The Hand Book: A Design History of and through the Hand

Hands are a means of knowing the world and making the world. With our hands, we manufacture designed objects, images and systems whether on the small scale of the designer-craftsperson, or the macro scale of hired hands operating mechanized, industrialized mass production processes. As consumers, we touch and operate designed goods and use our hands to communicate. Yet, our hands are hidden in plain sight and they largely escape scrutiny. This study is the first on the significance of the hand for design history. It will examine the tacit processes of craft and the impact of mechanization on design and manufacture, and consider the hand as a tool of communication in design and fashion before exploring the place of the hand in our digital culture and the possibilities of prosthetics.

This project continues my examination of mediation in design history, shifting the focus from mediating channels based principally on text and image, and on Writing Design, to the hand as a mediating device. Our hands mediate the world through the sense of touch, along with the other senses. The Hand Book will recognises this primary function for the hand while adding another, by treating the hand as a way in to the history of design and design history which sheds new light on the development of both. It is the latter project which connects with my interest in design discourse, because the hand has been a focal trope in debates about manufacturing and mechanisation from the time of the first developments in industrialisation.

Watch a short film about the planned public engagement for The Hand Book project here

Project Advisory Board


This project draws on my earlier work on subjectivity and design history published in a co-edited special issue and in a co-authored introductory article. The practices of design, our experiences of their outcomes, as well as the narratives we create about them, are all deeply personal—and therefore subjective. Postmodern theory might have finally killed off the utopian ideal of history as an objective science, but it has arguably left a vacuum, with no comprehensive debate on the role of subjectivity in history writing and its potential challenges and benefits. As scholars we are trained to put aside subjective responses in our analyses, and yet personal interests, values, and experiences continue to inform the work of design historians, from our choice of subject matter and theoretical frameworks to our methodological approaches and conclusions. In our introduction to this special issue we discuss the historiographical and theoretical underpinnings informing the following articles' rich and diverse explorations of subjectivity in design history.

The special issue arose from:

  • ‘It’s Personal: Subjectivity in Design History’, Design History Society-Funded Day Seminar, hosted by the TVAD Research Group, University of Hertfordshire, 9 May 2013.


Outputs from the project so far include this website and blog, and four conference presentations:

The research will be further communicated in further upcoming conference papers, and:

  • A research monograph, The Hand Book

  • A journal article

  • A series of handling workshops in museums that the study examines.

This project is supported with funding from a British Academy / Leverhulme Small Grants Award for 2 years from September 2018.