“Can you be paid for being yourself, and have other people be willing to purchase that?”
John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker living in Portland, Oregon.
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Jan Chipchase put this question to me in a recent interview, but I’m pretty sure he already knows the answer. For the past 15 years, Chipchase has held a string of idiosyncratic jobs whose titles—like “executive creative director for global insights” (at Frog Design), “principal scientist” (at Nokia), and “director of international research and design projects” (at his current self-founded strategic consultancy, Studio D Radiodurans)—read like a headhunter’s best-guess attempt to label “Jan Chipchase doing his thing.”
Until now, Chipchase has been content to keep that “thing” vague, as he travels the world observing and interviewing product users in places that corporations find difficult to penetrate via standard market research—such as Afghanistan, Burundi, and Saudi Arabia. “Some people think of me as a design researcher or ethnographer, and I’m fine with those labels,” he tells me, with a wry insouciance. Now Chipchase is throwing open the curtains with The Field Study Handbook, a 500-page doorstop of a book that contains everything he knows about “understand[ing] users across markets, geographies, and cultures.”
But The Field Study Handbook is no ordinary reference manual. Its tagline is “Travel anywhere, make sense of the world, and make a difference.” This seems to tease the book (and Chipchase himself) as a kind of talking cure for the FOMO-fueled ennui that plagues a certain breed of professional: the “creative” who shares Chipchase’s self-described luck at “hav[ing] turned curiosity into a career,” yet not-so-secretly envies the fact that his version seems to prioritize international adventuring over refreshing one’s Twitter feed. The $110 Handbook’s first printing sold out on Kickstarter within a week, driven in part by interest from internet-famous non-field researchers like Jason Kottke, who blogged that he “can’t wait to get [his] copy.” Apparently, many people are very “willing to purchase” Jan Chipchase being himself—and at considerable expense. (Hundreds of backers upgraded to even pricier versions as Kickstarter rewards.) But what are they really purchasing? And why?
Writers and peers have compared Chipchase to Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia, a Navy SEAL, and even a member of the A-Team. (Chipchase also has a side business, SDR Traveller, which sells luggage expressly designed for situations like needing to haul a million dollars in cash through customs without attracting interest from bribe-seeking apparatchiks.) So there’s obvious crossover appeal in any book that promises to unveil the specifics of a career spent providing “discreet…services to multinational clients with a global remit,” as the Studio D website puts it (in terms that Ian Fleming would applaud).
But if you were looking forward to a chapter titled “That Time I Outfoxed Border Agents in Afghanistan on a Secret Mission for Samsung,” spoiler alert: There is none. There are chapters on “The Morning Commute,” “A Budget Comparison,” “Interim Versus Final Deliverables,” and —believe it—“Paperwork.” The closest you’ll come to any A-Team stuff is Chapter 6, Table 06, “Projects and Risks,” which contains a brief reference to the potential for being kidnapped in Brazil (“low,” in case you were wondering). There’s no surprise reveal, no after-credits sequence, no champagne room. The Field Study Handbook just does what it says on the tin.
Chipchase has also partnered with EPIC, a professional conference for commercial ethnographers, to promote the book to its members—which is no surprise, given that much of the content of the book won’t be controversial to the hundreds of professionals already practicing Chipchase’s craft (albeit in places like Omaha rather than Oman). “Our fundamental challenge [as researchers] is that deep insight about people is not what companies are most comfortable with,” says Jennifer Collier Jennings, EPIC’s Director of Communications and Content. “Jan’s book is a how-to manual, but it’s also an act of strategic representation for his work. Arguably, ethnographers are always doing this representation in some way.” Chipchase echoes this sentiment. “The book is not dumbed down,” he says. “That will put a lot of people off. And that's fantastic.”
Except it isn’t putting people off. When I emailed blogger Jason Kottke to ask why he had to have The Field Study Handbook, his reply spoke volumes. “I suspect it doubles as a self-help book of sorts about how to function socially as a human being in the non-American world,” he wrote back (emphasis mine). In other words, post-millennial tension—about rapid-fire cultural shifts, disrupted industries, and connection versus isolation, especially online—isn’t just for Trump voters and recently-minted college graduates. The white-collar creative class is having a collective Xanax moment about it all too, and Chipchase—via his profession, persona, and products, which all evince a kind of worldly-but-plainspoken, human-centered trustworthiness—is tapping into it. That The Field Study Handbook devotes so much ink to the minutiae of a craft that most of its purchasers will never actually practice works only in its favor: It’s emphatically (indeed, exhaustively) bullshit-free.
“People are looking for a meaning in what they do,” Chipchase told me. “In purchasing and committing to the ideas in the book, you’re committing to the idea that there is a more equitable, more inclusive, and empathic way of engaging the world out there. This is a call for remembering what makes us human.”
If you think that sounds too much like actual self-help, Chipchase might be inclined to agree with you: “I’m a little wary of over-evangelizing,” he admits. “On one level it's a geek’s guide to travel. But it won’t automatically make you or your organization better. Travel also makes assholes into bigger assholes.” Ultimately, he cares less about why you buy The Field Study Handbook than about whether you know why you’re buying it—or are at least curious enough to ask. It’s the same question he puts to his clients, his collaborators, and himself in order to cut through what he calls the well-intentioned “distortions” that cause people to bend, moth-like, toward the glow emitted by his peculiar line of work. “You end up with a lot of people who want to travel and learn and be empathic, but they're not really being truthful about their intent,” he says. “Basically ask yourself, why am I doing this? And be honest about the answer.”
OK, I’ll bite (since Chipchase furnished me with a copy in order to write this article): I’m drawn in by the stealth self-help angle, too. The book advertises itself as being for anyone who “has felt missed opportunities: in understanding what is going on. Experiences that didn’t sit right. Conversations that fell short of their potential. Questions left unanswered.” Who hasn’t? (I asked Chipchase if the book might double as a marriage-counseling manual, but he didn’t answer.)
So does The Field Study Handbook actually make good on these vaguely bodhisattva-like inducements, while simultaneously explaining the minutiae of “threshold diagrams” and “OECD Principles of Data Collection?” Ask me again in five years—that should be enough time to put whatever self-help wisdom I managed to extract from Chipchase’s practice into meaningful action. In the here and now, the larger reason I wanted to read it recalls one of Charles Eames’s more famous aphorisms: “Take your pleasure seriously.” Whatever else it may or may not be to you, The Field Study Handbook is 500 pages of its author doing exactly that—and going along for the ride is rewarding on its own terms.