Posts Tagged ‘craft’

When someone suggests that design doesn’t matter, I like to mention Jan Tschichold, whose ideas help to create modern typography and were considered so subversive that Nazi Germany gave him the choice of exile or imprisonment. I can’t say that typography was quite so important in my own life, but there was a period when it helped to keep me sane.

At the time, I was working as a technical writer, having realized that the reduction in tenured positions made academia a dead end. Technical writing was far more lucrative than teaching, and it taught me the importance of organization and brevity, but it was far from challenging. In six months, I had gone from a beginner to hiring my own sub-contractors, and I was looking for the next step.

I branched out into marketing, which quickly lead me to graphic design. I soon realized that typography was a craft in itself that most designers knew little about, and, the more I studied, the more fascinated I became.

Part of the appeal was the esoterica. To appreciate typography, you have to learn about ascenders and descenders, bowls and leading and all the details that most people see without observing. Moreover, the roots of typography were in the early Renaissance, although the modern concepts of design were less than a century old. If you had any hope of understanding what typography was about, you had to train your eye by absorbing obscure concepts that most people never even guessed existed.

Yet paradoxically – and contrary to what many believe – the point of typography is not to call attention to itself. In fact, design that called attention to itself can be called a failure by definition. The point of typography is to enhance the content, to make it more legible and, present it appropriately. Such goals are so contrary to those of our post-modern age that they seemed to me an example of art for art’s sake. After all, why else would someone labor over a design that, if successful, would affect people’s experience with only a handful ever appreciating what it accomplished? Such attitudes immediately commanded my respect. I wanted to understand what successful design was about.

Also, I soon realized that my growing obsession had a practical side. If I could design as well as write, I would become highly employable. I could market myself as an all-in-one service, combining writing, design, and project manager in a way that no one else was doing. Even more importantly, I would have enough variety in my work that I would rarely be bored.

It became common place for clients to tell me that they wanted accurate manuals, not pretty designs. Often, I was cleaning up after writers who thought the ability to put words on paper was all they needed, so the last thing clients wanted was someone else giving themselves airs. I did my best to deliver the hands-on accuracy that other writers avoided – but, for my own sake, I also gave clients well-designed manuals and help files without saying anything.

To my satisfaction, almost every client as they signed off would say some variation of, “I know I said I didn’t care about design – but damn, that design is something else.” I enjoyed giving them a little extra, and proving that accurate content and quality design were not polar opposites. To this day, I can look at my work from that period with artesianal pride at a job well-done.

Soon, however, my restlessness led me to management and finally to journalism. Both were satisfying in themselves, but neither gave much scope for design.

However, in the last few months, I’ve returned to typography, designing the book I’m writing and even designing templates for a client. I’ve probably forgotten more than I ever knew, and I never was more than an apprentice in the craft, but I find the work as satisfying as ever. As far as I’m concerned, combining writing with design is the closest I’m likely to come to what Bill Reid used to describe as “the well-made object”– a tiny piece of art in which I can demonstrate all my knowledge in every aspect of it.

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This early in the month, I have no pressing deadlines, so I took the afternoon off to wander the Circle Craft Christmas Fair. There, I wandered the endless aisles of crafts, a little nostalgic for the years Trish and I browsed similar fairs, vaguely looking for one or two things and, as usual, spending most of my money of food (two tins of carmels, coated nuts, and three types of feta). Many of the wares, I noticed, were poor quality – and I was being scornful when I suddenly realized that the lack of quality was probably deliberate.

I was in the mood to notice quality, because I had recently discovered a source of hand-made shoes. Wearing these shoes not only solved most of the problems I’ve been having with my feet for the past eight years, but made me notice how the shoddiness of most of the shoes people are wearing. I’m like that: when cramming to buy a car, I notice all the cars on the road, and, when I was learning design, part of me critiqued every sign on the street. Periodically, I have these small bursts of obsession for a week or two before reverting to what passes with me for normal.

Yet even without this fading obsession, I would have noticed anyway. I grew up with a father who brought do-it-yourself to new heights. Trained as a painter, in the process of building two houses and customizing a trailer and two vans, he had to teach himself everything from electricity to plumbing. Since he had a limited education, learning these trades couldn’t have been easy, but he managed a rough competence in all of them except cabinet-making, and even then he managed to figure out enough work-arounds to substitute for not having years of apprenticeship. Consequently, although I usually can’t produce competent work, I know it when I see it.

This afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that as many as one in three or four of the vendors were selling clothes or handicrafts simply weren’t that good. If they sold jewelry, they were cutting the metal to shape, not casting. If they were weaving, the result was loose and slightly irregular. If they were working in metal, you could still see the marks of the tools, particularly the hammer. If they had cut something from wood – even a square cutting board – they had apparently not measured or bothered to square the corners. And so it went, all too often, no matter what the craft, with merchandise being offered for sale at premium prices that was often crude and unfinished.

Yet, strangely, the low quality didn’t affect their business. Often, I thought the reverse was true, and that they were doing a brisk business because of the low quality.

I suppose, however, that this reaction is inevitable in the days of automation. To moderns, perfectly regular, perfectly fitted merchandise is the norm. Without irregularities, even crudity, we would never know that something was handmade.
It didn’t used to be that way. Two centuries ago, artisans prided themselves on the quality of their work, producing a perfect curve in a china teapot, or finishing a piece of jewelry to mirror-like brightness.

But today, an artisan with that level of skill would only be reproducing what a machine could do much more easily, what we see every day. And what would be special about that? The perception that buyers were getting something unique would be lost if a craft vendor sold something that looked no different from what you could find in a shopping mall.

You might say that craft vendors today are not just selling their skill, but that illusion of uniqueness. They are leaving flaws, not because only their deity is perfect but because, by today’s standard, only machines are perfect.

The exceptions are very few. Often, too, they require a trained eye to appreciate them. Several times, I have seen people who balked at paying several thousand dollars in a Northwest Coast gallery in Gastown, walk out on Water Street and pay ninety dollars to someone on the street to someone with a single knife for a tool and no understanding whatsoever of the tradition they were vaguely imitating.

The buyers seemed satisfied with the street vendor’s carving, and not just because of the price. Judging from what I overheard them saying, they seemed to feel that what they were buying was somehow more genuine than work done by artists who had spent decades perfecting their skills.

Such attitudes may be unavoidable, but they annoy me profoundly. So long as these attitudes exist, what incentive do artists have to perfect their crafts? In some cases, artists must even hold back deliberately. Perhaps they even add errors if they want to sell. All these possibilities amount to a cheapening of the artistic process, yet, if artisans want to make a living, what choice do they really have?

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