interactions magazine

This is from 2011 | 10 minute read


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 of the dreaded foundations assignments. These craft oriented projects focused narrowly on a single "core" of design, like color, or line, or texture, or shadow. I remember the "coloraid" projects at Carnegie Mellon. We were to select a magazine layout, pin it to a board, and examine it. And then, our task was to recreate the layout - exactly - using tiny 1/8" 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 really 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 were 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 formed tacit skills necessary for visual decision making - for a thoughtful process of design, related to the creation of form-based objects. Specifically, these projects offered four major benefits to students.

  1. 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.
  2. Craft-oriented design projects force students to "look closer", and encourage students to consider visual details related to a specific medium. These details are individually small and insignificant, but in aggregate, these detailed design decisions 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 encourage 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 to support industrial and graphic design expertise - the creation of physical products or printed documents. What of craft in a digital, social, or organizational medium? What does "craft" mean for designers who work exclusively on problems of services, 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, code, 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."McBreen, Pete. Software Craftsmanship: The New Imperative.Nonetheless, there is both academic and professional work that attempts to define craftsmanship in a more objective manner.

In Malcolm McCullough's Abstracting Craft, he describes 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."McCullough, Malcolm. Abstracting Craft.

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. Craftsman - 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 craftsman is a long and drawn out personal process."Cooper, Alan. An Insurgence of Quality. Keynote, IxDA, 2008.

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

For McCullough, Cooper and Wroblewski, craftsmanship comes through 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, however, not without definition.

Richard Buchanan has continually described the four orders of design - a framework that include symbols, things, action, and thought. In the third and fourth orders, the output of a designers 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 - is behavior, action and thought. Frequently, the tool that is used to shape this material is 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 affect 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, like 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" focuses 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 importantly, a narrative captures the subjective and political qualities of the society in which this goal is accomplished. Creating a narrative is, like sketching or painting, a skill that is learned, critiqued, and revised over time.

Prototyping and Public Action

We continually force a culture of action, one where 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.


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 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" are typically 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, constant reflection on psychology and sociology, and a process of reflection-in-action, in order to consider why the medium of behavior responds as it does to stimuli and to shaping.


Based on my experience 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 learn a honed, tacit, and careful "innate" sensibility for making, and simultaneously, 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 sixties and seventies. Alexander describes that:

I have been hailed as one of the leading exponents of these so-called design methods. I am very sorry that 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."Alexander, Chris. Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 1971 preface

Works Cited

  1. McBreen, Pete. Software Craftsmanship: The New Imperative.
  2. McCullough, Malcolm. Abstracting Craft.
  3. Cooper, Alan. An Insurgence of Quality. Keynote, IxDA, 2008.
  4. Wroblewski, David S. The Construction of Human-computer Interfaces Considered as Craft.
  5. Alexander, Chris. Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 1971 preface.

Kolko, Jon (2011), "Craftsmanship". In interactions magazine, November/December, 2011.
Want to read some more? Try Design as Communication: The Increasing Case for Literacy in Academia.