Critical making

At Books in Browsers last week, John Maxwell and Haig Armen delivered a brief talk about "The craft of the book in the age of the web". In it, they explored what might become of the book as its form merges with that of the web. I found their talk to be a useful reminder, not an elegy, as they asked and tried to answer some basic questions:'

Have we lost sight of the craft tradition of the book in the age of the web? If so, what happens to that wealth of knowledge and wisdom? Or is that tradition migrating to new contexts—in which case, what is lost and what is gained in translation?

As it happened, I'd already been reading a separate paper, also written by Maxwell and Armen, on "Index cards and the handcraft of creative thinking". Their work, first presented at an academic meeting in June, explores a bit of the history and implications of card-based writing and reading. They see three modes of use for these cards:

  • As textual documents, read in linear or other manners
  • As indexes, a representation of another object
  • As a visual cue and a vehicle for engagement and manipulation

Toward the last point, Maxwell and Armen invoke "a laboratory for teaching object-oriented thinking", a paper published in 1989. At the time its authors noted:

[W]e were surprised at the value of physically moving the cards around. When learners pick up an object they seem to more readily identify with it, and are prepared to deal with the remainder of the design from its perspective. It is the value of this physical interaction that has led us to resist a computerization of the cards.

By concidence, the value of manipulatives – of interacting with something physical as part of an act of creation – was a common theme at two very different meetings I attended on consective weekends earlier this month. At the first, a reunion of my business-school class, Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano argued that U.S. manufacturing was losing access to a range of technologies considered critical to sustained innovation. With a colleague, Pisano explained how a Kindle could not be made in the United States, because we no longer maintain the equipment and skill bases required for its core technologies.

A week later, I attended a parents' weekend at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The university president, John Maeda, and the school's provost, Rosanne Somerson, discussed a new book, The Art of Critical Making, written by RISD faculty and staff. The book explores the school's "culture of 'critical making', in which the hand and mind combine to envision and create essential objects, experiences and meanings."

The books describes an approach to "critical making" that is at once academic and intuitive to anyone interested in innovation (presented here verbatim):

  • Frame critical questions through an iterative process
  • Apply hands-on, embodied approaches to problems
  • Enhance seeing through closer looking
  • Meet uncertainty with flexibility
  • Evaluate and articulate the significance of one's work
  • Generate ethical responses to global needs

This is a list that both Maxwell and Armen would likely embrace. Less nostalgic for the past than most, they are also mindful that the present and future can benefit from a careful consideration of what made the past so darn good for so darn long.

Books in Browsers attendees were rewarded this year with a tee shirt that featured the conference logo surrounded by a bit of a manifesto: "One does not simply put a book into a browser." That gets to the point in a couple of ways.

Publishing books on the web remains a work in progress, and the form of the book will evolve with it. Borrowing from Pisano, Maeda and Somerson: if we're not hands-on, we're potentially critical steps removed from the tools and insights we need to continue to innovate. 

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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