How the 'maker culture' brings the power of design to life

Most people affiliate the maker culture with metal working, welding, ceramics, glass blowing, painting, and soldering. But it also includes coding and online content creation, writes Gensler’s Douglas Wittnebel.

November 26, 2014 |

Illustration: Douglas Wittnebel

Back in the early 1980’s, I got to experience firsthand the wild and vivid performances of Survival Research Laboratories. My roommate was the girlfriend of Mark Pauline, the founder of the group and one of the minds behind machine artists like Matt Heckler and Eric Werner. All machines used by Survival Research Laboratories were handmade, and the performances set them loose in empty parking lots resulting in groundbreaking shows the likes of which had never been seen before.

Survival Research Laboratories helped mainstream an American subculture focused upon creating robots and using them to demonstrate the benefits of creativity. Over the ensuing decades, as globalization and shortsighted domestic policies decimated America’s manufacturing base, a whole subculture of DIY robot makers emerged on television shows like Robot Wars, through companies like Battle Bots, and the performance art of Christian Ristow and Robochrist Industries.

Looking back on those times from a contemporary vantage point, I can see the origins of the Maker Movement that has quietly gained popularity over the past few years.

I consider myself a maker and a doer. I paint, I draw, I sketch, I make models. I build furniture. I love to find out how things work, and how things can be changed. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with developing ideas into prototypes and test models through the use of numerous sketches and diagrams. When I draw, I make; when I make, I test. And I learn from those trials and what results from them.

The culture of making is all about learning and doing, creating and testing. In many ways, it is similar to the early focus on the importance of the eye and hand and the role of craft found in both the Bauhaus training and in the works of Charles and Ray Eames and Herman Miller.

“Making” uses technology in to create something visible and tangible. Most people affiliate maker culture with metal working, welding, ceramics, glass blowing, painting, and soldering. But it also includes coding and online content creation. Socialnomics reports that, "twenty-five percent of the world’s largest brands’ search results return user-generated content from review sites, blogs, and social media updates.” Maker culture encompasses user generated content; it capitalizes on the realization that every user of a product or a service can share information about their experiences with others, thus making consumers more knowledgeable and giving companies real time feedback.

One of the reasons I think that the Maker Movement continues to grow is the ever-widening disconnect between the real world and the virtual experiences and the emphasis on digital activities at the expense of “real” tangible, touchable and sensory laden experience. The Maker Movement focuses on physical explorations, the act of doing and creating and making; it requires participants to get their hands dirty, test ideas and try new approaches. And then feel and smell and sometimes taste the results!


Illustration: Douglas Wittnebel


Is it an underground movement or a counterculture? Not in the traditional sense. Is it a trend that needs to be recognized and understood? Yes. It is really a bit of a murmuring groundswell of tinkering energy and acute attention on the importance of what we seem to be losing: our ability to make and craft our own tools, furniture, spaces and environments. Where does this fit into our Gensler universe? 

Our recent design symposium for the Northwest region focused on how we can up our design game and increase our design awareness. The number one issue that was repeated over and over was the idea of creating a real model shop, a tech shop, a space and place for testing and building models—the Gensler DC office has a fabrication lab where designers can test materials and build new products. And maybe we take this further into the laboratory realm with a strong involvement in Maker Faire next year in Bay Area.

Maker Faire is an organization that bills itself as “The Greatest Show and Tell on Earth.” It provides makers forums at which participants can share their creations and interact with like-minded individuals. I personally believe every designer should take the time to attend a Maker Faire; doing so is an essential experience that will open up a person’s senses to the oft-unseen world of creativity, technology, and group and individual behavior.


Maker Faire. Photo: Douglas Wittnebel


The growth of Maker culture can also inform how we improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM), an area that is looking to design leaders to create learning environments where kids can partake in hands-on experimentation and let their creativity run wild. Children today are not shy about professing their desire to learn more about technology and science, but a textbook only approach to such subjects risks alienating enthusiastic learners rather than cultivating their sense of wonder and enthusiasm. Affording students the opportunity to experience science and technology through creation and hands-on interaction makes the learning experience personal and instigates students’ desire to go further and learn more.

Our business is all about design. We strive to design better places, spaces, settings and objects that improve our world that we live in. When we recognize the importance of the hand and eye and the important role that real senses play in the creation of our design, we become even better designers, thinkers, makers and doers.

About the Author

Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler’s San Ramon office. With over 29 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at


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