XVIII.6 November + December 2011
Page: 78
Digital Citation


Jon Kolko

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Meet someone who has completed four years of design education and ask them to reflect on their education, and they'll likely tell you stories about the dreaded foundations assignments. These craft-oriented projects focus narrowly on a single "core element" of design, such as color, line, texture, or shadow. I remember the "coloraid" projects at Carnegie Mellon. We were instructed to select a magazine layout, pin it to a board, and examine it. And then our task was to re-create the layout—exactly—using tiny one-eighth-inch-square pieces of colored paper. It took forever (my memory of freshman year is a bit tired, but I recall it taking close to 100 hours), and at the time we all questioned the point. What on Earth could we learn from such a menial and monotonous activity, and how was this a good use of our expensive education?

In fact, the foundational year of design education is full of activities like this. Paint a hundred color blocks a single color, but with a complete spectrum of saturation. Draw every letter of a single typeface, as realistically as possible. Sand a perfect sphere out of a cube. Sand a hundred perfect spheres out of a hundred cubes.

In a word, these projects are intended to teach craftsmanship, and many have historic roots in Bauhaus education, or pre-Bauhaus arts-and-crafts approaches to the production of artifacts. By focusing on a simple, contained, and tedious task, students form tacit skills necessary for visual decision making and the development of a thoughtful design process. Specifically, these projects offer four major benefits to students:

  • Craft-oriented design projects help develop muscle memory related to visual acuity and fine motor skills. By performing a task over and over, we can focus attention and increase speed, precision, and the automatic quality of an action. A sense of fluidity and ease is developed during the process, and students gain confidence in taking visual action without introspection.
  • Craft-oriented design projects force students to look closer, and encourage them to consider visual details related to a specific medium. These details are individually small and insignificant, but in aggregate they contribute to a sense of thoroughness, completion, professionalism, and refinement. Students learn what a material can and cannot do, and are able to see how they can both respect and control a given material.
  • The public quality of these projects—the studio culture in which they are completed, and the critique in which they are judged—establishes a baseline of comparative quality, and usually serves to raise the collective expectations of "goodness." Students look at their own work in the context of other examples. Because of the extremely limited scope of the project, comparison is easy, and criticism and guidance are focused on a very small set of design attributes.
  • The slow and methodical approach to these craft projects introduces students to the qualities of flow—the desired state of extremely focused creativity—and encourages each student to structure a physical and social environment to nurture this state of being.

These benefits are tremendous, and go on to form the designerly skills and designerly process used by practicing product and communication designers. But the skills themselves, and the focus on physical dexterity and craft, are aimed at supporting industrial and graphic design expertise and the creation of physical products or printed documents.

But what of craft in a digital, social, or organizational medium? What does "craft" mean for designers who work exclusively on problems of services and software or organizational change and political influence? And how can schools change their foundational focus without abandoning the obvious rigor of traditional, craft-based learning?

When craft is considered outside of the world of art and design, it is typically used to describe agile software development, coding, and project management, or education and teaching. In both contexts, it's usually taken for granted that one knows how to interpret the word "craft"; the majority of discourse typically calls for a return to craft or a need for craft. For example, in Pete McBreen's book Software Craftsmanship: The New Imperative, he explains that "craftsmanship is a return to the roots of software development: Good software developers have always understood that programming is a craft skill... application development comes down to feel and experience" [1]. Nonetheless, there is both academic and professional work that attempts to define craftsmanship in a more objective manner.

The medium of painting is fairly obvious, as is the material of clay. But both the medium and materiality of service design, interaction design, and public policy are vague, abstract, and seemingly invisible. They are not, however, without definition.

One such attempt can be found In Malcolm McCullough's Abstracting Craft, where he writes that "one better articulation of well-understood affordances dominates craft, and that is workmanship. Clearly this is a reflection of engagement: it is the quality with which a design vision takes form in a specific medium. It is also a matter of appropriate expression, in recognition that idioms seldom translate well from one medium to another, particularly from a finer to a cheaper material. For example, you cannot replicate in Formica what you can accomplish in mahogany, and the results tend to be ugly if you try—although of course Formica has its own distinct possibilities. Good workmanship is sympathetic to such potentials of a medium and uses any idiosyncrasies to its advantage. In this regard, workmanship ultimately seems more a property of the process, or of the worker, than of the very medium" [2].

In 2008, Alan Cooper made a call to the interaction design community to understand, appreciate, and embrace craftsmanship: "Best to market, particularly in high tech, comes about only through craftsmanship. And craftsmanship is all about quality. The goal of craftsmanship is to get it right, not to get it fast. The ultimate measurement of craft is not speed. It's quality. How good is it. It's a pure measurement. And a delightful measurement. Craftsmen—craftspeople—do it over and over, until they get it correct. And in their training, in their apprenticeship, they build things over and over, learning how to do things correctly, so they can bring enormous expertise to create successful products, and thus the training of craftsmen is a long and drawn-out personal process" [3].

In The Construction of Human-computer Interfaces Considered as Craft, David Wroblewski defines craft as "any process that attempts to create a functional artifact without separating design from manufacture" [4].

For McCullough, Cooper, and Wroblewski, craftsmanship comes through an intimate understanding of medium and material. The medium of painting is fairly obvious, as is the material of clay. But both the medium and materiality of service design, interaction design, and public policy are vague, abstract, and seemingly invisible. They are not, however, without definition.

Richard Buchanan has continually described the four orders of design, a framework that includes symbols, things, action, and thought. In the third and fourth orders, the output of a designer's work has shifted from two-dimensional communication and three-dimensional artifacts to behavior, organizational change, policy, and systems. The material, here—the thing that is shaped—consists of behavior, action, and thought. Frequently, the tool that is used to shape this material is made up of language, rhetoric, and argument. Unique to fourth-order design problems is their recursive and inclusive nature, for systems design output typically includes printed material, objects, environments, software, policy, rules, ideas, and actions. And so an interaction designer's material is frequently a wide array of physical, digital, and cultural substance that can be shaped over a long period of time to effect change.

At Austin Center for Design, we're attempting to develop craftsmanship in the context of interaction design and social entrepreneurship. Bauhaus craft focused on fundamental knowledge elements, such as color, form, and texture; we too focus on fundamental knowledge elements. But for us, these elements are no longer static compositional and formal qualities. Instead, our "foundations" focus on empathy through narrative, prototyping and public action, and inference.

Empathy Through Narrative. Narrative implies a compelling, culturally sensitive, and emotionally appropriate story that unfolds with, around, and for a given user. At the most basic of levels, this is a use case or scenario that captures the steps a user takes to achieve a goal. But more important, a narrative captures the subjective and political qualities of the society in which this goal is accomplished. Like sketching or painting, creating a narrative is a skill that is learned, critiqued, and revised over time.

Prototyping and Public Action. We continually force a culture of action, one in which the debate about what could be done or should be done is cut short by an actual prototype that can provoke action. This is a skill that requires cultivation, as most students are not used to the exposed quality of producing a critiquable thing in front of others.

Inference. Through practice, design students learn to trust informed intuition enough to provoke the action described above. This informed abduction—a logical and creative leap—is a skill learned by trying, failing, and reflecting; it requires first a deep understanding of data-driven design, and then a realization of what "just enough" means in the context of synthesizing disconnected ideas. And, like narrative and public action, inference through synthesis is learned through continual and rigorous practice.

Bauhaus drove craft in materiality, and students developed an intimate understanding of what a given material could do. Painters learned how various pigments "wanted" to flow, and built up a tacit understanding of how the physical material would best perform. We too focus on developing a core competency in a given material. But as described above, the materiality of interactions typically consists of people, behavior, and attitudes, and so we drive tacit knowledge of these qualities through both rote and interpretative exercises related to our medium. This demands constant interaction with people through facilitation, conversation, and immersion; continual reflection on psychology and sociology; and a process of reflection-in-action, to understand why the medium of behavior responds as it does to stimuli and to shaping.

Based on my experience in reviewing portfolios from recent business school graduates, I would argue that one of the most fundamental failings of design-thinking education is the lack of craftsmanship. Students don't appear to have developed an innate sensibility for making, and at the same time they don't appear to have developed an intimate understanding of the medium they are responsible for shaping. Instead, they are equipped with a toolkit of methods.

And while there is nothing wrong with a method in the context of medium and craft, it's worth reflecting on why Chris Alexander and John Chris Jones abandoned the methods movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Alexander explains: "I have been hailed as one of the leading exponents of these so-called design methods. I am very sorry this has happened, and want to state, publicly, that I reject the whole idea of design methods as a subject of study, since I think it is absurd to separate the study of designing from the practice of design. In fact, people who study design methods without also practicing design are almost always frustrated designers who have no sap in them, who have lost, or never had, the urge to shape things. Such a person will never be able to say anything sensible about 'how' to shape things either" [5].

back to top  References

1. McBreen, P. Software Craftsmanship: The New Imperative. Addison-Wesley Professional, Boston, MA, 2001.

2. McCullough, M. Abstracting Craft. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1998.

3. Cooper, A.I. An insurgence of quality. Keynote, IxDA, 2008.

4. Wroblewski, D.S. The construction of human-computer interfaces considered as craft. In Taking Software Design Seriously: Practical Techniques for Human-Computer Interaction Design. J. Karat, ed. Academic Press Professional, Inc., San Diego, CA, 1991.

5. Alexander, C. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971, preface.

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Executive director of design strategy at Thinktiv, and founder/director of Austin Center for Design

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©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/11  $10.00

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