NYT:Digital Designers Rediscover Their Hands

17 Aug 2008 - 2:45am
499 reads
Murli Nagasundaram

"Some people thought we were crazy to do this," says Michael Gough, a
vice president for design at Adobe. "But for others, the experience
has started to inform how they work," giving them a better
appreciation of how customers experience Adobe's programs.

My son has never dismantled a bicycle. For me, it used to be an
annual ritual to take the whole thing apart, lovingly clean off the
dirt and grime and make the parts shine, and then put the thing back
together again. Fixing a flat tire was such an engrossing,
flow-generating activity.


August 17, 2008
Digital Designers Rediscover Their Hands

GEVER TULLEY has only one qualification for training software
designers how to become more creative. He teaches children how to
build objects like gravity-powered wooden roller coasters with their
hands, at his Tinkering School in Montara, Calif., south of San

Now Mr. Tulley does the same thing for dozens of adults who are in the
front ranks of software design at Adobe, the big software supplier
based in San Jose, Calif. In daylong workshops, about 100 Adobe
designers wrestle with plastic beads, small electronic displays, Ikea
water glasses and tiny sensors to create wacky motion games. Usually,
about the only thing these folks touch on the job is a computer mouse.

"Some people thought we were crazy to do this," says Michael Gough, a
vice president for design at Adobe. "But for others, the experience
has started to inform how they work," giving them a better
appreciation of how customers experience Adobe's programs.

"So we're going to keep pushing it," Mr. Gough says.

Mr. Tulley's transformation highlights a little-noticed movement in
the world of professional design and engineering: a renewed
appreciation for manual labor, or innovating with the aid of human

"A lot of people get lost in the world of computer simulation," says
Bill Burnett, executive director of the product design program at
Stanford. "You can't simulate everything."

Using computers to model the physical world has become increasingly
common; products as diverse as cars and planes, pharmaceuticals and
cellphones are almost entirely conceived, specified and designed on a
computer screen. Typically, only when these creations are nearly ready
for mass manufacturing are prototypes made — and often not by the
people who designed them.

Creative designers and engineers are rebelling against their
alienation from the physical world. "The hands-on part is for me a
critical aspect of understanding how to design," said Michael
Kuniavsky , a consultant in San Francisco who for three years has
convened a summer gathering of leading designers, called "Sketching in

At last month's session, at the Rhode Island School of Design,
attendees broke into small groups, wielding soldering irons and
materials their grandfathers probably knew more about.

Such experiences hone instinct and intuition as opposed to logic and
cognition, advocates say, and bring the designer closer to art than

"I'm not sure employers are recognizing the importance of hands-on,"
Mr. Kuniavsky says.

Mr. Gough began to appreciate the possibilities of Mr. Tulley's "learn
by making" idea for Adobe only after his own children attended the
Tinkering School.

Part of corporate resistance to experimenting with hands-on activities
comes from the difficulty of measuring the value of paying employees
to, say, build a go-cart or a radio set while in the office. Yet
educators say the benefits, even if intangible, are clear. "All your
intelligence isn't in your brain," Mr. Burnett says. "You learn
through your hands."

At Stanford, the rediscovery of human hands arose partly from the
frustration of engineering, architecture and design professors who
realized that their best students had never taken apart a bicycle or
built a model airplane. For much the same reason, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology offers a class, "How to Make (Almost)
Anything," which emphasizes learning to use physical tools

"Students are desperate for hands-on experience," says Neil
Gershenfeld, who teaches the course.

Paradoxically, yearnings to pick up a hammer — or an oscilloscope —
may deepen even as young people immerse themselves in simulated
worlds. "People spend so much time in digital worlds that it creates
an appetite for the physical world," says Dale Dougherty, an executive
at O'Reilly Media, which is based in Sebastopol, Calif., He manages a
magazine, Maker, that is devoted to building digital-era gear.

Fifty years ago, tinkering with gadgets was routine for people drawn
to engineering and invention. When personal computers became
widespread starting in the 1980s, "we tended to forget the importance
of physical senses," says Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the London
School of Economics.

Making refinements with your own hands — rather than automatically, as
often happens with a computer — means "you have to be extremely
self-critical," says Mr. Sennett, whose book "The Craftsman" (Yale
University Press, 2008), examines the importance of "skilled manual
labor," which he believes includes computer programming.

EVEN in highly abstract fields, like the design of next-generation
electronic circuits, some people believe that hands-on experiences can
enhance creativity. "You need your hands to verify experimentally a
technology that doesn't exist," says Mario Paniccia, director of
Intel's photonics technology lab in Santa Clara, Calif. Building
optical switches in silicon materials, for example, requires engineers
to test the experimental switches themselves, and to build test
equipment, too.

Bringing human hands back into the world of digital designers may have
profound long-term consequences. Designs could become safer, more
user-friendly and even more durable.

At the very least, the process of creating things could become a
happier one. While working in simulated computer worlds has undeniable
appeal, Mr. Tulley says, "the physical act of making things helps the
whole person."

G. Pascal Zachary writes about technology and economic development.
E-mail: gzach at nytimes.com.

murli nagasundaram, ph.d. | www.murli.com | murli at murli.com | +91 99 0269 6920

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