Object Professionalism

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This thesis project is presented to the Graduate Faculty of California College of the Arts in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Fine Arts in Design. 8 May 2020






Searching for Pro-ness


[Professional Things] [DIY Immortal Essence Manual]

10 22

Making Professional Objects


2.1 A Coevolution [Caltrain Commuter Jacket]

32 36

2.2 Embedded Knowledge [Connect the Dots]

48 52


The Big Red Button


[The Fire-Starter]


Acknowledgement List of Inspirations

103 106


We don’t want to give up our occupations to objects, but some of them are so proficient in their specialities that we are willing to call them “pros.” Coffee enthusiasts may let their “barista” home coffee maker make a cup of coffee in the morning. Photography addicts may also equip themselves with “professional” cameras and lens. Even for everyday routines, we may use a “pro” branded toothpaste, choose a set of “pro” makeup brushes, and have an iPhone or MacBook “Pro.” Pros are everywhere. Artifacts have coopted the “pro” titles to become the professionals. I call this phenomenon “object professionalism,” which I learned about at the very beginning of my thesis project. Everything is so easy when we have such great assistants, but do we depend too much on these professional objects? In a short sci-fi story, Ted Chiang speculates about an era when original scientific research is completed by superior “metahumans,” the work left to human scientists is “artifact hermeneutics.” To me, it is an analogy for the world dominated by products “deWhat is the role of human scientists in an age when the frontiers of scientific inquiry have moved beyond the comprehension of humans? Ted Chiang, “the Evolution of Human Science”, 2000


signed in California.” When users don’t speak the language of those behind the products, they are the ones who are clueless regarding what other species think and do. As products of human knowledge, culture, and memory, even the simplest artifacts bear complexity. They are single nodes of the web of a larger ecology, through which we may see a wonderful world. We may be amazed, appreciate more, and even gain a sense of responsibility for the world. However, designers hide technologies and many other stories behind clean, simple user interfaces. Objects become understandable but less meaningful. Wouldn’t it be a pity if we merely use artifacts without observation, inspection or other interactions? I decided to create designs that take back our agency as human beings—transcending our state of being “users”—and help us acquire much more from an object than its use-value. Unlike other theses, mine did not start with a topic that I had been working on for years. However, as it proceeded, occurrences from years at California College of the Arts (CCA) emerged. I recollected deconstructing an iPhone in “Design History” class with Mara Holt Skov; acquiring making skills and learning about materials and manufacturing in and after classes; meeting the beautiful set of the sculpture, “Materialism,” by Studio Drift in Amsterdam; listening to Stuart Kendall’s theory


about storytelling and design in the “Storytelling” class, etc. As it came together, the thesis work and concept evolved to appear as if it was the only thesis I had in mind after the past three years. Coming to San Francisco with a psychology background, I was looking for a systematic education that would transform me into a designer. Although I’ve worn the “designer” hat since the first day, I continue to remain cautious as to whether or not I met the standard, if there is one, of being a designer. In addition, I am always attracted by the seemingly “amateurish” side in the design process, when we prototype and visualize concepts in any possible sketchy way as long as the ideas can be tested and communicated. It’s also enjoyable to witness fun designs by non-designers. The dynamics between pro and amateur captivates me. In addition, being a designer, I’ve become more aware of material culture, growing from a passive consumer to a so-called “prosumer” that believes I can make anything. I guess it is the appreciation of this personal transformation that made me believe in what my thesis is telling. Which leads to my thesis in short: I am obsessed with artifacts because they have so many stories to tell. I am also worried that we rely too much on them while knowing so little about them. These feelings evolved and materialized into a series of

objects in my thesis: a collection of “professional” products on the shelf as well as some professional objects I made. My thesis ends with a virtual fire-starter with absurd professionalism. It is a metaphor and critique of today’s designs that live in the conceptual world. But I am sure it is only the beginning of the kinds of design for that interest me. Starting with the pro-ness in objects, in the future, I would like to create designs that spark object curiosity, invite people to engage in different aspects in the life of those artifacts, and encourage interactions beyond simply using. There are some project ideas hovering, but I won’t say a word, in case they end up not happening.


Another note: although I’ve been mainly working in interaction design, which is almost completely digital, most works here are physical. I love the physicality and materiality of objects and always enjoy using new media and trying new tools. I took this chance to make prints, fabrics, and machines. This also gave me confidence in creating any design in the future. Many works here may lack the touches of professional design, yet, my philosophy of designing for any form and the process of learning methods are highly valued.



The story began as a mixture of three things: a personal love of the history of technology, an affinity to the DIY and maker culture, and the anxiety over being ready to work as a designer. “Professional,” “amateur,” “DIY,” “competent man,” “power-knowledge,” “democratization of technology.” These interrelated concepts floated around in my mind, composing my hazy landscape of interests. Please bear with me through this rather cliched opening. In this rapidly changing world, higher mobility, connectivity, and computational power introduce new tools for work, new ways to receive occupational education, and reconstruct the system of professions. Skills can be easily acquired through YouTube videos or WikiHow articles, instead of being learned in school or apprenticeships. The gig economy also shows us infinite new forms of work. We praise the ethics of professionalism, but also encourage being generalists and taking on an amateurish mindset. Professionals have a unique charisma that we admire, but it also sounds easier to get into professions today. Traditionally, in cognitive psychology research, “experts” and “beginners” are the opposite groups of a frequent independent variable. But what’s the difference between them?


In the human history, there is always a tension between existing professions and emerging ones with newer technologies, as well as a contrast between specialists by professional training and selftaught professionals. This makes me wonder about the meaning of “being professional” and my path toward becoming a design professional. I decided to start by understanding the quality of professionalism, pro, or “pro-ness” with secondary and design research, by both looking at existing things or learning through imitation. While looking for relevant texts, I found a quote from sociologist Andrew Abbott, from 30 years ago. When it comes to the question of how we structure and control expertise in society, he says that we should ask why expertise is placed in people instead of things or rules. Even though the sociologist framed this question as such, we must ask ourselves, “is that true?” At least not from what I learned.


To ask why societies incorporate their knowledge in professions is thus not only to ask why societies have specialized, lifetime experts, but also why they place expertise in people rather than things or rules. Andrew Abbott, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor, 1988


Searching for Pro-ness



For whatever design projects, research is usually the first step. It not only backs up creative works with robust, rational theories but also excavates references to learn from and “steal.” With nothing on hand but a big, vague topic, what could I do? I wanted to know everything about the word “professional:” its meaning, uses, and contemporary discourse; how people perceive it, related concepts, and theories. With such an extensive scope, I was tired of reading secondary materials. Why not complete research through a design project? I would collect objects that are “professional” and make an archive. After all, designers make artifacts by learning from artifacts created by other designers. Simple, everyday items can reveal much about humans and our life.


The binder that keeps the “professional things� I collected during the very first week


Searching for Pro-ness

The documentary, Graphic Means (2017), is a great example of how graphic design production is pushed by disrupting technologies and evolving over time. Designers have to move on with new tools and new media and define what their true values are. The tension between generations of specialists and changing specialized tools exists in nearly all industries.

Mr. Lunch (the white dog drawn by J. Otto Seibold) is a “professional bird-chaser.� He chases birds in the morning (but never attacks them), reads mail and purchases bird seeds in the afternoon in his office. If chasing birds can be a profession, what about eat, travel, and play? Can I also claim to be a professional for delivery if I do it on TaskRabbit? If a person claims to be a professional for any crazy thing, what about an object?


Professional Things

From Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968 - 1972) to Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools (2013), these big books stuffed with objects are our praise of numerous tools that empower individuals or small groups to be self-sufficient.


Searching for Pro-ness 1 Excerpts from the binder, including the first page, the method for collecting, and a work-in-process photo


Over: scanned pages, excluding non-professional products for comparison or blank pages

Professional Things The first week of the year, I started my first thesis project by making a collection of objects that are labeled with either “pro” or “professional.” For two days, I went window shopping online and categorized the pro-labeled products I found, then I designed instructions for collecting and a template for documentation. It took me another week to hunt for professional objects in both online and brick-and-mortar stores, to find the non-pro counterpart if there was one, to make collages and take notes. Look what I’ve got →


Searching for Pro-ness 1 A blank worksheet


A label for the Crest Pro-Health Advanced Multi-Protection Mouthwash, as the first product in the “Personal Care & Cosmetics� category

Professional things look professional as well. They can be engineering-oriented, machinery prosumer products with little artistic elements. They can also be very “modern design-ish” with a sleek, minimal, ergonomic appearance. Either way, they speak the language of “form follows function.” Professional things are usually in black, white, different shades of gray, or sometimes gold or silver. They should at least look clean, but even better to be shiny— the pro-ness is all in the look. Professional objects, therefore, become the tools for distinction, and the person using professional objects looks and feels professional, too. The ease of use and the perfect performance provides so much satisfaction. Whether the item is literally pro or phonily pro, the experience, the tactile sense,


the capability to use—these all indulge the self in the enjoyment of achieving mastery with its help. Wearing a uniform and having the right tools announce that you are a professional. Professional things are essential props for such performance. We can find professional items almost everywhere, not just for work, crafts, or production, but in every aspect of life. Regardless of the commercial purpose, the “pro” labels motivate us to excel at everything, by either being a pro ourselves or with expert advice imbued in these products. Think about our everyday conversation; “pro” is applicable to describe things not even associated with a profession. It’s not enough to just be pro at running, swimming, painting, singing, cooking, or making. Don’t you also want to be pro at eating, cleaning, traveling, dating, and parenting? Well, you should. Tools leverage their material, mechanical, or computational specialties, taking over human effort and reducing human errors. As a result, they assist us in manufacturing products that meet those “professional standards” with ease and certainty. These relentless, accurate machines are so proficient at their jobs that sometimes they exceed their mere roles as the vehicle. In the past two centuries, machines have evolved to take over hundreds of titles which used to belong to us.

Professional Things

How are professional objects defined? Compared to normal ones, professional items have better specs. They produce better results with higher efficiency and stability. Some are super specialized. Others are hyper-versatile Swiss army knives. It looks like there is a “professional standard.” Whether it is a “genuine pro” made to assist professional people for professional purposes, or a “spurious pro” using the word as a marketing gimmick for product differentiation, the many connotations of “professional” stand out. The name simply makes it superior.

Searching for Pro-ness 1 A printed image of NutriBullet Pro Plus Blender, in the “Home” category


Products in “Electronics.” Right: Tayasui “Sketches Pro” App for drawing; Left: the native iPhone Camera App, as a non-pro counterpart of “ProCam.”

At times, we do not know who the professional is: us or the tool?


Professional Things

This binder accidentally framed the territory where my thesis was going and set the underlying absurdity for the whole project. I have certainly overlooked other qualifiers that categorize objects of the same kind. There are “chef knives,” “expert skincare products,” and other products that do not use the word “pro” or “professional.” Kevin Kelly also has a whole catalog of such objects, Cool Tools, in praise of the age with so many empowering things.

In a recent lecture, the same Professor Abbott claimed that one of the changes about knowledge, today, is that societies, organizations, and things replace individuals and become “knowers”. Right after I finished this collection, Apple announced its first “professional smartphone,” iPhone 11 Pro. How far will we go with all these professional things?


Searching for Pro-ness


Unlike the professionals, those who celebrate being amateurs may also show the most professional charm. Yes, I am referring to those DIY talents, capable of making things from scratch that are almost unimaginable. Some sort of aficionados make incredible DIYs while forming communities online. There are also designers and engineers making DIY kits that enable people to create unbelievable projects at home. To name a few, lively communities and popular YouTubers produce bullets, guns, knives, or crossbows at home studios. Platform 21, a terminated Dutch design lab, organized an open competition of ways to hack IKEA. People submitted brilliant ideas such as using hangers, cords, knifes and other products to start a fire; the “Platonic Sun” made of 6, 12, or 32 IKEA LAMPAN lamps; and a sex toy which IKEA does not sell. The ODIN, a biotech startup, sells people DIY CRISPR kits to teach them how to do basic gene-editing. Desiree Riny, who just graduated from RMIT University, completed her industrial design master thesis on a DIY Prosthetic Manual. The booklet instructs amputees how to construct their prosthetics at places with limited health care supports. Another student designer, Vytautas Jankauskas, builds a speculative world where independent water filtering is illegal. As a result, a Water Hacker decided to circulate instructions on filtering water, themselves, with tips on how to avoid state-corporate surveillance. Because I am deeply obsessed with these projects, especially the hardcore, designed kits, I decided to make one myself in order to understand them. I wondered how the seemingly amateurish acts can create such strong, fascinating “pro-ness,” though not related to a profession, i.e., a job. I decided to design an imitation that has a similar quality at the surface level. Thus, my second mini-project, a guided instruction that teaches you how to DIY elixir with lemon at home.



Cover of the D.I.Y. Immortal Essence Manual, a guide to making elixir with lemon at home


Searching for Pro-ness

New York Times investigative reporter, Ian Urbina, (2018) covered the story of D.I.Y. ammunition communities in the US. These Individuals cast bullets at home studios and form online communities for mutual support.

YouTube channel “Kiwami Japan” shows how to make a sharp kitchen knife from almost any everyday material. His storytelling techniques are part of the ways he shows his professionalism.

Mindblowing examples from Platform 21’s “Hacking IKEA” project (2008). Left to right: Love Toy by Mark Hoekstra, Platonic Sun by Daniel Saakes, and FLAMMA fire making set by Helmut Smits.


With the project “How to Build a Water Filter: A DIY Tutorial from the Future,” Vytautas Jankauskas (2016) images a world where it is illegal to filtering water at home. There emerged “Water Hackers” who teach people the skills for coping with such situation.

DIY Immortal Essence Manual

A bio-tech start-up, The ODIN, started to sell their “DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kit” from 2017. Their mission is to distribute “kits and tools that allow anyone to make unique and usable organisms at home or in a lab or anywhere.”

In Desiree Riny's thesis project "Reclaiming Accessibility: To Lower-limb Prosthetics within Rural Communities in Developing Countries” (2019), she designs a manual to teach people with limited healthcare supports to make and maintain their own prosthetics.

“The Magic Mushroom Growers Guide” on Erowid.org offered me a great deal to imitate for my lemon essence.


Searching for Pro-ness 1 26

The manual with introduction, cautions, and step-by-step guides (and over)

My primary references were real instructions on “how to make essences,” and other DIY manuals I thought to be “hardcore” or “mythical.” Then I made up the images and texts overnight. Due to the limited time, I only designed the manual without the projected accompanying kit of equipment and ingredients.


DIY Immortal Essence Manual

I started with the intention of making a hardcore DIY guided instruction and two constraints: I had to start with a lemon in my work and finish it within a week. And I came up with the lemon-made immortal essence idea. It is related to the high-tech, household chemical industry so there is a bar for entry, reasonable but also unexpected. I also use a fictitious, impossible kind of disruptive setting, so I can focus on the quality of design without caring about feasibility.

Searching for Pro-ness 1 30

The fact that DIY kits are usually unusual, unexpected, look scientific, may produce unstable results but are at least worth trying, makes me think of them as cool. They indeed originate from the DIY movement, half a decade ago, underlying the pursuit of democratizing technologies. The manuals and kits try to disseminate scientific and engineering knowledge and put tools into the hands of individuals so that they have the power to do “whatever� they want. They should at least look scientific and helpful to tackle the learning curve for the novice. Of course, they cannot make high-quality, stable, and standard outcomes compared with manufactured products. But it is simply the endeavor of trying to make product-level items at small workshops which makes it even cooler.


After the initial explorations, I came to believe that “professional” is a thing, and I would acknowledge the “pro-ness” in those professional things. It is true that PRO is often a marketing cover-up, that they are the tools to show distinction and the props for performances. They also persuade us to purchase them in order to be pro at everything. But I would still appreciate our pursuit of excellence in work and life, which is the long-lasting motivation of creating a better modern life. Of course, the phony ones are not what I would look for, either as designer or user. Even for some of the “genuine” pro consumer items, there seems to be something wrong. Apart from the ones for professional purposes and the DIY kits, what are the ideal professional objects for the common user? Or what is the ideal pro-tool-and-pro-consumer relationship I am looking for? The following objects illustrate my imagination of two possibilities. I made two professional items in order to get closer to “pro-ness.”



Having looked at the many professional objects on the shelf, I started to wonder, “What do I think the ideal professional tool is?” It is not whatever thing comes with a PRO tag. It should be at least more useful than other things of the same kind. And it is different… I looked around, asked people, and knew what it would be when spotted with my analog cameras. Walter Benjamin once said, “the illiterate of the future will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph.” (In fact, he was merely quoting it from unknown sources, but because people copy and paste and continue attributing it to him, let’s use it to give my statement some authority.) The same can be said of today, right? Everyone takes photos. And in my “Professional Things” collection, there is a PRO camera App and a professional VR camera, let alone those premium, 8K, industrial-grade, many-great-word-loaded cameras, what a rich feast! Many of those are for the real pros and not for ordinary consumers or for everyday use. But even the cameras designed for an ‘everyman,’ I still think they have too many features. What’s the consequence? For Adobe Photoshop, or any other big, professional designer tools, without a comprehensive tutorial, users often stick to the features they learned at the beginning, leaving the whole wonderful world unexplored.


I use my phone and my film cameras to document my life, but not a bulky digital camera—unless I have to. I learned the basics of the camera thanks to the simplicity of the ones I love. Starting with them, I feel a sense of control when I am using a camera. And Annie Leibovitz, the famous portrait photographer agrees with me, when she talks about her early film and darkroom practice when digital photography took over! This is the state I want from a professional object, that the tool is proficient at its job, the user has limited options to begin with, and the user knows their tool. Except for understanding the tool, the user may customize it on the basis that they know what they need in my imagination of the ideal relationship. Instead of adding modules to build a composition, they first familiarize everything the tool offers by using it, then remove the parts they don’t want. That is the dance between the user and the tool, with beautiful choreography built on understanding. My ideal professional object is an understandable bundle of tools. You have it, master it, and subtract the features you don’t need. The tool and the user develop a mutual understanding and coevolve to suit each other. The next step is to demonstrate the idea with a design. For this project, I have a site obstruction, which is the San Francisco Caltrain Station, the city’s train


Being limited is powerful to begin with, [because] to have less choice of what can happen is a good learning tool. Annie Leibovitz, “The Technical Side of Photography” in “The Art of Photography” on MasterClass, 2017

station. As I’ve realized that we can be pro at any aspect of life, let’s make it about commuting. Being professional is a type of performance where the uniform is essential, therefore, a piece of garment sounds like a good idea. Finally, as a regular Caltrain rider, myself, I am the perfect user. Awesome, everything is ready! (Except that I had never used a sewing machine.)

Making Professional Objects 2

Nomenclature pages (camera body only) for Nikon FM2 (above) and Canon 5D Mark IV EOS DSLR Camera (below), two popular cameras. I believe the simplicity and constraints in cameras like the one above gives me more control and confidence. And I also imagine an ideal professional camera should be simple as well; so that it can be understood and evolve with the user.


Caltrain Commuter Jacket

Some multifunctional modular design examples for references. Top to bottom: 1) “Orbitkey” keychain, 2) “Stealtho” 12-in-1 modular desk organizer by Vitaliy Savriga, 3) Liz Diller and Kazuyo Sejima’s multifunctional bags for Prada.

Tom Sachs’ works, as style reference and material inspiration.



After the investigation of “pro-ness” in objects and dreaming about my ideal professional object, I made one for myself. It’s a commuting jacket with removable parts designed for riding Caltrain. By design, I will use the coat and explore its functionalities, remove the parts I do not need, and eventually own a customized, professional commuter jacket that not only suits my needs but is also understood by me.


Making Professional Objects


Clipper Card Holder & Clipper Card let me pay for the ride by simply lifting my arm

Caltrain Timetable & Calendar important information for riding the train

Modules of the Caltrain Commuter Jacket


Over: buying a ticket with the attached Clipper card module

Earplugs blocks unwanted noise Mirror alleviates anxiety about how I look and potentially annoys or attacks people

Big Plastic Bag covers myself and restraints gas exchange so I can eat any food without feeling guilty; also turns out to be a nice feature during an epidemic of respiratory disease situations, such as COVID-19.

Clock with Train Number Setting tells time and reminds me to get onboard Disinfectant Spray cleans the seat


Personal Phone, USB Cable, & Power Adapter (no need to explain)

Making Professional Objects 2 Taking the timetable out of the pocket on the back


Setting the train number to get reminders for getting on/off


Caltrain Commuter Jacket

The object carries on from what I learned from the first project. The word “professional� can describe any skill, and we are encouraged to be pro at any aspect of life. It is not usual to be a commuter as a profession, but we can be professional at commuting. In the world we live in, we are encouraged to be pro at commuting, and be pro at eating, traveling, dog-walking, and evening parenting. It feels good to excel at these things, and it feels good to use those professional objects.

Making Professional Objects 2 Cleaning the seat with disinfectant spray


Using the mirror chained to the jacket

Caltrain Commuter Jacket

Using the earbud tied to the collar Covered in the plastic bag while eating in case the food smells


Over: the jacket, medium shot


I made this piece of work with the hope that the answer is no. I hope a professional thing is not just an assistant that makes things easy, or a master that does the jobs for us. Instead, it is instructional and customizable. We discover what it offers and what we want under its guidance and change it to suit our needs. It is a coevolution.


Caltrain Commuter Jacket

Besides, pro-ness is a performance of the self that is expressed through the costume we wear. By putting it on, both the person wearing it and the people from the outside are aware of its message. It says the “actor� is proficient at their job so they can provide a stable, high standard output with high efficiency. It says that the tool is of high quality, has excellent performance, and indicates a higher price. But is the garment sufficient to change who we are? Do we put on another dress, and become a different kind of professional?

Making Professional Objects 2 1) All possible features of a multi-functional “toolkit� for Caltrain riders. I gathered objects and made prints for brainstorming.


2) Initial prototypes, a cubic modular tool made of foamcoare and tapes. All parts are removable and compose a cube altogether. The user will use it and make it in a customized form that suit their needs.

1 2



3) Arranging the modules on a bought jacket. The handheld cube later became a piece of garment to make it more practical for taking a train, and to highlight its performative quality.

Caltrain Commuter Jacket

Based on my personal experience and a little bodystorming—generating ideas while walking through the commuting experience myself—I summarized a list of user needs. Then, I figured out the tools to tackle these needs. With a targeted style in mind (a combination of white, red, and silver, which resembles the Caltrain’s color palette,) I bought a used jacket and other materials after a day of hunting in thrift stores and fabrics supplies shops. Later on, I found ways to arrange the parts on the jacket and to attach and detach them from it (with zippers, Velcro strips, and key rings.) Finally, it was days and nights of learning how to sew from my friends and YouTube, followed by nightmares of crappy stitches, fears of not finishing it, an unexpected backache, though ultimately culminating in relief and celebration.


While moving forward, I came across one project I found both inspiring and irritating. It was “Made in the Future,” a speculative design made by IDEO in 2014 with the help of MIT Media Lab. Among various light-hearted depictions of their imagined, wonderful, and delightful future, one section called “Outer Skills” introduces us to five spoons and a table. All of them have high-level, externalized knowledge from the human users. Each spoon is highly specialized. They have so-called “embedded knowledge” that helps you prepare pasta. One of them can perfectly grip and measure sauces. Another can release just the right amount of salt. And the smart table provides different options to iterate when you draw. It’s unfair to describe it with “smart.” It’s the product of human and artificial intelligence, and it helps people achieve “assisted mastery.” You don’t know how to draw? Don’t worry. Just start wherever you can, and the table will make its best guess and offer a variety of options for modifications to choose. Just worry about the idea or concept, and the table can help you visualize and refine it in the perfect way.


These reveal much about tools and our relationships with them, ever since the moment that we created them in the first place. You may have questions like me at this point, but let’s focus on the first concept, “embedded knowledge,” first. “Embedded knowledge.” It sounds super relevant to my “professional things” idea. The pro items seem to carry a lot of embedded knowledge for the user. So, in the extreme case scenario, what if every piece of human knowledge is externalized and put within a tool so there is no need for the user to know anything? What if a professional item has as much embedded knowledge as it may possibly have? I decided to make one as described. It would have as much embedded knowledge as it could contain. It takes everything from us, but we can still use it, whoever we are. This eventually became a bandana with instructions printed on it.


We make tools to help us solve specific problems. They have an embedded knowledge that helps us get things done. Think about a hammer, the claw to help remove nails is a piece of embedded knowledge. Someone solved that problem years ago and built it into the tool. IDEO, MIT Media Lab, Made in the Future Outer Skills. 2014.

It’s not long until our tools will guide us through our making process. You may start a process, but they will help you refine your work and perfect things as you go. It’s not automation. In fact, the tool will give you more confidence to focus on your ideas while it guides you through execution. It’s an idea we’re calling Assisted Mastery. ditto.

Making Professional Objects 2

The five spoons made by IDEO and MIT Media Lab (2014), each has a different “embedded knowledge.” Each uses its speciality to help the user make the perfect spaghetti.

The “Assisted Mastery” table in the same project as above. When you draw on it, the table will suggest a variety of options to change and develop the drawing. Thus, it can help anyone visualize their ideas.


I use dash lines and dash-dotted lines to represent the way of folding in correspondence to the valley and mountain fold in origami.


Connect the Dots

Mark Henning (2017) designs a training station that teaches immigrants how to perform a “normal” handshake to help them blend in. The project “Normaal” asks questions about “assimilation, shared values, and dominant cultures.” Though not about professionalism, literally, “standard” and “power” are their overlapping realm. Its visual form also serves as a great reference for my project.


Making Professional Objects



The tool I would make should traditionally have an adequate level of embedded knowledge and require a proper amount of human effort. It can be any tool that has a specific usage and usually needs more than a simple click. Anyone can use it, but not everyone can use it well. Apart from that, I was also looking for something that: Firstly, I was interested in learning how to use and would like to use. Secondly, it is something I could design and make within a week. Finally, I chose to make this bandana called “Connect the Dots.� It has instructions in five different colors as the pattern; each color corresponds to a way of folding and knotting.


The Connect the Dots bandana, with instructions in five different colors, each represents a way of folding and knotting

Making Professional Objects 2 To use the bandana: 1) Choose a color, follow the order (starting from “1�)


2) Fold along the dashed lines, connect the dots

Connect the Dots

3) Make a knot at the cross; make two knots at a double cross


4) Put it on, wrap it around your head, neck, wrist, handbag, etc.

Making Professional Objects 2 Ways to wear the bandana


Over: the bandana, detail

Connect the Dots



The bandana, folded


Making Professional Objects

Here, I tried to make a simple object even simpler to use by adding complexity. However, even if human knowledge and skills are largely externalized and put onto the bandana, it still needs basic understanding between the tool and user. No matter how much knowledge is loaded into the fabrics, there is always a human part. Between the tool and the human, there should be 1) the affordance and 2) agreed rules of communication so the tool can be used properly. In addition, in the bandana example, I could only show the ways to fold. However, when it comes to wearing it in a nice way and matching an outfit, it asks for much more experience, creativity, tastes and care. No, we cannot put all of these characteristics into a piece of fabric, or those spoons or the table.


Connect the Dots

I began with research, both secondary and trials by myself: on ways to wear it, visual codes of instructions, fabrics, and printing techniques. I made paper prototypes to test the ways of folding, knotting, and the design of combining the five methods to use it. For the final bandana, I laser-cut a dozen stencils, spray-painted the patterns on two pieces of cambric, and sewed the fabrics together. Digital printing on fabrics would be a great idea for further production. And I would also design a simple package with diagrams to decode the visual language.

Making Professional Objects 2 62

The bandana as an extremely professional object fails. I realized that something was off. In the previous examples, the spoons and table are the pro, just as the gadgets and apps we use today. They try to be extremely user-friendly and accessible; certain tasks can be performed as long as we can use them properly. But do we know how they work? Why are they like this or that? What are they made of? What cultural implications do they have? It’s okay to only interact with them at the use level. But when we have a better understanding about the other information hidden behind the tools, they may achieve their full potential; and we may discover more about the world and ourselves. In the “Outer Skills” projects, designers are looking forward to celebrating the tools that evolve when technologies evolve. While they want to push it further, I would instead reflect and discuss what the designs take away from us. What we see are awkward, single-purposed objects in unsuitable forms powered by seemingly futuristic technologies. And I feel my human agency is degraded by the super table. (Just kidding, I am little mad but fine.) If those are the future professional things they speculate, they are going to raise as many questions as the ones we bring up during general discussions around artificial intelligence. In its demo video, the

table assists its user to visualize a dinosaur, which might be what she wants to draw. However, how good can my idea for drawing be when I don’t know how to draw? How do I evaluate each option the table suggests if I don’t even know what I want? Who teaches the table, wires the way it works, and decides what it offers? Is the final dinosaur my work or the table’s creation? We achieve mastery, or pro-ness, not because the tool is professional, but because the tool makes it effortless when we understand the task, have the creativity, and be careful when using it. It’s great to have more advanced tools with more embedded knowledge. But it is simply not enough. Because it takes two to achieve pro-ness. I felt compelled to design something to talk about this: which is how we package technologies in beautiful black boxes with big red buttons. They lure us in to use and possess them, but seldom urge us to understand them.


Connect the Dots

I’ll make a metaphor of today’s tools.

3 The Big Red Button

I feel a strong desire to criticize the simplistic dreaming of the spoons, table, and the products we are using. Objects already are, and will be more intelligent, considerate, personalized, caring, and invisible. User experience design aims at making designs anyone can use, ever since Apple launched its first personal computer that even toddlers could It’s more than likely that, whoever you are and whatever you do, you could use an Apple, too. Apple, “Will Someone Please?” Apple III Ad., 1983

use. Industrial design also has a tradition of assuming users are stupid. (No offense, but true.) “Don’t make me think” is no longer a guideline that UX professions manage to follow but it is already a ubiquitous message that gadgets and apps are whispering. We design objects to It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice. Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2000


be used instead of being questioned or understood. You either follow an explicit path, or overflowing information just emerges automatically. The objects are truly the pros, not us. This is “object professionalism.” Designers transfer complicated technologies into simple, clear models the user can comprehend in a particular form. That is my perspective on the overall design process. It is also why I am proud to be a designer. Because it highlights the significance of designers’ work that connects both ends, which requires the understanding of both users and technologies. (Let’s put business, ethics, and many other parts aside for now, though they should not be ignored.) With a general understanding of technologies, designers make decisions on how much complexity is shown on the front stage and how much is hidden at the back. They place the Mechanical Turk in front of us. Though not knowing what is behind or how much human or machine intelligence is within, we can at least interact with the apparatus. The Turk turned out to be a fraud. Also, in a way, designers are magicians that light up our lives with packaged products and fools us with tricks. They are magicians of information that control how much is revealed. We get objects that look, feel, and work the same in any part of the world, thanks to the non-stop


People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option. Richard H. Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, 2008

The Big Red Button 3

globalization that depends on intricate production and trading networks, while also converging design tastes, trends, and value propositions in this ever-connected world. The designs tell little about their origin, making process, or mechanisms. This decontextualization deprives the opportunities of exposure to diversity. It inhibits potential sensing and wondering at this marvelous world we live. In the famous “Toaster Project” by Thomas Thwaites, we see how difficult it is to make a simple, cheap home appliance from scratch on one’s own. Meanwhile, we admire skillful influencers that can make food and daily necessities from raw materials in either traditional or creative ways. We purchase simple or hardcore DIY kits and enjoy being involved in assembling the easy IKEA furniture. And we dream of being capable of making everything ourselves. This imagination of either being a competent person living in the past or becoming an almighty maker in the now can only live in our wildest dreams. However, we should be aware that just as any artifact, a tool is not only an implement that helps to achieve a goal, but also a part of our lives that influences how we live and think. As an integral part of our lives, it is a mnemonic device inscribed with human culture and knowledge, and further implies what to do with it. Any single


object has the potential to inspire a whole volume of magazines talking about it. But our popular cellphones today have no more than five buttons. And there is no way to open and see the inside. Designs that merely care about use (and aesthetics) will not allow users to think or modify on their own. Objects may be just a tiny part in the giant web of global trading, and we merely consume what we get on one end. But they can also be designed in another way, that invites us to engage in different parts of their life cycles and foster curiosity in the designs, themselves. The curiosity about this material world connects us to the land that breeds humans and brings us a better understanding of ourselves, our lives, and environments. Thus, we will gain more knowledge about, and care for, not just the task and the artifact, but also ourselves and the world we are living in. That is perhaps the next generation of professional items I will make. We won’t be isolated or uncivilized again, neither can we be the imagined selves placed on those influencers, but we can learn a little bit more with every single object in our life. Because every object might be simple, but they must also be complex. Before designing the next pro thing, I would first make something to represent the design

prevalent today. It would be a metaphor of contemporary design that packages technologies inside beautiful black boxes with big red buttons. They have appealing shells and distinctive indications of how to use them, while hiding every possible intricacy within. And what I would make is a critique that provokes thinking about them. It would be a strange portrait of those designs that only invites people to use, but not to open, to understand, or to modify.


I’m interested in the economies of scale in modern industry, the incremental progression of science and technology, and exploring the ever-widening gulf between general knowledge and the specialisms that make the modern world possible. The point at which it stopped being possible for us to make the things that surround us is long past.


The Big Red Button

In Thomas Thwaites’s endeavor to make a toaster from raw materials (2009), he writes:

In American sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein’s novels, heroes and heroines usually demonstrate a wide range of knowledge and skills. Such people, called “the competent man,” also appear as lifestyle or creator-/maker-type influencers like Li Ziqi. Such a competent person perhaps could only live in our imaginary past.


Apple’s products are designed for (almost) everyone. They are beautiful objects that are simple and enjoyable to use. But they are certainly not designed to be opened, repaired, or modified by their users. Their materiality, mechanism, and histories are intentionally concealed.

2) A vase made of sand and plastic waste from the shore (Dentella, et al., 2018) 3) “B2P” Gel Roller Series by Pilot. The bottle-like form implies their precursor as plastic bottles.

These artworks and designs that “leave the roots on” (quote from Charles Olson’s poem “These Days…”) show how backstories can be embedded in objects, thus arise material curiosity and responsibility.

PaperClip, a Chinese independent media, explains things in our modern life in every detail. In their “Behind the Scene” episode (2020), they summarize their framework of approaching each topic. For any object or phenomenon, they look for the supporting structures and technologies, which backed up by design and engineering ideas that are informed by underlying scientific theories. However, this is only through the lens of technologies. When we look at the objects or phenomena via social, economic, political, ecological and other perspectives, a much bigger world will rise before us.


The Fire-Starter

1) One of Studio Drift’s “Materialism” (ongoing) sculptures. The Dutch design duo deconstruct familiar artifacts into beautiful compositions of their smallest components, suggesting the unseen materiality and manufacturing process.


The Big Red Button

THE FIRE-STARTER It would be a fire-starter. Because fire is usually believed to be the original, most important technological innovation dated back to around 1 million years ago, it is a natural symbol of technology in general. Humans have discovered countless ways to make and preserve fire for its heat and light, for nutrition, warmth, protection, and control of time. The methods evolved across millennia. It’s getting easier and safer, but I doubt that many of us may know how their mechanisms work and master the skills. Among varied ways to make a fire, I chose to use wood friction. It is the most widely known, laborious, and primitive method. It looks so low-tech that it seems insane to package this technology, or embed this knowledge, into something that looks like a product of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (as described by Klaus Schwab.) The conflict between the rawness and the contemporary look and feel will add absurdity, which serves as the discursive dissonance that provokes thought. The notion of “the strangely familiar” is common across various forms of discursive design. […] Creating dissonance is the fundamental game that these types of design play, and getting it just right is the great challenge and key to their craft. Tharp, Bruce M., and Stephanie M. Tharp. Discursive design: Critical, speculative, and alternative things. MIT Press, 2019.

In short, it’s a contemporary friction-fire-starter. It holds the most primitive technology at its core, while possessing everything that makes it resemble a household appliance today—a smooth shell, a clear indication of use, and a fully automatic process. The shape looks like what we have in our room, but the shell is transparent, which reveals the inside. Seeing the simple process happening in a refined case is a critical moment to get the message I try to convey.


gas stove


match lighter

Dรถbereiner's lamp

pist-o-liter Banjo ligher ferro rod huo zhe zi

battery + steel wool/gum wrapper

KMnO4 + glycerol magnifying glass

water / ice


Al can + chocolate

hand drill fire plough bow drill Users being PRO

Knowledge level in the person


Ways of fire-making in human history, mapped to the amount of knowledge embedded and the level of knowledge and skills required from the user

The Fire-Starter

Knowledge level in the tool

Objects being PRO


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Ideally, I would make a working prototype that people can touch and use. It should also look like a home appliance. However, Because of the limited time and resources I could access, the plan changed to show the look and feel and the mechanism digitally. I first came up with a laser-cut, plywood prototype with all mechanical structures. It was only to demonstrate my idea and show a general impression of how the machine may approximately look. Of course, the wooden crank and gears can never succeed in making a fire. This version is far from the final design.

The Fire-Starter


The fire-starter, first prototype

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The fire-starter, second prototype


The Fire-Starter

To make something that at least works, and as automatic and user-friendly as possible, I spent two more months working with wood, cement, and electricity. The latest version has a cement stove and a motor encased in a sliding plywood box. When a user pushes the top down, the motor will spin and drill a piece of wood, i.e., the hearth board, with a wooden spindle that has a cone tip. After smoke appears and coal accumulates, they can release the motor and push the handles at the sides of the stove. The hearth board along with the ember will fall and contact with the tinder in the stove, thus producing a fire. To note that although this prototype has a straight-line form and elemental material palette, that was not an aesthetics-led choice. Instead, I used materials and structures that looked to fit among those easy to produce.

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Attempts to making a fire with wood friction, to figure out the mechanism of the machine

Still, this process helped me understand what’s needed to make a fire this way—heat, fuel, and oxygen. I couldn’t make it with my hands, but let’s at least visualize it through the mighty computer.


The Fire-Starter

Then came the global epidemic, when I tried to test the prototype. Sadly, it failed. :( I did it in my bathroom, trying not to get caught since I live in an apartment. I also bought a bow-drill kit, flint kit, matches, lighters, and watched tens of YouTube videos and threads on primitive skills forums. Unfortunately, I never made a fire end-to-end by simply “drilling wood with wood.” Alas, how can those people make fire with ease? Why should I care about getting caught in the first place???


The Big Red Button

Since I don’t have to make it work in real-life, I spend more time thinking about how it should look. Now that I can put aside technical constraints, I can make it fully automatic.


A mood board to show referential forms, materials, and textures

The Fire-Starter


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Sketches, form exploration

The Fire-Starter


The machine had a button and a handle for user interaction at first. The handle was later removed, since it still requires lots of user judgement, which is not compatible with the concept.

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Sketches, internal structures and the button as user interface

The Fire-Starter

Defining color palette by finding a harmonious combination based on the colors already define: red (the button) and wood color


Trying layout alternatives for the information on the button


The Big Red Button



The overall form looks like products we have today. And it has a very striking button that indicates use. But with the transparent shell, people have a chance to see the technology inside and feel the absurdity of putting a primitive technology into a modern form. This project presents my understanding of how things are becoming professional today. And when we are merely the users, a large world behind a tool can be overlooked.

It lives in our home, just like the other home appliances.

The Fire-Starter


SCHEMATICS Like the previous version, it has two parts. The motor and drill are on the top and the stove is down below. There’s also another section connected with the stove at its back that has a servo motor, an air pump, and the motherboard. The upper and lower parts can be separated and assembled easily, in order to refill the spindle and hearth board.



The Big Red Button

Parts, nomenclature, and how to assemble the machine


1) Plastic shell, back

2) Motherboard and power cord

3) Air pump

4) Servo motor and hearth board platform

The Fire-Starter


5) Shells connector, bottom

6) Ceramic stove

7) Stove-shell connector

8) Fire tray

The Big Red Button

10) Tinder

11) Hearth board

12) Shell, top

13) Shells connector, top

14) Stepper motor and threaded rod


9) Distance sensor and smoke sensor


16) Motor, connectors and cords

17) Button

18) Spindle

Putting two parts together


The Fire-Starter

15) Supportor



The Big Red Button

The Fire-Starter

Rendering, close-up


Left: Rendering, isometric view



The Big Red Button

User interaction and overall working flow


1) User presses the button

2) Stepper motor triggered; motor and spindle moves down

3) Spindle touches hearth board

4) Motor runs; wood pieces drilling; smoke and coal emerges and gets bigger

The Fire-Starter


5) Servo runs and platform rotates; air pump sends oxygen; sparkle appears

6) Servo and platform rotates back; hearth board and ember released

7) Tinder catches fire; flame detected, pump blows stronger

8) Fire made; user may takes out the fire, or fire off, button reset

The Big Red Button 3

Button pressed

0” 6” Wood pieces touch


The Fire-Starter

Starts drilling

Smoke detected


18” 25” Faster drilling for 5 sec


The Big Red Button 3

Starts blowing

26” 30”

Spark detected, blows stronger


The Fire-Starter

Flame detected


50” 44”

Fire made


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For home appliances, the shelves in stores and our homes are their only contexts we can imagine.

The Fire-Starter



The Big Red Button

MOVING FORWARD Here, we see a contemporary machine that uses a simple mechanism at the core, which was made with a surprisingly unnecessary cost and requires a simple gesture from the user. With this fire-starter, I wanted to show today’s products that merely indicate use. Even further, through the process of making this machine, I discovered just how much knowledge is lying underneath the seemingly simplest technology. Even for a simple and often taken-for-granted technology like this, it requires so much knowledge and effort to work. How about other fire-starting tools? How about any other device? In the future, knowing that not every conceptual object can live in the real world, I still aim to create another version that works. Indeed, it may lead to another form, but hopefully, it would keep the style of what I finished with in the end. The thesis ends here with a conceptual fire-starter, but I will continue to work on the next type of professional tools. The ones that let people use, explore, question, and modify them. The ones that acknowledge object professionalism, but further calls for object curiosity.



I’m not good at writing shiny, glamorous sentences. This is not a splendid work, either. But I will pour out my gratitude to the many people, without whom this important project for me wouldn’t be as it is today. My thanks to Brett MacFadden, my thesis advisor, and Sara Dean, the other instructor during the first semester. I can never forget the great or fun references they brought up, the relevant personal stories they talked about, and many possible directions they pointed out when we were brainstorming at the early stage. Their guidance and appreciation gave me so much confidence and defined the boundary for me in the immense mist I was standing in at the beginning. Stuart Kendall, my writing advisor, whom I owed the most for this book. His theory of storytelling, especially the part about the many visible or not “anchors” in a brand story, helped me framed my ideas. His humor and encouragement pushed me to finish this piece I’m pleased with when I was tired and lost. Wish him the best of luck in New York! Mara Holt Skov, my design history professor. She taught me how to observe tangible objects and think through their life cycles. She took me around Europe in a study-abroad class two years ago. That’s when I saw Thomas Thwaites’ toaster at the V&A Museum in London, Studio


Drift’s ingenious sculptures at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and other great projects that informed my thesis. The thesis wouldn’t exist without her. Ignacio Valero, Erik Adigard, and their “Machinic Modernity� class, for leading me to think about technologies and hypermodernity in the Anthropocene. Matthew Boyko, Helen Ip, professors of “Carry-On Manufacturing,� who got me interested in DIY, non-designers’ designs, and prototyping. Barry Katz, for walking me through the past industrial revolutions since Prometheus’ theft. It’s not accidental that I chose to make a fire-starter. Helen Maria Nugent, Bruce Tharp, and James Pierce, whose teaching and works showed me the power of speculative design, for getting me on board. Mark Brest Van Kampen, Sudhu Tewari, Luca Antonucci, and Benjamin Shaykin, for teaching me how to make things work and make beautiful objects from scratch. Thanks to Ting-Kai Wang and Yang Liu, for being my study group partners, for the time we spent physically or virtually together. They shared my worries and cheered me up; questioned my concepts, works, and writings, helping me construct a more coherent body of works. My friends from college, Yingzhe Zhu and Zi Ye, for listening to my ramblings of naive ideas and presented references from their own academic


perspectives. [Caltrain Commuter Jacket] Thanks to Diqing Wu, for teaching me how to sew. Yan Li, for taking me to thrift shops and fabric stores around the city to get all I needed. Yang, for spending a whole day with me photographing the jacket. [Connect the Dots Bandana] Again, Diqing, for being my sewing instructor, my model, stylist, and photographer; my angel .


[Fire-Starter] Po-Hsun Yu, for sitting next to me and always being ready to help with prototyping and fire-making. Diqing (again,) Linya Huang, Xinheng Jiang, & Lingyin Du, my industrial design consultants. And thanks to my other peer thesis studio students, especially Negash Asegde, Dan Qian, Yan Yan, Juan Pablo Rahal, and Xi Zhao, for helping me brainstorm and giving advice from their design specialties. I owe so much to Huizhong Zhu. She is my apartment-mate, classmate, and daily companion. She is a good listener and tolerant of what I did. Thanks to Junjie Li and Ning Jia, my two little apartment-mates and helping hands, for staying with me and caring for me during the shelter-in-place period. Being together, we shared not only worries and happiness but also tools, food, and snacks.

I also want to thank my review panels: Rafi Ajl, Mia Spampinato, Raquel Kalil, Zach Gibson, Scott Minneman, Randy Nakamura, Ana Llorente, Gregory Hurcomb, James Pierce, and Tim Furstnau, for their valuable feedback at different points. Jon Sueda, Aaron Kissman, Christine Lasher, and other CCA faculty and staff that managed and coordinated across the year.

Last but not least, big thanks to my parents in China, who have been putting no pressure on me and supporting whatever I want to do. And my dearest friends in China and the US, who made me happy, experienced the up-anddowns and dramas in the COVID-19 situation together. It’s time to send this book to print and move out from my studio. Even though every detail of this ceremony is off, I’ll conclude the three years and say goodbye from my heart. ️

May 2020, San Francisco



PUBLICATIONS Articles, books, magazines, and videos Abbott, Andrew. “The Future of Expert Knowledge.” Lecture, “The Sociology of Sociological Knowledge” from DFG Research Network, Berlin, November 30, 2017. Abbott, Andrew. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. The University of Chicago Press, 1988. Chiang, Ted. “the Evolution of Human Science,” in Stories of Your Life and Others. Vintage Book, 2016. Originally appeared under the title“Catching Crumbs from the Table” for Nature, June 1, 2000. Colomina, Beatriz, and Mark Wigley. Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design. Lars Müller Publishers, 2016. Crawford, Kate, and Vladan Joler, “Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo As An Anatomical Map of Human Labor, Data and Planetary Resources,” AI Now Institute and Share Lab, September 7, 2018. https://anatomyof.ai/.


Douglas, Gordon CC. The Help-Yourself City: Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism. Oxford University Press, 2018. Erowid.org. “The Magic Mushroom Growers Guide.” Erowid Psilocybin Mushroom Vaults, November 2005. https:// erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_mmgg.shtml. Hara, Kenya. Ex-formation. Lars Müller Publishers, 2015. Kelly, Kevin, ed. Cool tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. 2013. Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. New Riders Press, 2000. Levit, Briar. Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production. USA, 2017. Schindler, Bill. “How to Start a Fire With Your Bare Hands.” Wired, February 26, 2020. https://www.wired.com/video/ watch/primitive-technology-fire.

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press, 2008. Tharp, Bruce M., and Stephanie M. Tharp. Discursive Design: Critical, Speculative, and Alternative Things. MIT Press, 2019.

Series/periodicals Bates, Anna, Elizabeth Glickfeld, and Peter Maxwell, ed. Dirty Furniture. 2014 - 2021 (expected.) Brand, Stewart, ed. Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools. 1968 - 1972.

Thwaites, Thomas. The Toaster Project: or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch. Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

kiwami japan. “Sharpest Kitchen Knifes.” 2017, ongoing. https://www.youtube. com/channel/UCg3qsVzHeUt5_cPpcRtoaJQ.

Urbina, Ian. “Inside the World of D.I.Y. Ammunition.” New York Times, Oct. 5, 2018. https://www.nytimes. com/2018/10/05/us/3d-printed-guns-homemade-ammunition.html.

PaperClip. “回形针PaperClip.” 2018, ongoing. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUGJ-yKqQHl4FSZwUmGpiUg.

van der Zanden, Joanna, ed. Curatorial Cooking: The Design Practice of Platform 21. ArtEZ Press, 2012.

ARTIFACTS Artworks, designs, and other projects Dentella, Ambra, Heleen Sintobin, and Martina Taranto. “A Transparent Revolution,” #Oneless, 2018. https:// martinataranto.com/A-Transparent-Revolution. Henning, Mark. “Normaal.” Master’s thesis, Design Academy Eindhoven, 2017. https://www.markhenning.nl/. IDEO, and MIT Media Lab, “Outer Skills” in “Made in the Future.” 2014. http:// madeinthefuture.co/outer-skills. Odell, Jenny. “The Bureau of Suspended Objects,” 2015, ongoing, https://www. suspended-objects.org/. Odell, Jenny. “Where Almost Everything I Used, Wore, Ate or Bought on Monday, April 1, 2013 (That Had a Label) Was Manufactured, to the Best of My Knowledge,” http://www.jennyodell. com/wherewasitmade/index.html.


the ODIN, “DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kit” and others. 2017, ongoing. https://www.the-odin.com/. Riny, Desiree. “Reclaiming Accessibility: To Lower-limb Prosthetics within Rural Communities in Developing Countries.” Master’s thesis, RMIT, 2019. https:// www.desireeriny.com/#/cat/. Studio Drift, “Materialism: a Sculpture on Reversed Engineering.” 2018, ongoing. https://www.studiodrift.com/work#/ materialism/. Vytautas Jankauskas. “How to Build a Water Filter: A DIY Tutorial from the Future.” HEAD — Geneva, 2015. https://vjnks.com/works/6/how-tobuild-a-water-filter.

Artifacts are fascinating. They decorate our lives, assist us in solving problems, and reveal our cultures. However, we, as users, may rely too much on them while knowing so little about them. Human beings find solutions to all kinds of problems and embed that knowledge into tangible things. We haven’t entirely given up our occupations to objects, yet they are taking away our “pro” titles. “Don’t make me think,” is no longer a guideline UX professions manage to follow but it is already a ubiquitous message that gadgets and apps are whispering. As inanimate objects become professionals, we only need to be good users.

Designs with good usability carry implied methods of use. A tool is not only an agent that helps to achieve a goal, but also a part of our culture that influences how we live and think. Designs can invite people to take on roles other than users, to investigate things actively and participate in other parts of their lifecycle. More than merely “using” something, we may wonder how it comes to be, how it works, how we modify it to better suit individual needs and how we can mend or dispose of it when it’s broken. There are many more questions to ask since an object is just a single node in the web of the larger ecology.

This thesis started with a series of projects, helping me understand how “pro-ness” exists in objects and what the relationship between human and professional objects is like. In the end, I made a fire-starter as a metaphor and a critique of the user-friendly tools in today’s trends. The journey urged me to create artifacts which raise curiosities in the objects, themselves, in the future.

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