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Discursive Design Book cover_edited.png


Critical, Speculative, and Alternative Things

311 color images

618 pages


The MIT Press

As design’s role in society has expanded, various "conceptual" design practices have emerged like critical design, speculative design, design fiction, and adversarial design.


With their unique qualities, these forms of discursive design are all tools for thinking. Rather than utility or aesthetics, their ultimate aim is to inspire reflection upon substantive socio-cultural discourses such as climate change, gun control, genetic engineering, immigration, & animal rights.

Despite growing interest over the past two decades, there is scant literature that helps designers actually create discursive things. Discursive Design, however, is structured around nine distinct facets that inform the production and dissemination of more effective and defensible work.


With its practical emphasis, the book offers frameworks, tools, terms, case studies, and hundreds of images of new and historic projects. And while discursive design has largely been used as a form of social engagement (similar to forms of conceptual art), the book imagines and articulates new applications within research and practice.

Written through the lens of product design, Discursive Design also has direct relevance to theorists, practitioners, and other stakeholders within graphic design, interaction design, service design, architecture, strategic foresight, conceptual art, and any creative field where physical artifacts deliberately embody and engender discourse.


Ultimately Discursive Design is a project of expansion—articulating processes and possibilities for greater collaboration, relevance, and service as design becomes involved in more complex, contested, and crucial domains of individual and social life.

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Ellen Lupton

Writer, Designer, Curator & Critic

Discursive design makes us think, talk, and question. This fascinating book offers designers both a theory and a tool for exploring what and how to communicate.


I love this book!

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Matt Malpass, PhD

Design Professor & Author

Discursive Design offers an important contribution toward understanding modes of design practice that function outside a commercial design paradigm.


Through a compelling synthesis of literature, theory, and annotated design examples, Bruce and Stephanie Tharp introduce and negotiate a range of work conceived and actioned to leverage design's discursive agency. 

This book should be key reading for anyone working to understand the boundaries of orthodox design practice.

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Alice Rawsthorn

Design Critic & Author

At a time when design is becoming increasingly eclectic, expansive, and ambitious, Discursive Design makes a timely and constructive contribution to the debate about its future by charting the opportunities and challenges that designers will face as they engage with ever more complex and urgent social, political, and environmental issues.


Stephanie M. Tharp

Bruce M. Tharp, PhD

Stephanie Tharp is an industrial designer and educator— currently an Associate Professor and an Undergraduate Program Co-Director at the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art & Design. Her recent research surrounds the theory and practice of discursive design. One current project is a collaboration with chronic pain specialists exploring public engagement with medical research and challenging popular stigmas of pain sufferers.   

She received a master's degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design, and a bachelor's of mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. From 2002 until 2014, she was Associate Professor, and Founding Program Chair of Industrial Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Design. She has work experience with Ford Motor Company, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Armstrong Industries, and In addition to running an award-winning design studio with Bruce, she has led interdisciplinary student teams in collaboration with companies such as Motorola, Dell, and Proctor & Gamble.

Believed to be the first industrial designer to receive a PhD in anthropology (University of Chicago), in 1998 Bruce began researching the material culture of Indiana's Old Order Amish,  focusing on the production & consumption of value. He first earned a BS in mechanical engineering from Bucknell University and a master’s degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute. In between his schooling, he served as a US Army nuclear weapons officer (Captain) in Germany.


After  researching the future of work and the workplace for Haworth Inc.'s design research think-tank, the Ideation Group, he began his teaching career. Over the last fifteen years he has been a tenured professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and currently at the University of Michigan’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. His and Stephanie's award-winning design studio has exhibited internationally, licensed designs for local and global companies, and self-produced commercial, experimental, and discursive products.

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  • 1. How do you define discursive design?
    Discursive design is a means through which ideas of psychological, sociological, and ideological import are embodied in, or deliberately engendered through, artifacts. The ideas (discourses) are capable of sustaining a complex of competing perspectives and values with the immediate goal of having audiences to reflect upon them. Rather than discourse about design, or discourse for design, it is understood as a form of discourse through design.
  • 2. How's it different from critical- or speculative-design, and other related types?"
    Discursive design is understood as an umbrella category encompassing similar forms of design. We use a genus–species analogy. What is similar across the many species, like critical design, design fiction, and adversarial design, is the use of designed objects for particular intellectual ends. Discursive design is the genus that encompasses existing forms with their distinct and sometimes shifting definitions; it also allows for new species to emerge as the field matures.
  • 3. Is discursive design relevant for all designers?
    Discursive design allows any designer's skills to be applied somewhat differently—it expands their potential impact in the world. Discursive design comes in many forms and degrees. A commercial project could engender just a subtle discourse while offering traditional utility or aesthetics. And a commercial designer by day could do discursive design as side projects by night. It's not all-or-nothing. And when employed in user research, discursive design can be a form of "provocative prototyping" and provide insight into stakeholders' values and beliefs, which are otherwise more difficult to uncover. Ultimately discursive design is just another tool in the designer's toolbox.
  • 4. Beyond creative expression or "raising questions," what can discursive design do?"
    Discursive design is part of an expanded approach to design. Beyond being a handmaiden to industry, design can contribute in different and deeper ways. Discursive design allows designers to be more socially involved and can be a form of design activism. While other creative fields have long had similar types of critical practice, product/industrial design has not enjoyed the same freedom. But in addition to direct social engagement, discursive design can also operate in other valuable domains. It can be integrated into robust, qualitative user research and development processes, and it can be used in practical settings for immediate outcomes, like spurring reflection and dialog in counseling.
  • 5. Isn’t discursive design really just a form of art?
    This is a typical question regarding discursive design and other forms of critical design practice. While discurisive design can share the same goals as conceptual art—audience reflection—it uses the methods, language, frames, and forms of design. While in some cases it may not matter too much whether someone considers something art or discursive design, it could be quite consequential. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby best address this—if an artifact is understood as design and thus is part of the "everyday," then it is harder to ignore or has a different impact than when something transcends the everyday, as art does.
  • 6. Can conceptual artists benefit from understanding discursive design?
    While different from conceptual art (despite potentially having the same goals) artists can certainly benefit from the tools of discursive design. The field of conceptual art generally has less guiding frameworks and developmental processes for making such work, and we believe artists can apply and adapt those from discursive design to undergird and propel their work.
  • 7. Is discursive design just something that design students do?
    Students have a great opportunity to practice discursive design, especially in educational environments where they are free from traditional constraints and are encouraged to engage with society in deeper ways. Faculty also are in a priviledged position for similar reasons. But independent designers, corporate researchers, and other practitioners can also benefit from discursive design, whether it is done in-house or accomplished through consultants. There is great opportunity for independent work and collaboration in research domains and in 'real-world' practice.
  • 8. How can a company or design consultancy do discursive design?
    There are several ways that companies use discursive design. Most commonly discursive artifacts are employed in user research processes as design probes in order to better understand stakeholder values, beliefs, and attitudes. These insights then inform typical (non-discursive) product and service development. Discursive design can also support branding goals and communicate company values and similar messaging. And discursive products can even be created for the marketplace—whether they are heavily discursive or just have discursive "edges." By providing opportunities for designers to do discursive work, employers can help attract and retain talent.
  • 9. The world is falling apart, shouldn’t designers care about action more than reflection?"
    Yes! (And no.) Yes, designers should acknowledge their responsibility in affecting the world and leverage their capacity for broader socio-cultural change. But we empasize that reflection necessarily precedes deliberate action. Discursive design can drive the intellectual reflection and be the key driver to action in the world. But, immediate action is not always necessary, possible, or effective. Some issues are complex enough and some thinking is entrenched enough, that deep and sustained reflection is necessary. Recalling Gil Scott-Heron's poetic words, "the first revolution is when you change your mind." We believe there is a place for design that focuses on conveying consequential discourses, as well as design that promotes more immediate action as a consequence of deliberate reflection.
  • 10. Do we really need to add another type of design to the lexicon?
    Yes, if it happens to help. No, if it is just re-branding. While perhaps ironic, we feel that a new umbrella term can help deal with the expansion of design activity and corresponding labels. It is a little like going out and getting a new storage container to help better organize a messy garage. We acknowledge the assertion that critical design has different emphases than speculative design and design fiction—they are not the same, despite some similarities. Just as there are many useful and nuanced types of fiction writing or rock music, so too for design. We believe that more precise and meaningful naming can help despite adding complexity.
  • 1. Where can I purchase the book?
    Amazon •MIT Press •Barnes & Noble •IndieBound •Indigo •Powell's •Waterstones
  • 2. Why is the book divided into two parts?
    As educators we realize that visually oriented individuals do not always learn best by reading large swathes of text. This puts us in a bit of a pickle when trying to communicate more complicated ideas necessary to help advance the field of discursive design. Therefore we tried a fairly novel approach where visual learners may want to begin with Part II. Part II is highly visual and uses project examples as the fundamental means of expresssing the ideas. Part I is conventionally text-based with a small selection of images. Each chapter in Part II begins with a review of the corresponding ideas from Part I (along with "go to" page numbers). This is meant to allow visually oriented readers to first engage with real-world practice, and then go to the places in Part I where they can read further. Ultimately we encourage reading both parts—it is more of a matter of where readers begin.
  • 3. Who did the graphic design for the book?
    Before we began writing the book we worked with the graphic design firm, Studio/lab, to help imagine how the book-form and our eventual content might best work together. We are extremely grateful to Marcia Lausen and her team for their keen insight and generosity. Designer Mathew Terdich was part of that original group, and he then took over the project himself when we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a pleasure working with him and we are deeply endebted for his commitment and expertise. He did the art direction, layout, graphics, and cover, along with the assistance of Ashley Nelson who also did the typesetting.
  • 4. Where can I learn more about excerpt, chapter, or book reprint rights and permissions?"
    Please see the MIT Press website for information about classroom use, licensing, and other reprint issues.
  • 5. Will the book be coming out in paperback, or in other languages?"
    The book is not likely to be released as a paperback in the future. Since the book has only recently been released, no publication in other languages has been scheduled yet.
  • 6. If I found an error in the book, whom should I contact?"
    Please use the "Contact Us" button at the top of this page to make the authors aware of the issue. We appreciate assistance with any corrections.
  • 7. If I want to bulk order books for my class or team, whom do I contact?"
    Depending on the quantity, it is likely that you can receive a discount by ordering through the publisher. Click on the "Contact Us" button at the top of this page and we can direct your inquiry.
  • 8. How do I get in contact with Bruce or Stephanie?
    Please use the "Contact Us" button at the top of this webpage.
  • 9. Why was there a version of the book with a different cover with umbrellas on it?
    There is only one version of the book itself, but originally there was a different cover that was used a a placeholder in early marketing promotional material until the actual cover was designed.

© 2020  Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie M. Tharp. All rights reserved.

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