. 2018, Pasar Terapung – Banjarmasin’s floating markets.

San, W. 2018, Women of Pasar Terapung.

One thought on “POST A: Designing for local contexts through primary research

  1. A valuable reminder of the responsibility we carry as designers. Thorough research, from a mix of primary and secondary resources, is essential to design in any capacity. It enriches the final product and ensures its value to those interacting with your work.

    Definitely also emphasises the uniqueness of the opportunity we had to implement these practices in a country like Indonesia.

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