Defamiliarisation and design as research methods

De-what? You may well ask.

Since the early days of design thinking (1960s perhaps?), academics and researchers have been trying to work out what it is that designers think about (or rather, how they think) when they solve ‘problems’.

One of the outcomes of some of this research can be described as defamiliarisation. I should add, at this point, that this is not really a term or even concept that traditional design thinking advocates seem to use. But it seems to be a method that designers use so as to look at the world (or maybe just design tasks) in a different way. Or, more specifically, as if for the first time

Yes yes, but what is it? I hear you ask. Well, I’m glad that you’re pressing me on the point.

Defamiliarisation, or literally estrangement (making strange), is a term used by a chap called Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 in an essay called ‘Art as Technique’ (Lvov, 2015). He used the term to describe a literary method for avoiding the automated or habitual thinking that we tend to do in the everyday. The idea was to try and look at an issue or approach a problem as if conceiving of it for the first time. (Lemon & Reis, 1965). By doing so, we (designers) might be able to see our way past barriers that we might not otherwise even identify and, in doing so, come up with some pretty nifty solutions to otherwise intractable problems. Maybe. The work of Bell, Blythe and Sengers (Bell, Blythe, & Sengers, 2005), Lian Loke and Toni Robertson (Loke & Robertson, 2007) and the experimental design of Dunne and Raby (Dunne & Raby, 2001) are interesting places to start.

As well as design, defamiliarisation has been used in allied creative practices, such as photography (Watney, 1982), and sometimes a combination of both (Meron, 2019). Theatre has also used defamiliarisation at times. For example, as part of Epic theatre methodology, Berthold Brecht uses the concept of Verfremdungseffekt (Radosavljević, 2013) or alienation (Brecht, 2014), often as technological interventions (Dickson, 2017). 

This has also led to defamiliarisation being used in theatrical research methodologies such as performance ethnography (or ethnodrama), for example. Norman Denzin’s (Denzin, 2001) work is a good place to start looking further in this area. As the field of graphic and communication design grows and begins to formulate its own methods (Meron, 2020), it too is beginning to adopt performance and dramaturgic methods as defamiliarisation methodologies.

Brecht, B. (2014). Short description of a new technique of acting which produces an alienation effect. In T. Brayshaw & N. Witts (Eds.), The Twentieth Century Performance Reader. New York, London: Routledge.

Denzin, N. K. (2001). The reflexive interview and a performative social science. Qualitative research, 1(1), 23-46. 

Bell, G., Blythe, M., & Sengers, P. (2005). Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 12(2), 149-173. 

Dickson, A. (2017). Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre: V is for Verfremdungseffekt. Retrieved from

Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2001). Design noir : the secret life of electronic objects. London : Basel, Switz.: August Media Birkhäuser.

Lemon, L. T., & Reis, M. J. (1965). Art as Technique. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,.

Loke, L., & Robertson, T. (2007). Making Strange with the Falling Body in Interactive Technology Design. Paper presented at the Design and semantics of form and movement DeSForM 2007, Northumbria University, UK. 

Lvov, V. (2015). The Twists and Turns of Estrangement: On Automated Art and Literary Scholarship. Paper presented at the The Other Daemonic: Estranging the Uncanny, Brown University CUNY Graduate Center. 

Meron, Y. (2019). Photographic (In)authenticity: Making Strange as a Creative Practice Response. Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy, 4(2), 1–22. doi: 10.1163/23644583-00401018

Meron, Y (2020). Re-performing Design: Using dramaturgy to uncover graphic designers’ perceptions of stakeholders, Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 71-90. doi: 10.31273/eirj.v8i1.701

Radosavljević, D. (2013). Verbatim Theatre: Engaging the Audience. In Theatre-Making (pp. 119-149). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Watney, S. (1982). Making Strange: The Shattered Mirror. In V. Burgin (Ed.), Thinking Photography (pp. 154-176). London: Macmillan Education UK.