Learning by Making

Adriel Rollins


Adriel Rollins

Industrial Design education must always endeavor to close the gap between academic experience and vocational relevance. To this end, students are trained how to use the latest tools available to the design community, such as 3-D software, computer rendering, rapid prototyping, and computer assisted manufacturing. Proficiency in this area of study reflects current requirements for entrance into the profession. This has been true for quite some time. In fact, enough time has gone by that design thinkers are evaluating the results of this training. It is at this time that a new light is cast upon an old debate; manual skills verses digital skills. This is not a debate regarding class or nostalgia. The bigger question that has come to light is: What gets lost when digital technologies replace physical drawing, model making, and prototyping? While industrial design programs still require some manual skills, some schools are emphasizing design processes, start-to-finish, that are hands-off. Students who focus solely on the mastery of screen work will miss the benefits of engaging the other five senses prevalent in physical work. These senses connect to the brain in a way that informs the students’ multi-sensory design intelligence. When digital tools are used without this tactile experience, the head and hand are separated. Simulation can be a poor substitute for tactile experience. What is at stake is a false sense of security. Sophisticated rendering programs allow for powerful presentations, but can be misused if the seductive nature of the presentation arrives before solutions are built into the final design. Design students are better served learning how to discover problems rather than hide them behind communication imagery. CAD and rapid prototyping can suppress manufacturing difficulty. In design school, this may never be exposed. In professional practice, however, this gap is expressed. In the professional world, this false security is expensive, wasteful, and destructive. This is widely known because it occurs in professional practice every day. Why not instead train students to think like craftsmen? Education in any creative field must begin with questioning the absoluteness of the lived world. Students cannot do this by looking at a screen alone. They need empathy for materials and processes that are best learned through repetitive, concrete, hands-on training.

Using well documented experiences with hands-on activities, a series of tests will be conducted which pit the designer’s instincts against real-world applications. The drawings and diagrams common to initial conceptualization will be considered the beginning of product development, followed by hands-on conceptualization in the shop space. This activity will demonstrate that when designers consider the shop space as part of the problem-solving studio, the results will be notably different and unique to any other alternative or simulation. Initial results record a great sense of accomplishment preceded by frustration, on-the-fly changes in course, new-found empathy for the materials and rewriting the script or throwing it out completely. In essence, everything the designer does not know at the completion of hands-off conceptualization will come out in the experience of making. Instead of powering around roadblocks and worrying about deadlines, this effort will zoom in on the roadblocks in an attempt to understand hypothetical flaws. The outcome will be a fresh new approach to Industrial Design curriculum which emphasizes hands-on making and the importance of building a genuine sense of security in the overall design process. Hands-on making in a shop environment increases the overall potential of Industrial Design students by giving them the tools and knowledge exclusively available within the hands-on, (manual skills) experience.