Critical Making

Making includes but is not limited to drawing, painting, sculpting, cooking, baking, creating music, dancing, crafting cardboard creations, folding origami, performing puppetry, doing science experiments, writing stories, and making with e-textiles, paper circuits, Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, micro:bits, littleBits, and web tools (Gerstein, 2019). The maker movement values human passion, capability and the ability to make things happen and solve problems anywhere, anytime” (Martinez, 2019, para. 6).Critical making is a practice which emphasizes the situated, context-specific, and material selection aspects of the design process (Ratto, 2011). The methodology was developed at the intersections of digital humanities, design practice, and makerspace DIY technologies in the last several decades. This approach helps teachers and students explore the relationship between process and end product; the role of collaboration; the entanglement of theory and practice; the relationship between art, craft, design, and making; and connections between makers and communities, among other things. Born out of the critical design iterative process and digital humanities tinkering, the making-as-intervention and process-as-research methodology was originally noted by Andrew Blauvelt as teaching “when, how, and why to question things.”

Strategies for Critical Making

In the Critical Making approach, there are multiple ways or strategies that can be used by teachers and scholars to engage students in the ‘Making’ process that is personally meaningful and socially relevant. Some strategies include:

  1. “Making history visible” – taking a specific issue or period in history, and creating some visual or interactive element. While a particular history cannot be changed, the manner in which learners read, interpret, research, re-live, and share historical events can help define effective call-to-action. 
  2. “Making issues personal”.  Classroom discussion of issues leads to personal statements and collage, which then turns into a makerspace project. This strategy encourages learners to engage in joint discussion with the teacher regarding social issues present in their society and how these might be affecting them personally. Using various media, learners are encouraged to articulate or document their personal statements regarding these social issues. 
  3. Do artifacts have politics? – Take a historical approach to certain structures in the local city and unpack the socio-political/technical agenda; hostile architecture.

This strategy encourages learners to take a critical stance when observing or making a public artifact/product. Learners can critically examine the purpose of the artifact, its historical significance, the socio-cultural background of the designer(s) of the artifact, the socio-cultural situation of the society when the artifact was built, the audience for whom the artifact may have been built, and materials used for building and their affordances i.e, the quality or property of the material that defines its possible uses..

How does Critical Making engage Critical Action?

Our Critical Making approach contributes toward critical action by putting the human experience above the technological one and making a conscious effort to make space for thoughts, emotions, and feelings to permeate and leverage the resources available at the maker’s disposal. During the process of Critical Making, students collaboratively engage in identifying their own as well as their audience’s needs, interests and voices. They can examine important issues or themes, including inequities or other systemic factors (e.g., against gender or race). In this way, students get to engage in various 21st-century skills such as critical thinking and collaboration. Critical making also includes critical curation. The process of curation creates opportunities for reflecting on our interpretation and understanding of critical issues in society and helps convey these to a wider audience for possible actions. 

What is required from teachers: How can we teach using Critical Making?

Almost anyone can do the basics of music, art, simple paper circuits, cooking, sewing, and simple robotics, which translates to an easier time getting started and experiencing success. Making use of these same— or similar— mediums also has a high potential for very advanced learning and projects. Along with a low barrier to entry, making is characterized by high engagement. When learners of any age are making, most— if not all— of them are fully engaged. “We want our kids so engaged in projects that they lose track of time or wake up in the middle of the night counting the minutes until they get to return to school (Martinez, 2019, para. 34). 

Critical making can be valuable in your teaching if:

  1. You want your students to manifest abstract ideas into tangible ideas
  2. You want your students to engage in critical thinking and express their viewpoints about issues that have been on their minds.
  3. You have an interest in making things or building things
  4. You have a class that is focused on design and building, or that would benefit from a design and build component (eg. engineering in physics classrooms, creating objects that supports discourse)
  5. Your discipline is focused on physical products (eg. art, industrial arts)
  6. You have an interest in the social costs of building/making things (Social Studies)

Some Examples of Critical Making Projects

If Gardens Could Talk


The author showed that through developing a technological device it will be used to educate various publics about where food comes from and how it grows. By building a device that can translate the language of the garden, namely sunlight, water and soil, into data visualizations on a web platform, this example attempts to merge nature and technology to provide open-source education on the basics of growing your own food. Critical action is addressed by asking why to encourage the public to get into urban gardening and the site of gardening. This can also help people to unpack indigenous crops that have been lost in the region due to urbanization.

The community garden space becomes political grounds for change-“making”. If we glance back at Matt Ratto’s definition of physical making, the act of gardening in an urban environment could be the focus, and the plant (physical object or product) may come as secondary importance. Maybe the end result is not just the food grown, but rather, the land in which the growing takes place.

“Every three minutes” Twitter bot


Every three minutes, a human was sold into slavery in the Antebellum US South.” This is the governing concept for Caleb McDaniel’s Every Three Minutes protest that, in Sean Graham’s words “confront[s] us with hard truths [and] in [its] inhuman persistence, call[s] out for justice.” As the short selection above illustrates, this Twitter bot tweets every three minutes, reminding — or as Graham says, “shaming” — its followers with the truth that, in the Antebellum South, a person was just sold.

Besides the frequency with which these reminders show up in a follower’s feed, a striking part of the bot’s efficacy is in its phrases that remind its followers of the humanity of the enslaved. Tweets like “In the antebellum U.S. South, a white slaver just bought someone’s friend,” or “#OnThisDay in history, a slaver just sold a black person’s child” rehumanize the otherwise dry report. The critical making in this example shows that computer scientists use their trade to call for social justice and expand the ways we call people to critical action.



Eyedentify shows an example of critical product design. The product is devised especially for the visually impaired to recognize people with the help of a cap fitted with a camera and image processing unit. This device enables people who are blind to recognize who is around them without them having to ask many questions or having someone else describe their surroundings every time. In this example, critical making comes through understanding the constraints involved and using the available resources to reduce inequity and improve the quality of life of people.

Creating historical monuments


By incorporating making into the history curriculum, teachers can help students recognize that everything has history, and creatively engage them in reinventing that history. With critical making activities, students can create tangible, functional and/or beautifully expressive objects that reach beyond their own class. They can be displayed, or played, publically. Students who learn what it takes to make their ideas into real things, regardless of where the original content came from, have learned that the world is something that they can create, not just re-create. In this example, the history teacher was there to facilitate a process, provide technical and historical information, and offer advice, and not there to direct the outcome. Critical action, in this example, comes through critiquing current monuments in place in your city’s surroundings and reimagining monuments that speak to society now and future.