Transgressive Graphic Design: Defamiliarisation, human and non-human fusions

Cumulus conference – Letters to the Future

November 20 – 23, 2017
Bengaluru, India, Hosted by Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology

Article in Proceedings page 61-70

Margaret Rynning and Synne Skjulstad, Westerdals: Oslo School of Arts, Communication and Technology


This paper inquiries into how we, as humans in the Global North, envision troubling scenarios of future interaction with technologies. Selected student projects in graphic design and art direction, within a Nordic university college setting, explore speculative future visions. The works address concerns about how technologies increasingly permeate our existence as a species in rendering human and non-human life as disturbing amalgamations. We inquire into how our mediated realities and speed of life, may have an impact on the future. Via the concepts of defamiliarisation and transgression, we discuss the ways in which speculative graphic design and art direction may oscillate between the familiar and the unknown. We inquire into how design may interrupt habitual or automatic perception of phenomena, so as to open up spaces for reflection and assure a sense of impossible possibilities.

Keywords: Transgressions, graphic design, defamiliarisation, speculation, alienation


This paper explores how graphic design is put to work in examining future scenarios that include fusions of the human and non-human. Such fictional fusions may provoke reflections by challenging our interpretative apparatuses as part of a critical approach to design and design teaching (Mazé and Redström 2007). Taking up the concepts of defamiliarisation, transgression and familiarity (Auger 2013), we examine how these concepts may aid us in reflecting upon visual articulations of the future within the context of teaching graphic design and visual communication. Via discussion of selected student works drawn from a Nordic university college setting, we explore issues relating to ways of reflecting visually on the technologized life and visions of human and non-human fusions in the Global North. In the works examined, we inquire into how speculative approaches to graphic design (Skjulstad and Rynning 2015) may open up for a wider reflection of how portrayals human and non-human fusions may serve as symbols of a technologized existence. Doing this we ask how the concepts of defamiliarisation and transgression may open up spaces for reflection? This paper presents some preliminary attempts at sketching out how speculative graphic design scenarios resides in articulations that draw on the conventions of the present. The paper is structured as follows: First, we unpack our main analytical concepts. Secondly, we present two selected student projects within speculative design which reflect upon human-nonhuman fusions. We then present the cases for discussion. Finally, we discuss how transgressive, speculative graphic design may oscillate between defamiliarisation and familiarity. We conclude by pointing to the space for reflection which potentially open when looking at the design of familiar products and services anew.

(Un)familiar ways of seeing

According to philosopher Wolfgang Welsch (1997), more and more parts of life are becoming aesthetic constructs. He refers to such processes as aestheticization (Welsch 1997). In such a context, graphic design provides opportunities for the exploration of difficult and even scary future scenarios in rendering aesthetic what may we find alien. The habit of relating to a broad range of different aestheticized designs have in many instances become automatic. To experience the meaning behind the designs or the services, this automation needs to be interrupted. Originally writing on literature, and as part of the Russian formalism in literary and linguistic theory, Viktor Shklovsky points to the need to look anew, to transcend our familiar perception of phenomena. In his original essay from 1917 (translated and reprinted in 1965), Art as Technique, Shklovsky discusses, with close reference to Tolstoy, how to make us perceive the familiar anew. He refers to this estrangement as “defamiliarisation” (Shklovsky 1965, section 15), stating that “The technique of art is to make objects ´unfamiliar´, to make forms difficult, to increase the length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged”. In giving weight to the process, placing the aesthetic experience in the subject, not the object itself (Hausken 2009, Hausken 2013), defamiliarisation refer to luring the imagination to see beyond naturalised perception. For designers, disturbing and altering the ways in which potential audiences may perceive a given visual articulation of a subject matter provide creative opportunities. Relating Shklovsy’s writing to the design of domestic technologies, Bell et al, (2005, 154) point to how the concept of defamiliarisation “…provides a lens to help us see our own design practices in a new light”. Wilde & al (2017, 5159) point to defamiliarisation as means through which we may “…prolong the moment of arriving at an understanding…”, thus resulting in a deeper and more detailed one. Dunne (2008) approaches estrangement to find the space between people and the object that will open up for discussions and criticism, as well as for drawing attention to legal, cultural and social rules that otherwise will go unnoticed. He refers to this space as the poetic distance between people and the object (Dunne 2008, 22). As part of design practices that are critical, speculative, discursive, or in one way or the other designed to ask its audience to reflect as opposed to consuming, the concept of defamiliarisation provides a valuable way into discussing what is not always articulated graphically, yet outspoken.


Designing for defamiliarisation is to design for transgressing the habitual. “To transgress is to break, violate, infringe, or exceed the bounds of: laws, commands, moral principles or other established standard of behaviour” (Rice and Littlefield, 2015,1). Among what may be transgressed is our familiar ways of relating to phenomena, either if it is flogging as in the case of Tolstoy, or novel amalgamations of humans and technology in travel and in experiencing empathy, as reflected upon in the student projects we discuss below. Transgressions can be part of ground-breaking innovation and radical change, and transcend what is perceived as possible and imaginable today. Transgressions in design may be perceived as provocative, thus providing designers with ways through which to address important, and at times difficult issues (Dunne & Raby 2013, Mazé & Redström 2007). However, the transgressions of today may become regularity of tomorrow. When transgressions are systematised, they flow into new inaccessible spaces, escaping capture and slipping away. Transgressing boundaries in design can thus be seen as part of aesthetic action, as “Transgressors don’t cross borders, they move them: by moving them they innovate” (Iaconesi and Persico 2016, source without page numbers).
Writing on fashion, Müller (2014) shows how transgressive aesthetics may open for new possibilities in perception and in imagination. He reflects on the political aspects of transgressions in design. According to Müller, aesthetic interventions are central for creating both order, but also disruptions and disorder. Thus, aesthetic border transgressions may penetrate or even exceed the restrictions of what mundane everyday reasoning can handle. Such transgressions, he points out, are becoming more and more media-based. Similarly, Dunne and Raby (2013) as they refer to speculative design scenarios, see such an approach to design as a potential catalyst for change. As they emphasise the importance of finding and framing problems and articulating spaces for reflections on these, as opposed to solving them, aesthetic interventions are key in reflecting on possible, probable and preferable futures via design. These aesthetic interventions aim to feed the imagination and provide designers with conceptual tools through which they may critique difficult topics via the creation of fictional scenarios and visions on societal issues relating to politics, technology, and culture (Fuller, 2016, Bardzell et al., 2012, Rynning and Skjulstad, 2017, Rynning 2017).

Familiarities enhancing appreciation

Speculative graphic design provides means through which graphic designers can creatively comment- and reflect upon social and societal issues (Skjulstad & Rynning 2015). However, it is easy to cross the fine line that makes the audience’s attention slip away, as the designerly articulations of these might easily be rejected as they can appear too repulsive or too strange to be engaging (Auger 2013). Auger has devised what he refers to as perceptual bridges so as to aid designers in finding ways to engage the audience in speculative design scenarios. One of the techniques he suggests for making a speculation engaging is to tap into existing familiarities, so as to ground the audience’s perception of the speculation in the familiar. This means that in recognising elements in the speculation, it becomes easier to understand and relate to it. Familiarities may also enhance the appreciation of the design as the audience activate their already existing hermeneutic skills (Bardzell & al, 2014). The role of situating graphic design speculations in known, and at times also conservative designs are discussed more fully by Skjulstad and Rynning (2015). Drawing on this, we inquire into the role of defamiliarisation as part of rooting the speculations in the familiar.
From an HCI perspective, Bardzell & al (2014:1951) describe different ways of reading and interpreting critical, and often transgressive designs pointing to need to further develop a more “…coherent ‘discourse around criticality’…”. When presented a piece of provocative design, they point to how our immediate reactions are to be either intrigued or repelled. However, these reactions are fuzzy, as we often have problems pinpointing what we like or dislike and why. Strong, but ambiguous feelings may stimulate our interpretative apparatuses, as we try to position the design according to our schema, conceptions and norms (Bardzell & al, 2014). The scenarios of speculative and/or critical designs are often designed so as to challenge the recipient cognitively and emotionally (Dunne and Raby 2013).

Methods and selected student projects

For the last couple of years, the programmes in graphic design and art direction at our institution have incorporated speculative approaches to design in teaching and research. This paper is part of an ongoing inquiry into speculative approaches to graphic design and visual communication (see Skjulstad & Rynning 2015, Rynning & Skjulstad 2017, Rynning 2017). The student projects discussed below are drawn from two work-intensive five-week courses. These courses emphasized how design can deal with social, cultural or ethically difficult issues, inviting the students to reflect upon design outside of commercial contexts. These students were asked to design future scenarios presented via visual identity design, taking (as suggested by Dunne and Raby 2013) as their point of departure the question ‘what if’? The projects were selected because they oscillate between drawing on the familiar and the unknown. Below we explore the student work, focusing on transgressions and defamiliarisation as these themes are articulated. Defamiliarisation provides a lens through which we may discuss issues of alienation of the human subject that recur in the student works. The two cases presented below both present disturbing scenarios of future interactions between humans and technologies, and inquire into how our present human choices and speed of mediatized life may have an impact on the future, and they indirectly ask us to reflect on these scenarios.

Work #1 VERA

VERA’ contact lenses are designed so as to correct the human capability of emotional intelligence and compassion, and it inspects our increasing self-centredness (Twenge 2009). The purpose of the lenses is to contribute to a friendlier society and the product’s function is to correct the way we see each other. The intensity of the active agents of the lenses is illustrated by the number of visual layers in the logo. The friendly pastel colours are chosen so as to enhance compassion and care, the very effect of the fictional product. The technologically enhanced emotional intelligence is expressed and communicated via visualisations of how this imagined product could be presented across social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Tinder, showing the user’s level of ‘verification’. The media platforms through which the project is presented serve as means to relate the product to current media practices and media use so as to make credible the existence of these lenses. In this scenario, the packaging is designed so as to aid the audience in seeing this as an actual product, even as the functionality of the lenses deviates considerably from what one would expect, thus rooting the speculation in the everyday.


‘BODYCATION’ offers a digital travelling service, where one can rent a period of time in someone else’s body somewhere in the world, and rent out one’s own body, like one now can rent domestic space on Airbnb. As the point of departure, this project started with the question: what if the brain was in the cloud? By asking this question, the project presented a critique of the pressure many young people experience relating to their body and to current beauty standards. However, it also raises larger questions about the relations between mind, body, technology and feminism (see Haraway 1984). This project does, as VERA, provide technological solutions to problems that cannot be solved by simply introducing yet another technological devise or service. The issue of minimizing ecologic global footprints by using less fuel when travelling is presented as the overarching goal of this human – technology amalgamation. However, in presenting such a way of travelling as yet another digitally enabled service, Bodycation transgresses a critique of just body standards, leisure aviation, or the emerging critique of the sharing economy. Even as the visual design mimics the visual style of services such as Airbnb the project also presents a technological solution to problems that cannot be easily solved by technological means.

Findings and discussion

Both projects address concerns about human-technology fusions envisioned as possible futures and they tackle issues that are seen as relevant to a Nordic context. They open up spaces for reflection on how bodily matters become part of a technologized future, as they both aim to invoke a sense of alienation, presenting services that transgress the human capability to be fulfilled as human beings. In presenting the projects as grounded in the present reality and visual conventions, the design interrupt habitual perceptions of products and services, once the scenarios and functionalities of the service and products are revealed. One preliminary finding is that the criticality these works embody rests not in radical graphic design per se, but rather in the designer’s abilities to express complex critical articulations of issues relevant for the students via future scenarios that emulate and tweak current design conventions.
Not many years ago artificial intelligence were phenomena of sci-fi movies. However, in 2017, artificial intelligence resides in regular smartphones, bleeding unnoticeably into everyday life. Hence, the boundaries of what is perceived as impossible or transgressive are continuously on the move. For instance, being able to enhance emotional intelligence and the way humans see each other through a set of contact lenses may relate to the already well-known possibility of physical enhancing the human body through technologies, such as for example pacemakers and hearing-aids. As pointed out by Haraway (1984) a long time ago, we are all cyborgs.
A speculative approach to graphic design may be transgressive in drawing on specific visual codes so as to betray to eye into reading the design as the kinds of products and services we encounter in our everyday lives. However, the familiar elements in the design may also aid the audience in relating to the scenario (Auger 2013, Rynning and Skjulstad 2017). As discussed by Mazé and Redström (2007), and seen in both projects, repositioning design within existing frames, such as glossy expos, or by borrowing the presentational techniques from the field, visual simulations of mediated versions of products and services form vital aspects of the speculations. In embracing the familiarities of existing conventions in graphic design, familiar styles, such as found in contact lens packaging, or contracts and advertisements for travel services, provide important contrasts to the wildest aspects of the speculations, affording the audience’s perception to oscillate between the alien and the familiar. The simultaneous articulation of commonality, possibility and impossibility in the student designs may primarily be found in the scenarios and the functionalities in the products and services, not in the visual articulations of them as such. However, even as the projects invite the audience to relate to a speculation, they do not, we suggest, actually have to believe that the scenarios are actually going to take place in the future. As initially described by Shklovsky (1965), the aim is for the audience to perceive the familiar designs as slightly different than the ones they emulate.

Concluding remarks

The potential for defamiliarisation lies in the known, the ordinary and in everyday design conventions and in the ability to slightly interrupt these. However, when being nudged into thinking about the possible, but unarticulated chains of events leading up to the speculation (Dunne & Raby 2013), the familiar designs provide a fruitful platform for giving visual shape to the possible and impossible outcomes of today’s processes that slowly technologize our lives, but are only suggested as having taken place in a past leading up to the scenario designed. In the case of Bodycation, the user of the service travels without moving. However, the design invites the spectator to travel her own mind and therefore invites her to transgress the routines of interpretation. VERA invites the reader to reflect upon the reasons for why the lenses are needed for looking at one another with compassion, or at least a sense of it. We do not believe that these two projects change the world. However, what we hope for is that the power in design may be put to work for creating visual connections between our present and the futures we wish for. And if speculative approaches to graphic design enable us to further develop ways of designing poetic articulations of matters that matter now, and for invoking a sense of criticality and reflection on the here and now, that is, at least, more than nothing.


Thank you especially to Nikolette Kolkinn, Katarina Cordas, Aurora Bratli Brunvoll, Lars Nynäs, Mathias Aanmoen and Janinti Gauslaa for letting us include their work in this paper, and for their participation in our ongoing research. Without their work, this paper would not have been written. Thank you also to the members of the fACT research group at Westerdals Oslo ACT for valuable comments.


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