"Shop Class as Soulcraft": A Book That Revels in Alternative Thinking for Designers

The pivotal book I'm reading, Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, should be a reference point for numerous philosophical debates in the design community. The author has a compelling life story. After getting his doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he spent time as an executive director of a Washington think tank. Eventually he had enough of it, he quit, and then he started his own bike repair shop.

Shop Class as SoulcraftNot surprisingly, he discovered a lot about himself and about the underrated wisdom, beauty, and satisfaction of craft. Ironically, his most profound discovery is the amount of thinking craft requires. He testifies that craftsmanship is far more intellectually challenging and rewarding than his previous think tank position.

That's some lesson coming from a University of Chicago Ph.D.

After decades of living in a society that has pre-conditioned all of us to believe that thinking is done mainly by the "smart people" while everything blue-collar is remedial (though no one would dare admit it flat out), it's a novelty to listen carefully to Mr. Crawford.

Michael B. CrawfordHere is a revealing paragraph dealing with a typical problem: A bike won't start (very similar to most design problems):

"The fasteners holding the engine cover on 1970s Hondas are Philips head, and they are always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch, if each of the ten screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments can cloud your thinking. Put more neutrally, the attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand, but a strong pragmatic bearing on it (kind of like origami). The factory manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, but they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you have to develop your own decision tree for particular circumstances. The problem is that at each node of this new tree, your own unquantifiable risk aversion introduces ambiguity. There comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt."

I can't explain how true this is. I think about how much time I spend fighting logic trees applied onto problems too complex to fit into simplistic analytic or logic dispositions. The wisdom imparted by doing while thinking and thinking while doing is a lost art. It's a fundamental requirement if design is to become a true, alternative thinking methodology. That's where I differ from the design thinking campaign. Design thinking is to design like the factory manual is to the art of bike fixing—logical, tested, yet one-dimensional in its ability to capture complexity and nuance. And I'm not even talking about the need for beauty yet...

I think this book should be a part of the curriculum of any design program in the country.

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Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

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3 Comments

  • Julietta Cheung

    This book does sound great and the paragraph you cited is wonderful. But you lost me when you introduced alternative thinking methodology. While I vote for alternative approaches in general, you sound as if you are proposing an alternative to design thinking. That strikes me as odd because design thinking is alternative. The whole basis of design thinking is rooted in the intent of capturing complexities and nuances. Actually, Crawford's text you cited sounds like a great example of design thinking by Crawford, the bike mechanic, himself.

    Maybe instead of perceiving "design thinking" as if it is a branded methodology, try looking at it as an open source type of concept. That way, there's room for everyone to contribute and shape how it evolves. Because design thinking requires a huge amount of collaboration and willingness to work together, at its best it should be an authorless system.