Metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker

Monday, October 28, 2013

The next theme from my PhD thesis that I'd like to focus on is... (drum roll please)

... my role as a designer. 

I launched Keep & Share in 2004, working as a designer-maker to create seasonal collections of knitwear and selling them mainly to individual customers. In 2008 I started to support other knitters by producing patterns and running workshops and projects, while still (of course) creating my own knitwear pieces. My research project has been a continuation of that journey, exploring the ways in which I can use my design practice to facilitate and support knitters to work more experimentally, without conventional patterns. This approach corresponds with the ʻhacktivistʼ designer role described by Otto von Busch:

'This role is not the one of a classic unique genius of fashion. Instead it is in the form of orchestrator and facilitator, as an agent of collaborative change. It is not the divine creator of the original and new, but a negotiator, questioning and developing design as a skill and practical production utility ... It is a combination of designing material artefacts as well as social protocols.' (von Busch, 2009: 63)

When I reflected on the research project, I felt that the role I had developed for myself involved two strands: metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker. First, let's think about the 'metadesigner' role:

In the past my primary design activity was producing ʻclosedʼ patterns for knitted garments, to be produced either by me (to sell) or by amateurs (for themselves). For this project I have been designing fragments of knit processes, gathering knowledge, developing instructions and advice, and creating a structure within which to present these resources. 

This new type of activity changes my relationship with finished objects; when I design and make, I have the satisfaction of holding a new garment that I have constructed. As a metadesigner, I ʻmight never see or even be aware of the results of [my] endeavours, changed as they will be by users to suit their own needsʼ (Atkinson, 2011: 30). It is worth considering: does this new role satisfy me as a designer? I think so; by supporting and influencing the work of amateurs, my efforts can have a far greater impact than would be possible when making by myself.

Jones (1991: 205) describes this new role (as adopted by a designer of his acquaintance) in a particularly engaging way: ʻhis role, once heʼd given up part of the design function to his clients, became, as he said, that of professional encourager.ʼ

'Professional encourager' - nice, huh? OK, so now for the idea of the 'hyper-amateur maker':

In this mode, I try out the same tasks as other amateurs, working with items from my own wardrobe – but consciously permit myself to spend more time and energy, and to work with more ambition and courage, than they might feel is possible or desirable. This ʻhyperʼ approach enables me to push the boundaries of my ideas, identify problems and opportunities, and create examples that will, it is hoped, inspire others.

In my last thesis-related post, I discussed identity construction in relation to fashion. I used the same idea to reflect on my own identity:

My identity as a designer-maker has been partially dependent on distinguishing myself from amateur knitters. Like other ʻstudio craftʼ practitioners, I have used the validation of institutions such as ʻthe museum, the media, and the marketplaceʼ (Stevens, 2011: 44) in the construction of my identity.

However, I have become uncomfortable with engaging with a hierarchy that implicitly denigrates amateur activity. Knitting has evolved over centuries of activity by ʻuntrainedʼ amateurs (usually women), via communal evolution and the contributions of talented individuals, who would be recognised in their own communities but are now forgotten. When I design and knit, I am benefitting from the effort of these people, and it feels disrespectful to deny this relationship.

So, my identity now comprises three strands: designer-maker, metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker. I feel that these roles allow me to sidestep the studio craft/amateur craft hierarchy and instead simply enjoy collaborating with other knitters. They allow me to explore design at a 'meta' level and at garment level, and to experiment with making at different scales, from individual stitches to complex systems.



Atkinson, P. (2011) Orchestral manoeuvres in design. In: B. van Abel, L. Evers, R. Klaassen, & P. Troxler eds. Open design now: why design cannot remain exclusive. Amsterdam, BIS Publishers, pp.24–31. [available online here]

Jones, J.C. (1991) Continuous Design and Redesign. In: J. C. Jones ed. Designing Designing. London, Architecture Design & Technology Press, pp.190–216.

Stevens, D. (2011) Validity is in the eye of the beholder: mapping craft communities of practice. In: M. E. Buszek ed. Extra/ordinary: craft and contemporary art. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, pp.43–58.

von Busch, O. (2009) Fashion-able. Gothenburg, Camino. [hard copy and pdf version available here]