Discourse analysis and design: reading “texts” for design purposes

Designers are already discourse analysts, they just don’t know it. These designers can produce more innovative ideas by adopting a more systematic approach to their intuitive discourse analysis.

Discourse analysis the practice of deciphering the meaning of “texts.” Anything can be a “text.” Television commercials, Us Weekly, a trial transcript — these are all “texts.” Famous discourse analyses include Michel Foucault’s analysis mental illness, in which he traces how we collectively think about mental illness through “texts” of it, such as “patient charts,” or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
Designers intuitively analyze “texts” all the time, especially designers who work in advertising. They obsessively collect imagery and copy they find interesting. They innovate on this copy or imagery by re-tooling some of the subtle messages in them.

How to systematize discourse analysis “lite” for designers:

  1. Collect more than one genre of “texts”: instead of a single medium, try collecting several media of the same theme. If you’re designing a new toy, for example, gather a TV commercial, a print ad, and a fan’s tribute Web site. These differing “texts” may tell you what is missing in toys, or what toys are unintentionally doing to the parents who buy them.
  2. Look for the “silences” in texts: If you’re designing an online advertising campaign, compare texts on a single theme and ask yourself, “What is not being said?” For example, if you’re targeting women with small children, maybe you’ll find that these women are never painted as actually having personal preferences only “mother preferences.” This is a silence that you can speak to.
  3. The obvious meaning is the tip of the iceberg: If you want to know what an object means in culture, you must look more deeply than the obvious. Most designers understand this intuitively, but sometimes you must make a concerted effort. When you see the famous “Diamonds are forever” ads by De Beers, the obvious meaning is one of romance, but what is the subtle meaning? Romance is fleeting but diamonds? Diamonds are forever. The ad’s brilliance lies in its ability to leverage the symbolism of the world’s hardest substance (the diamond) with the most coveted but ephemeral experience (romantic love).

The other day I was tutoring an adult learner (a highly educated one) about discourse analysis. She complained to me that she well understood quantitative methods, variables, and counting. But she saw discourse analysis as “mumbo jumbo.”

On the surface, discourse analysis looks like mumbo jumbo. But in practice, it is a tool to see both culture and the “reality” we have constructed.


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