Parsons The New School for Design
MFA Design + Technology
Computational Craft
CRN 7426 || PGTE 5582 A
Fall 2014
Tuesday, 7 – 9:40 pm, 6 East 16th Street, Rm 1204A
Instructor: Liza Stark
Email: stare220[at]
Office hours: By appointment only.
Class site:

Course Description

Craft is a practice underlying all cultures, unifying hand with mind, materials with tools, and high technology with low technology. Historically, craft is a means of communicating the knowledge, stories, and values of the individual and local community across generations.

The rise of DIY, open source, and Maker culture has contributed to a growing design field that we will call computational craft: the combination of crafting techniques with alternative and traditional materials to produce computationally infused or inspired objects, usually exhibiting a distinctly DIY aesthetic. Over the course of the semester, we will spend much time unpacking and revising this definition, and examining the role of this field at the intersection of design, technology, and contemporary culture. New materials give us the opportunity to explore new interactions between people and technology. The unexpected is our currency.

We will begin by examining how traditional crafting techniques can be interwoven with new materials such as conductive ink, thread, fabric, and more to generate “soft” interfaces. During the second part of the course, we will explore actuators such as thermochromic ink, soft speakers, and shape memory alloys. Throughout the course, we will think critically about how utilizing these materials shapes our interactions with technology (e.g. why is a paper piano more whimsical than a knobbed midi interface or a traditional piano?) and the problem solving involved in customized sensor design.

If you would like to escape the screen for the hand, this is a great opportunity.

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 larger environments. Use alternative materials to construct aesthetic and functional computationally 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 Methodology
Use different lenses and frameworks to approach the design process and user research. We will pull from elements from narrative construction and storytelling, situational design, craft research, game design, and more.

Class Structure
The course is structured as a series of workshops, each with an in class activity and outside assignment. These activities and assignments are designed for you to enhance your technical understanding through peer to peer learning, explore materials and their appropriate (or inappropriate) usage, and apply both through rapid prototyping.

You will have a group project, a midterm, and a final. The group project involves sharing a crafting technique with the class (such as weaving, knitting, sewing, batiking, etc), the midterm will focus on interface, and the final will be determined based on student interest in course themes and discussions as they emerge throughout the course.

At certain points in the semester, we will reflect on the direction of the course as a whole class to discuss things that are not working or demand further exploration.

30% Participation + Attendance
35% Assignments + Documentation
35% Major Projects: Craft Presentation (10%) + Midterm (10%) + Final (15%)

Participation + Attendance
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.

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

Laptops should be closed when not needed and phones should be on silent. Specifically, I have no tolerance for inattention during student project presentations. A core principle of this program is peer feedback and I expect all of you to respect this.

Assignments + Documentation
You should bring all completed assignments (working or not!) to the next class. Weekly assignments should be documented and posted to the class blog. Here is a post outlining what a documentation post should include.

Major Projects
A central goal of this course is creating a database of techniques for others to learn from. Extensive documentation is required for each project in the form of an Instructable. You are encouraged to work in groups for all projects. If you wish to combine one of these three projects with a deliverable for another course, you MUST ask me first. Failure to do so will result in point deduction. I am open to this, but it is imperative that we establish the goals of the project as they relate to each course.

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. All required materials for the class can be found here: Tool Box

If you find a new, totally awesome material, please share it!


Week 1 (8/26): Course Introduction: What’s in a name?
Guiding Questions:
> What is this course all about?
> Why are materials so important?
> How do you define “computational craft”? What does craft have to do with it and what does craft have to do with technology?
> How many projects will I be doing?
> What resources are available to aid me in these projects?

1) Find a project that excites you and that uses the materials we looked at in class. Use the Resources page on the class blog to get started. Create a post that includes, images, video, or other documentation. Write a brief paragraph explaining what it is about this project that intrigues you.

2) Materials hunt. Find a material with interesting properties (form, ornamentation, conductivity, etc) and bring it to class. Canal Street is a good place to start, as is Mood and surrounding stores.

3) Purchase materials listed in the TOOL BOX today or tomorrow. I know shipping might take a week or so, so if you don’t have them all by next week, no worries.

4) Watch the MAKE Multimeter Tutorial Video

What Do Prototypes Prototype? by Stephanie Houde and Charles Hill

Week 2 (9/2): Crafting a Path
Guiding Questions:
> What is electricity?
> What is a conductor?
> Is there really more than one way to hook up LEDs?
> What are different methods of constructing conductive traces to form a circuit?

1) Illustration Exercise. Pick a sentence or passage from a story, quotation, poem, etc (anything *written*) that you like (children’s storybooks work VERY well). Illustrate one scene from that book and integrate a circuit into it using the materials we discussed in class. Post documentation to the blog and bring your final product into class. Include a discussion why you choose that passage and why you choose that material.

Interactive Paper Devices: End-user Design & Fabrication by Greg Saul, Cheng Xu, Mark D Gross.
Programmable matter by folding by E. Hawkesa

Week 3 (9/9): Folding + Switch Workshop
Guiding Questions:
> What is a switch?
> What does interaction mean? What are the “mechanics” of interaction?
> What are the affordances of different materials?

1) 3 Switches
Part 1: Each of you should make three separate switches embedded in paper using the conductive material we have discussed in class. Each switch should have a core mechanic – or interaction – that turns the LED on and off. (Just a reminder that a core mechanic is the verb describing the action that turns the switch on and off – at least for our purposes.) Document all three on the blog and bring them to class.

For example, let’s say I chose “balancing” as my mechanic. Perhaps I would build a paper box out of tracing paper. In order to connect the circuit and light up the LED, I would have to balance a metal ball on top without crushing it. Or “winding” – I might wind conductive thread around or inside a paper structure to complete the circuit. Or “snapping” – I might use neodymium magnets to connect two paper structures (or more!) to complete the circuit.

Part 2: Choose one of your switches and write a *brief* story about it. Why does someone use it? What is the context for someone using it? Think of the LED as a proxy for another output. Use your imagination – it can be a fantastic or functional use.

For example, maybe my snapping switch above in actually a musical instrument. Played by 50 people at once. During the one holiday when people can play music in a dystopian future society. The act of creating music is no longer delicate but aggressive.

2) Email me your group for the Learn a New Craft project. Remember: You do not have to design an actual concept and project. This is literally for you to learn how to use a sewing machine or how to fold paper in complex ways or how to weave. It’s that simple :)

Week 4 (9/16): Sensor Workshop
Guiding Questions:
> What is craft?
> What role does it play in contemporary society?
> What is the real difference between digital and analog?
> What is variable resistance?
> What material combinations yield successful sensors?

(1) Choose one variable to test (distance, surface area, conductive material, substrate, etc) and make three sensors to test that variable. Make a hypothesis about each test BEFORE you construct the sensor. For example, my variable is surface area. I will make three sensors out of papper, copper tape, and velostat, but I will change the surface area of the copper tape in each sensor. I hypothesize that the more surface area for copper tape…. (complete your own thought :))

(2) Make sure you bring your Arduino Uno and a breadboard to the next class. You can also bring a Lilypad, Flora, Mini, etc in addition to the Arduino Uno.

(3) You are *highly* encouraged to go to Maker Faire.

(4) Watch Masimo Banzi’s TED talk

(5) Learn a New Craft Project DUE NEXT CLASS

Week 5 (9/23): Microcontroller Workshop Part 1 + Learn a New Craft Project Shareout
Guiding Questions:
> What is a computer? What is it made of?
> What impact has open source had on our field of research?
> How can I use storytelling as a form of research?
> What impact has the anthropomorphization of technology had?

1) Behavior story! Pick a behavior (breathing, talking, etc) or emotion (sad, lazy, existential, etc) and create a circuit that exhibits this using the Arduino (or Lilypad), a switch (not sensors!), and an LED (or 2 or 3…). You should construct your switch and circuit traces using the techniques we have been learning in class. It should NOT be on a breadboard and you will probably need alligator clips.

2) Tell a story about your object. What is it feeling? How do you display this through code?

3) Bring your sensors from the previous week. We will plug them into Arduino.

Week 6 (9/30): Microcontroller Workshop Part 2 + Capacitance
Guiding Questions:
> How do I read sensors?
> What is a capacitance sensor?
> How do we deal with sensitivity? Or lack thereof?
> What is the midterm?!

1) Make a capacitive sensor that triggers three different states (e.g. blinking fast, blinking slow, off).
2) Come prepared to present your midterm concept. You should bring any inspiration, prototypes, drawings, etc that will help us get a better idea of where you are coming from.

Week 7 (10/7): ATtiny Workshop + Midterm Work Session
Guiding Questions:
> How can I make my project smaller?
> What are alternatives to Arduino?
> Group brainstorming and feedback on midterm concepts.

1) Midterm presentations.

Week 8 (10/14): Midterm Project Presentations
Guiding Questions:
> How do I give great peer feedback?!


Week 9 (10/21): Materials Library + Finish Midterm Project Presentations
Guiding Questions:
> How can we create material interventions?
> What is critical making?

1) Bring a speaker module from Radioshack or a sound greeting card.
2) Bring in a 9 volt battery.

Week 10 (10/28): High Current Circuits + Speaker Workshop
Guiding Questions:
> How does sound work?
> What is an electromagnet?
> Why are transistors the key component to the computing revolution? And why does that matter to me at this specific juncture?

1) Construct two new speakers based on the class activity. Document which variables you tested and the results.

Week 11 (11/4): Thermochromic Ink + Nitinol Workshop
Guiding Questions:
> What are the properties of thermochromic ink?
> What are the interaction possibilities of nuanced feedback? When and where is this appropriate?
> How can we use temperature as input?
> How does the ambient space affect this material?
> What are the qualities of motion?
> What are the different means we have of actuating motion?
> What role do materials and engineering play in achieving your desired effect?

1a) Design a swatch that communicates a message or conveys an emotion without words. Document it. Test it on two people and briefly document or describe their reaction.
1b) Use one of the techniques we learned in class to actuate a material of your choosing using flexinol. Document it.
2) Bring in a problem you have encountered in past assignments or a new material you want to work with.
3) Bring in at least three ideas for your final project.

Week 12 (11/11): Group Problem-Solving + Student Check-ins
Guiding Questions:
> What are best practices you have found to debug projects that use these materials (e.g. hardware, software, etc)?
> What is the final?!

**I will be meeting with students individually to talk about grades and class performance.**

1) Bring in a prototype of your final project.

Week 13 (11/18): Final Project Ideation + Peer Critique

Week 14 (11/25): No class! (Thanksgiving)

Week 15 (12/2): No class. Please email me if you have any questions or to set up an appointment if you would like more feedback.

Week 16 (12/9): 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 Canvas may be an important resource for this class. Students should check it for announcements before coming to class each week.
Please note, all assignments will be distributed and should be posted to on the class blog as listed above.

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
You are expected to complete all assignments as described above to receive full credit. We will discuss the requirements for each project when introduced. If you have any questions about how you are assessed, please reach out to me.

A Work of exceptional quality
Exceptional work goes above and beyond the expectations of the required project criteria. It exhibits a critical eye towards the themes of the course, while synthesizing the design principles and technology practiced to create interesting and contextually significant work. All work is thoughtfully documented and communicated in both digital form and in presentations. Overall, the work is considered a contribution to this growing domain.

A- Work of high quality

B+ Very good work

B Good work; satisfies course requirements
Satisfactory completion of a course is considered to be a grade of B or higher.

B- Below-average work

C+ Less than adequate work

C Well below average work

C- Poor work; lowest possible passing grade

F Failure

GM Grade missing for an individual

Grades of D are not used in graduate level courses.