Craft and material

Bringing a design concept into the real world

This blog post summarizes Craft and Material, chapter 10 of Nelson and Stolterman’s “The design way” (TDW: 2012, 2003), see also the two previous posts. TDW merges several intellectual traditions, including Churchman’s systems approach, which also inspired our own book “Wicked Solutions.” It is not surprising that there are interesting parallels between the books, some of which we are happy to point out at the end of the summary.

Craft    …. (in the context of design) is a skill set used by designers (e.g. systems thinkers) to manipulate tools and material to bring a design concept into the real world. Craft is a process for maturing and finalizing a design. This process must lead to an end product in which the original design ideal or “parti” (see previous blog post) is still apparent. The crafting process is the innovative part of design. The term “innovation” should not be conflated with the term “creativity.” Creativity results in boundary-breaking design ideals, whereas craft-related innovation works within the boundaries set by ideal and reality.

Material   …. is definitely not limited to physical materials like water, iron, paper, or stone, but includes abstract material (symbols, numbers, essence) and people (social, cultural, and spiritual material). Material “speaks back” to the designer when he or she is building effective inter-relationships between materials. These inter-relationships must be strong and natural in relation to the whole (i.e. the design and its immediate surroundings) and the world (the wider relevant environment) for the design to be effective.

Connoisseurship and caretaking       A designer must become a connoisseur in his domain of activity in order to be able to handle his material with delicacy and intimacy and in order to produce quality and excellence in the final design. The quality of the final design is not apparent until the design is completed. Hence, an unfinished design may meet with considerable reticence or misunderstanding. This is partly due to it involving different people and design teams who often have complex and contradictory needs. This means that a design requires careful management and caretaking during the maturation process.

Parallels with “Wicked solutions”   Wicked solutions is about addressing wicked problems, i.e. human problem situations. This means that the material is mostly people. Because wicked solutions emphasizes values it looks at people as ethical material. Having said that, Wicked Solutions is very flexible and could probably be applied to many situations that concern design in a broad sense. The idea of looking at people as material brings organizational design, including soft systems thinking, within the compass of design. The notion of material “speaking back” points at the same idea, be it from the other end.

craft and material

The text of this blog post explains most of this concept map. The blog post is based on chapter 10 of The Design Way (2012), written by Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman


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