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


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
This entry was posted in Design thinking. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s