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From Craft to Design Thinking, and Back Again

When I tell people I am a designer, I often get a difficult question. “What do you design?” This is a real pickle: recently the practice of design has become so nebulous and all-encompassing that the word as we classically understand it seems to have lost some of its connotations. It’s easy for a person to conceive of an architect designing a house, but designing a business strategy or public health service is harder to imagine. As both a woodworker and a design thinker, I have a stake in the traditional and material understandings of design, and in that big intangible process of design thinking. What I hope to show here, to friends in craft and industrial design, as well as in business strategy and public policy, is that these practices aren’t incongruous at all. From a milking stool to a neighborhood redevelopment, all designs are complex systems.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with someone at a service design firm in Toronto. Out of both commercial necessity and belief in the service design process, this person was interested in how service designers and design thinkers can better articulate their skills and approaches to potential clients, who might come to them simply expecting a website redesign. He specifically talked about how crucial it is to design both strategically and tactically— in my mind, how to design the plan from afar, and then actualize it from within. Figuring out the best ways to do this is a continually evolving quest for the field of service and systems design, but the conversation immediately reminded me of two inspirations to me as a builder and woodworker: The Prickly Mountain homes of the 1960’s and 70’s, and Enzo Mari’s Autoproteggazione?. Both are examples of classically trained designers asking questions of the wider systems of their designs by working materially on their craft, and making that process available to others.

In the 1960’s, a group of architects from Yale University bought 400 acres of land in Central Vermont. Disenchanted with the idea of spending a career rendering architectural plans and handing them off to builders, David Sellers and several classmates set out to start building houses themselves— with absolutely no drawings or plans. These structures are designed tactically as a rule, each next step informed by the affordances of what has already been built. The houses drew national attention, especially from other architects enchanted by the process.

The tactical nature of these designs was radical in the early ’70’s, and still is today. It allowed for exploration that simply would not have been possible in the traditional architect/builder relationship. As design theorist Cameron Tomkinwise notes, “Designers, at their best, should be always mindful that what they are creating is never just a product, but a production.”[1] In joining the processes of design and build, these productions re-ignited a conversation between creative conception and construction still ongoing.

At the same time, Italian furniture designer Enzo Mari was working hard to put his work in line with his socialist values, with mixed results. He believed that everyone should have access to good design, and strived to create furniture that would be affordable to people with modest means. After a number of commercial failures, it occurred to Mari that his clientele might need some knowledge of furniture construction in order to be able to discern well-made furniture. In 1974 he published Autoprogettazione? — a book of plans for household furniture from tables, to shelves, bed frames to chairs, all of which could be constructed at home with a saw, hammer, nails, and cheap and readily available knotty pine. Mari hoped that these plans would give people the opportunity to own beautiful and functional furniture on the cheap, and, through the process of building it themselves, develop a discerning appreciation for well-made furniture. With Autoprogettazione? Enzo Mari laid out plans for not only furniture, but also for an intelligent and interested clientele.

The work of the Prickly Mountain architects and Enzo Mari stand as a reminder that material mastery and complex social design are not only congruent, but perhaps even necessary to each other. The Prickly Mountain architects broke out of their normative professional duties to explore new possibilities tactically through material experimentation. Enzo Mari used his own material expertise strategically, effectively developing teaching materials that would allow his clientele to explore the possibilities of furniture for themselves. It is probably too reductive to say that design is the strategy to the tactics of craftmanship. Instead, these examples serve as a reminder to people with material skills that they are well set up to think socially and strategically— and also, to those of us who specialize in thinking socially and strategically, that material thinking is an indispensable tactic in the exploration of complex problems.

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