While industrial design is most associated with commercial applications, Bruce and Stephanie Tharp hope their work in discursive design will help develop the field by promoting the ability for products to communicate ideas and engage people in discourse.
“Why should we not be able to use our medium critically in the same way as architects, graphic designers, writers, and other creative disciplines?” Bruce Tharp asked.
Bruce and Stephanie Tharp, associate professors of art and design, met at a conference hosted by the Industrial Designers Society of America. Their first collaboration was a submission for a Design Within Reach furniture competition in Chicago, which started with a design that was initially sketched on a napkin in a café. The design was further developed, accepted into the competition, and it went on to win “Best in Show” for the exhibition.
They founded a commercial studio, materious, in 2005, married in 2006 and worked in two different academic institutions — the University of Illinois at Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — until coming to U-M in 2014.
“They were searching for three faculty members, which is extremely rare. We were excited about Stamps, the fact that the school is situated within the larger university, and about coming to the Ann Arbor community,” said Stephanie Tharp.
The couple’s personal and academic work has focused on developing the area of discursive design, which hopes to embed substantive meaning into utilitarian objects. These objects are tools for thinking, reflection and discourse more so than tools for traditional function, comfort and convenience.
One project, “Ghost Still,” does this by attaching a water distillation device to Phillipe Starck’s Louis Ghost chair in order to transform it into a solar still. This contrasts a first-world, highly-consumerist chair with “the democratizing need for potable water.”
In addition to designing their own discursive products, the Tharps promote discursive design by writing for Core77, a leading online industrial design magazine. Their contributions led to the opportunity to co-captain the 2016 Core77 Design Awards in the Speculative Concepts Category, which brought further awareness to discursive design. The pair is currently completing a book project on discursive design that has been years in the making, and which will be published by MIT Press this fall.
“Speculative practice has a wide range of interpretation in industrial design,” said Bruce Tharp. “Part of the purpose of the book is to align the language to the discursive category.”
In addition to working with design theory that is oriented toward application, the Tharps also educate students about the process of commercial product development in their classes.
Bruce Tharp created a two-semester entrepreneurship track at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he used his “Cut Once” ruler project as a live Kickstarter case study — educating students in the full spectrum of the product-development process — from initial ideation through production development to marketing and messaging.
“Giving students exposure to design in a more applied context is crucial in our discipline. Having worked in corporate and entrepreneurial design capacities, we have experience doing it,” he said.
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Stephanie Tharp, along with a business professor, leads the Integrated Product Development course hosted by the Tauber Institute for Global Operations. IPD matches students from the disciplines of art and design, business, engineering, and information, and tasks them with designing and pitching a product from creative conception to costing at a mock trade show attended by industry leaders.
“You have four different disciplines with four different ways of doing things and four sets of strengths and weaknesses. That’s the challenge and the strength of the class,” she said.
Ultimately, the Tharps hope to push against the notion that industrial design is only commercial. Designers can incorporate both utilitarianism and discursive potential into their objects.
“Discursive design is still small, but it’s also beginning to be used by industry and other institutions as part of the research process, and even by entrepreneurs. It could be part of any broad design education because a discursive approach can be brought into any design activity,” said Bruce Tharp.
Q & A
What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?
Stephanie: It’s a lot of fun to see students’ finished work all come together in the IPD final exhibition after so much hard work throughout the semester.
What can’t you live without?
Where is your favorite spot on campus?
Stephanie: For symbolism, I would have to say The Rock since it represents a spot where people/collectives/groups come together to share messages, create bonds and mark events.
What inspires you?
What are you currently reading?
Bruce: Our own manuscript!
Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?
Bruce: An undergraduate friend, Steve Giovannelli, tried helping me with my what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up dilemma by sending me a photocopied page from Peterson’s Guide to Graduate School. He circled “Interior Design,” which was not a good fit for my interests, but right above it was a blurb on industrial design — and that was it! My course was set.