Defamiliarisation, Brecht and Criticality in Graphic Design


Our lives are habitual. We habitualise what is familiar in order to be able to function day to day, and through this a vast chunk of our living becomes automatic. The process makes life easier by decreasing the confusion and tension of having to constantly develop new responses to previously encountered situations. The habitual way of thinking eases the stress of confrontation with the unknown, giving us a strategy to quickly disarm and digest it. Our default tendency is therefore to habitualise everything to the greatest extent possible.

In the essay Art as Technique (1917) the Russian formalist poet Victor Shklovsky (1893–1984) describes habitualisation as an ‘algebraic’ process. Instead of paying precise attention to each object of perception, we skip over the details and assign it a rough placeholder symbol, as X or Y symbolises a complex number in an equation. Thus, rather than having to formulate a response to the unique encounter with the object, we can bypass conscious thought and simply deploy a learned response to the familiar symbol.

Once something has become habitual and familiar, it effectively becomes an acceptable component of our perceived reality. Shklovsky’s warning however, is that we are liable to apply this tactic to situations which should never be considered normal or acceptable: things which should be known not as normal but as wonderful, or terrible. If we degrade things which are truly extraordinary by accepting them as merely ordinary, we are either denying ourselves the pleasure of appreciating the abnormally good, or wilfully subjecting ourselves to the horrors of the abnormally bad. In order to fully experience life it is necessary to recognise, appreciate and respond to the truly extraordinary things.

Designers, as creators and shapers of our social reality, are deeply involved in the operations and processes of habitualisation in contemporary life. It follows that designers must also therefore take some responsibility for the consequences of these effects, whether the impact of a design’s contribution to the social sphere is to enrich and enhance human experience of life, or merely to make it more efficient.

There is a time and a place for both these possibilities. The design of road traffic signs, for example, relies heavily on habitual recognition of familiar symbols to create a safe and efficient environment for all road users. However, design which seeks to question received wisdom, to challenge ingrained subconscious patterns of behaviour and to provoke critical thought needs to operate on precisely the opposite principle. While design can encourage patterns of habitualisation, it can also be used to shake us out of our habitual ways. Approaches to design which claim to foreground criticality would do well to pay close attention to the underlying processes which can either create and sustain, or disrupt this everyday phenomenon of habitualisation.

Automatic habitualisation of the familiar is, in general, a functional arrangement allowing us to go about our business without the exhausting impracticality of having to be constantly aware of our own activity. However, when we unexpectedly regain conscious awareness of a habitualised action or experience, the results can be quite disconcerting. Occasionally, while walking down stairs, I suddenly become aware of the subconscious movement of my feet, and as the action of walking switches from autopilot to manual I have to grab the handrail to stop myself tripping as it takes a second for my conscious mind to work out exactly what my legs are supposed to be doing. Many can identify with the moment of existential anguish communicated by the character Linus in the comic strip Peanuts on suddenly becoming aware of his own tongue:

It’s an awful feeling! Every now and then I become aware that I have a tongue inside my mouth, and then it starts to feel all lumped up… […] I can’t help it… I can’t put it out of my mind… I keep thinking about where my tongue would be if I weren’t thinking about it and then I can feel it sort of pressing against my teeth… Now it feels all lumped up again… the more I try to put it out of my mind, the more I think about it… (Schultz, 1963, np).

Defamiliarisation then, as Linus discovered, is the deeply unsettling moment of psychological disorientation experienced when something which has always appeared familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar: the moment when something is comprehended in a new way, with amazement and astonishment, not because of any bizarre quality of the object itself but precisely because the item in question had previously been considered so ordinary and acceptable, and is now, upon re-examination, found to be truly extraordinary. Recognition of the two components of this dynamic—the significant twin powers of habitualisation and defamiliarisation—is vital to the pursuit of criticality within design, or indeed any other area of human endeavour.

The fundamental prerequisite for criticality, is not in fact the ability to criticise, but to recognise and point out problematic features in an existing situation which could be other than they are. The source of criticality’s power flows from this ability to imagine ways in which things could be different. It is only in this speculation on alternative possibilities for existence, that criticality is capable of becoming a productive social force. Where habitualisation runs uncontested, these alternatives will inevitably go unnoticed and unexplored.

Criticality that only draws attention to those areas of life which we already recognise as imperfect, is of limited value. In order to fulfil its true potential, criticality must first equip itself with the sensitivity to recognise, reveal, and expose those elements of life which are consistently and systematically overlooked: those crushing invisible burdens, injustices and oppressions which are constantly accepted by many as components of an inescapable natural reality. The ability to recognise and cut through the habitualised veneer of the everyday is therefore absolutely vital to the critical project.

The term Shklovsky proposes to describe this potentially traumatic disruption of algebraic habitualisation is “ostranenie” which is often translated as estrangement or defamiliarisation (Shklovsky, 1917). Ostranenie is not just an observable phenomenon or state of consciousness, but a process that can actively be brought into being through the application of specific methods. Shklovsky suggests that ostranenie is in fact the principal technique, purpose and identity of art:

Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged (Shklovsky, 1917, p. 12).

In Shklovsky’s description of the “algebraic” habitualisation process, in order to achieve “the greatest economy of perceptive effort” (Shklovsky, 1917, p.12) we reduce the full experience of commonly encountered objects and phenomena to a single simplified symbol, an identifiable but vastly simplified rough outline. As he writes, it is as if we have wrapped the object loosely in a sack; we can still identify the shape and therefore know what this symbol means, but we no longer engage directly with the object itself. (Shklovsky, 1917, p. 11)

Shklovsky’s proposal is that art can intervene in the algebraic process, breaking the habitualised symbolic connection, thus forcing us to reengage our perceptive faculties to investigate objects and experiences afresh. The viewer must look for longer, and think harder to identify and understand something previously assumed to be known, but which has now become strangely unfamiliar. The sack which previously operated to ease the burden of perception by outlining a simplified symbolic shape, now becomes a camouflage cloak. Rather than just glancing at the sack, we must pick it up, feel it, give it a shake, perhaps even open it up and look inside in order to find out what is hidden within. This increasing of the “difficulty and length of perception” is the technique which breaks the spell of the habitual and creates the condition of defamiliarisation required to allow the proper experience of astonishment at the wonderful strangeness of the everyday object.

But what might this purposeful subversion of the default habitualising impulse which opens our eyes to recognise the extraordinary within the ordinary look like in the real world? Though Shklovsky was one of the earliest to write explicitly about methods for defamiliarisation, if one looks for practical examples of creative practices of defamiliarisation, one name stands head and shoulders above the crowd: German playwright, theatre director and poet, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956).

For many today, their only direct experience of Brecht’s work is likely to have been exposure to the lyrics of a song he wrote as part of his 1928 play Die Dreigroschenoper [The Threepenny Opera] about the character Macheath, a murderer thief and rapist, which which was later translated and popularised (in a considerably watered down form) as the jazz standard Mack the Knife. Beyond this, Brecht is best known as an innovator and pioneer of radical methods within his theatre practice. Throughout the course of his creative career as playwright, director and poet, Brecht proposed, theorised, tested and developed a complex, sophisticated, and ever evolving practice centred around defamiliarisation.

The key method in Brecht’s practice was the Verfremdungseffekt. This was famously manifested in Brecht’s theatre practice through techniques specifically designed to bring about a condition of defamiliarisation within the audience, such as: sabotaging the illusion of reality on stage by having the actors directly address the audience and purposefully act ‘badly’; discouraging empathetic audience identification with characters by making them dislikeable; subverting suspense by displaying signs announcing the outcome of each scene before the action takes place; unexpectedly breaking up the action with musical numbers; actively making visible the stage lighting, equipment and musicians. Beneath these relatively obvious interventions lay more complex practices. The idea of Gestus (Brecht, 1964, p.198-201) proposed that an actor’s performance on the stage should not simply mimetically represent the occurrence of an event, but should be able to make visible the full range of social conditions and factors leading up to the situation the character is found in and therefore offering an insight into any decisions or actions which they may now take. The concept of Epic narrative, or Autonomization (Jameson, 1999, pp. 55–65) suggested that the scenes of the play should not build and rely upon each other in a linear fashion, but should instead remain autonomous and “fully capable of life” (Brecht, 1964, p. 70) each on their own terms even if separated. The principle of Historicization maintained that plays should not be set in the present, but in distinct historical periods in order that the narrative may be seen not as inevitable but as a culmination of circumstances each of which could have been altered. In this way, conditions in the present may in turn come to be seen not as inevitable but rather as changeable and improvable (Dickson, 1978).

The overall aim of the Verfremdungseffekt is to encourage a condition of active critical spectatorship within the audience. Crucially, this active critical spectatorship within cultural space is pursued as a necessary step towards the development of active critical citizenship in society. Often mistranslated as alienation, the word Verfremdung is a relative neologism to the German language, appropriated by Brecht to describe the internal alienation of defamiliarisation, which was central to his critical project (Bloch, 1970). In an essay discussing whether the purpose of theatre should be entertainment or instruction, Brecht compares the crucial difference between the response of the audience member in the everyday dramatic theatre, with the response he wished to provoke through his Verfremdungseffekt utilising ‘epic’ theatre:

The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes I have felt like that too – Just like me – It’s only natural – It’ll never change – The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are inescapable – That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.

The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary, hardly believable – It’s got to stop – The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are unnecessary – That’s great art: nothing obvious in it – I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh” (Brecht, 1964, p. 71).

According to Brecht’s thinking, in our everyday lives we lose touch with our own critical faculties as we come to accept the cultural, social, political and economic structures surrounding us as normal, natural, inevitable, ultimately unchangeable, and therefore pragmatically acceptable realities. We seek relief or escape from this experience of the inevitable everyday grind of reality through culture, art and entertainment, whereby we subject ourselves to a further distancing from our critical faculties as we slide into models of passive spectatorship that reinforce our passivity by promoting a one-way mode of cultural consumption.

Brecht famously berated the theatregoing audience of his day for “hanging its brains up in the cloakroom along with its coat” (Brecht, 1964, p. 27). Walter Benjamin quotes Brecht describing the common man’s experience of culture as: “his accustomed opiate, his mental participation in someone else’s uprising, the rise of others; the illusion which whips him up for a few hours and leaves him all the more exhausted, filled with vague memories and even vaguer hopes” (Brecht cited in Benjamin, 1999, p. 149). Continuous over-stimulation leads to desensitisation. Aesthetic overload ultimately brings about a lasting anaesthetic effect (Buwert, 2015). Patterns of habitualisation which promote passive consumption rather than active critical thinking and activity can be encouraged and maintained by cultural aesthetic means.

Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, opposing this condition of mental anaesthetisation, is an attempt to counter the loss of criticality within the passive spectator by causing that which is familiar or habitual to become estranged and thus defamiliarised. The anaesthetic is shaken off, the illusion of normality as inevitable and unchangeable is broken and a situation of dis-equilibrium is created. Rudely awoken from their cognitive lethargy, the spectator must now struggle to come to terms with this imbalance by actively using their own mind.

The attitude Brecht wished to cultivate in his audience was not that of an emotional captive, drawn in and enthralled by the realism of the performance and empathetic identification with the heroes of the story. Instead they should remain emotionally disconnected, dispassionate, as if at leisure within their own home, smoking a cigar, reading the newspaper and weighing up the events set before them. The key principle is that rather than disappearing within the escapist spectacle of entertainment, the spectator will still be entertained, but during this entertainment will remain in possession of their own rational faculties. In this way, they might retain the capacity to make their own judgements with respect to the issues they encounter, rather than merely consuming a pre-packaged experience of that content. The goal of the Verfremdungseffekt is to achieve a productive defamiliarisation which causes the spectator to wake from their passivity to realise that the way things are, is not the way things must always be: that reality is not fixed and inevitable but constantly changing, and is therefore changeable. In this way defamiliarisation makes space for the perception of alternative possibilities, and in doing so opens up spaces for criticality.
The core power of the Verfremdungseffekt is found in this ability to create space for criticality by simultaneously staging multiple conflicting ideological positions and agendas, laying them bare and offering them up for interrogation. Brecht’s work certainly had quite specific political agendas. His methods, however, are not tied to any ideology. The aim of the Verfremdungseffekt is to open a space for critical thinking in relation to all of the ideologies at play within a situation. Though many of Brecht’s plays are outrageously didactic in form, clearly telling the audience what the correct way to think should be, the genius of the method lies in constantly undermining this authoritarian stance by demanding that the spectator not be taken in by the spectacle. If the spectator wishes to do what they are told, they must make this choice on their own terms.

Despite his many detractors – and there have been many, both during his lifetime and posthumously, on account of his politics, his personality, and his work (Willett, 1984) – Brecht’s theories and practices of defamiliarisation have had great impact on critical creative practice far beyond the world of theatre. Many critical practices operate in distinctly Brechtian ways, perhaps without even knowing it. The trick up the sleeve of almost all contemporary critical speculative design, for example, is to create an uncanny sense of defamiliarisation by presenting nearly credible versions of current reality, subtly tweaked to reflect uncomfortably upon the now. However, there is a fine line to be walked here between defamiliarisation as a productive strategy for encouraging active criticality, or merely as a mildly amusing diversionary entertainment.

Looking for examples of sustained engagement with Brechtian-type strategies in the context of critical visual communication design practice, the work of two individuals immediately spring to my mind. The first is Dutch graphic designer Jan van Toorn, whose work has an unmistakably Brechtian character. In Design’s Delight (2006), Van Toorn describes his dialogic approach to visual communication design in this way:

Unlike the classic form of visual communication, the dialogic approach is a connective model of visual rhetoric with a polemic nature and polyphonic visual form. A storytelling structure that seeks to reveal the opposing elements of the message and opts for active interpretation by the spectator (Van Toorn, 2006, Acetate Insert).

While much of Van Toorn’s work, might at first glance appear to be composed of scrappy compositions of entirely unrelated images, closer consideration reveals carefully constructed intertextual and reflexive visual narrative strategies. Rather than being persuaded of the incontrovertible truth of the message’s content, the viewer is presented with a visually proposed argument. The reflexive nature of the designed form reveals the socially and ideologically constructed nature of this argument. The effect is that rather than being aesthetically manipulated and convinced to choose a predetermined position from a limited range of options offered by the design, the viewer is invited to engage in an internal mental dialogue with the presented content, through which they may develop their own position in relation to the matter in question. It is in this regard that we can begin to draw parallels between Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt and Van Toorn’s account of dialogical design. A primary aim of the Verfremdungseffekt was to use the moment of defamiliarisation to lay bare the full range of ideological forces in play within the given situation exposing them to evaluation and judgement by the critical mind of the viewer. In the same way, Van Toorn’s dialogical design subverts expectations of visual communication design, opening up a moment of defamiliarisation in which the open and slightly ambiguous nature of the visual elements presented form an unresolved sphere of debate which draws the inquisitive mind into the process of active interpretation.

Though Van Toorn offers a compelling theoretical case for the use of the dialogical approach to visual communication design in society, the practical implementation of these ideas is easier said than done, and the effectiveness of much of Van Toorn’s work in terms of actually producing such instances of dialogical communication in the real world is debatable. Van Toorn’s calendars for the printer Mart. Spruijt produced throughout the 1970s offer perhaps the strongest examples demonstrating the subtle complexity of his dialogical approach at work. The raw image content of these promotional calendars ranged thematically year by year from contemporary and historical newspaper images, to portraits of celebrities and ordinary members of the public, to flat dull images of natural and built environments. When considered as part of the weekly serial narratives of the calendars, what at first appear to be fairly random unrelated and crudely constructed compositions begin to develop into subtle but deeply complex and unresolved visual arguments on issues ranging from press mediation, to cultural diversity, to the nature of truth and reality itself.

The nature of these ‘arguments’ remains open and relatively ambiguous in character. This is not, however, to say that these arguments are unfocussed, indiscriminate or indeterminate. Van Toorn often describes his process as one of carefully calculated intertextual visual journalism. Rather than making conclusive claims and thereby shutting down dialogue on an issue, the arguments staged by the Mart. Spruijt calendars open up new spaces for debate in relation to their precisely curated subject matter. Such an approach to the design process is inherently critical and demands a degree of critical thought from the viewer as it subversively disrupts the conventional linear operations of visual communication. Van Toorn’s work, though by no means perfect, represents in this way a pioneering model of critical design practice with a distinctly Brechtian flavour.

A second example of sustained engagement with Brechtian-type defamiliarisation strategies in visual communication practice, can be found in the work of the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. Curtis weaves together found archive footage to construct unexpected narratives about well-known historical and cultural phenomena and events. His trademark techniques of rapidly edited montage, crudely constructed no-nonsense text overlays, deadpan voiceover, and use of eclectic and unexpected backing tracks combine to create a jarringly radical break from the conventional experience of contemporary documentary film.

It is Curtis use of these techniques to simultaneously disrupt and challenge expectations of both the documentary medium, and received wisdom within the subject matter of his films, which makes his work an outstanding example of Brechtian-type strategies at work in filmic visual storytelling.

These defamiliarisation strategies are most obvious to see in Curtis’ use of music and editing to play with pace and tone. In one memorable sequence towards the end of the final episode of his three-part series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), Curtis draws out and presents a tragic historical narrative thread on events and circumstances surrounding the Rawandan Genocide and ensuing conflicts. This is initially soundtracked in the conventional way with a gradual build-up of brooding strings over newsreel footage. However, this menacing soundtrack is suddenly cut, and switched out for the bouncy piano of Floyd Cramer’s 1961 hit dancehall instrumental On the Rebound which reframes this unimaginably tragic account of horrific genocide and brutal civil war as a comic caper, nothing more than a game. The pace of editing also changes simultaneously, from lingering shots to fast paced jump cuts keeping time with the upbeat music. The chaos of refugee camps and military movements is transformed into a perverse dance.

This sudden, unexpected and slightly shocking switch in tone is a textbook example of Verfremdungseffekt. In Curtis’ film this defamiliarisation brings into question our accepted knowledge of these recent historical events. Into this moment of disorientation he reintroduces parallel threads brought up earlier in the episode: the Western demand for African minerals to build consumer gadgets, and a British scientist’s failed quest to search for the origins of AIDS in chimpanzees in the Congo. The viewer, having anticipated the conventional linear documentary presentation of authoritative reality, is disoriented by the encounter with an unpredictable presentation of a complex multi-faceted narrative. While Curtis does offer an account linking these disparate threads, this is far from a fully resolved conclusion. Rather than being presented as the one true single perspective on ‘the way things really happened’, complex stories are constructed out of a messy array of found fragments of reality. These narratives are encountered as just one possible way of viewing events, and the constructed and interpreted nature of reality is exposed. In this way the viewer is invited not merely to passively accept the presented argument but rather to actively, critically engage with the content.

The examples of Van Toorn and Curtis’ practices demonstrate the potential that Brechtian-type defamiliarisation methods can bring to the critical project in contemporary design practice. Such work offers glimpses towards a more substantial and constructive model for critically oriented visual communication practice than much of that which presents itself as critical design today.

The literary critic Fredric Jameson has suggested in Brecht and Method (1999) that Brecht might have been best pleased with a legacy not of his personal genius or historical importance, but rather for his usefulness. For graphic design that seeks to be critical, Brechtian methods of defamiliarisation could prove to be very useful. Today’s visual spectators, living habitual lives in an ever increasingly visually saturated world, are no less prone to hanging their brains up with their coats as those of Brecht’s day were. Methods of defamiliarisation offer an opportunity to break through the habitual and open up spaces for genuine criticality. For this defamiliarisation, as Brecht wrote, is “the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. When something seems ‘the most obvious thing in the world’, it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up. What is ‘natural’ must have the force of what is startling” (Brecht, 1964, p. 71).

Benjamin, W. (1999) What is Epic Theatre? In Illuminations. London: Pimlico. pp. 144–151.
Bloch, E. (1970) Entfremdung, Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement. The Drama Review, 15(1), pp. 120–125.
Brecht, B. (1964) Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Translated by Willet, J. London: Methuen.
Buwert, P. (2015) An/Aesth/Ethics: the ethical potential of design. In: Artifact, 3(3), pp. 1–11.
Dickson, K. (1978) Towards Utopia: A Study of Brecht. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 58–124.
Jameson, F. (1999) Brecht and Method. London: Verso.
Schultz, C. (1963) Peanuts. United Feature Syndicate.
Shklovsky, V. (1917) Art as Technique. In Lemon, T. & Reis, M. (Eds.), (1965). Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Translated by Lemon, T. & Reis, M. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 3–24.
Van Toorn, J. (2006) Design’s Delight. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.
Willett, J. (1984) i London: Methuen.

Extended readings
Kuijpers, E. (2013) And/or on contradiction in the work of Jan van Toorn. Rotterdam: nai 010 publishers.
Obrist, H. (2012) In Conversation with Adam Curtis, Part 1. e-flux, (32), pp. 1–12.
Poynor, R. (2015) Adam Curtis. Journalist. Creative Review, March 2015. pp. 38–42
Poynor R. (2008) Jan van Toorn: Critical Practice. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.
Thomson, P. & Sacks, G (Eds.), (1994) The Cambridge companion to Brecht. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Article originally published in Modes of Criticism 2 – Critique of Method (2016).