Jarrett Fuller

April 2022

The Auto-Ethnographic Turn in Design (Book Review)

This was originally published in the academic journal Design and Culture in April 2022.

Over the last two decades, the design field has splintered into dozens of subfields so that the term “design” is now frequently modified by adjectives like speculative and critical, discursive and pretense, or used to modify nouns like research and fictions. The new book, The Auto-Ethnographic Turn in Design, a collection of new essays, interviews, and projects, edited by Louise Schouwenberg, the former head of Contextual Design at Design Academy Eindhoven, and Michael Kaethler, a post-doctoral researcher in the architecture department at KU Leuven, adds yet another new adjective to design while also giving designers a new framework and theoretical scaffolding for the kinds of alternative design practices that operate outside the traditional commercial context.

Auto-ethnographic design (the editors and contributors use both the phrase “auto-ethonographic turn in design” and the term “auto-ethnographic design” interchangeably throughout the book), as Schouwenberg and Kaethler define it, builds upon theories of “relational, speculative, critical, and social design,” but differs in that is resists “the pragmatic knee-jerk response to focus the act of designing on externalities—be it a design brief, a market niche, or a social or political issue”. It introduces a new area of study that situates the designer not outside of the project but firmly in the middle of it. Auto-ethnography, here, asks the researcher or designer to interrogate themself and their position in the world first, which Schouwengerg and Kaethler contrast to historical processes in both ethnography and design that first look outward. “This approach closely tethers research with creative personal expression,” they continue, “forging deeply intimate objects that research and communicate personal sentiments, traumas, fears, obsessions, hopes, fascinations, passions, and more.” Compare this with, for example, the process of discursive design as articulated by Bruce and Stephanie Tharp; it also builds upon speculative and critical design frameworks but treats the design objects as anthropological studies meant to generate discussion for a particular audience. In this mode, the designer’s own worldview or ideology becomes secondary. Likewise, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby speak of speculative design as a type of futurist foresight that can “open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems” again positioning the design process as a tool to solve external problems for an imagined other. Auto-ethnographic design foregoes wicked problems in favor of “understanding individuals or groups on a personal level,” prioritizing the designer’s own intuition as a creative force within the designing process. In other words, the auto-ethnographic turn unites design as both an expressive act and a type of research process. Much like other alternative design practices, Schouwengerg and Kaethler position auto-ethnographic design as a practice that blends formal experimentation, critical dialogue, and the social sciences to create a critical lens through which to explore the increasingly complex world. The effect is to challenge “some of the fundamentals of certain design practices and questions how we evaluate and assess design projects” .

Read the rest of the review in Design and Culture.