The goal of this contextual inquiry was to investigate how artists re-purpose materials in their creative projects. We were also interested in the way that these materials shape and inform their work, as well as the impact they have on the major themes of their work. Below, we look at one of our subjects in detail. She is an artist and her work focuses on themes such as as femininity, the female form, and originality as they exist in the fashion and clothing industries. *Names have been changed.


Emily is a 28-year-old artist in Bloomington IN. She starts from the idea that “nothing is new, everything is derivative.” She says, “somebody has made something I’ve made before,” and “everything exists within a bubble.” She doesn’t feel as if she is inventing new things. She often collects items of “perfect beauty” surrounding “femininity” and the female form. Some of her work explores the idea of the real as well as the idea of the idealized female form. 

Emily considers three major spaces to work in: the home, the studio, the gallery. Each space provides a different set of tools. She appreciates the separation between her studio and home and considers the gallery a final place to present her work.  



Emily utilizes her work as a way to envision herself remaining a successful artist. She is aware that the field is very competitive and she values keeping relevant by reading texts and seeking out other artists to compare their work and ability to her own. She feels that you need to be that “person reading the book, not having the beer,” in order to achieve that success. Emily knows that, “someone else is doing that work,” and to be a part of that conversation she believes work is a priority and needs to be taken seriously.


Pictured above is a palette knife, a tool Emily re-purposes within her studio. This tool has several purposes: spreading acrylic paint, shaping wax figures when the tool is heated, and separating out watercolor blocks. Re-purposing tools is important for Emily because she has limited funds and she can see the value in using her tools in alternative ways that get the job done. Other tools that Emily re-purposes in her studio: 

Canvas: used as a notebook to record critiques on sketches
Charcoal: used to create carbon paper
Hair Dryer: used to dry watercolors
Mannequin Head: used to store/organize items
Nails: used to pin up all sorts of tools around studio
Pizza Cups: used to hold utensils, paintbrushes, and other items
Watercolor Paper + Pinup Block: paper stapled to board and used as bulletin board


Emily envisions herself wearing clothing in the future, when she has reached a pinnacle of success as an artist. 

She begins the project by pulling high-end materials and collecting high-quality fabrics. She has pulled images from magazine articles that illustrate specific lines that shape the garments. Emily plans to take these magazine images, scan them on a hi-definition scanner at the fine arts building, and print them out at full body size so that she can wear them. She will then photograph herself wearing these designs, and reduce them back to magazine size. The idea behind this project is to take something from 2D to 3D and back to 2D again. This is a typical method that she uses in garment and pattern creation. 

From these designs, she draws and paints sketches of her patterns, where she imagines herself in these future clothes. She does many iterations of various designs and evolves the meaning as she iterates. The goal of this work is both to imagine her future self as well as to express a larger theme about the clothing that women choose to wear. She believes that clothing is very expressive--often referring to "women in clothes"--but that women are limited in the choices they have because other people design their clothes.



Emily still sees a great divide between the digital and analog realms and wonders what value digital products have in her work. She believes that you learn best by making and doing, and values the tangibility of working with your hands. We often observed Emily using her fingers as tools (to smear paint or smooth pencil lines). Is this something that can be replicated in the digital space? When asked about the role of digital products in art, Emily says, “I mean, like in the way the using an iPhone to answer a question competes with actually knowing the answer…like, yes they both still function, and yes you both still get an awesome end product, but come on. It’s like you actually can use something with your hand…or, like you fill in pixels.” 

Digital products may need to have more analog functionality and a tangible feel for certain audiences to use them. Some digital solutions, such as Emily printing magazine images at full body size to wear, could provide new analog-digital tools. An essential design implication is that these two realms need to integrate more seamlessly. An exemplar of this would be Fifty-three’s Pencil, a digital tool that feels more analog.

Increasingly, the inner-workings of digital technologies are designed to be inaccessible to the average user. What emerges from this contextual inquiry is that there are a significant number of people who enjoy tinkering with objects and repurposing tools. How might digital objects be "repurposed" and how might interaction designers develop an eye towards creating products that re more adaptable and modular? The artists we interviewed are a particularly insightful group of users because they are extremely articulate about their practice and they have a tendency to think "outside the box" when it comes to utilizing tools and techniques to create. At the same time, these practices have significant implications about everyday life and the daily practices of anyone who enjoys repurposing tools around the house or workplace.  

Research Team: Jordan Hayes and Nancy Smith