Approaches To Design

A brief post with a couple of pointers, mostly coming from a peculiar serendipity: A stack of The New Yorker often comes with me to be read during long periods where, otherwise, I would be staring at the back of someone else’s seat and head. Often times, when not on a long journey, sadly — these issues just pile up, maybe an article quickly read and that’s it. In this case, and one of the upsides of crossing a continent and an ocean and another additional bit, is that I end up reading just about everything, unless it’s another Sedaris, who has just about become another Keillor to me. Or even a Rooney (“ ever wonder why..”). In other words – m’eh.

In any case, and back to the point, several months ago I skimmed through Richard Sennet’s book “The Craftsman” per a friend’s recommendation. I found the book intriguing in that it discusses the role of craft and handwork and the hands-on intimacy that obtains when designing and creating with an emphasis on the materiality of things and processes of construction. That is, different from the “screen-work” of disconnected finger-twitching and mouse-moving, for example. These things are topics near and dear to the Laboratory and, generally, thinking about new ways of making things, discovering new ideas, and so on. Things that have more that motivates them — the values and principles — that is not firstly, or even at all about the calculus of quantity produced, minimum profit opportunities, loss-leading market share swirls, derivative land grabs, fast-follows behind market leaders. Etcetera. Ad nasium.

On NPR recently, I heard an interview with Matthew Crawford, who has written a book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work“, which sounds at least congruent with Sennett. This one I have not read, because it’s in hardback still. It certainly sounds intriguing — new ways of working and thinking, assessing the value of what you do and so forth.

Then, I came across this review titled Fast bikes, slow food, and the workplace wars in The New Yorker, which I had almost threw out, that brings Shop Class and The Craftsman together along with the canonical perspective, imho, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, which is a must read. (You know: stop-what-you-are-doing-now level of urgency, etc.)

Why do I blog this? This review provided a great perspective in my mind to the larger questions on our relationship to work, innovation, values and these things relationship to the larger world beyond our own desires to better ourselves. We need a kind of “design” where decisions are based upon principles of making the world a more habitable, playful place in some measurable way. This is a thoughtful approach to making things, rather than accounting-led practices that ends up making things that stuff our warehouses/delivery trucks/store shelves/homes/garbage cans/land fills with more crappy crap. Criteria for making things cannot be undergirded first, or only, or primarily by rules of accounting and engineering and counting the quantities of things made, or technical features for their own geeky sake. Quality — and not only the “styling” sort of quality — the quality of a thing’s presence in the world should account for its capacity to bring about a normatively more habitable place to live.

3 thoughts on “Approaches To Design”

  1. I’m currently on p95 of ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft’. I took the plunge and got the hardback after reading this article in 2006. Indeed it shares some overlap with Sennet’s book, but the major distinction can be summed up (in Crawford’s own words) thus:

    “I want to avoid the kind of mysticism that gets attached to “craftsmanship” while doing justice to the very real satisfactions it offers… So I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being “working class.” p5-6.

    Crawford makes the distinction that his book is concerned with “manual competence” and “trades” rather than the practice of “Japanese sword makers.” According to the index, Crawford makes reference to Pirsig exactly twice p96 (go figure, it would be on the page after the one I am on) and p114. This is surprising as there is an obvious relationship between the books (down to the subtitle ‘An Inquiry into the Value of Work’ which has to be a tacit reference to Pirsig’s sequel ‘Lila: An Inquiry into Morals’.

    This is for me also related to the core message in ‘FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop – From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication’ by MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld:

    “Starting out with skills more suited to arts and crafts than advanced engineering, they routinely and single-handedly managed to design and build complete functioning systems… the learning process was driven by the demand for, rather than supply of, knowledge. Once students mastered a new capability, such as waterjet cutting or microcontroller programming, they had a near-evangelical interest in showing others how to use it. As students needed new skills for their projects they would learn them from their peers and then in turn pass them on. Along the way, they would leave behind extensive tutorial material that they assembled as they worked. This phase might last a month or so, after which they were so busy using the tools that they couldn’t be bothered to document anything, but by then others had taken their place. This process can be thought of as a “just-in-time” educational model, teaching on demand, rather than the more traditional “just-in-case” model that covers a curriculum fixed in advance in the hopes that it will include something that will later be useful.

    These surprises have recurred with such certainty year after year that I began to realize that these students were doing much more than taking a class; they were inventing a new physical notion of literacy. The common understanding of “literacy” has narrowed down to reading and writing, but when the term emerged in the Renaissance it had a much broader meaning as a mastery of the available means of expression. However, physical fabrication was thrown out as an “illiberal art,” pursued for mere commercial gain. These students were correcting a historical error, using millions of dollars’ worth of machinery for technological expression every bit as eloquent as a sonnet or a painting.

    … quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music) and the three part trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric). These Latin terms refer back to four- and three-way road intersections, the latter notable as a place where people would congregate and share knowledge that naturally came to be known as trivial. or trivia. The trivium and the quadrivium together make up the seven “liberal arts.” Both of these words warrant comment. “Liberal” in this sense is not the opposite of “conservative”; it referred to the liberation that the study of these subjects was thought to bring. And “art” did not mean just creative expression; it meant much more broadly the mastery that was developed over each of these domains. Liberal arts originally has this rather rousing meaning as a mastery over the means for personal liberation. They’re now associated with academic study that is remote from applications, but they emerged in the Renaissance as a humanist pathway to power.

    Unfortunately, the ability to make things as well as ideas didn’t make the cut; that was relegated to the artes illiberales, the “illiberal arts,” that one pursued for mere economic gain. With art separated from artisans, the remaining fabrication skills were considered just mechanical production. This artificial division led to the invention of unskilled labor in the Industrial Revolution.”

    This is the same thing we are trying to address with our new course at Michigan


    1. Wow, thanks for the thoughtful comment, John. I guess it is no small surprise to find our overlapping perspectives and interests and things-that-resonate. I’d be curious about your thoughts on this Crawford book. When I first initially and accidentally stumbled upon the NPR radio interview, I added-to-cart on my mobile. When I took time to review all the things I had shoved in my cart before making a purchase, I read some reviews that made me think — well…I’ll wait for the paperback. The New Yorker review made me skeptical again and less eager, although I suppose at some point I will get it, just not as excitedly as my initial imaginary of what it might contain — secrets of to creating new, more habitable worlds through values-based design, etc., etc.

      Looking forward to some smartsurfaces course action!

  2. I hadn’t read the NYT review previously, but I just checked it out. It is spot on. Crawford’s macho posturing sets a tone that sits uneasily with the main thesis of the book. Such as with statements like:

    “What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first-century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines?”

    Analog = good, digital = bad. He states in his introduction that his book “is in part a cultural polemic.” More like he’s trying to pick a fight with his colleagues from the University to better fit in with his machine shop and biker buddies. I’m 95 pages in and it is not annoying me enough to stop, yet.


Comments are closed.