For many years I’ve struggled to get a clear picture of what it means to be a designer. Like many, I started out with artistic aspirations and used design as a way to satisfy my artistic urges in a way that would provide me a paycheck. A designer could be sort of an artist and I was fine with that. However, the older and more experienced I became, the more I gravitated towards the analogy of the designer as craftsman.

Finding and choosing this particular view wasn’t just an exercise in navel gazing. It helped provide a certain attitude that focuses on integrity, quality and service while defining the boundaries for self-expression. The latter is important because even though as designers, we need to work within technical specs and other areas defined by rules, let’s face it—we are mostly in this thing for creative expression in one form or another.

So, why craftsman? Why not designer as artist, architect or even control freak?

While ‘craftsman’ isn’t as romantic as ‘artist’, it’s well suited. A craftsman implies someone who makes something using a particular set of tools and skills. It also connotes mastering a technique and producing a quality product—one with aesthetics, sound construction and a good dose of charm. A professional craftsman is at service to a customer, but also works to “free the spirit” and thoroughly enjoy the birth of the new and innovative.

In the same way, a designer’s work is typically focused on meeting the client’s goals. While we get satisfaction from helping our clients be more successful with their business, we also enjoy a process that gives us an opportunity to use our creative talents and provide a meaningful experience that others can appreciate.

I’m a Carpenter?

The archetype craftsman is the carpenter, woodworker or furniture maker. The woodworker needs to have a head for both form and function. A piece of furniture must serve its function first whether it be to provide a seat or a place to store your best china. After all, a chair isn’t worth more than firewood if it fails to meet its most basic goals of supporting. Similarly, a company logo that’s stylish but doesn’t communicate isn’t worth having.

However, if it were only about function, we would all be using logs for chairs and branches for cup holders. A piece of furniture must also contain an aesthetic sense that makes it appealing and desirable. It needs to create a connection between the wood and its buyer just as a screen of pixels needs to create an experience for its user.

The Apprenticeship

In the days yonder, the carpenter would go through an apprenticeship under a master craftsman in order to gain journeyman status where he might then travel to different shops to gain more experience—sort of like how some designers today will hop from agency to agency picking up different skills and building their portfolio.

Typically, an apprentice or journeyman would work within the existing shop’s designs and principles. As their knowledge and experience on the subject expanded, they might begin to try out their own designs. After several years, the journeyman might apply to be elected to ‘master craftsman’ status by creating a ‘masterpiece’ to impress the guild of already existing master craftsmen.

This sounds a lot like the graphic designer with ambitions to someday be Creative Director at a big agency or company. Unfortunately, the attitude today is we all begin as master craftsmen and that any apprenticeship is taken care of at school (or from simply building our own website). Many junior designers, while showing plenty of talent, don’t realize that it can take years to master all the different facets of producing sound design and working with team members and clients.

An internship is probably the closest thing we have today to an apprenticeship. An intern usually starts by taking on smaller jobs that help with the production needs of a studio (but that might lack creative interest). This, however, gives the junior designer time to hone her software, process and communication skills in a working environment. Remember, the most important thing for the apprentice to do is to learn. The second most important thing is to design a lot of stuff!

Designers early in their careers often struggle to find their apprenticeship and to even identify anyone who qualifies as “master designer”. Even after going through school questions still remain such as:

What do I really need to know to succeed in my field?

Who can show me the right skills?

How do I get experience?

What is ‘design thinking’?

How do you really define quality (a.k.a “master piece”)?

The Journeyman

Just like the struggling journeyman, the designer needs to unlock the secrets of the trade. But first, they need to invest in the right tools and have them be second nature. A good carpenter would invest in the best tools he could afford and not waste time on cheap imitations. He would take the tools apart, fine tune them, and learn every part’s name—his good work depended on it.

The designer must do the same, choosing his software tools wisely, and deciding where to put his most time in learning. Trying to become an expert at Flash, AfterEffects, InDesign, HTML and Javascript all at once probably isn’t realistic for most designers no matter what design school’s have to say about it.

The young journeyman knew the difference between a mortise and a tenon and could use a bow saw without much thought. In comparison, the designer has spent hours working with raster and vector images or thinking about design patterns within wireframes. Whether it’s desktop or mobile, the designer knows the medium and how to address it. Even then, the designer’s knowledge and tools go way beyond just Photoshop and being familiar with the latest mobile UI. Methodology, client management, collaboration, presentation, selling, communication, self-promotion, and documentation are all important skills the designer must learn and master.

A good furniture maker would have known his building materials. He would have understood how wood is constantly changing and shifting, which cuts to use, and how it looks with different finishes. In a similar way, the digital designer understands the limitations of technology and what’s possible. She has worked with engineers and app developers, understands the formats and might even know a thing or two about programming. By knowing the “materials”, the designer is able to propose ideas that are both feasible and usable.

The Master Craftsman

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” – Steve Jobs

While there are many aspects of the craftsman that can be used as an analogy, most important might be the craftsman’s devotion to quality. The furniture maker strived to create an object that was desirable, beloved and passed on through generations. There may not exist anything we could call an “heirloom website or phone app”, but a good designer knows that in the end they are judged by the quality of their work and how successfully it meets the goals of the business and its users. Like the master craftsman of yesteryear, the designer can take pride in his work knowing that it has benefited his client’s business and the their customers.

Lastly, the craftsman understands the importance of good service. In the designer’s world that means having good process, organization, communication and learning which battles to pick (and clients to have!).

We all need analogies to help us better understand our creative roles. By using the analogy of craftsman, a designer can gain a clearer picture of what they need to do to succeed and meet the expectations of their clients or boss.

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