Discursive Design

From Design Thinking, Design Theory

Discursive Design

Critical, Speculative, and Alternative Things

By Bruce M. Tharp and Stephanie M. Tharp

Exploring how design can be used for good—prompting self-reflection, igniting the imagination, and affecting positive social change.





Exploring how design can be used for good—prompting self-reflection, igniting the imagination, and affecting positive social change.

Good design provides solutions to problems. It improves our buildings, medical equipment, clothing, and kitchen utensils, among other objects. But what if design could also improve societal problems by prompting positive ideological change? In this book, Bruce and Stephanie Tharp survey recent critical design practices and propose a new, more inclusive field of socially minded practice: discursive design. While many consider good design to be unobtrusive, intuitive, invisible, and undemanding intellectually, discursive design instead targets the intellect, prompting self-reflection and igniting the imagination. Discursive design (derived from “discourse”) expands the boundaries of how we can use design—how objects are, in effect, good(s) for thinking.

Discursive Design invites us to see objects in a new light, to understand more than their basic form and utility. Beyond the different foci of critical design, speculative design, design fiction, interrogative design, and adversarial design, Bruce and Stephanie Tharp establish a more comprehensive, unifying vision as well as innovative methods. They not only offer social criticism but also explore how objects can, for example, be used by counselors in therapy sessions, by town councils to facilitate a pre-vote discussions, by activists seeking engagement, and by institutions and industry to better understand the values, beliefs, and attitudes of those whom they serve. Discursive design sparks new ways of thinking, and it is only through new thinking that our sociocultural futures can change.


$39.95 T ISBN: 9780262038980 640 pp. | 6.9375 in x 9.8125 in 311 color illus.


  • A marvelously fascinating text.



  • "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!"

    Ellen Lupton

    author of The Senses: Design Beyond Vision

  • "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. They do this with a critical lens that questions the impact and limitations of a discursive and critical practice. This book should be key reading for anyone working to understand the boundaries of orthodox design practice.”

    Matt Malpass

    Programme Coordinator Product Ceramic and Industrial Design, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London; author of Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practices

  • “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."

    Alice Rawsthorn

    author of Design as an Attitude