27 February 2007

Poets of (sometimes lost) interaction

Sandra's post below on Technocraft rang a few bells.....

The January issue of Icon ran a piece called Digital Poets by Daniel West describing how "A new generation of designers is moving beyond traditional product and furniture design, and using technology to enrich the way people interact with objects and spaces." Again, it was centred on ideas and graduates coming out of the RCA's Designing Interactions course led by Tony Dunne. As Dunne is quoted as saying in the article: “A materials-led approach to design is expanding to embrace digital technologies... New hybrids of design are emerging. People don’t fit in neat categories; they’re a mixture of artists, engineers, designers, thinkers. They’re in that fuzzy space and might be finding it quite tough, but the results are really exciting.”

The Icon and Wallpaper articles cover similar ground and cite some of the same practitioners. While few (if any) of them would define themselves as craftmakers, that is not really the point. What we have is evidence that craft thinking and processes are engaging with interaction design as a form of critical design. My only frustration is that design journalists seem to have immense difficulty in looking outside London and the RCA for evidence of exciting and relevant work in this field.

I have an interest in how craft makers are engaging with digital culture, but I'm not convinced that 'Technocraft' is really that appropriate as a label for them. I'm playing with definitions here, but let's see how this works...

iCraft. We have people like Justin Marshall and his colleagues in the Autonomatic group - excellent makers working at a post-doctoral level - who are exploring the integration of digital process into their workshop-based practice, and helping to define a digital craft aesthetic. Their mission is to "raise the profile of making in 21st century design culture". There is exploration of how the relationships between craft, industry and digital process can be redefined to create new physical possibilities.

HybridMakers. Then there are those who are bridging craft and new media, moving away - to varying degrees - from physical objects, but still using creative methods that are rooted in making and indeed champion making as a method. John Marshall (no relation) I would place in this camp (perhaps he disagrees), and Jane Harris most definitely is.

CraftInteractionists. These makers are using crafted objects and craft process to explore new possibilities of interaction design. Here we have examples such as Jayne Wallace, Hazel White (in collaboration with Ewan Steel) and Sarah Kettley. A number of the 'Technocraft' examples also fall into this category. Particularly interesting is the work of Ranjit Makkuni, an interaction designer formerly based at Xerox PARC, and who was this week the subject of a feature in Business Week. He is developing exciting work that uses artists and craftmakers to create innovative interactive environments. As he says in another recent interview:

"My recent work, the Crossing, is looking at new forms of hardware and mobile devices that unlock the symbols, spaces and interpretations of Banaras. This would be an example of a project in which there was multiple layers of design: from crafts, to metal work, to wood crafts, to paintings, to all the stuff that we do with embedded programming such as in situ embedded audio and graphics, to video, to graphic design, to multimedia design-all of this integrated to create very rich experiences."

Also, here at Dundee, Graham Pullin, formerly of IDEO, has done a great student project - The Museum of Lost Interactions - that cyberpunk guru Bruce Sterling described as: "this dead-media hoax 'museum exhibit' by these Scots design students is just the awesomest." While this is not interaction design by craft makers, it demonstrates the value of 'crafted' objects that that tell stories about interaction and culture.

Linking back to Andrew Wagner's point raised in this blog a few days back, craft has such immense diversity that we need to celebrate and revel in. And try to make sense of. It is fortunate that many of those working in these particular areas of craft practice will be at New Craft Future Voices this July. I look forward to what they have to say.


  1. Hi Mike
    I think this breakdown of craft at the digital interface is good. I would just like to add one other category, namely craft intermediators.

    This references my work with the Jewellery Department in Dundee on the Evoke Project, which was concerned with the interpretation of the meaning associated with jewellery. Specifically the communication between the maker and the viewer/buyer and ensuring that the use of digital media enhances the holistic nature of the experience.


    Such a category also includes the work of Fanke (Eva) Peng who is looking at the role of digital media in craft object research.


    Both of these areas are concerned with ensuring coherence between craft process, principles and digital media.

  2. I am perfectly happy to sit in the category of HybridMakers. I have added some other thoughts at http://designedobjects.blogspot.com/2007/03/craft-research-blog.html