Making Theory: Useless Design/Risky Pedagogy

T. Hugh Crawford

As a technological institution, the Georgia Institute of Technology embraces design studios as fundamental to its pedagogical mission. In my work teaching the humanities at Tech, I make a serious effort to incorporate some design practices into classes, helping the students understand the complexity that making entails but also to build on the learning that making produces. Put simply, a student who has squared a round timber with broadax and adze has a different understanding of the second chapter of Thoreau’s Walden than the casual reader.

I use the term “Useless Design” to designate a pedagogical practice where the product being designed has little or no inherent economic or instrumental value, and the primary skills involved in its production will not likely be useful in a student’s academic or professional career. Learning the basics of blacksmithing or timber-framing does not generally lead to professionally useful skills for a Georgia Tech graduate. Instead, my purpose is to get students to become attentive, to think deeply about processes, to reflect on why they do the things they do, rather than measuring their success by making a practical application. This is where my approach diverges from many of the Georgia Tech design practices which are concerned with bringing a useful device or application to market. Useless Design helps students slow down, focus on and articulate both the familiar and the unfamiliar parts of making. Useless practices prompt naive questioning that probes historical circumstances and social norms, and helps develop a humanistic perspective on a technological world.  By recasting technology as a set of practices that must be learned and articulated through an historically sedimented space, I try to foreground making as a process that draws across many disciples and blurs most of those disciplinary boundaries.

David Pye, design theorist and master woodworker, makes a distinction between what he calls the workmanship of certainty and that of risk.  Although he does not privilege one term over the other, he makes an effort to draw out the positive value a workmanship of risk can produce.  Briefly, a workmanship of certainty involves the use of uniform materials and a highly regulated set of tools (tools that minimize an operator’s mistakes or variations).  A workmanship of risk, on the other hand, deploys non-uniform materials with generally unregulated tools, demanding of the worker careful attention through each step, an intimate understanding of both material and tool, and an awareness of ongoing and impending failure.  Such workers approach the task with care and humility, and never stop learning from the material, the tools, and the practice.  To paraphrase George Sturt, they must become “friends, as only a craftsman can be, with timber and iron. The grain of wood ​[tells] secrets to them.” Pye’s notion of the workmanship of risk helps define a pedagogy of risk, one where the final products are not clear, nor is the path to get there obvious.  A pedagogically risky class approaches assignments with care, humility, and openness.  It recognizes that the class, its projects and its practices must also be designed in an iterative process. The work is open-ended and exploratory: assignments, competencies, and labor are renegotiated and redistributed constantly, while all materials, tools, and practices are carefully questioned and historically situated. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger argues, risk discloses new worlds. 


[…] a student who has squared a round timber with broadax and adze has a different understanding of the second chapter of Thoreau’s Walden than the casual reader. 


Crafting Learning:

“Freshman Composition (1102).” The subject was the history of trees—primarily as commodities. After a series of readings and several paper assignments, the students decided to collaborate on a project focusing on the history of building practices, skill acquisition, and the role of modeling in knowledge production. They built three slices of a building that could be assembled into a small playhouse (not completely useless) via three teams: one researched 19th century building and made a timber-framed “bent,” one did 20th century building with dimensional lumber, and the last did 21st century building with plywood “slot and tab” techniques cut out on a large CNC machine. They made hand drawn plans, CADed plans, 3D printed or laser cut small scale models, and full scale section models.  At the same time they developed a set of learning objectives, and produced a series of exhibition materials including an illustrated magazine on the history of timber-framing, dimensional lumber construction, and the history of plywood and CNC production. They wrote essays on modeling, design and “learning by doing,” and made animated GIFs of CADed plans, videos showing building, posters on history of materials, and, of course, a web page.

“Major Author Seminar: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and 19th Century Technology.” Students read the novel as an encyclopedia of 19th century technology, with each producing a research project on the relation of that technology to 21st century practices.  In addition, they chose several technologies to understand through “hands-on learning” including rope production, knot tying, celestial navigation, candle production, blacksmithing (they forged a harpoon on an anvil), and a 22 ft. plywood model of a whale skeleton cut on a CNC machine eventually donated to a south Atlanta nature center.

After reading Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, the class proceeded to frame up a full scale version of his house using only the tools he could have used: axes, adzes, chisels, and hand-saws (no power tools). 

“Major Author Seminar: Henry David Thoreau.”  After reading Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, the class proceeded to frame up a full scale version of his house using only the tools he could have used: axes, adzes, chisels, and hand-saws (no power tools).  They went to the woods, chopped down trees, squared them with broad axes, and framed up the building.  They also wrote essays, made a documentary film, and presented their research at several scholarly conferences.

Each of these projects’ uselessness is their greatest asset (e.g., the harpoon will thankfully never strike a whale). Instead, the students questioned each step in their processes, discussed at length any design proposal, and constantly reframed forms of mediation and the goals of their research.  They learned that all materials—wood, paper, 3D printing, iron, words, etc.—are recalcitrant, and that making involves both designing objects and designing learning.

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