Good. Evil. Bratwurst.

On Craftsmen

Posted on by arlen

(Both Joshua Porter and Eric Meyer have been musing on this theme, and it struck a chord here, as well. This should not be construed as a rebuttal to either piece, just some musings their writings have spurred here.)

In the beginning was the individual. If Og wanted something for his cave, he fashioned it himself, from the materials around him. Chair a little uncomfortable? Get out the hammer and chisel away a little more here and there. Sit down. Chisel away a little more. Finally the chair and Og’s bottom made their peace, and happiness reigned.

But Og had friends over, and they complained about his chair. Og didn’t understand this at first. After all, wasn’t the chair really comfortable when he sat in it? Eventually, Og realized his bottom wasn’t universal. Not everyone’s bottom was like his, so chairs built specifically for his bottom wouldn’t be comfortable for everyone else.

So Og began carving chairs for his friends. And after a few dozen he began noticing something. While bottoms were indeed highly individualistic, he began to notice that there were many similarities. So Og began carving chairs for the similarities, and keeping them on hand for new visitors. Now when Og made new friends, he had chairs for them as well, and while they weren’t as comfortable as chairs custom-tailored for their bottoms, they would do.

Og became known in his community as the man you went to when you needed a chair. Everyone came to Og to get their custom chairs. And Og, for his part, was proud of that, and devoted time and care to building everyone’s chairs. Happiness continued to reign.

A bit whimsical, but that’s the beginning of almost every new cycle in the history of the planet. Og and his like continue to build. And then come the Frederic Maxwells and the Henry Fords. And Og is doomed.

Because what the Maxwells and Fords know is that the nature of humanity is to want it now, and to give away as little as possible to get it. Yes, this is a generalization; you and I can both quote a number of exceptions to this attitude. But we also know that if we added up every one of these exceptions they would not add to a significant number when compared to everyone we’ve met, much less everyone on the planet.

Craftsmen such as Og are “doomed” (I’ll explain the quotes later). They’ll never become dominant players in whatever industry they practice in. Look inside the boardroom of every major player, and you’ll find the concept “good enough.” Good Enough means the product or service isn’t perfect, but it’s of sufficiently high quality to satisfy most of the people who are looking for it. It may be better than most of the competition, or it may not. But it’s Good Enough to sell in quanitity for the price.

And it’s this relationship, the quality vs cost relationship, that dooms the craftsman. Because most of humanity doesn’t want perfect. In fact, in many areas we could make the argument that they don’t even want good. They’ll settle for average. (Aren’t you proud of me, mother, for resisting the impulse to drag a certain software company into this?)

I think Og’s experience applies today to the field of web design and development. Most of us began building for ourselves, to fit the browsers we and the people we knew used. Those of us who had the knack moved on, moved away from “best viewed in x” toward open standards.

Now we’re standing on the threshold of “website factories,” churning out cookie-cutter websites that are instantly familiar to everyone, because they look, feel, and act the same. Oh the colors and the photographs change from site to site, but that’s all.

We have the specter of Maxwell and Ford looming over our industry today. You can hear them echo in Jacob Nielsen’s continuing rants about how different is bad. “Don’t make me think” can be carried to extreme, and it will be as the factories set up shop.

Meanwhile, what of the craftsmen? How do we survive?

In the age of factory cabinetry, James Krenov survives, even thrives, because of his individual knowledge, skill, and commitment to quality. There lies the road. Follow him.

Craftsmen are doomed, as I said earlier. They are doomed to make high-quality products and services, specifically tailored for their clients. Or they are doomed to fail. Factories have room, they can slip and still succeed, because their target is large. Factories leverage the strength of numbers, but numbers are weak, as well.

And that’s where the craftsman thrives. A craftsman is an individual who applies her knowledge and skill to a project. A craftsman doesn’t make junk. To a craftsman the words “good enough” are a dirge, not a victory march. A craftsman aims for the center of a smaller target and doesn’t settle.

In a nutshell, the craftsman cares. About the work and about the client. To quote Cat Faber:

“So we work in words in music, living things or stone or glass
If you don’t love what you’re making it will never come to pass.
From the paintings of a child to the works of God above
Every act of creation is an act of love.”

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