The grain of the material in design
Technology as the designer’s material
I would argue that the modern designer’s primary material is technology. And to effectively design and make digital things, you need to deeply understand technology’s affordances, characteristics, and limits – i.e. the grain of the material. Immerse yourself in serious making with technology, and you will become a better designer, able to invent new approaches and designs through your understanding of the material.
The grain of the material
If we think of technology as a material for design, we can make some analogies to traditional material crafts. For example, in working with stone and wood, the craftsperson has to understand the characteristics of the materials they are working with. In the case of the grain, which is embedded in the work piece as a result of how the wood grew or the stone was formed, it affects how hard it is to cut, where and how it will break, what it looks like when cut at different angles, and so on.
To carve a stone, you must first consider and examine the block you intend to work with. Is it soft or hard, brittle or crumbly? Are there cracks? Is the grain weak or strong? If the stone is particolored, where might the effect be strongest? After some exploration, I prefer to make a plasticine maquette, or model, of what I intend to carve. Many sculptors skip this stage, but I find my eyes and fingers wiser than my mind and the stone. —Scott Owens
Because of the particular characteristics of a specific piece’s grain, a design can’t simply be imposed on the material. You can “go with the grain” or “go against the grain,” but either way you have to understand the grain of the material to successfully design and produce a work. In other words, there is an intimate relationship between the material and the design, and the outcome is a result of integrating the grain into the design.
The grain of the material is a metaphor for all the potentials and limits of whatever material you are working with. It be might how the affordances of a touch-screen affect navigation, the speed of a processor influences choices about using animation, or how the sensitivity of a proximity sensor affects the timing of a door opening. Design for technology shouldn’t be done separately from the material – it must be done as an intimate and tactile collaboration with the material of technology.
This is why modern designers must engage directly with technology, learning some code and electronics, and digging in as makers. So the next time you design something, work to understand and consider the grain of the particular technologies, and find how you can work with or against it to best integrate the materials in the expression of the work you are creating.
Note: Bruce Sterling first introduced this idea to me in 2005 when we taught a class together at Art Center, called The New Ecology of Things. At the time, he was about to publish his book Shaping Things where he mentions this aspect of design. The concept is also discussed in the context of thinking through making by Donald Schön in his landmark 1984 book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action.