By Norman Lau
When I have time in the middle of my day, I like to make things with little bits of clay—you’ll know my studio desk by the menagerie of clay animals parading across it. But there is something deeply satisfying about the act of making. I believe it gives a different part of my designer brain some exercise. I like to refer to it as “thinking with my hands.”
Sometimes it seems like I don’t get enough opportunities to make things. Instead, I’m usually learning about how design thinking can create change in areas like services, sustainability, or social causes. This provides valuable discussions, to be sure, but I can’t help feeling like I’m losing sight of something when I forgo the work of the hand for the work of the head.
Now, I’m not about to rally designers to drop design thinking in favor of arts and crafts. Design thinking is a powerful idea and creates opportunities for designers in places that little clay animals never would (no matter how darling they are). But I do think a philosophy of making can help illuminate our relationships with our things and our world, relationships that are key in our role as designers.
For example, one of my projects called for the construction of a table with a projected display on the surface. I found that the process of building the physical table helped me think about how people would interact with it. Would designers use it standing up or sitting down? Would the display be readable by everyone surrounding the table? How would these factors change the experience? Seeing the real thing allowed me to think about my design in new ways.
The act of making forces us to articulate ideas in a more concrete fashion. It implies an intimate engagement with our materials and an understanding of the constraints they impose on our designs. We are forced to approach our creations with a degree of humility because their success depends on qualities external to ourselves. And yet, we are empowered through the experience of making because we gain clearer vision of what can and should be made.
To the designer who would view making as an afterthought to the design process, I would argue that we make things to understand them. It is only through an understanding of our things that we can effect change in the real world, change that goes beyond design frameworks and models.
And when it’s not practical for us to master the necessary craft, we should give due respect to those who have. The people we work with—clients, users, programmers, and engineers—have all spent their professional careers gaining experience in their particular domains. The maker’s humility that I mentioned helps us to recognize and appreciate someone else’s expertise.
We should all take time to “think with our hands” every once in a while. For designers, the act of making is a particularly valuable reminder that we design for the real world, not just for the sake of designing.