Knowing Hands: Using tactile research methods in researching and writing the history of design

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Until the recent material turn, and a steady stream of books exhorting the use of material culture to understand the past, the historian’s stock-in-trade has typically been the analysis of documentary evidence. Design historians, however, have been using design to understand the past – and the past to understand design – for half a century now. And yet, while we are aware that most people understand and form the world/s we inhabit with our hands – drafting designs, operating machinery, manufacturing objects – research into the history of design has not explicitly addressed the central importance of hands nor engaged in a sustained way with research methods such as handling and touch, to date.
This chapter reports on the research and writing of The Hand Book, a design history of, and through, the hands which explores hands both as a subject in design history and as a method of researching the history of design. By integrating embodied research methods such as direct handling and touch into design historical methodology, I have needed to negotiate the fact that standard academic modes of writing are inadequate to communicate findings derived from these embodied research methods. The subjective and aesthetic impressions that embodied research yields are, arguably, better captured using vivid models from creative non-fiction rather than the qualified, referenced, and rather arms-length modes of academic writing that researchers regard as a requirement for serious work, as this chapter will examine.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHistorical Research, Creative Writing, and the Past
Subtitle of host publicationMethods of Knowing
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9781032180885
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jul 2023

Publication series

NameNew Textual Studies in Literature


  • Design History
  • Embodied Research
  • Methodology
  • Touch


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