Materials and Makers

The divorce between design and production is to a large extent what makes the wholeness of work impossible for designers. Matisse Enzer, a once collaborator of Christopher Alexander, illustrates how such separation results in stagnant buildings:

Architects think of a building as a complete thing, while builders think of it and know it as a sequence—hole, then foundation, framing, roof, etc. The separation of design from making has resulted in a built environment that has no ‘flow’ to it—you simply cannot design an improvisation or an adaptation. It's dead.

In fact, the tension between architects and builders is not uncommon among other design disciplines—as seen between graphic designers and printers, industrial designers and manufacturers, software designers and developers. As Norman Potter points out, it is the nature of designer to communicate indirectly:

It must be clearly recognized that designers work and communicate indirectly, and their creative work finally takes the form of instructions to contractors, manufacturers and other executants.
The designer usually has the further responsibility of supervising the work, but there is no obvious equivalent for the feedback through eye-and-hand so familiar to the painter or sculptor, whereby the original idea is constantly developed, enriched, or diverted by the actual experience of the materials and the making-process.

Unlike fine-artist or craftsman who works directly with materials, the feedback loop in design is long and expensive. Designers have been struggling for ages to have the final product appear exactly as their design. What’s more harmful is that the more arduous the feedback loop is, the less experiment will happen. Dan LaCivita has put this well:

Designing is the process of picking the best option that you have gone through, but you need to go through that process. The more time that process takes, the more expensive that process is, the less you experiment. And you just fall back and default to what we know. But that’s not where great ideas often come from.

So how to bridge the gap between design and production? Well, there’re multiple ways to approach this, like Dan’s Play. But I’d like to approach it from the perspective of the wholeness of work—which leads to a natural answer that the designer should assume the role of a maker and reject the pigeonholing by an industry that rewards only specialization.

“Should designer code?” is an evasive if not completely meaningless controversy that haunts software makers. In this case, the answer is “heck yeah”. Not for the hype, and certainly not for the money, but for taking full control of the creation process, for gaining a tacit understanding of the materials by directly playing with them. The deeper appreciation one has for the materials, the more likely she will create something that honors and leverages their unique qualities.

Software designer often lacks an intimate connection with real materials, whereas you can often find an industrial design student sanding woods and studying different material finishes in the workshop. I remember vividly an industrial designer friend told me how dovetailing two pieces of acrylic in a certain way will make the structure more stable and solid. I was in awe, because I know this is something you won’t learn by drawing instructions but only through building things with your hands.

That’s why even before I learned anything about design I’ve been looking up to those independent developers—individuals or duos or squads, who design and ship things on their own. That’s why I admire designers who code, who master the power of not only conceptualization but also realization, who are able to transform their ideas into a live embodiment.

Getting my hands on the real material feels like nothing but a natural next step. At some point, a maker will simply find it inadequate to continue designing simulation and wants to get closer to reality. There’s nothing more freeing and satisfying when I envision something and know exactly how to achieve it—or at least have a vague idea of several possible ways of implementation and then proceed to test them out.

Muriel Cooper was such a designer and educator who always sought to build responsive tools and systems and demolish the boundary between design and production. In the seventies, she offered a studio class at MIT that later became the Visible Language Workshop, a constellation of courses that centered around hands-on production. In explaining the purpose of VLW, Cooper listed:

1. It would make use of the tools, processes and technologies of graphic arts media as directly as possible and the tools would be integrated with concept and product. Many of these are in the workshop...

2. The author would be the maker contrary to the specialization mode which makes the author of the content the author, the author of the form the designer, and the author of the craft the typographer/printer.

3. Visual and verbal representation of ideas would be synthesized rather than separate.

4. Time would remain as fluid and immediate as possible, leaving room for feedback and change.

In her mid-50s when computers were still chunky and intractable, Muriel Cooper turned away from print and committed entirely to screen-based interface design, developing some of the most pioneering interaction even by today’s standard. I’m not sure how much of Cooper’s ideal has been fulfilled by the computer and the internet, but among other things one can find that the merging of author and maker is epitomized by a specific genre of website: personal websites. They are indeed the perfect amalgamation of authoring, designing, and building.

The owner of a site creates and curates her content, devises her layouts, and codes them all together by herself. She builds her place from the ground up and shapes it however she wants. Through an alchemy of whims and hard work she brings to life her representation on the internet, a corner devoted to her quirkiness and a refuge housing her thoughts however weird and odd. A personal website is one’s individuality manifested to its fullest, a love letter to the world wide web as well as to the spirit of the maker.

Cheers to makers! Finally, here’s a dose of Cooper’s optimism for the advent of a digital medium :

I was convinced the line between reproduction tools and design would blur when information became electronic and that the lines between designer and artist, author and designer, professional and amateur, would also dissolve.