Handmade Thought

Dr Welby Ings
Welby Ings is an award winning designer, filmmaker and playwright. An elected Fellow of the British Royal Society of Arts, Welby is now a Professor in Design at Auckland University of Technology. In 2001 he was awarded the Prime Minister’s inaugural Supreme Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence.

The other day I took a friend who was visiting from Denmark up to the seventh floor of the main AUT University Art & Design block. When I first began working as a designer back in the 1980s, he was my mentor. He was tough because he taught me to think beyond styling. He would hammer into me that my hands were the conduit to my brain. He abhored shortcuts and lazy solutions, and he told me that I had to touch thought to understand it.

In our tour of the floor I showed him the photography studios and on my way, I wafted him through the suite of digital inkjet printers. But he seemed only mildly interested. He kept walking back to the bookbinding suite and peering through the glass at the equipment in the room. He reminded me of a child reaquainted with innocence. When I finally got him access to the facility he spent twenty minutes walking around, touching the tools, feeling the weight of paper… and fingering bindings. He was in awe. He told me that he didn’t know of a single design school left in the southern hemisphere that had a resource so precious.

He didn’t know of a single design school left in the southern hemisphere that had a resource so precious.

His wonderment and enthusiasm made me think of Claude Marzotto’s recent writing about the revival of craft-based graphic design. Her thinking has run parallel to what Michael McAuley in 2004 termed “the return of the pencil”, Michael Smythe called “wrighting and wroughting”, and Anne Odling-Smee described as “new handmade graphics” that she claimed reach beyond digital design.

In a recent RSA Journal article the design theorist Christopher Frayling spoke about the rise of craft as a mode of thinking in graphic design. He noted how in Britain, Design Schools’ concerns with making and understanding have begun to permeate current educational concerns with more rounded curriculums. His observations sit amidst the rise internationally of new forms of craft-based Maker Incubators, Tinker Schools, Zine collectives, Yarn Bombing activities and Rapid Prototyping communities; these are all predicated on a fusion of manual thinking and social interaction.

The rise of interest in reactivating craft processes, tools and materials may be seen in part as a move away from the euphoria that surrounded the introduction of digital environments into graphic design in the 1980s. However, this increasing interest in craft does not appear to be a reaction against the potentials of the computer. Instead it appears to be an interest in how handmade discovery and thinking might interface synergistically with digital environments.

The computer’s relationship with graphic design has had its critics; Alison Black, Mike Bradshaw, Bruce Mau and Bryan Lawson have all expressed concerns over its indescriminate use, so perhaps it is not surprising that in graphic design education, a reconsideration of manual craft has become increasingly evident. Students have begun to actively engage with letterpress, serigraphy, model making, bookbinding and analogue photography. They appear to be doing this in an effort to increase opportunities for higher levels of discovery, disruption and productive ambiguity in their work. Tactility, weight, scale, texture, grain, smell and viscosity have become new dimensions for many whose introduction to graphic design has largely been as ‘digital natives’. The design of creative learning environments that might enhance risk taking and the ability to capture errors is therefore of considerable importance. Moreover, post-digital craft environments may be seen as activating forms of social interaction (beyond online networks) that enable students to engage with craft’s unique potential for socio-spatial learning.

This reengagement is interesting if we understand the social history of craft because its reputation may be seen as an oscellation between adoration and marginalisation. Although the word ‘craft’ is derived from the old English cræft, meaning physical strength, it eventually came to describe the skillful making of things by hand. With the establishment of medieval guilds, status and organisation were brought to what had hitherto been associated with local industry. By the Renaissance an intellectual separation of practical craft and fine art occurred. In this split the artisan (framed as a skilled manual worker) was separated from the artist, who became a discrete cultural mediator.

In the nineteenth century, when mechanisation became heavily criticised by the Arts and Crafts Movement, craft found itself re-elevated. This time it was as the antithesis of factory production and ‘unwholesome’ commerce. Craft not only became a physical aspiration but also a manifestation of taste and egalitarianism. As David Crow noted in 2008, “hands were celebrated as capable of probing the world, bringing a unity of working and learning. No machinery could replace the sensitivity of hands. Craft practice became synonymous with individualism and integrity.” During this period, through the writing of William Morris and Walter Crane, craft became both theorised and associated with left wing ideals. However, in Germany by the 1920s and 1930s the culture of craft (as an anti-Modernist paradigm) had swung in the opposite direction and was now associated with the ideologies of the political right. This oscillation between the adored and the marginalised continued through the twentieth century, but slowly craft began a descent because Modernism re-positioned it as the posturing imitation of art. Consequently, the appreciation of fine art became increasingly an intellectual rather than a sensual engagement. With the increasing elevation of ‘concept’ over physical making, ‘factory’ artists like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons hired craftsmen to produce their work. 

However, in graphic design, despite its transparently commercial context, craft still held an elevated status in certain areas. Photography and illustration remained largely attributable crafts (in other words, the generators of the work were named and associated with the images they created). This may be seen distinctively in Poland during the 1950s and 1960s, when the crafts of painting, drawing and free hand writing were integral to the internationally respected posters by craft-designers like Ewa Frysztak, Ryszard Kiwerski, Jerzy Jaworowski and Jan Lenica.

Although a superficial analysis might suggest that handcraft descended into irrelevance when the desktop publishing market exploded in 1985, a closer consideration shows that it continued to percolate. In 2002, when Anne Odling-Smee produced her compendium of contemporary graphic designers who were challenging the centrality of the computer in their practice, she formed part of an increasing level of awareness around the role of hand rendered processes in the design thinking process. She claimed that the designers she included in her book, The New Handmade Graphics, were “no longer willing to put up with the homogeneity… spreading through globalization or the widespread use of modern technologies.”

In the wake of her work, a significant body of writing about physical making, creativity and graphic design began to surface. David Crow and Claude Marzotto discussed the computer as craft; Mike Perry documented the impact of serigraphy on graphic design; Stephen Heller, Klanten and Hellige, and Chen Design Associates considered the significance of handmade graphics; and Kate Peer began discussing craft as a form of post-disciplinary design practice. In the context of their writing, theorist/practitioners like David Jury and Charlotte Rivers also began publishing work that documented and supported the creative application of contemporary letterpress. 

With this rise of attention to the potentials of craft has come a deeper questioning of its place in design education. Twenty years ago, graphic design schools, close on the heels of the computer’s integration into the industry, began an ideological and pedagogical move from the drawing board to the keyboard. Classrooms (including those at AUT) increasingly featured rows or pods of computers and by the turn of the century, students looked up from their workstations into the ubiquitous face of an LCD projection. Although carpeted and subdued, these learning environments had come to resemble a Dickensian classroom. People sat in front of workstations. They rarely talked in large groups and despite the rhetoric of connectivity and choice, they increasingly worked as separate units. Because of the portability of computers many students eventually began to drift off-site, no longer working, thinking and discussing in communities, but instead completing ‘tasks’ in the physical isolation of their bedrooms, flats… or in privileged cases, private studios.  

However, if craft is both a thinking process and a community-oriented system of learning, then I would suggest that effective environments for practice-led learning in design are predicated on visual, tactile and oral discourse. Designers should learn in communities where physical and intellectual resources are shared, spaces and tools are contractually maintained and processes are physically studied and experimented with. Communities teach people to work with other people and underpin the professional studio environment in which most students will find themselves when they graduate. The advantage of such learning spaces lies not only in the explicit exposure of thinking that enables tutors to see into how a young designer genuinely develops design solutions, but also in the potential for synergy, shared learning, and concurrent critique. 

Although contemporary design education has largely dislocated craft from its early pedagogical practices (including its increasing habit of wheeling in ‘technicians’ to teach machinery and dislocating lecturers to the realm of ideas), craft’s blend of tacit and explicit learning and its emphasis on physical observation, experimentation, acquisition and application remains rich in potential. 

Certainly I have noticed that gifted, self-challenging design students almost ubiquitously seek out physical processes where risk-taking and disobedient thought operate together to produce unique outcomes. Beyond the rituals of mastery traditionally associated with craft, they have discovered that handmade thinking can heighten potentials for ambiguity, serendipitous discovery and productive accidents in ways beyond those encountered on a computer. Design schools, if they take seriously the potentials of craft learning need to make strategic accommodations of both plant and space but more importantly, they need to understand the unique nature of creativity, discovery and the role of craft in practice-led research. 

Craft is neither a dumbed down manufacturing skill nor the poor cousin of thinking. It is an embodied creative learning process. By engaging with tools and materials, designers can work in productively unstable environments where they may generate comparatively high levels of serendipitous, discovery-led learning. Here the unique marks of the maker become integral to what is designed. The designer engages in empathetic dialogues with tools, materials, scale, time, instability and physicality.

In 2010, Mike Press noted, “Craft is fighting for its survival in a climate of education cuts and persuasive arguments that design education must focus on the needs of industry and commerce.” This is true. But craft is integral to both generative design and the creative processes that feed it. Its value is as much about learning and teaching as it is about material. It is not an anachronism resurfacing as a nostalgic attempt to glorify the past. It is current, relevant and integral to both generative design and the creative processes that feed it. Thus, its value is as much pedagogical as it is material.

As designers we are concerned with growing ourselves as richly disobedient thinkers. We endeavour to reach beyond the constant and assured. Universities like AUT seek to nurture designers rich in courage, sensory awareness and inquisitiveness. If creativity is associated with productive instability and discovery, then we must think beyond pre-set functions. Within craft lie unique and irreplaceable potentials.

We marginalise them at our peril.