Design Thinking: Books and Book Design

I'm about to start making awl puns <i>a la</i> Shakespeare.
Accordion and stab-stitch style books, and their grimoiric instructor, in all her tape-bound glory.

Summer Professional Development.

Otherwise known as: staying one step ahead of the kids.

I’m starting the work of professional development for the Design Lab today.  I have a lot of projects going at the moment, and not all of them are easy.  I hope that they’ll be fun, of course, but it’s hard to know for sure.

The first one is paper engineering.

This is a polite way of saying “cut up paper, glue it together, and call it art and engineering.”

OK, it’s more complicated than that, really.  Engineering is expensive to run as a school program — you can easily spend $10-20 per kid per quarter-year, and get junk in return, with no visible return on your material investment.  I spent part of today, for example, pulling apart wooden spools that had been glued in place with wood glue on thin plywood boards.  Boards — $2.50 apiece, spools $0.75 apiece, and kids are using three or four boards each, and ten spools…. aieee.   On the one hand, I don’t begrudge the learning, if learning is taking place.  On the other, each of those spools can teach a group of kids to build a machine with moving parts, provided that the holes at both ends aren’t completely clogged with hard-setting epoxy.  Using them to build architectural models of fantasy houses… not ideal.

We all have our difficulties to bear and accept, I guess.

And so, paper engineering.  Paper has a lot of advantages. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful, it’s ubiquitous, it comes in amazing colors and numerous sizes.  It can be bent, cut, folded, wet and re-shaped, and even cut up and re-made in the lab or classroom.  And it can be used to teach geometry (through origami and kirigami), or to teach pop-up book construction (which teaches geometry), or to make boxes as part of game design and sculptural elements that can be used to teach about architecture.

How to make books
I like this book with wooden covers glued to the end papers.

Paper can be pre-printed to make books, or it can be made into blank books (like these), which can then be drawn on or written in.  Books can be made of construction paper and glue with relative ease (some of the books are simply a single sheet of paper, folded a little and then cut once).  And some of them get more elaborate, with ways of teaching stitching (useful for sewing projects later on…) or other methods of more complicated binding using coptic stitch and signatures methods such as are used in modern-day bookbinding.

I have to admit, I’m investigating as much for magical reasons as for working in the Design Lab.  One of my summer projects for Druidry has to be the construction of a Liber spiritorum, or book of spirits, and the recording of various conversations with said spirits.  Along the way, if I pick up a few skills for the Design Lab, so much the better.  But back to the issue of paper engineering.

Why book design? Why does a kid, in the age of the Kindle and the iBook or iPad, really need to know how to assemble a book?  As Douglas Adams pointed out, and as Neil Gaiman recently reminded us, Books are SharksA book is phenomenally good at being a book, in the same way that there’s nothing in the ocean that out-sharks a shark.  Why shouldn’t a child have the experience of assembling and building a book, and learn to move between the computer (for the page layout and book design), and the Design Lab (for the cutting, gluing, binding and finishing touches) as easily as a seal moves between water and seashore and back? I’m mixing my metaphors here, or rather, Douglas Adams’s metaphor is getting mixed with mine.  But if a book is a relatively easy thing to build, at least as a simple cut-rate thing (I made twelve little books this afternoon), and yet it can create a lasting impression and a permanent emblem of what a child or an adult has learned, then so much the better.

There’s also this lovely little accordion-fold book of construction paper, felt, and yarn.  I should have put a lucet-braid cord on the cover, but I didn’t have the time.  How to make books You get a sense, though, from looking at it, of the possibility that this could be a thing. I mean, it’s an object now.  It’s a physical object, sure, and made of the flimsiest materials.  But a child, a student, who makes such a thing becomes a possessor of a secret journal, or the last sutra of a dying civilization, or the first record of a rising one.  It’s a passport, of sorts, to imagination and creativity.  It’s an opening. And it’s a thing that can be passed on to others.

It’s a grimoire, of sorts, a thing that displays the means by which it was made as much as the secret teachings that are inscribed within it.  And that’s a kind of magic, isn’t it?

Gordon recently wrote about the fact that we need to run sigils concurrently.  Ian disagreed somewhat (and in the comments he was right to say that I was arguing with a straw man of his argument), suggesting that the result is secondary to the work itself.  I don’t see really why we can’t or shouldn’t have both the results and the work, though  — although, I admit that I’m in the awkward position of running the effort to encounter and work with entities visible and invisible; and to teach people to be makers and creators.  In essence, my goal as the Design Lab director/manager is to train students to be innovative and abstract thinkers by teaching them to be productive, hands-on creators of physical objects.  My goal is to use concrete, outward making of things, to teach inward and invisible habits of thought…. And that’s weird, isn’t it?

I’ve drifted far from my topic, though, which is to suggest or work towards the idea that I can use book design and book-making as one element among many of a paper engineering program. There have to be other elements, like paper-cutting and paper-folding.  And that leads naturally to certain tools and materials and equipment, everything from book cloth to awls to paper-cutters, to rotary cutting tools and mats, to book cradles and book weights and maybe one day a printing press.  All of this is in the future, though.  For now, it seems best to imagine that a child can produce a book — printed or not — in a couple of days using some of the techniques from Esther K. Smith.  And that, in addition, I’m going to get some quality books of my own out of this process, which I can give away or keep for myself, as I work my way through this particular skill-set.


  1. […] I’ll be honest—getting this much to work wasn’t an all-day affair. It was maybe a half-hour’s work, and a fair bit of thinkery and experimentation along the way . But it wasn’t a day of wasted productivity while I tinkered with a machine of weak materials and poorly positioned parts. No, I also built a stab-stitch book for proof of concept.  As some of my readers know, I’m working on learning some book-binding skills. […]

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