The joyful experiences of making together

Essay by Anja-Lisa Hirscher, published in Agents of Alternatives – Re-designing Our Realities (AoA Berlin, 2015)

There is an inherent pleasure in making … the sheer enjoyment of making something exist that didn’t exist before, of using one’s own agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mould, form, touch, hold and craft physical materials, apart from anticipating the fact of its eventual beauty, uniqueness or usefulness. (E. Dissanaykae)1

This essay is about the potential of joyful making, exploring, learning and creating together to engage and activate users to rethink their consumption patterns, encourage their agency and create greater well-being by consuming less. It is inspired by a project I founded in spring 2012: Make{able}-Valuable clothes designed together.2 The project developed over the span of one and a half years into an open collaboration between different designers, empowering citizens on how to construct garments. Make{able} is a practice and model based upon learning and participation in workshops to enable stronger user-involvement in the design process. The project uses participatory design workshops and half-way garments3 as ‘tools’ to facilitate and encourage consumer involvement. Participatory design allows a relocation of the roles between designer and consumer through collaborative making. It investigates opportunities to create new product value through open and participatory clothing design and fosters new ways of learning, knowing and gaining awareness.4 Make{able} emerged from the idea of creating a stronger person-product attachment through making an object (in this case a garment). According to researcher Ruth Mugge, the greatest person-product attachment can be achieved through the actual making process.5

So far, twelve workshops have been run by Make{able} in different locations in the greater Helsinki area, with approximately 140 participants in total. Each workshop had around ten to fifteen participants. All agreed that they really enjoyed the workshops and the process of making.

Through this project I am in the unique position to explore the role of the consumer, but also to analyse the processes from a design-perspective through interviews with the designers who help with the making in the workshops. This project made clear to me that among consumers, there is a strong interest in participating in the design and making process as well as in learning practical skills and gaining a deeper understanding of the garment construction. The discussions with participants brought to light that there is an emerging curiosity for the stories captured in the garments. Consumers are demanding more transparent, qualitative and ethical production processes – while others look to become a ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) maker.

From the design perspective it was interesting to see that even sewing beginners were very enthusiastic and brave in creating and making once they got started. The designers also went through positive and enriching experiences when changing from the role of a designer to one of an adviser/facilitator when conceptualizing the outcomes with the final wearer. New relationships between designer, wearer and the garment can be enabled through this joint making process. The role of the designer changes, from only designing the product towards three main stages, before, during and after a participatory workshop. This point is well articulated in the quote below by Tjasa Avsec, one of Make{able}’s regular fashion designers:

“Before the workshop you have to design simple products which can be sewn by total beginners in a few hours, but are still effective, appealing and interesting. That is the design part, which importantly affects the result of the workshop as it gives the framework and enables its success.

During the workshop, your role changes from being a designer to being an adviser. You suggest the best possible way to make the customer’s idea come true, based on your designer’s and maker’s experiences. I think it is important to listen to the consumer and encourage their feeling of success. That is, they themselves designed and produced the product, you have only guided them on their way.

After the workshop it seems it doesn’t matter who spends hours on brainstorming and designing the concept of the product and the basic shape; it is the customers’ experience which matters. It is a contradicting observation, as on the other hand, the customers may value the designer’s work more by understanding the process.”

The designers felt they could learn from the users and gain a deeper understanding of how they perceive clothes and other products. Together, very unique and diverse results were created, which the designers could not have imagined before. One of the designers pointed out that it really is all about “learning together”. In some way the designer becomes a student and a teacher/adviser at the same time, as new ways of designing and making are explored. This illustrates, that consumers and designers equally enjoy the experience of collaborative making.

Therefore I question: Can these positive joint experiences of designers and users open up alternative modes of acquiring goods where consumers are more actively involved, at a slower pace, and with more personal attachment? And, if so, can these experiences influence other consumption habits in our everyday life?

Open exploring and learning generates joyful making

To approach these questions, we first have to elaborate: What, in the first place, makes people join such workshops and invest time in making? How can we make people change form passive consumption to active participation?

Anja-Lisa-Hirscher-2Result from one of the Make{able} workshops, a half-way tunic. © Anja-Lisa Hirscher.

Every act of consumption requires a certain degree of active participation. For example, when purchasing ready-made food, one has to at least heat it up in the microwave. So, how can we slowly guide people to more active participation without them feeling forced into a new way of acquiring products? I think that participatory design and open design have the ability to educate, inform and make processes transparent. However, to change the patterns of action towards increased sustainability, we need to address the factors which restrict people from participation. In the case of making a garment with Make{able} these restrictions were: time, skills and facilities.6

Are projects such as Make{able} able to trigger an activation call in our daily routines? Would people be willing to spend time and money in a making-experience? What would this experience need to offer? In my opinion, it needs to offer joyful enriching moments that illustrate alternatives to the passive mode of minimal involvement in production which characterises today’s consumerism. People need to feel comfortable in this environment in order to be encouraged to learn and become involved, without feeling obliged to. I imagine that a ‘smooth slide’ into a new behaviours and ways of enjoying a slower pace of making and enjoying goods can happen when encouraging people to gain new experiences. This is where design, designers, makers, activists, facilitators and other agents of change have the power to enable this soft push towards more active and aware citizens, with a variety of tools and methods.

We received positive feedback about the facilitated making process, the assistance by the designers and the open atmosphere for learning and exploring together. These offer great potential to overcome any restrictions. Now we are able to give suggestions on how to guide people step-by-step towards joyful making experiences. It is for example very important to facilitate fun workshop processes and enable desirable outcomes. Furthermore, the workshop is a platform for social interaction – from helping each other with threading a sewing machine to joint design decision-making. The physical object being made enables them to discuss and connect with others more directly.7 It is great to observe how participants are encouraged by one another to become active and move from being a learner to being a teacher/ adviser/ designer themselves. The free and open workshop platform inspires the exchange of skills and knowledge through low involvement barriers, and offers the chance to learn through making and interacting with others. It provides a great environment for creative explorations where participants can express their ideas in a tangible outcome, supported by others.

fun_swMake{able} workshop, September 2012. © Anja-Lisa Hirscher.

I believe that this joyful making experience enables a vibrant creative energy and a positively experienced alternative which can create the basis for a change in the consumer mindset. When actively making an object, the individual has the chance to reflect on his or her thoughts and experiences, and manifest them into a tangible output.8 The experience is far more about the process than the final outcome. During the process, emotions such as ‘excitement and frustration, but most especially a feeling of joy’9 can be witnessed. The opportunity to create personal narratives within the objects is likely to strengthen the attachment and provide new solutions for reduced consumption.10 The entire emotional and learning experience will not only be captured in the garment, but might also trigger a new awareness towards consumption and its impacts on our daily life. It is difficult to distinguish what changes attitudes and behaviour as every individual responds to different triggers, but joyful experiences can be one of them.

Enabling, Experiencing, Learning, Knowing

The current economic system is driven by a constant striving for economic growth. It is formed around a growing consumption which needs to be fed by the citizens. In doing so they are forced into a rather passive consumer mindset. Products are designed in a way to make it easy for people to stay in a passive and ignorant position.11 This is a major problem for any aspects regarding sustainable behavior – what are potential approaches for tackling this passivity and unawareness?

One possibility is to address and improve the individual’s knowledge and skill-set by enabling solutions which foster new forms of sustainable well-being. Sustainable well-being is a context-based well-being, which refers to the whole human life environment, such as physical and social interactions and the ‘possibility to act in this context’. 12 This could be facilitated by moving from a product-based well-being towards enabling solutions to satisfy human needs.13

This change however, requires certain capabilities of taking action as a well-aware individual, not a passive consumer. Amartya Sen expresses capability as a kind of freedom to have alternatives to choose from.14 Freedom of choice is important for a person’s quality of life and one’s well-being. Citizens need to be enabled to regain practical skills and deeper knowledge about the products and processes which are embedded in a malfunctioning system of planned obsolescence15 and unnecessary over-consumption.

There needs to be a motivating aspect or experience to change one’s behaviour without forfeiting personal well-being and happiness. David Gauntlett describes the potential of enabling change and action through experienced joy and power while making.

The idea that a person should be enabled to ‘express their meaning in action’ has the feeling of rough reality, and movement; and the line which makes a particular link between joy and creativity (people feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative) is warm, memorable, and powerful.16

The question is: What can design contribute to make this learning process a joyful experience? How can we encourage new forms of well-being, moving away from a passive, convenience-driven consumer culture, towards more active participation and an aware citizen-culture?

In the 1970s, in his book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich talked about alternative libraries which would contain all kinds of ‘educational objects’. These libraries would offer information through so called ‘learning webs, that allow an active choice in what to learn and how to learn it instead of force-feeding the same knowledge to everyone.17 Illich highlighted ‘the loss of joyfulness in everyday experiencesthrough such big standardized systems.18

So, how can we bring back the joyfulness in our everyday life? We need to reconceptualise learning as a part of our daily experience. To enable a real transformation of fashion consumption the population needs to gain new knowledge. Active communication and education ‘does not always manifest itself in traditional visual or two-dimensional forms […]’20 and also a learning process can often best be achieved outside of the standard classroom. New tools like prototypes, hands-on workshops, do-it-yourself/do-it-together (DIY/DIT) blogs and so on, are just a few opportunities for designers and other ‘agents of alternatives’ to facilitate a learning process. We can only reach a broader target audience if we look for alternative ways of building knowledge and skills, as different triggers appeal to different audiences. This implies that we need to offer different and new forms of learning and gaining knowledge. For example, knowledge which is built through experience by making something, like a piece of clothing, can be recognized as one of the ‘four ways of knowing’21 in the field of co-operative inquiry. These four ways of knowing are the following: 1) experiential, 2) presentational, 3) propositional and 4) practical. This strategy expresses how we perceive things through ‘extended epistemology’, epistemology meaning a theory of how you know, and extended because it reaches beyond the primarily theoretical knowledge of academia’.22

It is said that the greatest value is generated if they are congruent: ‘if our knowing is grounded in our experience, expressed through our stories and images, understood through theories which make sense to us, and expressed in worthwhile action in our lives’.23 The final level of practical knowing is expressed in the knowledge of how to do something, representing the acquisition of a skill or competence. These four ways of knowing can also be seen as a pathway to softly ‘slide’ people from a rather unaware passive mindset, towards greater knowledge and awareness. Therefore, we need to imagine and explore different methods and tools, to help people regain their capabilities or learn new ones, step-by-step.

Illich also talks about ‘convivial tools’, which are those ‘that give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectation of others’.24

What if designers foster an open process of designing to enrich everyday experiences through a joyful making experience with others? Isn’t it an exciting, maybe challenging opportunity to seek for innovative concepts to enable new joyful forms of learning, experiencing and knowing for everyone? As mentioned before, designers enjoyed the collaborative making experience as much as the other participants in the workshops.

Making & Activating

Making together can be seen as a tool to create knowledge, activate and raise awareness. The question is: Can we transfer this positive experience of active participation into other areas of our everyday life? I believe so, because by enabling users with more skills and a deeper product understanding, they gain the capability of well-informed decision-making, and have more independence from what is offered by the industry. Inevitably, this results in a greater freedom of choice and more awareness when it comes to making everyday decisions.26

As we create objects with our own skills, we are able to gain a new awareness about the influence we have on these objects, but also on our everyda.y life decisions. Therefore, ‘crafting can be reclamation of the power of life’27 Through the newly gained skills and knowledge, interaction with everyday objects and decisions can be changed as well. We, however, have to work on reprogramming ourselves everyday a little bit towards taking more conscious decisions, experienced through making, sharing and learning with others. Making and sharing are able to contribute to a feeling of well-being through connectedness, and having an impact on the object. The object is created in the way that I as a maker choose it to be, I can manifest my knowledge, skills and vision into it. This experienced freedom through the capability of making an object, may enable us to take a step forward to gaining well-being by consuming less but experiencing more.


Building an educated society where each individual is able to actively influence a subtle shift or emphasis in power structures by the application of their knowledge and skills needs to be developed step by step. With innovative concepts of individual and collective knowledge sharing by making – may it be a small project such as Make{able} – we can all aim to offer alternatives to the mainstream, and thus create new moments of awareness and learning through alternative channels.

I am certain that through joyful experiences of joint learning and making, we can bring back a partly forgotten pleasure in creating things with our own hands, at our own speed and with the skills and knowledge we developed. These experiences hopefully nourish further changes in people’s mindset and behaviour. Therefore, I believe that from small projects we can learn and develop real viable alternatives for active citizens to learn and make changes happen together.

Free downloadable Make{able} instructions: How to make a roll-top backpack by Anja-Lisa Hirscher, licensed under Creative Commons.


1 Dissanaykae E. cited in Gauntlett, D., 2011. Making is Connecting – The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press. p.60.
2 Make{able},
3 A half-way garment is intentionally unfinished by the designer and thus leaves an open space for the end user to customise and finalise.
4 More information related to this idea can be found e.g. in Fletcher, K. & Grose L., 2012. Fashion & Sustainability – Design for Change. Laurence King Publishing: London, and Fuad-Luke, A., 2009. Design Activism. London: Earthscan
5 Mugge, R., 2007. Product attachment. Ph.D., Delft University of Technology.
6 Through interviews and questionnaires with the participants of Makeable workshops, the factors preventing consumers becoming involved in the making process were identified as: time, skills and facilities required.
7 Gauntlett, D., 2011. Making is Connecting – The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press. p.3.
8 Ibid.
9 Gauntlett, D., 2011. Making is Connecting – The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press. p.76.
10 See for example: Fuad-Luke, A. 2009. Design Activism. London: Earthscan; Mugge, R., 2007. Product attachment. PhD., Delft University of Technology.
11 Vezzoli, C., Manzini, E., 2008. Design for Environmental Sustainability. London: Springer-Verlag. p.26.
12 Ibid., p.24.
13 Manzini, E. 2006. Design, ethics and sustainability. Guidelines for a transition phase. In: Design, Ethics and Humanism. See also, Cumulus Working Papers, Cumulus conference, Nantes, France, 15-17 June 2006. Helsinki: University of Art and Design Helsinki. pp.9-15.
14 Sen, A., 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press: UK. p.75.
15 Planned obsolescence: An artificial shortening of a products life-cycle to encourage faster replacement. See e.g.: Burns, B., 2010, ‘Re-evaluating Obsolescence and Planning for it.’ in Cooper, T. ed. 2010. Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society, MPG Books Group: UK, pp.39-61.
16 Gauntlett, D., 2011, Making is Connecting – The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press. p.174.
17 Illich, I., 1971. Deschooling Society. Republished 2001. London: Marion Boyars.
18 Ivan Illich in Gauntlett, D. 2011: Making is Connecting – The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press. p. 166.
19 Fletcher, K., Grose, L., 2012. Fashion & Sustainability – Design for Change. Laurence King Publishing: London
20 Ibid. p.158.
21 Reason, P., 1998, A participatory World. Resurgence & Ecologist. Issue 186, p.4.
22 Ibid., p.4
23 Ibid., p.4
24 Illich, I., 1973. Tools for Conviviality. Republished 2001, London: Marion Boyars, p.21.
25 Download the full instructions here:
26 McCann A. cited in Gauntlett, D., 2011. Making is Connecting – The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press. p. 59.
27 Ibid., p.59.