Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Designing for Turkish Users: Analyzing the Industrial Designer–User Relationship in Turkey


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Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings 2009, pp. 238–255.


From the perspective of industrial design, user-centered design denotes more than a methodology to understand users. More importantly, it is a medium to create a relationship between designers and users. While user-centered design has much to offer, user research is not a convention in emerging economies. In this context, this paper puts one such emerging market, Turkey, under scrutiny. Six case studies give a snapshot of the current status of product design in general, and user-centered design in particular, in this country. One of the key findings is that, compared to the West, there is a wider gap between designers and users in the Turkish context. Besides economic situations, the eclectic character of Turkish culture plays the biggest role in the expansion of this gap. The application of Western oriented research methods and concentration on global trends also stand as barriers for user-centeredness. In order to ensure products’ success through research, Turkey needs to develop its own user-centered design model.


For most designers1 and design researchers, user research in general, and ethnography in particular, is a useful methodological strategy to learn from users. “From the beginning, ethnographic studies showed major discrepancies between designers’ intended uses of their products and consumers’ everyday behaviors” (Wasson 2000:378). These discrepancies have emphasized the significance of the designer-user relationship and moved the focus on to the existence of a gap between these two groups (Voss et al. 2008; de Oliveria and Baranauskus 1998; Margolin 1997).

As a methodological strategy, ethnography provides opportunities to minimize this dissonance between new product development teams and the users of their products, by moving researchers, designers and firms closer to users’ contexts through systematic inquiry. This strategy forces designers to get out of their offices and “immerse themselves within the user experience” (McDonagh et al. 2002:233). While ethnography can provide a strong tool for the development of products and services, it has not been fully employed by the wider design community around the world. The situation in developing countries and emerging economies is no exception (Amir 2004; Buchanan 2001).

One of these emerging economies is Turkey. Socio-economic, cultural and educational conditions in Turkey limit user-centered design approaches. Designers are a unique social group mostly located in Istanbul and are quite different from the wider population both socially and culturally. Concentrating on global trends and trying to import Western-centric user research methods without adapting them to the specific needs of this context amplify the distance between the designer and the user.

This paper offers a perspective about user-centered design approaches in Turkey based on my master’s thesis that was finished in 2006 (Oygur 2006). While the issue of analyzing all of the aspects of user-centered design and ethnography in Turkey is too broad for the scope of this paper, industrial designer-user relationship as a component of user-centered design is not. Through the lens of six Turkish products, I endeavor to identify the forces causing a “void” between the designers and the users. While sharing my findings, I will also provide insights about design in general, and user-centered design in particular, in 21st century Turkey.


Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) defines industrial design as “the professional service of creating and developing concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer” (IDSA 2009, emphasis added). Despite this emphasis on users, designers cannot always project how products will actually be used in real life settings, what users need and what their unique experiences with products might be.

Furthermore, designers might not necessarily share the same context with the intended users of the products that they design (Kristensson et al 2002). An average designer does not represent the majority of the society (McDonagh et al. 2002). This situation causes problems for the users who struggle with the functional and emotional aspects of products (Norman 2002). For instance, the history of computers vividly illustrates the struggle of users with the early user interfaces. These early interface designs clearly showed that designers cannot solve complex problems solely with intuitive approaches (Schuler and Namioka 1993). The development of new products and services require in-depth information about users that can only be acquired through systematic research. In this context, methods borrowed from social sciences, with the contribution of design researchers, play a crucial role in bridging the gap between designers and users.

In the traditional design process, the relationship between designers and users is in the form of writer-reader model (de Oliveria and Baranauskus 1998). The information flow is only unidirectional, from designer to user. This unilateral relationship is assumed to be one of the reasons behind the product-usage mismatches (Hasdogan 1996). However, “the exchange of information between the designer and the user” is a possible solution for the problem (de Oliveria and Baranauskus 1998:8). This mutual information exchange requires interaction between two groups. Design researchers coming from various backgrounds have laid the foundation of this interaction (Sanders 2006).

Currently ethnographic research and the activity of design researchers in new product development teams is not the standard for most design processes. Designers try to fulfill this gap with user-centered design approaches and endeavor to work as researchers themselves using informal or ad hoc methods.

This is especially true for emerging economies and developing countries where user-centered design and ethnographic studies are generally luxuries that most firms cannot afford. The lower socio-economic conditions and the limited availability of human resources make it hard for companies and design offices to conduct ethnographic research. On the other hand, an increasing number of global companies such as Intel and Microsoft now employ “user-centered design teams to develop products that better fit users’ requirements in different localities” (Boztepe 2007:514) as successful design in these conditions requires product development teams to “… deeply study experiences people seek within particular cultural contexts” (Kumar 2004:3).


A search for national identity in industrial design has not become a central issue in Turkey until the late 1990s. This delay is due to both a strong modernist heritage of industrial design education imported from the West, which effectively limited design explorations inspired by local cultural values, and the conservative strategies of Turkish companies that just followed of the established design trends and the leading international brands. (Er 2009)

Turkey, as an emerging economy located in-between Europe and Asia, only recently started to realize the value of studying local culture in response to user requirements in the country. Industrial design, which does not have a long history in Turkey, entered into its “take-off phase” in the early 2000s (Er 2009). Istanbul, the biggest city in Turkey with more than 12 million residents, is becoming an international center for creativity where designers assemble (Er 2009). It is the eclecticism and pluralism in Istanbul that is increasingly attracting artists, designers, writers and other creative professionals from all over the country and abroad. Turkey has a long and diverse history. The profound influence of the history is still very much alive. Turkey is “Asian but also European, Islamic but also secular; modern but still traditional” (Er 2009). It has the unique characteristic of being the only secular Muslim country in the world. Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Turkey has modeled itself on the West. These convergences define the Turkish culture and Istanbul is a city that offers a unique blend of these pluralities. Yet, this significant aspect of Turkish culture, its eclecticism and multi-centeredness, has not become an area of study for Turkish design research.

The initiation of industrial design in Turkey, similar to other countries on the periphery, followed a unique path. Industrial design education in Turkey did not originate from the demand of local industries (Er et al. 2003). Instead, it was imported and initiated by the West as a part of “design promotion programs funded and directed by the U.S. Government” (Er et al. 2003:18). This Western model of design education was based on modernist ideologies. It was not adopted to meet the cultural needs of its new context. Instead, the graduates became fierce advocates of modernism. Furthermore, industrial design has been mainly supported by the elite in the country (Er 2009). Export-oriented companies were the early employers of industrial designers (Er 1997). Findings from Anderson and De Paula’s (2006) study also apply to Turkey. “… corporate efforts in design and development have been disproportionally focused on Euro-North American values, which has direct implications for corporate innovation” (Anderson and De Paula 2006:76).

Following the developments of the industry and the industrial design profession, applications of user-centered design approaches and user research have increased since the beginning of 2000’s, but there has been only a limited impact. A small number of user research firms and labs were established. One of these early academic initiatives is the UTEST Product Usability Unit. It was founded in 2001 and has been providing consultancy services for local companies since 2003 (UTEST 2009). Although these developments are promising, the number of user research studies is still quite small.


This research used a case study approach and focused on six products from Turkey (Table 1). There were three main reasons behind the selection of these six products. First of all, each product was exclusively designed by Turkish designers, developed by Turkish engineers and manufactured by Turkish firms. Second, the target of the products was the local market. And finally, all the products in the study were deemed to be successful from the perspective of the Turkish design community. In order to select the best designs on the market in 2006, a catalog (MarketingIST 2005) published by the only national organization of industrial designers in the country called ETMK (Industrial Designers’ Society of Turkey) was consulted. The products in the catalog were selected by ETMK to be displayed at a national fair on the basis of being exemplary products with their design. One product that was not in the catalog but included in the research was the electric tea maker, named Tiryaki, which has achieved large sales figures.

Based on this initial product selection, 14 in-depth open-ended interviews were conducted. Seven of these interviews were with designers of the products, six with manufacturers and one with a user research firm. Following the designer and manufacturer interviews, a total of 90 questionnaires were completed with the users of these products. Snowball sampling was the main sampling strategy for reaching the users. As many questionnaires as possible were completed in users’ actual contexts, namely their homes and workplaces. Therefore, most questionnaires were accompanied by observations and more in-depth conversations.

Case Studies

Among the six products that were analyzed in this research, the last three products have significant connections to Turkish culture. The first three respond to a more universal domain of user needs.

Sunpride bottle – Sunpride is a brand that offers 100% juices in glass bottles. This is a brand that originates in the UK where it is sold in carton packages. In 2000, Sunpride was to be the first 100% juice on the Turkish market. They wanted to present the juice in a glass bottle to make the product more visible to the user. The decision to use a glass bottle was not supported by any type of user research. Akman (interviewed, February 24, 2006) designed the glass bottle for the Turkish version of this juice. She used her expertise as a designer and her intuitive knowledge of Turkish culture to guide the design decisions. While her main concern was the haptic issues, she assumed that these bottles would be used for other purposes after the consumption of the juice. Therefore, the bottle should be multi-functional and aesthetic.

TABLE 1 The overview of the products and the study


14 users surveyed were using the empty bottles for other purposes. From their viewpoint, these glass bottles seemed too valuable to be discarded. Therefore, some users repurposed the bottle to store water and fresh juices (Figure 1). Two of the users were utilizing the smaller sized bottle to store fabric softener on their washing machines located in

their bathrooms. One of these users even placed a plastic cup on the bottle to measure the amount of fastener to pour (Figure 2). Still some other users were using the smaller sized bottles as spice jars or larger bottles as flower vases.

Sunpride costs nearly as twice as the other brands on the market. The product manager of Sunpride defined Sunpride users as loyal customers. From the company’s perspective, these users were willing to pay more to get a healthier product and therefore would not consume concentrated juices. However, all of the users in this study were buying Sunpride only occasionally. They always had concentrated juices readily available. Besides its cost, another reason that made users not purchase Sunpride frequently was its bottle, as it seemed too valuable to be thrown away. Both the material selection and the design of the bottle had positive and negative effects on the product’s success. This case also demonstrates that even universal products may gain cultural significance in the Turkish context.

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FIGURE 1 Sunpride as water bottle FIGURE 1 Sunpride Bottle for Water

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FIGURE 2 Sunpride bottle as fabric softener container FIGURE 2 Sunpride Bottle for Fabric Softener

T-Cash – T-Cash is the name of the cash register that aims to provide a low cost alternative for small-sized businesses. The company did not expect the product to be used by a wider user segment other than the target group. The product design process started with observations and interviews with the target users done by designers. Three things that were learned in the field defined the characteristics of T-Cash. The product needed to be small because of the space limitations of the intended users. The users were sticking notes on the cash register keys in order to memorize the function assigned for them. Therefore, the key covers needed to be removable to let the users write notes and change them as required. The product was developed while Turkey was switching its unit of currency. The designers realized the need for devices with ultraviolet lights to protect against the spread of counterfeit money in the country. Thus, T-Cash have a self-contained ultraviolet light for this purpose. According to Armagan (interviewed, March 2, 2006), this was one of the main differentiators of the product.

As it was foreseen, all the places where this product found were small-sized businesses. Although most places had space limitations, the product was unable to fit in small spaces as it was intended by the design team. The cash register requires a separate money drawer and all the money drawers on the market were bigger than the T-Cash itself (Figures 3 and 4).

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FIGURE 3 T-Cash used in a hardware store

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FIGURE 4 T-Cash used in a tobacco shop

The counterfeit detector of T-Cash did not attract users as much as it was expected. Users were still utilizing a separate device for this purpose (Figure 5). According to the users, the intensity of the ultraviolet LEDs were not enough. Besides, because of the location of these LEDs, it was not really possible to fully utilize this function. The surveyed users also were not using the replaceable key note function. This might be due to the fact that the places I found this product were not offering a wide variety of products for sale.


FIGURE 5 T-Cash still used together with separate ultraviolet devices

Despite the designer’s efforts to use research in the design process, this product could not fulfill all user expectations. T-Cash has been used by a wide variety of users and businesses each with custom needs. The counterfeit detection feature has become confusing for some users, while it has not been efficient for others. It was generally the owner of the business who made the buying decision of the cash register. However, these owners were not necessarily the users of the product but the employees were. While T-Cash was able to define a design problem based on research, the user feedback point out the need for improvements.

Zen – Zen, the washbasin, was designed to fill a gap in the local niche market by introducing a “designer washbasin.” There were very limited number of “designer washbasins” available from local manufacturers.

Zen was one of the design alternatives proposed by Yalman (interviewed, March 8, 2006). Besides relying on his own experiences, Yalman conducted a limited number of questionnaires prior to the development of product ideas. Evident from its name, the inspiration behind the washbasin was Zen Buddhism and Japanese temples. The designer modeled the washbasin to be used by people who appreciate water and find the sound of water to be calming.

When introduced to the market, Zen exceeded its sales forecast. However, it also became evident that there were some issues that failed to be anticipated. The places where the washbasin was found were quiet contrary to the designer’s vision. For instance, one of the places where Zen was used is a nightclub where arabesque music was played. Further, the restrictions of the design became evident when it was installed with countertop taps. Originally, the designer developed the product to be used with taps mounted on walls. When coupled with countertop taps, it became hard to turn the tap on (Figure 6). There was not enough space between the mouth of the tap and the washbasin and it was hard to wash hands. Besides, this space limitation was causing the counter to get wet frequently because of the splashing water beyond the basin.

The contradiction between the designer’s vision of the product and its actual usage illustrates designers’ tendency to concentrate on global design trends. Issues related to usability of products can even not be properly addressed in order to create object forms in Western standards.


FIGURE 6 Zen with countertop tap

Tiryaki – Tiryaki is an electric tea maker. First product of this category was developed without the application of any user research. Based on their brainstorming sessions, the company identified a gap in the market and decided to develop an electric tea maker which imitates the ritualistic tea brewing process. Without occupying any space on the stove, hot tea would be readily available all the time. The product was intended for home use.


FIGURE 7 Tiryaki from a house

The stainless steel version of Tiryaki was developed in order to provide more material alternatives to users. Altun (interviewed, March 6, 2006), who designed the product while working for the Arcelik design team, tried to find an appropriate form for this model of Tiryaki without conducting any user studies. This model was intended for people who believe steel as a material is healthier than plastic, and for the people who can afford to pay more for this difference.

Users contacted stated that they specifically looked for brewing-with-steam feature while making their buying decision. These people do not prefer instant tea. Instead, for them, tea should have been prepared in a two piece teapot in order to avoid direct connection between the heat source and the tea leaves. Most of the users in the study mentioned that they had selected this material alternative of the product as steel fits better with their kitchen appliances. One other reason is that stainless steel is also the most common material of the regular teapot. Also, stainless steel does not damage easily. Tiryaki was readily available on the kitchen counters of all the users (Figure 7). Additionally, five of the products were used in offices.

Tiryaki was and still is a success story in Turkey. Ongoing introductions of new material alternatives to the market are also an evidence of this. Tiryaki was even called as the “engine” of the manufacturer’s profit. Based on users’ feedback, its biggest quality lies in how it develops a product while still honoring tradition. Although there was no formal user research employed in the development of Tiryaki, the product development team heavily depended on their experiences as tea drinkers.

Telve – This product is a Turkish coffee maker. Besides in-house teams, a freelance user research firm participated in the process and conducted multiple focus group studies, interviews with Turkish coffee fans and ethnographic studies at homes, cafes and restaurants.

Telve was designed for small and medium-sized businesses. When the firm decided to develop a Turkish coffee machine, they first started with user research. Early ethnographic and focus group studies revealed that Turkish coffee drinkers were not happy with the taste of Turkish coffee prepared by machines that function similar to espresso coffee machines. These users do not prefer drinking coffee in public places because of its taste. The tradition is to brew Turkish coffee in a special pot on a stove. The mixture of water and ground coffee should be heated from the bottom in order to give Turkish coffee its unique taste. When researchers and the designer realized this, they aimed at developing a new system that imitates this traditional process.

Despite the fact that Telve is sold for around $250, when it was first introduced, it was a big hit in the market (Figure 8). Although not intended, the product immediately appeared in homes as well (Figure 9). The users have been happy with the taste of the Turkish coffee made by Telve, not recognizing any taste difference between Telve and regular Turkish coffee prepared on stove. After a few years, the company also introduced a two cup version of Telve.

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FIGURE 8 Telve used in a coffee shop

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FIGURE 9 Telve used in a house

The user-research firm that took part in the development of Telve stated that they had experienced problems because of the difficulty of applying the Western oriented research methods in Turkish context. Firms in the arena of user research have imported these methods without any adaptation. However in Turkey, there are wider socio-economic, cultural and educational differences among people that even share the same occupation. This brings an unpredictable diversity among Turkish people. According to the research firm representative, applying the Western research methods does not yield to meaningful analysis in Turkey. Besides, the user research services are very expensive in Turkey compared to Europe and US. Thus, manufacturers paying for this expensive service have been disappointed with the research findings.

The design and development phase of Telve illustrates how these problems were overcome with close collaboration and the balance between intuition and research. There were points in the process when the input of the users was highly valued and there were even times when those were disregarded. Researchers also took the responsibility of deciding what to value.

Yeni Raki – The traditional alcoholic drink of Turkey is called raki which is made from anise. Yeni Raki is the oldest raki brand on the market. When the company changed ownership, the new owners decided to renew the image of the product based on qualitative and quantitative market research findings. They started with the bottle of the product. After collecting multiple bottle design suggestions from six Turkish designers, the company conducted multiple focus group studies. The design proposed by Guven (interviewed, March 9, 2006) and Ahiska (interviewed, March 14, 2006) got the best feedback and was produced.

Designers of the product intended to reach men with their design. Although women drink it too, raki is believed to be a masculine drink. Therefore, the new bottle should not be feminine. People drink raki with food and they generally spend hours on the table. The bottle sits on the table in these hours as well. As a result, the bottle becomes a part of the raki drinking ritual. On the other hand, there had been classic bottle design associated with raki. Designers wanted to come up with a product that could be associated with raki from then on. Based on their personal experiences and interviews with friends, they designed a bottle that they believed combines the simplicity of the West with the orientalism of the East. This form would also remind users of the long history of raki. Besides, the curved body was for increasing the haptic stimulus.

While designers might be successful in terms of their haptic goal, the message users read from this bottle was very different from what designers intended. Half of the users connected the bottle to a woman figure. They felt like holding the woman’s waist while handling the bottle. While there were some users that found the new bottle design feminine, overall, people were happy with the new design as they did not care about the bottle as much as the drink inside it.

The message that the users and the designers got from the bottle’s form illustrate the differences between these two groups’ visual perceptions. While this difference might not be necessary for this product, it might have created product-usage mismatches in more technology oriented products. One reason that was highlighted by the designers for this differentiation in perception was their education and visual training. Through exposure to design and art history, designers become more visually trained. While this creates advantage for most designers, it was also stated that designers see themselves as the ultimate arbiter of the object forms.


Based on the findings of the study, it can be argued that even in the presence of user research or user-centered design approaches, there still exists a difference between designers’ intentions and users’ perceptions. While there are multiple dimensions behind this discrepancy, according to the case studies, heterogeneity in the Turkish culture is one of the biggest reasons.

‘Culture’ itself, with its heterogeneous structure, stands as the biggest barrier for the dissemination of user-centered design applications and user research in Turkey. Because of being both Asian and European, Islamic and secular; modern and traditional (Er 2009), multiple identities become equally dominant in Turkey. Estimating the socio-economic, cultural or educational conditions of people based on their professions is very difficult if not impossible. For instance, while one can estimate how a professor lives in Europe, this cannot be applied to Turkey. Depending on where the professor works (the east or west side of Turkey, in private or public sector), there can be huge differences between the professors.

Because of the plurality of the culture, designers do not believe in the benefit of user research in a Turkish context. While all of the designers in this study believe in the benefit of researching users, for most of them, researching Turkish users is not the same thing. From designers’ point of view, either there are not many developments in Turkey or they cannot end up with good design solutions based on Turkish users. For instance, one of the designers believes that designers should impose their personal aesthetic preference on users. If they are to follow Turkish users’ taste, they would have oriental forms rather than Scandinavian ones. Two of the designers also stated that they would have gotten more confused if they have conducted research on Turkish users as, in Turkish context, there is too much variety in terms user groups which is impossible to deal with.

Since the designers I interviewed do not believe in the benefits of researching Turkish users, they further separate themselves from the user. This situation creates a wide gap in-between two groups. The demographic characteristics of designers make the gap even wider. While all of the designers and the companies participated in the study were based in Istanbul, the users were from nine different cities around Turkey. All the designers were university graduates. However, there were some users who never went to school. As a result, designers do not necessarily share the same context with the users of their products.

For designers, the priority is creating products that follow the Western oriented design trends. For firms, the profit is the biggest concern. They try to compete with low prices in the market and in order to accomplish this goal, they apply budget cuts to design and design research. However, for users, the most significant issue of a product is related to the culture. For instance, the Tiryaki as a tea maker that simulates the tea making ritual in Turkey has achieved great success. On the other hand, as in the case of Zen washbasin, the designer-user disconnection causes frustration for the users.


FIGURE 10 An example from the interpretation of culture by designers. ‘Feza’ wall tile from Kalebodur (Orientile 2009).

Design education plays a critical role in the attitude of designers towards Turkish users. The design education initiated by West (Er et al. 2003) is still the most dominant determinant of contemporary design education in the country. In this sense, industrial design departments aim at educating qualified designers in the Western sense. The European, Scandinavian and American designers serve as idols. Designers try to follow international journals, Western design trends and participate in international fairs. As discussed by Er (2009), designers coming from this background have long struggled to create a Turkish design identity based on Turkish culture. Since the beginning of 2000s, Turkish designers started analyzing culture with their products. But the term “culture” in this environment does not include the user culture. These applications are mainly limited to superficial application of historical motives and patterns to modern products such as the one on Figure 10.

In Turkey, a market for designers is still in the development phase (Er 2009). Firms and designers are still learning how to collaborate. This causes tension for the designer who graduates without really realizing the professional conditions in the country. Besides few examples2, design education in Turkey has not yet been fully adapted to the contextual needs.

The user research methods introduced into Turkey resembles the initiation of design education in the country. Similar import of design education to the country, user research methods have also been imported without any contextual adaptation. Both the designers and firms identify the unique sides of Turkish users which make user research more complicated in this context. Furthermore, the economic limitations and availability of human resources also create further restrictions. In this environment, rather than trying to adopt Western research methods, Turkey might need to design its user research and user-centered design model to better serve the Turkish community.


Contemporary ethnographic praxis and literature generally emanates from the West, as does research about emerging economies and developing countries. In this context, ethnographic research and user-centered design as practiced in these locales has not been adequately studied. This paper offers insights on the state of user-centered design in Turkey, an emerging economy, with a focus on industrial designer-user relationships.

As the six products in the study exemplify, some products achieve success in the local market by aligning with specific cultural needs. While these products are deemed to be successful by their producers and designers, we cannot be sure if their market success is a coincidence or not. Most of these cases involve neither in-depth research on users, nor include user-centered design approaches. The greatest challenge that faces Turkish manufacturers and designers is consistently creating successful products. A thorough analysis of the current state of the design research and user-centered design in Turkey is a crucial first step for overcoming the barriers.


I would like to acknowledge H. Alpay Er, Chair of Department of Industrial Product Design at Istanbul Technical University, for his ongoing mentorship and support that began with my master’s education. Also, my doctoral education and the writing of this paper would not have been possible without the support and input of Nancy Blossom, Director of the Interdisciplinary Design Institute, Washington State University Spokane. I also would like to thank Simon Roberts and all anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.

Isil Oygur is a Doctor of Design student and a graduate assistant at Interdisciplinary Design Institute, Washington State University Spokane. She holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from Middle East Technical University, Department of Industrial Design and a M.Sc. degree from Istanbul Technical University, Department of Industrial Product Design.

1 In this paper the word ‘designer’ is used to refer to ‘industrial designer’ unless stated otherwise.

2 Since 2003, Istanbul Technical University, Industrial Product Design Department has collaborated with Small and Medium Size Enterprises (SMSE). Students have been required to collaborate with a SMSE for a semester long graduation project.


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