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Talkin’ About Design


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“Discursive design is the type of work that is generally less visible in the marketplace (although it can exist there) but rather is most often seen in exhibitions, print, web, and film, as well as in certain research activities. Importantly, these are objects of utility that carry ideas; they function (or are imagined to function) in the world, but their discursive voice is what is most important and ultimately their reason for being,” write Stephanie Tharp and Bruce Tharp, both of the Materious design studio (shop.materious.com/pages/about-us), in Discursive Design: Critical, Speculative, and Alternative Things (The MIT Press; mitpress.mit.edu).

The most telling points in those two sentences are the parenthetical asides. It is about potential, not just what is, but what could be, and how what could be might be otherwise.

Think about it. Talk about it. And then something else other than that which has been created may be realized.

The authors segment design into four categories: Commercial; Responsible; Experimental; Discursive.

The first category is, of course, what is probably most of what you see right now in your office or out the window in the parking lot or wherever you may be. People have designed something because it is part of commerce.

For responsible design, the Tharps write, “The designer works to provide a useful, usable, and desirable product to those who are largely ignored by the market and/or other sociocultural structures.” This is designing for good rather than gold.

Experimental design is about exploration and learning.

And then there’s discursive design, the subject of this massive, 632-page tome that is chock full of images and case studies, comprehensive explorations into the practice.

They define the practice of discursive design, in part, as “The creation of utilitarian artifacts whose primary purpose is communicative.” There is a thing created and it leads to an exploration of what it is, not simply in and of itself, but as something that exists in a wider environment.

In some sense, the notion of discursive design brings to mind an element of the lateral thinking method developed by Edward de Bono in which the word (coined by de Bono) po is used as a stipulation that something is going to be a provocation so that one’s thinking isn’t limited entirely by what is the norm.

While Discursive Design is a difficult book should you work to go from the front to back, it is a marvelously fascinating text should you play through the pages.—GSV

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