Bruce Tharp & Stephanie Tharp

As an industrial designer, design researcher, and an educator, Bruce is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art & Design. Currently his research surrounds the practice and theory of discursive design, with a book being published on the topic by in the fall of 2018 (MIT Press). After studying mechanical engineering at Bucknell University and graduating from Pratt Institute’s Master of Industrial Design program, Bruce went on to receive a MA and PhD in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. As an anthropologist he spent two years living with the Old Order Amish of Indiana studying their material culture and the production and consumption of value. He brings technical, humanistic, and conceptual perspectives to the creation of designed objects, with an interest in expanded understandings of industrial/product design.

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Dissonance: Leveraging “The Strangely Familiar”

The notion of “the strangely familiar” is common across various forms of discursive design (e.g., critical design, speculative design, design fiction, etc.). Design practitioners and theorists have described it in terms of “lack of fit”, “critical distance,” “selective contradiction,” “resistance,” “incompleteness,” “friction,” “gap,” “cognitive glitches,” “cognitive estrangement,” “dilemma of interpretation,” and most broadly as “ambiguity.” That something is different—not quite normal—is what indicates that the work is not to be read as a fully earnest, typical product or service despite potentially looking that way. It is both recognized and unrecognizable, and as Bruce Sterling mentions, it “plays games with these transitions of the amazing and the boring, the transitions of the believable and the incredible.” Not only does it signal that something different is going on, it plays a crucial role in communicating the project ideas and facilitating audience interaction and reflection. Beyond merely identifying this, however, relatively little has been said about how designers can actually achieve this crucial quality in their work.

The focus of this talk is to unpack “the strangely familiar” to help designers: better create their own work, better communicate with collaborators, and better talk to others about their projects and processes. Through the use of both well-known projects and newer ones across a broad range of discursive design, we present five key dimensions of dissonance that contribute to their effectiveness. Clarity relates most basically to the degree to which the audience understands what is going on. Reality relates to the distance from the audience’s sense of actuality or plausibility. Familiarity relates to awareness and experience, and can deal with the concept of otherness as well as novelty. Veracity relates to the degree to which the project is an earnest and forthright proposal, or somehow attempts to fool its audience. Desirability relates to how agreeable or preferable the project is. For the designer, these five dimensions can be thought of as dials on something like an oscilloscope. These can be adjusted and tuned in combination in order to generate appropriate dissonance levels that make projects interesting, discordant, and somehow compelling to their audiences. It’s possible for most to be “dialed all the way down,” with the strangeness generated from just one. Or, at the other extreme, all of them can be just little off, and together contribute to the overall impact. Creating dissonance is the fundamental game that these types of design play, and getting it just right is the great challenge and key to their craft. While there is no formula, rather than just hoping to achieve “the strangely familiar” or enduring a lengthy trial-and- error processes, we present language, concepts, and a practical approach to improve designer’s efficiency and effectiveness in creating new and powerful transformations and possibilities. The audience will leave with: a fresh perspective and insights bolstered by research evidence; a sense of empowerment in having a new practical tool; and a way to think and talk about their work with collaborators and their users/audiences.