XIX.1 January + February 2012
Page: 86
Digital Citation

Old hat

Jonathan Bean, Daniela Rosner

Craft is enjoying a renaissance. Visit a hip neighborhood in Portland, Brooklyn, or San Francisco, and the signs are everywhere—most likely, painstakingly hand-lettered on a chalkboard. Take a walk down a street in these cities and you’ll likely find the opportunity to learn to make pickles and enjoy some craft beer and artisan cheese, all before recrafting your body through yoga.

From our vantage point in design schools on both U.S. coasts, we see a parallel in academia to the comeback of craft in popular culture. The prefix “DIY” has been applied to fields such as urbanism and biology. Craft is aligned with a new interest in making and doing, encouraging an appreciation for experimental and small-scale interventions, such as World Park(ing) Day, where the everyday urban space of a parking spot is repurposed into temporary park space. These examples reflect a renewed understanding of craft as promoting human-scale activities and sensitivities.

As authors and researchers, we’ve been more than complicit in this shift, orienting our research and teaching toward questions of materiality and longevity, and instantiating these concerns in projects involving knitting, IKEA hacking, homemaking, and bookbinding.

This turn back to craft—and the response to it—both in popular culture and in academia, seems to represent a critical choice facing design education: whether to include the mastery of a craft in the execution of design.

Big D, Little c

Design education has blossomed in the past decade. We have observed the growth of new disciplines, such as interaction and strategic design, and the development of new concepts to go with them, such as design strategy and design management. It is this notion of design—design as “design thinking”—that has become fruitful for certain activities and not for others. For example, an understanding of organizational theory, politics, and law is perhaps useful for formulating the rebranding strategy of an institutional laboratory. But is this the same skill set required for designing its buildings? Its hardware facilities? Its communication technologies? To call strategy the primary work of design is to undercut a host of other practices that require thinking of another sort. When the designer is positioned as the ringleader of an operation rather than as only one of many actors involved in creation and maintenance, the work of design can be made into management, narrowed and disconnected from the other processes necessary for its execution. It becomes thinking without design—a sense of the whole without an understanding of the methods of making.

Craft has an uneasy relationship with big-D design. Craft doesn’t square well with the image of a designer as master puppeteer; it’s hard to work the strings with dirty hands. But we need not oppose the mastery of a craft to the execution of management and strategy. To do so would reflect the longstanding social status of craft as subservient to the purportedly more important functions of production, engineering, and design, a set of social relations reflected in everything from the social organization of medieval craft guilds to the vast difference in status between the avant-garde practice of collage and the creation of scrapbooks at the kitchen table. Craft is big, but design is often big enough to eclipse the procedural knowledge lurking behind it.

Removing Craft from Design?

From one corner of the design world comes a more extreme avoidance of craft: the call, expressed by powerful forces in both the U.S. and the U.K., for design to continue an upward ascendancy by appending (big D) design to the politically weighty STEM fields: science, technology engineering, and math [2,3]. The designer is imagined as the sole orchestrator of action, mediating the work of engineers, social scientists, politicians, consumers, and a whole host of unimagined others. This vision of design’s future retains the modernist formulation of what design is: a mechanism through which efficiency, order, and progress (whatever that means) are achieved.

A central element of these and other visions of the future is that craft is done for us: Kitchens tell us what and how to cook, eliminating the creativity and pleasure of cooking from scratch with what’s on hand; object printers create flawless prototypes, eliminating messily glued-together chipboard and toothpicks. In this new world, craft becomes fetish—the proudly displayed collection of vinyl records shelved alongside an iPod and digital files [1]. What is forgotten in this view is the skill of making. Those records may have been “only” purchased, but the collection itself took months of scouring flea markets and the three remaining music shops in town, and now sit atop a set of purpose-built shelves, the construction of which was the reason for enrolling in a woodworking class.

Materials Matter

This is intended not as yet another elegy to the beauty or value of handiwork, but rather as a call to consider design as the crafting of connections rooted in the material world. To put it simply: Craft is not only the province of the potter working at a wheel. The design of a mobile phone or a building is anything but disembodied, impersonal, or generic. Design requires working with one’s hands in the “soil” of computing infrastructures, just as crafters handle wood or clay. The complex products of cooperative and corporate production are more than products of strategy; they are the agglomeration of craft through coordination. iPhones and museums are also reshaping what it means to be human. As many others have said, we are what we make, and what we make makes us.

If we take craft as the material instantiation of design, it becomes important to recognize a broader range of material. The raw elements that structure and constitute the work of thinking, making, and managing design involve new substrates, infrastructures, and services: social networking sites, software encodings, and computational patterns such as inheritance and modularity. Technologies and their constitutive parts influence design as much as the environment in which they are placed. Technology, in this sense, is also material. No longer only the domain of engineers or interaction designers, it becomes fundamental to the means by which design becomes craft. As has been noted elsewhere, for all the ballyhoo about the cloud, server farms occupy immense buildings; the iPods that carry our dematerialized music are crafted of metal and glass by robots and anonymous, but skilled, human hands; and the nonelectronic technology that makes mechanical things more efficient—dual-flush toilet valves, turbochargers, batteries—is made out of stuff, such as plastic, metal, and rare earth elements [4]. Without the skills to manipulate and shape this stuff, the work of design is limited to one trajectory. That is, if in our focus on end product or result we forget about the process, we eliminate the basic elements of what makes design in all its forms delightful: the tacit knowledge of craft, the awareness of atmosphere and emotion, and, yes, the conversion of a possible future into a preferred one. The object of design, the tool with which it is made, and the stuff it is made out of all appear to fluctuate depending on the practice.

Rethinking Design Thinking

Design is done by human beings to, for, and with other human beings. Design is also done among objects and the world we live in. Perhaps craft is best thought of as a verb that represents the material translation of the work of design. As such, we may question the call for design to transform itself into some sort of supra-discipline intended to coordinate, corral, and control the work and craft of others, not only in the politically charged fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, but also through an incursion into politics (as in design for sustainability) and management (as in design thinking). The execution of strategy and coordination, it should be remembered, is the province of well-respected academic disciplines—political science, social psychology, organizational behavior, communication, and sociology, to name a few. And the study of how coordination is maintained in the manufacture of knowledge is a primary focus of the field of science and technology studies. Claiming that strategy and coordination are the essence of design hijacks these practices from other fields and misrepresents design in the process. Arguments about what constitutes craft—or, for that matter, design—are doomed to fall directly into the endless loop of tautology if we do not take a wider view.

We suggest putting aside the false dichotomy between craft and design in favor of viewing design as a form of craft. Design could be considered an embodied material translation of work or as a way of connecting ideas, needs, possibilities, and actants (or however you prefer to think of them in your personal theoretical toolkit, whether from psychology or actor-network theory).

From our perch in schools of design, we see an awareness from students and faculty that design has never been as describable or as pure of a discipline as theories of design methods would lead us to believe. We also have observed that students, in particular, do not have much use for the hardened lines that matter so much to academics in the field. Their projects are better served by crafting connections between the fields of human-computer interaction, consumer behavior, urban planning, fashion, and communication, just to name a few. One thing that all of these fields have in common is stuff: bits, routers, and wires; buildings, roads, and trees; dresses, sewing machines, and runways; billboards, websites, and printing presses. We believe the way to instill an understanding of the ways people use stuff—and the ways some things, such as roads, organize human action—is best achieved through the doing of craft.


1. Maguadda, P. When materiality ‘bites back’: Digital music consumption practices in the age of dematerialization. Journal of Consumer Culture 11, 1 (2011).

2. The Science Council. ‘The missing D…’ The value of design to STEM and business education;’-missing-d…’-value-design-stem-and-business-education

3. Norman, D. Design and the university: An uneasy fit. Doctoral Education in Design (Hong Kong, May 22–25). 2011, 1–5.

4. Miller, D. Stuff. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2010.


Jonathan Bean is a postdoctoral fellow at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, where he is helping to start a new program in design studies. His work is interdisciplinary and deals with domesticity, technology, and consumer culture.

Daniela Rosner is a Ph.D. candidate at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information and lecturer at the California College of the Arts (CCA). Her research focuses on how cultural histories are woven into our interactions with the things we create.

©2012 ACM  1072-5220/12/0100  $10.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2012 ACM, Inc.


Post Comment

No Comments Found