Making Hope:

Critical Making as a Multisensory Approach for 3D Printing Change


Artist, critical maker, and President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Rosanne Somerson insists scholars incorporate methods “that include hands-on practice, the processing of enhanced seeing and perception, and contextualized understanding” to better analyze the meaning making that occurs with objects and by objects (19). In this chapter, I have addressed this call by introducing critical making approaches to 3D printing to better engage accessibility within digital visual studies. Digital technologies increasingly offer embodied, multisensory ways to interact with images, ways that change how we process information and participate in making new knowledge. To better understand how digital images create diverse, embodied experiences, I designed, modeled, and 3D printed multiple versions of Obama Hope, each version playing on the flexibility of digital data to create an experience of the image that could be both seen and felt. My versions re-envision Obama Hope as a tactile artifact that troubles traditional ways of seeing and demonstrate the potential of hands on practices such as critical making to decenter normative ways of seeing in favor of diverse lived experiences. Prioritizing difference and possibility, critical making challenges people to ask questions, experiment with ideas, and, I argue, better understand how our senses shape our embodied experiences. As such, 3D printing Obama Hope invites us to question how ecologies, bodies, technologies, and materials work together to make sense of digital visual data.

Through 3D printing, we not only have the opportunity to study images, but we can also directly participate in the production and circulation of made objects. Once I completed my 3D print of Obama Hope, I uploaded the model to Thingiverse and added to the many versions of Obama Hope circulating in that community. ( In a few short months, my model had 363 views, 66 downloads, and was part of 6 different collections that sparked new communities. As the 3D prints of Obama Hope circulate through the Thingiverse community and are downloaded, remixed, and recirculated, they become things in flow - things that, as Gries describes, are still rhetorically active and undergoing change. In this way, a single thing, like Obama Hope, becomes multiple, on the move, and a participant in an unknown number of rhetorical transformations. As a 3D print, Obama Hope connects to new publics and is ready to undergo rhetorical transformations for new causes. In addition, 3D printing communities such as Thingiverse or Sketchfab offer new additions to the dynamic ecologies already at work and create new types of flexibility that open up opportunities to participate in the work of digital visual study. As part of the Thingiverse community, my lithophane becomes a site of invention where other users and technologies can make and remake through their own sense-making methods. Similar to how Obama Hope became a site to educate people about Fair Use, the image once again takes on an educational role to demonstrate new methods for studying visual data, methods that instigate possibility and make room for multisensory approaches.

Lastly, and most importantly, while 3D printing is just one way to study, produce, and enhance circulation of digital visual images, I reemphasize that designing, modeling, and making 3D prints challenges participants to tinker, invent, and discover new sense making ways of creating knowledge. In making multiple 3D printed versions of Obama Hope that can be both seen and felt, I hope we can “see” how vision is an embodied experience, more than merely optical, but a multisensory process of understanding information. Rather than position critical making or 3D printing as a cure all, I position it as a site of possibility and invention for doing digital visual study that puts difference at the forefront of both design and analysis. When we advocate for such alternative approaches, we leverage the flexibility of digital data to expand the possibilities for what visual studies can do, as well as how we can do it. To more deeply engage in the flexibility and accessibility of digital images, digital visual study must encourage multiple versions, diverse lived experiences, and more embodied ways of seeing and knowing. We especially need to consider how decentering normative bodies and designing for difference might bring concepts like accessibility to the fore and create more inclusive approaches without creating a hierarchy of knowledge or privileging specific practices. In making (obama) hope and 3D printing change, we celebrate difference as integral for understanding access/ability and embodied digital experiences.

  • 5. For more information see: Communication Design Quarterly Review, 6:4, December 2018. Sean Zdenek details how technology and accessibility can work together to compose access and reframe disability and alternative sensory experiences to benefit design and composition.

Works Cited

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Helpful Resources, Works Consulted, and Image or Video References:

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“Pixar’s Modeling Challenge.” Museum of Science, Boston., Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.

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Smithsonian Digitization Program Office. “Smithsonian X 3D - What is 3D Digitization.”, Accessed 13 August 2016.

Smithsonian Digitization Program Office. “Smithsonian X 3D – Overview.”, Accessed 13 August 2016.

The White House. “Watch the President Get 3D-Printed.” 2 Dec. 2014., Accessed 26 June 2016.

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