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

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