Ask a designer if they’ve heard of critical design, design fiction, speculative design, or discursive design and you’ll almost certainly get a “yes.” Ask if they can differentiate between them, and you might as well be asking them to distinguish fiscal strategies among the Republican presidential candidates. (If you were to ask a politician to differentiate between critical design and design fiction you would undoubtedly get a much more elaborate and confident answer than the typical designer—though completely made-up of course).
Even the designers that affiliate themselves with speculative design have difficultly articulating the difference between what they do and, say, design fiction. Having interviewed dozens of such practitioners, most have some idea or a working personal definition of speculative- or fictive-approaches, but they are generally not confident enough to make any firm declarations—they often avoid or are ambivalent about such labeling.
This is really not that surprising for such a relatively young field of practice. But the ambiguity or confusion certainly doesn’t do us any favors. Seasoned Core77 readers might remember a 2009 article on “the four fields of design” where we tried to help make sense of this kind of work by relating it to other types of design based on designers' deepest intentions. Rather than focus on what we design, or how we design, instead the concern is on why we design.
The Teddy Bear Blood Bag Radio by Dunne + Raby explores the implications of technological advances in microbial fuel cells that transform sugar and nutrients from biological material into electricity. As a provocation into possible ethical and cultural consequences of this technology, they designed an FM radio intended to be powered from the blood of a household pet. Because we can, should we? Who gets to decide? Are children more open to the possibilities? How far is too far?
The article is still well worth the read for the big picture as it charts out the fields of commercial-, responsible-, experimental-, and discursive-design. But here we will drill down a bit further into discursive design to set the stage for Core77’s new Discursive Design channel.
Herzian Tales by Anthony Dunne, first published in 1999 from his doctoral dissertation from the Royal Academy of Art
Critical Design, a Brief History
While most designers have heard of critical design, a term coined by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in the
mid-1990s, they probably have not read the book, Hertzian Tales, from whence its definition came. And this is a very particular definition. Along with other aspects, critical design was described as: dealing specifically with electronic objects; being based upon a
more academic notion of critical theory (specifically the Frankfurt School for you well-read designers); and being in opposition to typical “affirmative design” that
populates the marketplace and the domestic product-scape. Over the years, though, the term has been stretched and appropriated to encompass a wide range
of associated work (that transcends all three of these original bounds as well as others).
But before “critical design” the general term “conceptual design” was probably most prevalent while “interrogative design” was used by Krzysztof Wodiczko at least by the early 1990s, and “anti-design” and “radical design” have been used to describe international movements in the 1960s and 70s. And architecture had been using “critical architecture” for at least a decade prior to “critical design”—in fact, "post-critical architecture" had already arrived just as design was starting to get its criticality on. Undoubtedly there were many other versions of, and nomenclature for, this type of work that never made it into the history books. Most recently, speculative design and design fiction have established themselves within the design lexicon.
Krzysztof Wodiczko's Homeless Vehicleprojectfrom the late 1980s. Vehicles were given to New York City homeless people for utilitarian purposes as well as to increase visibility of the problem. All vehicles were eventually removed by the police.
Discursive Design as Thought Catalyst
This natural expansion of product design beyond its historic roots as the handmaiden of industry and commerce has allowed (some) designers to step into a wondrous new frontier—employing their design thinking to promote, and potentially affect, social thought. While "good design" is often professed to be unobtrusive, intuitive, invisible and something that does not make the user think too much, discursive design instead actually targets the intellect. The primary goal is to prompt self-reflection, ignite the imagination, and foment contemplation—to deliberately make the user think (deeply).
This, of course, demands a purposeful shift—the designed object’s primary role is no longer utilitarian, aesthetic or commercial. Instead it is mostly (though certainly not exclusively) a thought catalyst. The product is given form and function so that it can communicate ideas—this is the goal and the measure of success. Rather than tools for living and doing, these are tools for thinking. While different, this design approach is only a shift in orientation, it is not a radical departure. It is still product design, but with somewhat different product affordances.
Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed's Liberator–the world's "first" 3D printed gun (the only non-3D-printed parts are the nail used for the firing pin and a traditional bullet)
Just as the graphic designer can create more readable and effective election ballots, they also can create political posters. Both activities employ the same tools and mediums, but one helps people do, the other helps people think.
Our conception of discursive design work is akin to graphic design’s political posters. To question the legitimacy of product design’s expansion into this arena is tantamount to challenging illustrators who make political cartoons, musicians who write protest songs, filmmakers who create expository documentaries, writers who pen critical op-ed columns, or any other creative practitioner whose efforts are directed toward more socially-engaged ends rather than basic forms of utility and entertainment.
Taxonomy of Discursive Design
With general and sometimes subtle distinctions, there are many brands or titles for such an expanded design approach: critical design, design fiction, speculative design, speculative re-design, interrogative design, design-for-debate, radical design, conceptual design, and dissident design, for example. And there is probably a new one being contemplated or created right now somewhere in the world. But what lies at the root of them all is deliberate use of products to communicate ideas that are ideologically, socially, and/or psychologically charged—and often provocatively so.
Frank Kolkman's Open Surgeryproject explores DIY surgery in an era of technological access, onerous healthcare regulations, and exorbitant costs.
We fully acknowledge and respect both the idiosyncratic and the agreed-upon characteristics of these different approaches. And we fully expect that new and viable shoots and branches will emerge. Because of this, we feel that it is important to understand the field as an increasingly broad range of practice that is comprised of many forms—think "genus" in relation to "species." Discursive design operates at the genus level, below which there are many species, such as critical design, design fiction, speculative design, etc.
We feel that “discursive” represents the core of all of these forms, and operates most effectively as an organizing genus. The word "discursive" comes from “discourse,” which can be understood most basically as the expression or treatment of a topic—part of a discussion or debate. A discursive design is an object that has been intentionally (and usually abstractly) embedded with discourse and/or is used to elicit discussion.
Its ultimate reason for being is not to provide utility, though it definitely does that lest it not be associated with “product.” Instead, the designer conceives of a product that is capable of communicating ideas. But these are not just any ideas, they are those with psychological, sociological, or ideological weight; the topic is substantive enough to support a complex of competing perspectives and values.
Superflux's Open Informant project: a wearable badge with an e-ink display that attempts to confront the unsettling realities of surveillance in a networked age.
It should be emphasized that as a part of the discursive design genus, each
species shares the same general philosophy of an expanded conception of
product design. They all use artifacts to engage the intellect, but each species differs somehow in terms of method, posture, approach or effect.
Introducing the Discursive Design on Core77
For Core77's Discursive Design channel we will be including all such forms. When the designers identify their work with a species-level description (design fiction, speculative design, etc.) we will include that. And often when projects are not identified by the designers, we will often suggest a particular species-level description.
Names and definitions can be crucial for the development of practices and disciplines—they create the necessary common ground for individual understanding and broader discussions. They help disciplines understand themselves as well help when communicating with other fields. Names represent identities. Identities facilitate mutual understanding. And mutual understanding furthers respect, collaboration, and growth.
We believe that it is time for product design to catch up with all of the other creative disciplines—architecture, graphics, fashion, music, writing, performance, etc.—and embrace greater intellectual engagement and move beyond the restrictive boundaries of mere utility, entertainment, and beauty. These traditional contributions are certainly highly important and valued, but we can and should also be fostering cultural development through broader forms of participation. Design has more to offer, and we hope that the Core77 Discursive Design channel will help to encourage more reflective and engaged product design and to foster a strong community of practice.
If you have discursive design work that you think fits the bill, please contact us for possible posting on this channel.
Bruce and Stephanie Tharp lead a husband-and-wife design studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan where they also are professors at the University of Michigan's Stamps School of Art & Design. Their studio has licensed and commissioned products and projects for companies like Ligne Roset, Moet-Hennessy, The Art Institute of Chicago, Crate&Barrel, Kikkerland, and Design Ideas. Educated in mechanical engineering, sociocultural anthropology, and industrial design, their practice and teaching crosses disciplinary boundaries of design, business, engineering, and healthcare, as well as the four fields of design: commercial, responsible, experimental, and discursive design. They are currently finishing a book project on discursive design.