Gregg Zachary in last week's New York Times wrote a terrific little piece on "a little-noticed movement in the world of professional design and engineering: a renewed appreciation for manual labor, or innovating with the aid of human hands."
Using computers to model the physical world has become increasingly common; products as diverse as cars and planes, pharmaceuticals and cellphones are almost entirely conceived, specified and designed on a computer screen. Typically, only when these creations are nearly ready for mass manufacturing are prototypes made — and often not by the people who designed them.
However, some engineers and designers are realizing that there are losses that come from virtualizing. There have long been stories of students who design things on CAD that are impossible to manufacture, or that are 10 or 100 times too large, because virtualizing the design process divorces it from actual things. As one designer I know put it, learning to draw teaches common sense; doing things on a computer doesn't. Or as Gregg puts it, "'A lot of people get lost in the world of computer simulation,' says Bill Burnett, executive director of the product design program at Stanford. 'You can’t simulate everything.'"
Creative designers and engineers are rebelling against their alienation from the physical world. "The hands-on part is for me a critical aspect of understanding how to design," said Michael Kuniavsky , a consultant in San Francisco who for three years has convened a summer gathering of leading designers, called "Sketching in Hardware." …
Fifty years ago, tinkering with gadgets was routine for people drawn to engineering and invention. When personal computers became widespread starting in the 1980s, “we tended to forget the importance of physical senses,” says Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics.
Making refinements with your own hands — rather than automatically, as often happens with a computer — means “you have to be extremely self-critical,” says Mr. Sennett, whose book “The Craftsman” (Yale University Press, 2008), examines the importance of “skilled manual labor,” which he believes includes computer programming.
Even in highly abstract fields, like the design of next-generation electronic circuits, some people believe that hands-on experiences can enhance creativity. “You need your hands to verify experimentally a technology that doesn’t exist,” says Mario Paniccia, director of Intel’s photonics technology lab in Santa Clara, Calif. Building optical switches in silicon materials, for example, requires engineers to test the experimental switches themselves, and to build test equipment, too.
Bringing human hands back into the world of digital designers may have profound long-term consequences. Designs could become safer, more user-friendly and even more durable.
This is particularly important right now, I think, because we're in a period in which more and more high-tech design is aimed not at creating things that are going to be used by other engineers, or in carefully predictable and constrained circumstances– clean rooms or server rooms, for example– or just online; but that will be used out in the world, every day. The rediscovery of the senses in design is another sign of the decline of cyberspace, and the assumption that you could– or should seek to– create worlds that had nothing to do with the real world. Designing for the world means designing in the world.