Parsons The New School for Design
MFA Design + Technology
Computational Craft
(AR: Soft Circuits)
CRN 5815 || PSAM 5570
Fall 2012
Tuesday, 3:50 – 6:30 pm, 6 East 16th Street, Rm 1204

Instructor: Liza Stark
Email: stare220[at]
Office hours: By appointment only.
Class site:

Course Description

The framework and focus of the spring course is computational craft. We will focus on the role of materials as it relates to objects (specifically interfaces) and environments. A main question the course will continually ask is how much do the materials we use determine our interactions and relationship with technology?

We will begin by examining how traditional crafting techniques can be interwoven with new materials and technologies to generate new behaviors and interactions. The second part of the course will focus on translating these ideas of interface and material to an architectural scale, exploring how computationally enhanced materials can define a space. Throughout the course there will be emphasis on technical construction and aesthetic creation.

We will play with everything from conductive fabrics and thead to copper tape to thermochromic ink to nitinol (muscle memory alloy) to ATtinys to creating your own conductive/resistive concoctions.

Learning Outcomes

Materials Knowledge
Develop a deeper understanding of new alternative materials and examine how they determine our interactions and relationship with technology at different scales, from object interfaces to architecture. Use alternative materials to construct aesthetic and functional computatioanally enhanced prototypes

Computational Techniques
Gain a basic understanding of electricity and microcontrollers; Build a working knowledge of embedded computing techniques and develop the ability to translate these techniques to different scales.

Design Thinking
Demonstrate the ability to integrate the design process into work and translate material solutions to new processes

Research Methods
Work with and document different processes combining traditional crafting techniques with new materials and technologies to generate new behaviors and interactions.

Essential Questions:

  • How can traditional crafting techniques can be interwoven with new materials and technologies to generate new behaviors and interactions?
  • How much do the materials we use determine our interactions and relationship with technology?
  • How can we translate these techniques to an architectural scale?
  • Specifically, how can computationally enhanced materials can define a space?

Class Structure

The course is structured as a series of workshops, each with an in class activity and outside assignment. These assignments are small exercises are to enhance technical understanding and material exploration. You will have a midterm and a final. The midterm will focus on interface, while the final will explore the implementation of class concepts on a more architectural scale.


30% Participation + Attendance
30% Assignments + Documentation
40% Major Projects: Midterm + Final

Attendance + Participation

This class will conform to New School attendance policy. Only three absences are allowed without special permission from the instructor; any more and you will be dropped from the class with a failing grade. Two late arrivals or two early departures will count as one absence. You will also find this a very difficult class to miss even once; extra effort will be required to catch up. When in doubt, communicate with me as early as possible about any special circumstances.

I expect everyone to actively engage in class discussions and to complete in-class activities. You should come ready to make. Working on any work outside of this course will not be tolerated.

Assignments + Documentation

Each assignment should be documented and posted to the blog by the next class. Documentation should be thorough. You should include images of your process, a materials list, any code used, schematics or circuit diagrams, and video documentation of the final product.

Class Rules

Much of class time will be spent workshopping in small groups or individually. When we are having a discussion or demo, your active participation is expected Laptops should be closed and phones should be on silent.

Materials + Supplies

This is in large part a materials-focused course. Some materials will be provided for example activities, but students are expected to purchase their own materials for assignments and projects based on their needs.

Tool Box


Week 1 (1/29): Course Introduction and Introduction to Electricity
We will review the major themes and questions posed by the course, then review the syllabus, documentation format, and materials we will be using. Get to know everyone and your goals for the course, then get everyone set up on the course website.

Activity: The longest circuit


Week 2 (2/5): Crafting a Path
Discussion + Demo: Embedded vs. Enclosed
Part 1: Review electricity. Discuss parallel vs series circuits.
Part 2: Traces + Connectors (Copper tape, conductive ink, conductive fabric, conductive thread, gilded foil, silk screen, laser cutter, Robocraft, Shapeways). Look at different methodologies for constructing a circuit.

Activity: Experiment with different materials to make parallel and series circuits.

1) Illustration assignment: You will receive a sentence from a book. Create a paper circuit that illustrates that sentence using the materials we have been working with.

Week 3 (2/12): Switches + Folding Workshop
Discussion: Mimetic Design: Translating forms in nature

Activity 1: Construct two different types of switches using a variety of materials. Switch with another student and come up with a retroactive design brief for what they might be used for. (Flap, tilt, magnets, other conductive connectors)

Activity 2: Deployable structures: form giveth and taketh away.

Make a switch out of your deployable stucture (or a new one)

Week 4 (2/19): Sensor Workshop
Discussion: Digital v. Analog: Gathering + Making Sense of Data
Demo: Variable resistance; Sensor Construction; Sewing
Activity: Construct a variety of different sensors
(1) Construct one one sensor and one switch in addition to the ones you made last class. You should use new materials or construction processes. Bring them to next class.
(2) Make sure you bring your Arduino and a breadboard

Week 5 (2/26): Microcontroller Workshop Part 1
What is a computer? How does the microcontroller change our perception of what a computer is? Or what material it is made of? How does it change our relationship to it?
Why is Arduino such a big deal? What does it mean for interaction designers? Becomes an interesting space for us to challenge existing notions of form and function. Electronic objects become anthropomorphic: we give them behaviors, etc.
Demo 1: Arduino: Pins, power, and more
Activity 1: Blink an LED
Demo 2: The dreaded breadboard: An overview
Demo 3: The times are a’changing: What new things we need to know

  • More power! What do we need with 5V? More resistance!
  • Digital vs. analog
  • Pull Up v. Pull Down Resistors

Activity 2: Wire up a switch and sensor on the breadboard in groups of two and connect it to Arduino. EVERYONE should have this working by the end of class.
Behavior story. Pick a behavior (breathing, etc) and create a circuit that exhibits this. Use the switch/sensor and circuit building techniques we have been discussing in class.

Week 6 (3/5): Microcontroller Workshop Part 2 + Capacitance
Discussion: Getting smaller + Feeling Touchy: What miniaturization can do for us
Demo: The ATtiny: How to program it.
(1) Debug homework and review anything unclear about Arduino
(2) Program an ATtiny.
(3) Build a capacitive circuit using the ATtiny.
(4) Test different surfaces and work with mapping function.

Assignment: Run at least 2 tests using the ATtiny or capacitance sensing and document it on the blog. These could include using various materials to build the circuit traces, attaching different sensors or switches, etc for the ATtiny or examining a range of sensor materials, mapping different values to achieve varying sensitivity, etc for the capacitance sensor.

Week 7 (3/12): Midterm Work Session
Discussion: Modularity + Choice: Interface
(1) Concepting exercises + Material exploration
(2) Small group feedback
(3) Individual desk crits

Assignment: Midterm presentations.
Format: Demo session. While you do not have to prepare a formal presentation, you must create blog post that addresses the following: design problem/space, concept, precedents/inspiration, prototypes+process, user testing, next steps. You should be prepared to present from this post.

Week 8 (3/26): NO CLASS

Week 9 (4/2): Midterm Presentations: Interface Project Part 1
Activity: Desk Crits + Demo session

TO BRING: (Depending on how much freedom you want and how much you want to spend) A greeting card that makes sound, a recording + playback module like this, or just Arduino.

Week 10 (4/9): Sound+ Speakers

Discussion: How does sound work?
Demo: Paper speakers + High Current Circuit
(1) Make a paper speaker
(2) Build the circuit
(3) Test other speaker materials

Week 12 (4/16): Thermochromic Ink + Heatit Workshop
Discussion: Getting Warmer with Paper Pixels : What are the properties of thermochromic ink? What are the interaction possibilities of temperature as input? How does this type of feedback change the relationship between the user and the object or space?

Week 13 (4/23): Nitinol Workshop
Discussion: Organic motion + the impact of scale.

Activity:Guest Lecturer

DUE NEXT CLASS: Choose a paper, etc from the reading list and use as a starting point to research your final project. Write a blog post about how it relates to the class and to your final project. If you would like to write on a piece of research not included on the list, you must run it by me first!

Week 13 (4/30): Work Session
Activity: Present concepts

Week 14 (5/7): Work session

Week 15 (5/14): Final Presentations


Divisional, Program and Class Policies
Students are responsible for all assignments, even if they are absent. Late papers, failure to complete the readings assigned for class discussion, and lack of preparedness for in-class discussions and presentations will jeopardize your successful completion of this course.

Class participation is an essential part of class and includes: keeping up with reading, contributing meaningfully to class discussions, active participation in group work, and coming to class regularly and on time.

Use of Blackboard may be an important resource for this class. Students should check it for announcements before coming to class each week.

In rare instances, I may be delayed arriving to class. If I have not arrived by the time class is scheduled to start, you must wait a minimum of thirty minutes for my arrival. In the event that I will miss class entirely, a sign will be posted at the classroom indicating your assignment for the next class meeting.

Academic Integrity
This is the university’s Statement on Academic Integrity: “Plagiarism and cheating of any kind in the course of academic work will not be tolerated. Academic honesty includes accurate use of quotations, as well as appropriate and explicit citation of sources in instances of paraphrasing and describing ideas, or reporting on research findings or any aspect of the work of others (including that of instructors and other students). These standards of academic honesty and citation of sources apply to all forms of academic work (examinations, essays, theses, computer work, art and design work, oral presentations, and other projects).”

It is the responsibility of students to learn the procedures specific to their discipline for correctly and appropriately differentiating their own work from that of others. Compromising your academic integrity may lead to serious consequences, including (but not limited to) one or more of the following: failure of the assignment, failure of the course, academic warning, disciplinary probation, suspension from the university, or dismissal from the university.

Every student at Parsons signs an Academic Integrity Statement as a part of the registration process. Thus, you are held responsible for being familiar with, understanding, adhering to and upholding the spirit and standards of academic integrity as set forth by the Parsons Student Handbook.

Guidelines for Studio Assignments
Work from other visual sources may be imitated or incorporated into studio work if the fact of imitation or incorporation and the identity of the original source are properly acknowledged. There must be no intent to deceive; the work must make clear that it emulates or comments on the source as a source. Referencing a style or concept in otherwise original work does not constitute plagiarism. The originality of studio work that presents itself as “in the manner of” or as playing with “variations on” a particular source should be evaluated by the individual faculty member in the context of a critique.

Incorporating ready-made materials into studio work as in a collage, synthesized photograph or paste-up is not plagiarism in the educational context. In the commercial world, however, such appropriation is prohibited by copyright laws and may result in legal consequences.

Student Disability Services
In keeping with the University’s policy of providing equal access for students with disabilities, any student with a disability who needs academic accommodations is welcome to meet with me privately. All conversations will be kept confidential. Students requesting any accommodations will also need to meet with Jason Luchs in the office of Student Disability Services, who will conduct an intake, and if appropriate, provide an academic accommodation notification letter to you to bring to me. At that point I will review the letter with you and discuss these accommodations in relation to this course. Mr. Luchs’ office is located in 79 Fifth Avenue, 5th floor. His direct line is (212) 229-5626 x3135. You may also access more information through the University’s web site at

Grade Descriptions
A 4.0
Work of exceptional quality. 95-100%
These are projects that go above and beyond the expectations and requirements described in the assignment. They demonstrate substantial effort and achievement in the areas of critical thinking, technique and presentation.

A- 3.7
Work of very high quality. 90-94%

B+ 3.3
Work of high quality, higher than average abilities. 86-89%

B 3.0
Very good work that satisfies goals of course. 83-85%
The “B” student offers a clear and convincing structure to a visual endeavor that is more complex and unique than a project at the average level. The creator’s point of view and point of the project are merged successfully and organized fairly consistently throughout the project. Although minor structural problems may be present in the assignment, they do not hinder the overall outcome.

B- 2.7
Good work. 80-82%

C+ 2.3
Above Average work, Average understanding of course material. 76-79%

C 2.0
Average work; passable. 73 -75%
The student demonstrates an engagement with the assignment. The project will show that the creator can identify and work with key ideas and examples found in reference material. Typical of a “C” project is that the original problem or assignment once approached, does not develop further. Projects may also have organizational, technical weaknesses.

C- 1.7
Passing work but below good academic standing. 70-72%

D 1.0
Below average work; does not fully understand the concepts of the course. 60-70%

Although this is passable work, the project only answers the minimum requirements of the assignment. The projects shows very little effort, is incomplete, late or incorrect in its approach. The outcome shows a lack of full understanding and commitment on the part of the creator.

F 0
Failure, no credit. 0-59%

Withdrawal Failing.

Instructors may assign this grade to indicate that a student has unofficially withdrawn or stopped attending classes. It may also be issued when a student fails to submit a final project or to take an examination without prior notification or approval from the instructor. The WF grade is equivalent to an F in calculating the grade point average (zero grade points) and no credit is awarded.

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