Arty farty’s contribution to science and technology research

On 15 July 2010, Vince Cable – the coalition government’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills – set out the choices facing the UK higher education sector in a speech. This included extensive reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines, and how they are vital to economic competitiveness, research and scientific and technological progress. Then, in passing, he said that “what my father used to describe as ‘arty farty’ subjects feed into the rapidly growing and successful industries like creative design, publishing and music.” Really? Well, he is Secretary of State, so I am sure he has pored over the evidence on the subject. But here is some evidence that Vince Cable may be less familiar with.

The annual Morgan Stanley ‘Great Briton’ awards celebrated the highest achievements in the arts, business, sport, public life, and science and innovation. Each year four people were shortlisted for each of the awards. 2007’s shortlist for the Great Briton in Science and Innovation included a theoretical physicist from Imperial College, an international expert in the pathology of dinosaur bones and John McGhee, an Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded research student based in an art school. His digital animation research on 3D visualization strategies to improve disease understanding among patient groups has twice featured on BBC News and secured the front page of the Guardian’s education supplement (30 October 2007). John is an animator with a background in 3D design.

When crop geneticists provided printmaker Elaine Shemilt with their DNA data, their expectation of the science-art project was that it would result in some striking decorative prints that would liven up the walls of their research institute. However, the resulting prints revealed to them the occurrence of new elements and data patterns that they had previously been unable to perceive. The prints led directly to a whole new externally funded research project examining gene progression in pathogens. Within the decorative patterns, new knowledge became visible. Vital research in crop genetics was triggered by the work and insights of a fine art printmaker.

With a background in craft-making and product design, Graham Whiteley brought a highly idiosyncratic approach to his doctoral research on prosthetic design. To begin with, the medical physics specialist who was part of the supervisory team saw dubious value in Graham’s emphasis on life-drawing and model-making as his key research methods. Six years later, his research contributed to a new bionic arm and hand that has been hailed as one of the most significant breakthroughs in prosthetics.

We look to our art schools to produce great art and design, and their broader value is always pitched in terms of their contribution to Britain’s Creative Industries. However, their recently emergent research culture is producing something else as well: unique contributions to science, technology and innovation in fields far removed from ‘creative industries’. The examples above are taken from a book chapter I am working on that will be published later this year on The Hidden Value of Art & Design. The chapter explores art and design’s contribution to other specialist disciplines, to industrial competitiveness and innovation, and to social policy. In exploring this value, the chapter ventures from hospital wards to the suboceanic world; we will examine the role of designers in defining advanced manufacturing processes and the role of artists in scientific research; we will see how art and design researchers can contribute to crime prevention, prosthetic technologies and urban planning.

The cases I draw upon are not particularly new – but as Vince Cable’s comments suggest, this message on the wider value of art and design is simply not getting through. Recent research by Mary Schwarz and Dr Karen Yair for the Crafts Council is one recent addition to a growing literature on the wider economic and social value of creative disciplines, in the case of their research, craft specifically. So we need to marshal more evidence, more positive cases, and tell the story more effectively. Comments to this post that include other cases are most welcome, so that we can begin to assemble an up-to-date broad based and accessible listing that can help to strengthen research on this issue, and help tell our stories in a more powerful way.


Craft research

This post follows up references made in the craft research lecture.


The following books were referred to:

Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capitalism includes references to craft working, from the context of industrial sociology in a highly readable analysis of labour process theory.

E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class provides a spirited and highly rigorous case for how craft skills and knowledge provided the foundation of industrial culture and development.

David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship provides the argument on the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty.

Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work, argues for the emergence and significance of the Third Sector.

Malcolm McCullough’s Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand is an excellent read which argues for a correspondence between digital process and traditional craft.

Randall White, based at New York University, was one of the first to recognize the evolutionary importance of personal adornment and its critical role in the organization and demographic expansion of modern humans – in other words, how jewellery was a defining issue in the development of human culture. His book on Prehistoric Art, argues this more fully.

Learning through making

The Crafts Council sponsored Learning Through Making Project brought together research teams from Loughborough, Middlesex and Sheffield Hallam Universities to explore and define the value and nature of craft learning. The research also tackled the nature, relevance and value of contemporary craft practices. The project, which was conducted as three separate but related strands, has produced a considerable number of publications. Some of those that are available on-line are listed below:

The Craft’s Council’s own extensive end of project final report.

A transcript of the two day conference held at the British Library which included presentations by the research teams and other invited speakers on the theme of learning through making.

A follow-up report published by the Arts Council: from learning to earning.

The Sheffield Hallam project was concerned with exploring the value of higher education in crafts, providing data on employment destinations (including the first longitudinal study of the employment of craft design graduates) and an analysis of the nature and value of craft learning at degree level. Publications include: an executive summary of the whole project, a paper presented to a conference of EAD held in Stockholm, and a more polemical piece – A New Vision in the Making – published in Crafts Magazine.

Design and Technology Education

There is significant theory and research that arises from the field of pedagogy research in design and technology. This has considerable application to research in craft, as Peter Walters’ recent thesis demonstrated. Here are some links:

The Recycling Exhibition

Curated by Louise Taylor when she was at Craftspace Touring (before becoming Director of the Crafts Council), the Recycling Show opened at the Crafts Council gallery in 1996 before touring the UK. At the time it was the most visited exhibition that the Crafts Council had held, securing media coverage that included a half page in the FT, and reviews and features in much of the popular and specialist media. In many respects it was a significant show, demonstrating how makers can engage with the issue of recycling in different ways, and engaging the public in a highly imaginative way. An extended version of my essay for the exhibition catalogue is the only on-line record of the show.

Recycled glass research

The research project conducted at Sheffield Hallam University under the direction of Jim Roddis, is an exemplary project on how craft research can define a research agenda and develop new insights and applications that have more widespread environmental and commercial value. It has resulted in a material – Ttura – and there have been a number of papers published that describe the research process, including this one.

Craft-based research degrees

My paper – It’s Research, Jim… – drew heavily on the work of Carole Gray and Julian Malins, in particular this: Gray, C., & Malins, J. (1993). Research Procedures / Methodology for Artists and Designers. In Principles and Definitions, Winchester College of Art, on behalf of the European Postgraduate Art and Design Group (ISSN/ISBN: 095-159-043X).

Below I have grouped some links to work and publications by current and former research students whose approach could be classified as “craft-based”, although the extent to which they would agree on such a definition is another issue. This is clearly far from exhaustive and focusses on those who I have either supervised or examined. However, they are all outstanding researchers who have in different ways brought considerable innovation and insights to craft research.

Katie Bunnell, a research student at Gray’s supervised by Julian Malins, and currently based at Falmouth College of Art. Her research explored the integration of digital process within studio ceramics. Links include: summary overview of her PhD research, a further summary that has more detail on the visual nature of her electronic thesis, the transcript of an interview with her, and her current research project.

Graham Whiteley‘s PhD was entitled “An Articulated Skeletal Analogy of the Human Upper-Limb” – essentially he was tackling prosthetic design research through a methodology that made considerable use of craft techniques such as physical prototyping and drawing. The research output comprises a thesis which was structured as an annotated sketchbook and a series of models and components. On-line are photographs of his work, a Yorkshire Post article that explains how his research contributed to a 2005 Space Shuttle mission, and his current project. Chris Rust, his supervisor at Sheffield Hallam, is a highly significant researcher and writer in the field of pratice-centred research. Two papers that the two of them co-authored are available on-line: knowledge and the artefact, and experimental making in multi-disciplinary research.

Jayne Wallace‘s continuing research is in the field of digital jewellery. With a background as a jeweller, craft making has been an integral element of the methodology, which has also incorporated cultural probes research. Her research homepage provides a summary of the project, together with links to a number of publications. Like Graham, her research has demonstrated the value of craft research far outside the traditional domain of craft, in her case arising in publications in the field of HCI. Significant publications include the experience of enchantment in hci, co-authored with specialists from that field, craft knowledge for the digital age, and her keynote address to the 2004 Challenging Craft conference – sometimes I forget to remember.

Peter Walters has recently completed his PhD in human-centred design, that explores and demonstrates the value of physical prototyping to contemporary design practices. Weaving together theoretical and practical research, the thesis represents an epistomology of making. Again, as in the case of the two researchers above, Peter’s craft-based research has application outside the field of craft, having application to the problem of medical misconnection errors in healthcare. Peter’s research home page includes links to several publications and a summary of the research. There is also a link to the paper he presented to the EAD conference in Barcelona.

Other research students include Sarah Kettley, Jenny Downs and Katherine Townsend, and of course Jane Harris. It is only lack of time currently that precludes elaboration on the work of these (and other) excellent researchers.

Craft and digital process

This will also be expanded when there is more time. The essential links (referred to in the seminar) are:

Finally, the Craft Connexity paper written by Julian Malins, Chris McKillop and myself for the 2004 Challenging Craft Conference.

Finally, check out our blog on craft research, and the conference held in July 2007 at the University of Dundee.