Craft and the Designer

Adam Richarson in “Why Apple is the New Master of Craft ” mentions

Good craft comes from intimate familiarity and ongoing hands-on manipulation of the material and the forms it can make, not from abstractly visualizing the form as is often done through CAD renderings.

While this is true for Apple as a company, and especially evident in all the Industrial design coming out of their stable (including the commercial failures like infinitely drool worthy Power Mac G4) it is also notable that this principle applies to all things design- not just those involving materials, or hardware, but almost anything.

Calling Apple a master of craft is very very interesting; because the recent Apple product designs are distinctly identifiable with their master designer – Jonathan Ive- who has led the Industrial Design at Apple since 1997 and was preceded by an illustrious linage of at least eight Industrial Designers – Jerry Manock (1977–1984), Bill Dresselhaus (1979–1983), Terry Oyama (1980–1983), Rob Gemmel (1981–1985), Hartmut Esslinger (1982–1989), Richard Jordan (1978–1990), Jim Stewart (1980–1984, 1987–1994),  and Robert Brunner (1989–1997).

Now ICSID (International Council of Societies of Industrial Design) defines Design as:

“Design is a creative activity whose aim is to establish the multi-faceted qualities of objects, processes, services and their systems in whole life-cycles. Therefore, design is the central factor of innovative humanization of technologies and the crucial factor of cultural and economic exchange.”

Whereas Craft is simply defined as:

“A craft is a skill, especially involving practical arts. It may refer to a trade or particular art.”

Notice the difference in vocabulary and the absence of anything material, object, process, service, systems, technology, or economy in the definition of craft. It is this difference that is even more significant when we herald iPhone 4 or any other product from Apple as an example of design excellence.

What Apple does is not just industrial Design (or hire good Industrial Designers) they also ensure that the core values of excellence, and that of mastering the skill of producing excellent products permeates deep down to every level of organization – and hence they’ve very well crafted products, with a very good ATD (attention to detail) factor.

I often take the example of a “thinking painter” who can think and conceptualize and ideate and explain and impress about a very unique composition, but then cannot be called a painter, or recognized as one unless he puts those ideas onto a canvas. And how can he do that without an intimate knowledge of the oils to be used, the texture and the consistency of the mixes, the way a brush moves, the way canvas responds to smearing and dabbing….

or take for example a “master musician” or Maestro, who not just knows the music, the instruments and the works, but can also tell a good note from a jarring one, and can create a symphony even while defying the norms and conventions….
In short, anything that has to be produced requires the producer to have very through familiarity about the medium.

This is much more critical for mediums that involve ‘tacit knowledge’ more than anything else, and generally depend on individual mastery or fluency to get an above-average quality output.

How does one achieve that?

From Apple’s example we see that as a company they’ve been “at-it” without any regard for commercial success or failure. For a company dealing with hardware, software, devices, vendors, sales, and marketing, ‘mastering the medium’ comes at a huge cost. This cost involves bearing occassional as well as being smart enough to admit mistakes and move on. Apple serves as a good study in contrast as far as design+business is concerned – from the nadir of failure to the zenith of success.

For most, it is always a compromise between the “nice-to-have” and “possible-to-get”.
Companies with inbuilt tolerance for failure, and the ability to retain the smart learnings and smart employees are able to step up each time and gain the assurance of excellence desired out of their products.
Professionals that work in such an environment are able to hone their skills, knowledge and above all, their temperament to give a very well-finished output on anything they work upon. It is then excellence truly becomes a habit, not a goal.

Compare this with the burgeoning ranks of “web-professionals”.

Web as a medium is not fraught with uncertainties. What with never ending debates about Flash Vs HTML, and unending browser wars, and now HTML5 and CSS3 introduction – without any of them being formalized as specification yet!

But then, Web as a medium involves a given set of technology – in terms of structure the HTML tags and the Flash libraries; in terms of behavior the JavaScript and the ActionScript and so on (yeah, we can go on and on till XML and DBs, but that’s for later); and in terms of presentation some really basic things like Typography, Visuals and graphic design. Any web-professional is very unlikely to be left out of these broad concepts, but then do we really see a concept of “mastery” evolving here?

A Web-Master, ironically in my view, is identified more with maintainability and administration of a website and less with crafting it for use. It is as if getting a website hosted on a server itself is the ultimate mastery level. This is not to imply that the tooling and technical work is any less menial than the crafting of a site for presentation and such, but then when we talk about “mastery” in context of a high degree of fluency, and putting the almost effortless excellent output with a skill level not commonly found in other people, the term does not do proper justice.

And thus we see a very specific and almost micro-focussed view of technical level mastery, CSS, typography, graphics, content, HTML, Flash, database. And therein lies the “designer” – who is supposed to bring out the best by putting the user requirements, needs and wants as a reference point.

In such a setup, it is amazing to see a company like Apple succeeding – in a landscape strewn with equally big names like Microsoft, Google and more – on every level from innovation to maintenance. In fact, the best line comes from the referred core77 interview, about what Jonathan Ive; here is his advice for upcoming designers :

“For a designer to continually learn about materials is not extracurricular……it’s absolutely essential.”

And I can only hope for this to spread to the web design discipline! no more just web-professional or web-master anymore, but a well rounded web-designer must be abreast with all things about the web-materials- it may be technology, visual, pshyology, or the new, next big trend. Anything that brings about the desired ATD should be of interest and imperative to learn.

For a designer with web as a chosen medium, to continually learn about the web including technology, design, people and trends is not extracurricular, it is absolutely essential

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