Richard Sennet and The Craftsman: The debate continues…

Earlier in the week I posted on a book I had recently read by Richard Sennett, The Craftsman.  In particular, I focussed on Sennett’s position that use of technology could, in many ways be viewed as leading to fundamental impairment to the development of skill.

I wanted to return to this because I have received some incredibly interesting feedback from people from a variety of disciplines.  And I’m  interested in seeing where else the debate may ultimately lead.

To utilize CAD to its full advantage requires competence.  That was never under dispute.  But the issue under discussion was whether or not the use of CAD impacted on  craftsmanship and whether or not the distance placed between designing products using  this technology deprived us of the repetition and the experience required to actually physically produce ourselves.

As with many things, CAD technologies are tools that can be used well or badly.  But CAD,  as posited by Sennett, is a design tool, and he casts doubt as to whether or not, when something is successfully created via Computer Aided Design, the creator is fully aware of how this outcome is achieved. Because of the head and hand disconnect. And a reliance on technology to bridge that gap.

What it is to be a maker, as opposed to being a designer is an issue that myself and many of my colleagues face, particularly at this stage in our academic career when we are encouraged to focus on where we want to position ourselves within industry.  As several have commented , you can spend hours honing your designs on a computer – equally as long, if not longer than you would spend in the studio physically making an object.  Is that not craft?  Is not the process of designing, essentially making?

Some people have contacted me to say that they view CAD as a different way of working that compliments existing skills and allows for objects to be created which could simply not be made by hand.  But this still does not address the issue with regards to having a fully developed understanding of the materials that you are working with: something which comes from physical experience of creating with your medium.

If you consider yourself a designer rather than a maker, to really push the design process requires an intimate understanding of your materials, something which you are distanced from by using CAD.

Whilst you may be creating with technology, you are still physically distanced from the  final object.

Once again, I’m very interested on hearing from you so please join the debate!



Filed under Inspiration, Random Ramblings

5 responses to “Richard Sennet and The Craftsman: The debate continues…

  1. “If you consider yourself a designer rather than a maker, to really push the design process requires an intimate understanding of your materials, something which you are distanced from by using CAD.

    Whilst you may be creating with technology, you are still physically distanced from the final object.”

    Materials scientists know materials. That’s their job. They know them down to the molecular structure.
    But their “knowledge” is very, very different from how designers see them.
    So think about the swimming costumes worn at the Olympics that are credited with breaking so many records. Who designed them? The materials scientists? Or the “designer” who worked them in to a costume? Or the swimming team who trialled them?

    You’re going to say “all of them”, which is right. They’re all the designers. Yet all three groups (stakeholders) know the materials in very, very different ways. The materials scientists used theoretical knowledge and physical modelling on a computer. The costume designer used their practical knowledge of the textile itself. The swim team used their experience of using the actual costume itself. And they worked through iteration after iteration, the swimmers telling the designer how something should feel, or fit, the designer refining the design, the scientists refining the textile.
    The designer is physically distanced from the object because she’s not wearing it or using it. The swimmers are physically attached to the object, but they don’t know the material in the same way as the designer or the scientists.

    But let me return to the idea that value lies in meaning, and that craft’s value lies in its ability to facilitate meaning, not the demonstration of skill (stick with me on this).
    Let’s take an engagement ring. The giver of the ring and the wearer of the ring are intimately connected to the ring (the object) in a way the designer is not. The designer’s knowledge of the material is, no pun intended, immaterial, because the value of an engagement ring doesn’t exist in the object but in the meaning of the object. A simple brass ring can be as important as the most intricately worked bit of platinum and gold.
    Which is the better designer? The one who makes the simple bit of brass? Or the one who works the precious metal?
    Once you see craft or design in this way, material knowledge is less vital – not unimportant, but not essential.

    What you’re positing there is an ideological point of view (a belief that you seem to be insisting is the only true belief and can be used to judge others) and you’ll see it discussed in that Bourdieu chapter I mentioned. All areas of specialism (all of which, incidentally, call themselves forms of craft or art, such as mechanics, plumbing, teaching, lawyering…) insist there is an accepted way of doing things, and that anyone who does it differently is not “authentic”. They set rules and standards for entry based on those ideological positions, and those who practice without approval are deemed to be rogues. In large part that’s to defend the position of those at the top – they act as gatekeepers – and to keep a profession “special”. But those positions ignore the fact that ultimately the outputs of those specialisms are not for the benefit of the creators.

    Bourdieu called things like the rules you’re suggesting “illusio” – rules of the game that only make sense to the people playing the game. In other words, the insiders. To outsiders, it makes no sense.


    I would argue that you DON’T need an intimate understanding of your materials in order to push the design process and that it’s possible to see how having no preconceptions allows you to do things others would say couldn’t be done. For example, architects have been pushing the envelope when it comes to materials that their predecessors would have insisted couldn’t be used in particular ways.
    E.g. stone (and concrete). Stone can’t bend. It is very weak in certain directions and snaps very easily. That means if you build a structure with it, it can only have really small, square, holes in it. So what if you want a big hole, like a massive window? Sorry – can’t be done.
    Ah but what if you build an arch? That way the forces are kept in the right direction and the stone doesn’t break!
    That’s what allowed us to build tall structures like cathedrals. Nothing to do with understanding the material, everything to do with wanting to glorify god and really annoy the next town who just finished their crappy little church with its square windows.

    As it happens, that’s a really poor example for reasons I won’t go into (because it might defeat my argument) but it is very similar to what’s happening now. “I don’t want a square skyscraper, I want one that curves!”
    Well with your understanding of conventional materials you would say, sorry, can’t be done.
    Or you could say, wait a minute, let’s see how it could be done either by adapting existing materials, using materials we wouldn’t normally use or even inventing new ones. Or, like the cathedral example, figuring out how the structure can overcome the weaknesses!
    Case in point: the glass staircases in Apple Stores and the curved glass structure of the Shanghai Apple Store. Apple said “we want this”, they and their suppliers figured it out, and created a material that allows it. It didn’t happen the other way around…

    Knowing the rules, as it were, tends to reinforce them. Not caring about the rules, usually through ignorance of them, allows for free thinking.
    That’s not to say that won’t happen if you really know your material (heaven knows there are many designers who do innovate with a deep understanding of the materials) but experience shows that most people use their knowledge to repeat what they know, not challenge it. (watch “Better By Design” – the library should have it. The toilet episode where they talk to the ceramics experts is a treat).

    I recommend the book “Where Good Ideas Come From” which puts forward the theory (convincingly) that virtually every major innovation has come from people who know little, if anything, about one area working with someone who knows little, if anything about theirs, and asking naive questions. Innovation happens when people ask stupid questions. But it turns out, they’re not stupid.

    I’ll leave you with this – my point about buildings brought it to mind. I saw a “reconstruction” of this at the Royal Academy the other week. I put “reconstruction” in quote marks because the original design was never built because at the time, it wasn’t really possible. It is now.
    Tatlin’s Tower

  2. If a person utilizes CAD as their only design tool, & uses same repeatedly, then I think the person will come to an understanding of their materials. No matter how well thought out the design, if the materials will only react to the design as they are capable of doing by virtue of the materials’ composition, then the designer will have to work with the material, not dictate it’s existence. However, the crafters’ understanding & relationship with the chosen materials will not extend to a tactile relationship unless the crater physically designs & molds the material. Which is O.K…some people may not be interested in getting their hands dirty, so to speak. So long as the crafter/designer is transparent about the processes they use, then I’m fine with buying/admiring/living with CAD-based objects.

  3. I’m going to use jewellery as an example here because we’re both jewellers.

    You make a piece of jewellery, it begins as an idea in your head, spreads to the pages of a sketchbook, perhaps develops as you play with samples and then is created as a result of your development.

    I get an idea, I visualise it through a CAD model and render, I prototype it with a 3D print, I have it cast, I clean it up to a finished state.

    Which one of us didn’t ‘craft’ an object? Which one of us didn’t play with samples? Which one of us was disconnected with materials? Which one of us didn’t design, which one of us didn’t make? Will either of us cause the death of craft as we know it or will we expand the boundaries of the discipline?

    I read a quote by David Goodwin once where he said something like ‘my designs wouldn’t exist without CAD’. I thought that was a bit pretentious because I was sure that his designs were not beyond the abilities of a good maker, however, after I read the full article the quote came from I found out that what he actually said was (paraphrasing here) his designs wouldn’t exist because CAD was his visualisation tool. If it wasn’t for CAD he would be unable to get his designs out of his head. When he has his jewellery cast from CAD models and gets it back he has to finish it off, he also does a lot of stone setting into his pieces, do you think he will be disconnected from his materials? I doubt it, I think he’ll understand them very well.

    My whole point is that there are so many scenarios of ‘who works in what style’ that a generalisation like CAD designers don’t craft or they are disconnected from the full experience is very wrong. CAD is a string to the craft bow in my opinion, another skill added to the toolbox by DJCAD and very welcome it is too.

    You should go to Sennet’s talk in Glasgow and put your questions to him face to face.

    David Goodwin link –

    Should that book not be called The Craftsperson!

  4. I’m a bit late to the discussion, but I’ve been reading all the responses and such and I think I may be able to lend my two cents (sense) to this discussion. For one I think I come at it from a very different view point then most people here. For me sculpting is the craft, the fabrication, the direct link of hand and mind, the tactile creation of something and the idea which lies within. For one thing I don’t always come at my sculpture with an idea in advance, the materials in front of me are what moves me to the next discovery, but I’m digressing a bit. For me auto CAD is awesome. I don’t design in CAD very often, but I cherish the opportunities… however it’s, more often than not, an impractical solution for most of my problems. But you see CAD is just a tool in an arsenal. And I do believe if one enters into the design world directly at the CAD stage they are creating a bit of a gulf between themselves and the material. But of course there isn’t actually anything wrong with that, because the tides of art no longer dictate the classical theory that one should immediately see the connection between the work of the hand and the work of the mind. This was a necessary connection in art before the age of expressionism came along, and without a display of virtuousic talent in your particular medium, you are nothing. But again, CAD is also a medium, and a truly talented CAD sculpture can easily be recognized as that (especially by those familiar with the trade).

    But to get away from art history and focus on the present and the good or bad of what is happening, I think I would have to air on the side of fear and caution. Craft is dying, much like punk rock and hip hop, and it’s being replaced by some amalgamated electronica. And yes, as Jonathon Baldwin said, there is always going to be craft, even in the factories there is skill and talent. And on the individual level there always is and there always will be. But the cumulative effect, is similar to the lament “no one person can make a pencil”, art becomes an idea espoused by anyone. And the game is no longer what you can create and why you are creating it or even what you are saying by making it… but rather who you can impress and how you can control the art markets with it. The premier example here being Damien Hurst (Herst?) who’s skills as an artist are mediocre at best, but whose marketing talents and ability to hire people to create whatever he wants has made him toe the line of becoming the first billionaire artist. And essentially that is the direction art looks to be taking, the corporate super-structure. The board of trustees coming up with the final say so on what will sell in the multitude of world wide Gagosian galleries.

    So it may seem that I’ve digressed a bit, again, but my belief is that the further from hand we move the faster the soul of art get’s sucked out of it in the same way we’ve sucked the soul out of most things in this world. Of course learning the talents of CAD and Z-brush (which I personally love) are necessary skills in an evolving technologically based art world. But an outsourced reality in art is tantamount to a good and proper skull-fucking of the classical notions of what art is and should be. Pardon my french.

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