Forging scaffolding : how the re-rise of diy and design practice can aid each other in a pervasive computing world.

by Dries De Roeck on December 3, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I wrote together some text whilst trying to crystallize a focus for the PhD topic and activities. Based on feedback from my supervisors and other people, I’m already working on a next version of this, but I still felt like sharing this first version. Maybe it still triggers some thoughts by some people, if that is the case – be sure to leave your comments or talk to me 🙂


This focus description describes the train of thought behind my ongoing research. In order to set the context of the research, I first set up a historical frame in order to reflect on how the meaning of do-it-yourself (diy) has evolved over the years. Afterwards, the focus is on how diy has become a phenomenon that is worth discussing looking towards the future. Both perspectives are illustrated in the title, where ‘forging’ refers diy in the context of crafting. The scaffolding part refers to how design practice can use ideas from the diy community to design in a world where pervasive computing is slowly taking off. To conclude, the focus description describes how I see the outcomes of the research illustrated with some early examples and explorations done

Historical perspective

The idea of doing things yourself is nothing new in the history of mankind. People have been crafting, creating and making whatever they need at a certain point in time for a very long time. A period in time in which crafted objects played a very big role in society were the Middle Ages. As pointed out by both Sennet[i] and Gershenfeld[ii], during this period in time people were well organized in how they went about with crafting things. There were guilds of craftsmen who each had their own expertise, and within each guild there was a certain hierarchy to organize the way the final products were created. As history went on from there, crafting and creating things with your own hands is a skill that people began to lose. The first signs of this can be found in the renaissance, with the rise of automated production and later on in the 1960’s when mass consumption hit every household across the western world. People became accustomed to machines and getting other people to create things for them, which meant that the passion for craftsmanship and the expertise of creating things slowly faded away in mainstream society.

Another perspective to the same historical phenomenon is what Gauntlett[iii] describes with the evolution of everyday creativity. Up until the introduction of the television, everyday creativity amongst people was a common activity. But when the television was introduced, people evolved to a passive lifestyle.

In recent years, however, a clear counter movement has started to appear.  This is very well illustrated by Frauenfelder[iv], who explains how doing things by himself has totally changed the way he thinks and lives. Frauenfelder explains how he tried, and eventually succeeded, to escape from mainstream consumerism to a more conscious lifestyle. His main argument is that once you put yourself in a certain mindset and start creating and assembling things by yourself, you build up a certain emotional bond with the created projects and get more joy out of using the stuff you created. An important thing for Frauenfelder to make this mental switch was the internet, a medium he was already familiar with, on which he could easily find communities and resources to help him forward. For him it was clear that a reason that the internet is at least a catalyst for the DiY mindset.

Also Gauntlett talks about this re-rise of DiY, but he approaches it from the digital/technological perspective where the introduction of digital media and social networking is seen as a catalyst to get people to actively ‘do’ things again. Another author that points to a future role of do-it-yourself is Leadbeater[v] who argues that the internet is becoming a place created ‘with’ people instead of it being an entity that exists ‘for’ people. Leadbeater puts forward the example of Wikipedia, which only exists because it’s created with the inputs of various people. Wikipedia can only be a place like this, because it supports people to create things themselves (in this case, encyclopedic articles).

Future perspective

The Wikipedia example mentioned earlier already illustrates that unlike in the past, people are not only creating things themselves out of wood or steel. During the last decennia, digital realms have started to become playgrounds for people to create a new type of object. Nowadays, things can exist only in a virtual format without needing a physical representation. The tools to create these virtual things might be different in contrast to hardware tools, but the elements regarding time investment and skill are very simular. Looking further towards the future, the gap between both the real and virtual realm will keep on getting smaller. This is often called the evolution to ubiquitous or pervasive computing, where computing technology has evolved to becoming something that is around and we can use it without knowing it. This topic is covered very well by Sterling[vi], where he uses the term ‘spime’ to define the type of objects we will use in that future world. Sterling argues that in a spime world, every object is ‘data’. This data can manifest itself in various ways, it can be tangible, virtual, or both at the same time. The evolution to this ‘spime’ world is already visible today, mostly from a technical point of view. A first step towards this spime world is the Arduino[vii] platform, which enables less-technically skilled people to be engaged in creating functional electronic prototypes using sensors and actuators. The Arduino is just one of many such initiatives to engage people in sensor-based “digital” creation, thereby blurring the boundaries between ‘real world’ creation and ‘virtual world’ creation. Another example is the field of personal informatics[viii] where various software enables people to track themselves using the devices they already own or are regularly available such as smartphones. People can track the places where they’ve been using services like Gowalla or Foursquare, they can track their sleep patterns and heartbeat using built in sensors of the phone. All this data collected can be reused by other services or products. The Arduino and personal informatics examples are only scratching the surface of what pervasive computing could mean, but the point that should be made is that initiatives like these are enabling less technically skilled people to start creating their own digital products and experiences. Looking back to the ‘re-rise of DiY’ mentioned earlier, it is clear that DiY is not only re-rising in the real world but it surely is evolving at a rapid pace in the digital realm.

Motivation and DiY

In order for people to actually engage in any kind of creative activity, they somehow have to be motivated. As mentioned earlier, Frauenfelder[iv] wanted to break out from main stream consumerism by doing more things by himself. For him, the mental consciousness of ‘breaking out’ is the major motivation for him to look for alternatives. Frauenfelder’s example is a practical example of what the copenhagen institute for future studies (CIFS) refers to as the evolution towards the creative man [xiii]. The creative man evolution is based on the idea that people have various types of logic. These logic types evolve over time and can be linked to historical events. The CIFS identifies three logics, industrial logic, dream society and creative man. The industrial logic refers to the industrial revolution. It is a very hierarchical way of thinking where working hard for ‘the company’ and earning a lot of money is the social ideal. Industrial logic can be related to the ‘traditional’ mass consumerism, where the companies push products and technologies to the people without any user/customer involvement. The second logic, dream society, describes a way of thinking where people are very concerned about the image they leave behind. It is all about emotions and social contacts whereas the industrial logic is much more focussed on functionality. The dream society could be related to the web 2.0 rise, where the internet was rediscovered by the people. A third logic is the creative man logic, where the point is made that people will need to become more creative in order to overcome the challenges society is being confronted with. The creative man logic highlights that people will need to be more creative on an individual level in order to pursue their wishes and needs. These three logics are not mutually exclusive, they can exist together and can be intertwined.

Another reference is by Sanders and Stappers[xii] in which they talk about levels of creativity. In their model, 4 levels of creativity are identified; doing, adapting, making and creating. A clear point made there is that all people are creative, but not all of them are designers. On top of that, people can have a different level of creativity for different parts of their daily activities. This means that depending on someone’s level of expertise or passion, a person who is passionate about music can ‘create’ their own compositions but when it comes to cooking this person could be more in the ‘doing’ level if he/she only uses microwavable meals.

Both the CIFS publication[xiii] and the paper by Sanders [xii] point out that various ‘types’ of people will interpret DiY in various ways. Also, the same person can be creative in various activities depending on his own motivation, passion or expertise. What should also be taken into account is the moment at which someone experiences an activity as ‘creative’. For the moment I will refer to this as the “I made it myself experience”. In order to understand this better, take the ongoing trend of personalization/customization. Several sneaker brands (nike, puma,..) are allowing customers to choose materials and colors to create their own shoes the way they want. For a person with a dream society logic, doing this activity would be something that he can perceive to be unique and thus give him a true feeling of creating something himself. When a person thinking along the lines of the creative man would do the same thing, the customization of his shoes would not give him the same satisfaction since he is conscious that choosing the colors is merely a selling trick. For him, for instance, actually creating and sewing the shoe from the ground up would be an “I made it myself experience”. Thinking back to Sterling’s spime world, arguments can be raised why digital creation is not being picked up by mainstream consumers. At the moment, platforms which try to mix the real and the virtual world (arduino, open structures, makerbot, phidgets, etc…) are mostly picked up by people with a passion for technology. It is clear that the current tools do not engage people with another logic or level of creativity to be engaged in digital creation, leave alone creation in a pervasive computing world.

Scaffold (digital) design practice through DiY

Figure 1 gives an overview of the identified elements related to the DiY paradigm and shows how they are interrelated on a high level. The figure starts from the central statement that DiY is nothing new, this refers to the points made before related to the history of DiY. Therefrom, two major movements erupt; ‘a social re-rise’ and ‘sensors and pervasive computing’.

With the ‘social re-rise’ I point out that at this moment in time, the DiY way of thinking is gaining interest amongst a broad public. Examples of this are the open design movement, instructables, pop-up knitting clubs, etsy,… A lot of the activities in the social re-rise are linked to crafting with material, meaning that the activities are about creating and being part of a community to share creations. Since the focus is on craft, there are mostly no digital artefacts involved apart from the internet which is regarded as a communication medium.

The ‘sensors and pervasive computing’ part refers to the technological opportunity related to the social re-rise. With this I mean that since computing is becoming increasingly accessible for people, the amount of people that start to tinker with this technology increases as well.

high level relations between DiY elements

Figure 1 : high level relations between DiY elements

The scaffolding idea in design has been introduced by Sanders[ix] and is also a well known concept in game design theory[x]. Scaffolding is very related to learning, it basically gives a framework which engages people to build further upon. By building further, they combine things from the given framework and learn new things along the way. To take an example of game design, when you first start a computer game you often run through a tutorial level. When this tutorial is scaffolded, the game would for instance tell you “press the spacebar to jump” with no further context. A bit later on, there could be a tree on the road. Instead of telling you what to do, the game would only tell you “get over the tree”. At this moment, the person ‘gaming’ has to make the link between “press spacebar to jump” and “get over the tree”. When this mental link is made, it is more likely that the person will remember the key to jump.

In the industrial design context, scaffolding can be regarded as a design vision to create semi-finished things that invite and engage people of different levels of creativity and motivational affiliations to a certain subject. There are at least two ways I see this can be interpreted;

Scaffolding & heirloom products

A heirloom product is something that is given down from generation to generation. A typical example is a valuable watch that is passed down from grandfather to father to son. This concept is fading away because firstly mass consumption does not follow this mindset and secondly because technology is advancing so rapidly that products have a lifespan which is much shorter than in the past[xvi]. The DiY electronics movement is clearly countering this tendency by hacking and recreating products in order to re-use them or re-purpose them.

Scaffolding as a way to elicit creation

Taking the discourse from Sanders[x][ix] further, scaffolding can be used to offer various tools to people that enable them to understand some basic components of pervasive computing. By remixing these components they can come to new ideas and new applications depending on their own level of creativity. Because finding the right tools or scaffolds that allow people to express themselves[xiv] is far from easy, my idea would be to focus on people in design practice first. A goal here would be to get sensor driven applications away from the ‘techies & developers’ and allow people with a design background to get creative with sensors without needing to rely on people with a much more technical background.

When it come to interactive, electronic, products being imagined and designed at the moment the designer often does not go past a storyboard or visual representation in the first phase. The argument I want to put forward is that the design techniques of storyboarding will not be enough anymore due to the increasing complexity and interactivity of systems. During the design process, you need to experience the data, but in order to experience it you need to make it. It is within this context that there design practice can learn a lot from how DiY projects are being run and what methods they use. On the other hand, current DiY communities can learn from existing design methods in order to make their projects stronger and more feasible.

Discussion: is there a re-rise at all?

The earlier statement ‘re-rise of Do-it-Yourself’ is very fragile. Although I argue that there is an ongoing counter movement to the passive consumption society we know nowadays, there have always been people who create things themselves. Examples of this are the stereotypical people who spend endless nights in their garages working and tinkering on projects.

Over the past months I talked to several people about this, a vision that some people shared was that we hear so much about DiY due to the internet which is catalyst of weak signals. This means that the internet is amplifying the activities of a very small community who knows how to get attention via the web and that there is on a larger social level not a lot being changed. So one could say that we think there is a re-rise of DiY but in fact nothing really changed. This could be related to what Frauenfelder[iv] writes about how he can find so much information on the internet to do things by himself that the community aspect of the internet is in fact a reason that he is doing things himself at all.

It obviously is hard to say what part of the emerging DiY phenomenon is a “hype” and what part of it will stay and manifest itself in mainstream society. This is a reason why I try to focus on the relation between design practice and DiY and what they can learn from each other.


To support the theoretical arguments made about scaffolding and how design practice and diy can learn from each other, two small explorations were created. These ‘hardware sketches’ illustrate some ways the further research could evolve in. I see them as attempts to provide tangible scaffolds for designers in order to get them to think differently about sensor driven objects and pervasive computing. At this moment the experiments were only done internally, they should be scaled in the future and explored together with people.


A common ‘problem’ with regard to a sensor is to understand what a sensor actually is. Before someone will include a sensor in his/her diy projects, this person needs to understand what a sensor can do. For a technically skilled person, this is less of a problem but once DIY enthusiasts with a less technical background get engaged into digital creation the understanding of what a sensor is and how it behaves is crucial to create with technology. We could refer to this as a technological ‘gap’ between the real world and the virtual world. To explore this gap, and work towards a way to bridge it, the soapboxes prototype was created.

The soapboxes prototype tried to go back to the pure essence of a sensor, and package it in such a way that people would not be biased when they saw the physical appearance. The only thing a soapbox does is show the effect of one certain type of sensor. For instance, a tilt sensor will light an LED when the soapbox is tilted. The idea behind it is that by providing a very basic output based on the user interaction, the person using the soapbox gets a better understanding of how the sensor inside the box works and reacts in context.


With the soapboxes prototype, an attempt was made to take the focus away from technology and try to create a tool to explore sensors starting from the interactions or context of use. In fact, it could be referred to the digital counterpart of a colour swatches book. Instead of flipping through swatches of colour, the person browsing the soapboxes is exploring various sensors in their most pure form.

The soapboxes were originally created as a research material, exploring how people find out to what a certain sensor reacts and what interactions a certain sensortype elicits. Besides that, the tool could be used in co-creation sessions, where people are invited to come up with sensor-based ideas alongside designers and developers. Also it could evolve into a designer’s tool, aiding the designer of tangible sensor based applications to pick out innovative interactions using the correct sensor.

Low resolution ambient display

This small experiment was based on existing open source hardware and software using Arduino, the Lots-of-Leds (LoLshield) for Arduino and a Processing (software) sketch. The goal was to explore how sensordata could be displayed in an ambient way in order to integrate the data in a less intrusive way. The reason behind it is that once ‘data’ is being visualized, people often have to use a smartphone, or a computer display. These type of high-resolution displays do not match with the fidelity level of the world around us and are often very intrusive devices. The type of display introduced in this exploration could be added to existing products, showing data about that product in it’s context without taking the attention away from the object itself. The display could be placed behind wallpaper or fabric in order to hide it’s technicality.

Low res display

The exploration aims to bring forward ways to visualise various types of data on a low resolution display. The current prototype only includes text and basic graphics, these can still be elaborated on using animations as visualization. Also, future versions should include real-world context elements such as ‘a living room’ or ‘a couch’ to experiment with. The first reactions by people are that they see the possible value of a low resolution display over it’s high resolution counterpart. However it is still unclear how this would be used in context.

This low-resolution display is an example of how a diy-technology platform can be used by designers in order to understand how sensordata could be integrated better in our everyday lives.

Envisioned end goals

The end result research does not aim to create the next toolkit to create interactive prototypes. I believe there are many other initatives doing this already such as intuino [xv]. What is lacking though is a way to inspire designers (and people) in order to come up with the ideas for applications, objects, things, etc in this pervasive computing “spime” world. An end result of the ongoing research should at least be a way to engage more interaction designers in creating fast prototypes and experimentations that go beyond storyboard creation. Also, this end result should open up discussion between industrial design methodology and diy design methods, who have a lot they can learn from each other. Within a spime world, the industrial designer should be able to be creative with tools he does not use today. A diy enthousiast could benefit from the economic potential, the aesthetic quality and technical feasibility knowledge an industrial designer has. There is clearly a more theoretical/methodology part to this and a part where experimentation with design agencies and diy fanatics will be needed.


[i] Sennet R. (2008), The craftsman

[ii] Gershenfeld N. (2007), FAB

[iii] Gauntlett D., (2011-in press), Making is connecting

[iv] Frauenfelder M., (2010), Made By Hand

[v] Leadbeater C., (2009), The Art Of With

[vi] Sterling, B. (2005), Shaping Things

[vii] Arduino,

[viii] Personal informatics, CHI 2010 workshop outcomes –

[ix] Sanders, E. (2002) Scaffolds for Experiencing in the New Design Space. In Information Design, Institute for Information Design Japan

[x] Sanders, E. (2006) Scaffolds for Building Everyday Creativity in Designing effective communications: creating contexts for clarity and meaning

[xi] Garzotto, F. (2007) Investigating the Educational Effectiveness of Multiplayer Online Games for Children

[xii] Sanders, E., Stappers, P.J., (2008) Co-creation and the new landscapes of design in CoDesign vol. 4 (1) pp. 5-18

[xiii] Mogensen K., (2006), Creative Man : the future consumer, employee and citizen, Published by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, available online from

[xiv] Sleeswijk Visser, F. (2009) Bringing the everyday life of people into design.

[xv] Wakita, A., Anezaki, Y., (2010) Intuino: an authoring tool for supporting the prototyping of organic interfaces in Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS)

[xvi] Wuts R., (2010), Momentum for heirloom products, blogpost available online at

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