The four cornerstones of design and technology, part one: craft

Paul Woodward
2016-07-22 14:41

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, The four Cornerstones of Design & Technology part one: Craft

I have been on something of a personal journey this year where I have worked in several schools teaching various subjects (not always directly related to DT) and more recently returned to the design industry. Time outside of my subject specialism, free from the usual pressures of the job has allowed me to look at the subject with fresh eyes. While patiently waiting for details of the subject reforms I began to think about the purpose of design and technology not only within the curriculum but in preparing students for life beyond the classroom.

The subject now to be known simply as design and technology has changed so much in the last 30 years that it is almost unrecognisable from its first inception but there are some aspects of study which have remained constant. With the range of material specialisms we have known for decades now combined into one single subject I considered the key elements of a design (and technology) course that make it viable and vital to the modern classroom while retaining its unique identity. There are many attainment objectives and targets to wade through but as I like to take a simplistic approach, and as the subject is rather fond of acronyms (ACCESSFM) and alliteration (3 R’s), I simplified my theories to four Cornerstones of design and technology.

These four C’s being Communication, Competence, Craft and Creativity.

As this would be too much to address in one blog, I have broken it down into four parts. This week I would like to focus on the first of those: Craft.

Craft as a noun defined as a profession or pastime that requires particular skills and knowledge of skilled work, an art, trade or occupation requiring key skills and to work with dexterity. Unfortunately this word often has connotations of handicraft, or seemingly outdated practical skills. Such preconceptions can actually be damaging to the subject’s credibility; only the other day I heard a teacher, not an old one either, refer to the subject as woodwork….tut tut.

Craft as a verb is to manufacture with skill and careful attention to detail. That description could apply equally to something crafted in clay, wood or metal or to a detailed and well designed CNC produced piece. The machinery is simply the tool in the designer’s arsenal used to realise their vision. While the tools may have advanced, they are still used with skill by the designer/maker.

According to Wikipedia (and I do like this quote) there are ‘three aspects to human creativity - art, crafts, and science. Roughly defined, art relies upon intuitive sensing, vision and expression, crafts upon sophisticated technique and science upon knowledge.’ Based on this definition ‘craft’ sits perfectly well with the current expectations of the subject. I think it is fair to say that designing a piece to be made on a vinyl cutter, a laser cutter or 3D printer requires a knowledge of that particular machine’s capabilities and requires skill and ‘sophisticated technique’ to produce an item that works as expected. Is there any difference in designing a piece to be cut out by a CNC router rather than a plunge router aside from scale of production? Does a computer based milling machine require any less technical skill than manually moving the cutting tool? Which will give the better result but not necessarily the most accurate?

So forgetting outdated connotations of craft and its confusion with ‘handicrafts’ it is definitely a vital element of any design course where there is a need to make a product, be that electronic, paper, textiles, or using constructional materials (oops another C there). For that product to be made from components that fit together properly, it needs to be made with skill and dexterity and that means using whatever tool is best suited for the job.

I still ask myself on a regular basis, what exactly is the ‘craft’ we expect to see in the classroom? Is the setting up of a CNC router or laser cutter an element of craft if it’s done with skill and dexterity? If not, is that simply because we still expect an element of traditional handicraft in project work and don’t really know how to judge? The increasing use of inverted commas when mentioning the word in this blog is evidence of how we often feel the need to differentiate the verb and noun and I am sure many of us avoid the use of the word entirely for fear of becoming branded as somewhat outdated or old fashioned. Craft is what it is and I believe that crafting a product, model, concept, storyboard, circuit board or any other object is an important aspect of this subject.

Where the definitions become a little grey is when machinery is introduced. We think of one-off’s and small batches as ‘crafted’ while machinery is for large batch and mass production, yet its fine to use a circular saw, band saw or other piece of machinery in the production of a handmade bespoke item. I would argue that drawing out a complex piece in CAD (another C and a skill in itself), nesting components, preparing materials and the cutting environment, setting cutting depths and speed then ensuring all the data is correct and compatible is a craft. If you believe that the setting up and calibration of machinery is more a question of competence then we have you covered next week. In the meantime consider your own perceptions of the word craft and ask if ours is a subject that ‘requires particular skills and knowledge of skilled work with dexterity to manufacture with careful attention to detail’. I certainly feel that applies to design & technology.



Paul taught Design and Technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty as well as teaching Art, ICT, Photography and Media Studies. He is currently taking a break from education to return to the design industry.

His Subject Genius blog was shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.