Design and Craft
“The questions are what motivate the action. The questions, ultimately, are more necessary than the answers.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates
Before Peter Mendelsund began his career as a book cover designer, he worked for years as a concert pianist. In his 2014 monograph, Cover, he reflects on this career change, considering the differences between a career in music and a career in design: “Design is not performed. It is, rather, endlessly rehearsed. Designing is like practicing: one iterates; makes amendments; tries new avenues…” he writes, “Practicing is a snap, as one is allowed, expected even, to make mistakes. Practicing is a judgement-free zone. Mistakes are not allowed in concert halls.”
I’ve always been interested in how designers refer to their body of work, their process, their careers, as a “design practice.” What does it mean to practice design? To practice is to perform an activity repeatedly, attempting to improve proficiency. Practicing, Mendelsund writes, is a judgment-free zone. Mistakes are okay. Expected even! To practice is to iterate, to refine, to redesign. To practice is to continually improve your craft. This happens on individual projects but there is also the iterating, refining, and redesigning that takes place over the arc of a career.
In David Bayles and Ted Orland’s excellent book, Art and Fear, the authors note that artists dream of having made a great work of art but rarely dream of making the art. The real work is in the process, not the result. For the artist, they write, the task is to concern yourself with that process:
To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers’ concerns are not your concerns. Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.
Design is both a noun and a verb, a product and a process, an object and an action. Your audience, users, and clients are interested in the noun, the product, the object. But you, the designer, must also be interested in the verb, the process, the action. Designing, like all art-making, is about practicing—the endless process, experimentation, and inquiry.
In the 1996 essay, Designer as Author, Michael Rock asked what it meant for a graphic designer to be an author. He questioned how designers could bring a point-of-view to their work—to see design as a type of translation, form-making as a type of authorship. By comparing the designer to the film director, Rock saw auteur theory as a framework the designer could borrow.
Where the film director is part of a creative trifecta of director, writer, and cinematographer, the designer is also part of a team that includes writers, strategists, programmers, etc. How does the designer bring a point-of-view into the work within this type of collaboration? As Rock breaks it down:
If we apply the auteur criteria to graphic designers we find a body of work that may be elevated to auteur status. Technical proficiency could be fulfilled by any number of practitioners, but couple technical proficiency with a signature style and the field narrows. The list of names that meet those two criteria would be familiar, as that work is often published, awarded and praised. But great technique and style alone do not an auteur make. If we add the third requirement of interior meaning, how does that list fare? Are there graphic designers who, by special treatment and choice of projects, approach the realm of deeper meaning the way a Bergman, Hitchcock or Welles does?
Rock suggests that technical proficiency is the easiest type of form making. But a graphic designer who operates like an auteur, he argues, is the designer who adds “interior meaning”. The designer—skilled in technical proficiency, style and aesthetics—embeds their work with a specific point-of-view.
Andrew Sarris, the American film critic who promoted auteur theory in the United States, wrote that the auteur director blends this technical proficiency, interior meaning, and their own personality into their films. “The way a film looks and moves,” he wrote, “should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels.”
Design is both practical and theoretical but where do practice and theory meet? To be an auteur, Sarris argued this combination emerges over several films, the director continually practicing the craft, searching for the relationships between thinking and making, process and form. Using auteur theory as a model, both Rock and Sarris echo Bayles and Orland’s proposition: “to learn to work on your work.”
I’ve been thinking about the role of craftsmanship in graphic design lately. Craft isn’t talked about so much in design circles and when it is, it’s often superficially. Designers love fawning over the quality of the paper, the precise tracking of the typography, or the skilled clipping path. In my undergrad graphic design classes, our grades were partly determined by our “craftsmanship”. In the project rubrics, craft meant the physical presentation of our finished product—how well it was mounted, how clean our X-ACTO cutting was, the accuracy of our binding.
Bayles and Orland see craft as just as much about the artifact as about the intention, the process, the authorship:
Your job as an artist is to push craft to its limits—without being trapped by it. The trap is perfection: unless your work continually generates new and unresolved issues, there’s no reason for your next work to be any different from the last. The difference between art and craft lies not in the tools you hold in your hands, but in the mental set that guides them. For the artisan, craft is an end in itself. For you, the artist, craft is the vehicle for expressing your vision. Craft is the visible edge of art.
Craft is what sits at the intersection of thinking and making, of practice and theory. Craft is where technical proficiency and interior meaning meet. As the sociologist Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman, his book on the nature of craft: “Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.”
The designer, too, operates within this dialogue—between making and thinking, between practice and theory, between technical skills and intellectual curiosity, between problem solving and problem finding. When we think of the craftsperson, we think of the person who’s perfected their work over an extended period of time, of dedicating their time to continual practice. We think of the auteur, who over a series of films, connects how they think to how a film looks. Practice and theory are not opposed but rather two points along the same continuum. Making without thinking is superficial and thinking without making is just theory. As Sennett writes: “In terms of practice, there is no art without craft; the idea for a painting is not a painting.”
So what does this mean for the graphic designer? In Lorraine Wild’s essay The Macramé of Resistance, she writes:
When craft is put into the framework of graphic design, this might constitute what is meant by the “designer’s voice” – that part of a design that is not industriously addressing the ulterior motives of a project. So craft is about tactics and concepts, seeking opportunities in the gaps of what is known, rather than trying to organize everything in a unifying theory. As Dormer states, “One needs the ability to experiment. Experimenting,…often described as playing around, demands judgment—it improves one’s sense of discrimination.” Dormer saw the search that is part of craft as a critical human function, comparing it to processes like the creative thinking practiced by mathematicians or physicists at the top of their games.
What Wild is writing about here is the relationship between practice and authorship. Craft is the designer’s voice made visible. Craft is the visible edge of art. Craft reveals itself when voice and style come together. Craft is what happens when practice is in dialogue with theory. Craftsmanship, then, is aesthetic and intellectual.
Sennett closes The Craftsman with a meditation on “maker’s marks”—the signature, insignia, or marking the craftsperson uses to sign their work. “The maker leaves a personal mark of his or her presence on the object.” he writes, “In this history of craftsmanship, these maker’s marks usually have carried a political message, as a graffito scrawled on a wall can, merely the statement anonymous laborers have imposed on inert materials, fecit: ‘I made this,’ ‘I am here, in this work,’ which is to say, ‘I exist.’” Through the maker’s mark, the craftsperson makes themselves present, it gives the maker’s voice a place to speak.
In Fuck Content, Michael Rock’s follow-up essay to Designer as Author, he writes that the designer asserts authorship not through creating new, original content, but through employing the tools of the designer, through mastering the tools of the craftsperson. “The elements we must master are not the content narratives but the devices of the telling: typography, line, form, color, contrast, scale, weight,” he wrote, “We speak through our assignment, literally between the lines.” This is our maker’s mark. This is our craft.
As a critic, it’s sometimes tempting for me to want to look past the aesthetics, deeper than the visuals for something more—an underlying theory, a point of view, a voice—but this is discounting the importance of the craft. For it is in the kerning, in the color selection, in the precision of the visuals that the designer’s voice emerges. It is in the craft that the designer says “I made this. I am here.”
Designers don’t need a style, but they must have a voice. For the designer, craft is our authorship made visual. For the designer, our practice is the performance. ✖