Making as Sense Making

Agile, Experience Design

I’ve read Matthew Crawford‘s book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft” a few times now. It has earned a permanent place on my bedside table. I plan on reading it again several more times. He is a senior fellow at UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and owns a motorcycle shop where he custom fabricates parts for vintage bikes. His book laments the demise of shop classes in high schools across the US. But rather than just being a loud warbling wail expressing the end of high school taught shop classes, which would be too easy, he digs deep into psychological values of getting your hands covered in grime and grease and into the machine. Shop craft is, in all ways, a sense making skill. I’ve found that working with your hands is a quick and dependable way to get into what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow state”.

In my world prototyping is very close and very much akin to the era and value of shop classes. To prototype well means to have a reason for doing so. To prototype is much the same as taking apart an engine in shop class. With each piece disassembled comes an understanding of intention. An understanding of the function of each piece necessitates an understanding of the purpose of the whole. In the case of an engine it means understanding the function of a valve or a cylinder ring as they work in concert to change a combustible gas into the power and energy required to move a motorcycle or a car. If you hold either in your hands they are small things but are both essential for converting gasoline to energy. Each has its function in the whole and each has a purpose that helps you understand the intention of the maker. As you take apart the engine, your hands and fingers begin to know and understand that intention nonverbally, sensing the machinist’s craft and the engineer’s mind. As you take it apart things begin to make sense. You get how the machine works. And you understand the purpose and function of each part.

Prototyping must be the same. A prototype cannot be created without understanding purpose. And purpose cannot be created without understanding audience. Prototyping is committing to exploring and defining a hypothesis by the act of making. By it’s very nature and purpose a prototype is a learning tool. It helps us make sense of purpose. As we define it – we refine the skills required to make it.  And our learning grows.

Matthew Crawford’s TED talk is wonderful to watch.