Making and Thinking

On Making and Other Froths

Ambra Trotto

We, human beings, are nowadays often lost in complexity. We tend to face it in a modernistic and Cartesian way, i.e., by trying to control it and by simplifying it. I believe that complexity is better handled by trusting intuition, playing with the elements of resistance and accepting to float in ambiguity. But our culture does not provide the skills to do it this way. The tendency is to fragment complexity in simpler bits, so that it can be digested and people feel reassured. This too often drifts towards simplification, banality, and at times even towards infantilisation. Huxley, in "Brave new World" (1932), described a drug, soma, which had exactly this reassuring, simplifying effect. Thanks to this drug taken by everybody, a society of inept, tranquil men was built, where inept is meant in the literal sense of "having or showing no skill" (definition by the Oxford American Dictionary). In this science-fictive society, dangerously evocative of our contemporary one, people were controllable, kept in a state of dependence. They were neither autonomous, nor empathic, but dumb and numb. We live in a society, where positive law is too often not handled by institutions and governments, but written by deontologically incorrect opinion-makers (i.e., the Murdochs of our world) or imposed by the profit-driven practice of corporate companies. This creates the conditions for the shadow of nihilism to meander, under the postiche shine of a simplified and smiling society. Ethics is not a protagonist of cultural praxis, but more of a ghost character. This happens because the abstracted, polished and reassuring world that we think we have constructed and we think we live in is very different from the world we actually live in. Words and imagery, detached from concrete reality, create a schizoid feeling, inducing inappropriate, unsocial or destructive behaviours (e.g. "greed is good"). In Europe, we realized only recently, that we would have to envision a future in which living standards of our children will be lower than the ones of our generation. There is a need to get back to fundamental values. There is a need of creating new meaning. Being an architect and designer, I believe that a way to do it, is through Making. […] During the past years, I have been questioning what actions can be taken, to elicit that. I believe that there are 3 actions to be taken: (1) the balancing of the social role of Making and Thinking, (2) the fact that skills have to be acquired and spread to create a new praxis in the context of pervasive ethics and (3) the fact that skills have to be integrated among people. 

The balancing of Making and Thinking (1) I am convinced that the social role of Making has to change, and has to be balanced with the social role of Thinking. Metaphysical abstractions produced by thinkers are necessary for civilisation to consolidate, but are not the only ingredient necessary to progress. Let me reflect on the Enlightenment, for instance, which is the moment in human history, which expresses human progress in the best possible way. Craftsmanship (saper fare or the Kultur, as Mendelssohn writes about in his definition of Enlightenment) (Mendelssohn, 1784) was highly considered at that time. The Encyclopédie of Diderot (1772), not welcomed by the power lobbies, was revolutionary because it sanctioned the social importance of Making and of Makers, rather than of those who could not even dress themselves alone, the Aristocrats. The Enlightenment was the period in which Thinking and Making were working together at the same level of dignity and it was a period of human progress. It was the period in which the concept of honour was changing. It became more and more linked to virtue: "all citizens were honourable if they were virtuous. (...) Honour had to do with actions, not with birth" (Hunt, 2007, p. 143), and consequently was a value that all men could have, notwithstanding their social position. It was besides also the historical period in which Human Rights, as we consider them today, were "invented". On the basis of skills, new ways of thinking were proposed, designed and consolidated in an ethical direction. It worked at that time, will it work again? Shall we try? 

Educating skills(2)The second action is a corollary of the first. (New) skills have to be acquired by people and spread in society in a capillary way. It is necessary to educate new skills: it is not just about the physical skills of (fine) manipulation, but also about social and emotional skills. Hunt, talking about skills, mentions autonomy and empathy as key skills for human rights to prosper and approach universality and she claims that these skills can be learned: "Autonomy and empathy are cultural practices, not just ideas, and they are therefore quite literally embodied, that is, they have physical as well as emotional dimensions" (Hunt, 2007, p. 29). A civilisation is based on manual skills, as history shows. When, in the 18th century, the spotlight of history narrowed its focus on the individual, autonomy and auto-determination became key values for the human being. Skills serve men towards becoming autonomous and deciding for their own destiny. To understand the power of knowing how to do things and its link to autonomy, it is enough to think of a baby. All the parental efforts are aimed at teaching skills for this new creature to become independent, physically and hopefully also emotionally and socially. Skills are also a certain way against superficiality. Skills lead to quality, to refinement, to depth. 

Integrating skilful points of view (3) The third action that I consider indispensible in creating a new praxis towards pervasive ethics is my stance that skills have to be integrated. In a multicultural, globalised world, Making together is a skill that has to be learned. This requires the ability of integrating different points of view. The theoretical base for this statement is the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (1945). He describes his "être au monde", which means not only being in the world but also belonging to it, having a relationship with it, interacting with it, perceiving it in all dimensions. Perceiving is an activity and our body and skills are an inextricable part of our perception. We perceive the world in terms of what we can do with it, and by physically interacting with it we access and express this meaning. Perception, through action, precedes cognition: reflection is a consequence of action. Moreover, we do not perceive ourselves as one more object in the world; we perceive ourselves as the point of view from which we perceive other objects. Human beings act from a first person perspective and their acts of transformation will be meaningful for them in a different way than for someone else. We believe that it is essential for people to experience this concept of "point of view" to "grasp" the concept of meaning, where we see "grasping", both as mental understanding as well as physical action (Sennett, 2008, p.154). To emphasise "prehension" of their point of view, people should approach transformational acts, starting from their skills. I believe that integrating different points of view of different people concurs to achieve a result that is an additive, rich product; by rich I mean a product, which embodies different perspectives, responds to disparate sensitivities and makes rich, multifaceted and deep meanings emanate.

A NEW Craftsmanship In order to create the terroir for a new civilisation to flourish and in order to consolidate new values, new skills have to be acquired in relation with the exercise of autonomy and of the Kantian free reason. This is what Mendelssohn stated with the equation "Bildung = Kultur + Aufklärung". If contextualised in the present situation, this statement suggests two opportunities of action. A new attitude in transformational acts has to be taken and a new material consciousness has to be developed. I explain. The new attitude in transformational acts can be built on the model of Arendt's homo faber. People can create starting from making and actuating iterations of reflection-on-action; their personality is filtered by their skills. They have to strive for excellence, led by passion and continuously improve their skills. At the same time, people must keep exercising the ability of forecasting what transformation their designs will create in society. They constantly have to wonder why they are taking specific choices and what consequences these choices will have. "Autonomy is built by means of developing one's owns skills and one's own learning path, during learning-through-doing cycles. It respects therefore individual sensitivity, boosting one's own proclivities towards transformations". Sennett defines the concept of "material consciousness", which is the awareness of the potentialities that a certain "material" offers towards a transformation (2008, pp. 119-144). In the context of new craftsmanship, a new material consciousness has to be acquired: new materials are today at hand and have to be combined with traditional materials. Because we act in a world in which systems and services have the potential of becoming more and more intelligent, the consequence is that designers have to deal with digital technology, as a material. Now, if digital technology is a material, the designerly way to treat it, is through sketching. How is it possible to sketch with digital technology? The problem is that, even if a lot of efforts are done in this direction, there are no techniques available allowing to actually sketch as it can be done with any other traditional material (e.g. cardboard or clay). Although there are attempts (e.g. Object Oriented Modelling, Makers' kits), there is no embodiment while dealing with digital technology. The lack of gravity in digital technology makes it difficult to sketch with it: there is no embodied experience. Using digital technology requires today the learning of a language. Using digital technology demands to go through abstraction, breaking the loop of reflection-on-action, possible thanks to embodiment. This confirms the already perceived necessity of designing ways to sketch with digital technology (Frens et al., 2003, p.4), so that a new craftsmanship can rise. This new craftsmanship requires the development of the ability of working with people with completely different skillsets. Multi and transdisciplinarity are a reality. Designing methodologies to facilitate them, an urgent necessity. Embodiment and making are the keys. This is a further reason to envision an ideal situation in which people are placed to work in environments that afford Making, in a location that is tuned with the place's craftsmanship spirit. We need not only tools, but also environments that fit the creative assignments. Sliperiet is the perfect platform.


Ambra Trotto is Director of the Interactive Institute (Swedish ICT) Umeå studio and Associate Professor at Umeå School of Architecture

This text uses previously published texts of the author, as mentioned in the references.



Diderot, D. (1751-1772) Enciclopedia o dizionario ragionato delle scienze, delle arti e dei mestieri ordinato da Diderot e D'Alembert. Laterza, Bari, 2003.

Flores, M. (2008) Storia dei Diritti Umani. Il Mulino, Bologna.

Frens, J. W., J. P. Djajadiningrat and Overbeeke, C. J. (2003). Form, Interaction and Function, An Exploratorium for Interactive Products. Proceedings of the Journal of the Asian International Design Conference Vol. 1, Tsukuba, Japan, CD-Rom ISSN 1348--7817.

Hunt, L. (2007) Inventing Human Rights. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Huxley, A., Hitchens, C. (1932) Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. New York, Harper Collins, 2004.

Mendelssohn, M. (1784) Über die Frage: was heißt aufklären, in Berlinische Monatschrift, Gedike F., Biester, J.E. (Eds.) Berlin. 

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945) La Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris, Gallimard 

Matthews, E. (2006) Merleau Ponty. A guide for the perplexed. Continuum, London.

Sennett, R. (2008). The craftsman. London, Penguin Books.

Trotto, A., Hummels, C.C.M., Overbeeke, C.J., Cianfanelli, E., Frens, J.W. (Eds.) (2009) Rights through Making, Wearing Quality, Ethics in Design n°2. Firenze, Polistampa. 

Trotto, A. (2011).Rights through Making. Skills for Pervasive Ethics. Doctoral Dissertation. Eindhoven, The Netherlands: Eindhoven University of Technology. 

Trotto, A., Hummels, C.C.M., Cruz Restrepo, M., (2011) Towards design-driven innovation: designing for points of view using intuition through skills. Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces 201, Proceedings. Milano, Italy, pp. 3-9.


Making and Thinking