Skip navigation
Hardcover | ISBN: 9780262082693 | 249 pp. | 6.2 x 9 in | December 1998

On Line and On Paper

Visual Representations, Visual Culture, and Computer Graphics in Design Engineering


The role of representation in the production of technoscientific knowledge has become a subject of great interest in recent years. In this book, sociologist and art critic Kathryn Henderson offers a new perspective on this topic by exploring the impact of computer graphic systems on the visual culture of engineering design. Henderson shows how designers use drawings both to organize work and knowledge and to recruit and organize resources, political support, and power. Henderson's analysis of the collective nature of knowledge in technical design work is based on her participant observation of practices in two industrial settings. In one she follows the evolution of a turbine engine package from design to production, and in the other she examines the development of an innovative surgical tool. In both cases she describes the messy realities of design practice, including the mixed use of the worlds of paper and computer graphics. One of the goals of the book is to lay a practice-informed groundwork for the creation of more usable computer tools. Henderson also explores the relationship between the historical development of engineering as a profession and the standardization of engineering knowledge, and then addresses the question: Just what is high technology, and how does its affect the extent to which people will allow their working habits to be disrupted and restructured?Finally, to help explain why visual representations are so powerful, Henderson develops the concept of "metaindexicality"--the ability of a visual representation, used interactively, to combine many diverse levels of knowledge and thus to serve as a meeting ground (and sometimes battleground) for many types of workers.


“Henderson shows how drawing by hand is the way engineers communicate with each other and with others central to the manufacturing process. Her rich data and careful analysis illumine the problems that the shift to computer drafting have created for modern industry so make a major contribution to understanding contemporary technology.”
Howard S. Becker, Department of Sociology, University of Washington

“At a time when breathless rhetorics of the virtual abound, Kathryn Henderson provides us with a thoughtful investigation of the particularities of mixed practices across electronic and paper media. Skillfully locating her analysis in recent theorizing within science and technology studies, Henderson writes with a clarity that will make On Line and On Paper a resource not only for scholars of technoscience, new media technologies, and labor history but for engineering educators and reflective practitioners as well.”
Lucy Suchman, Work Practice & Technology Group, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center

“Opening up the black box of ‘design,’ Henderson lays bare processes of visualization. How do engineers see the not-yet-made, and how do they communicate their visions with pixels and pencils? This book is invasive in the best sense of the word: It investigates how visual representations become something more than private cogitation, and how they are grounded in machine-mediated cultures and organizational agendas. A vital contribution to the budding sociology of machines.”
Tom Gieryn, Professor of Sociology, Indiana University

“Henderson makes a solid contribution to a small but growing collection of fine-scaled studies of engineers at work, probing and revealing the richness of the craft. She convincingly argues for a deeper interpretation of the formal as well as informal visual image, showing how they act as ‘conscription devices’, around and upon which managers, subcontractors, engineers—all active participants in design—negotiate dimensions, parts lists, and their professional identities. Now that drafting is no longer a requirement, this might well serve the undergraduate engineer as preparation for professional practice.”
Louis L. Bucciarelli, School of Engineering, MIT

“Kathryn Henderson captures the life-world of design and its vicissitudes in wonderful case studies.”
Arie Rip, Science, Technology and Society, University of Twente, The Netherlands