Christan Fergus

UX Designer / Developer

Reviving Craftsmanship

Try All The Things!

The wonderful thing about doing web development with a team (as opposed to working alone in my musty basement) is the conversations we have about the industry. The conversations, often spirited, range from the technical to the philosophical. The one thing most topics have in common is the fact that what may be “current” and “interesting” today is not what was yesterday, and certainly will not be tomorrow. The tech world—a world I have chosen to be a part of—moves at a dizzying pace. No sooner had I grasped Grunt than Gulp came along as the hipster designer’s favourite way of getting out of doing things manually. Which javaScript framework should I go with? Damned if I know!

Please don’t misunderstand, I love this (appropriately illustrated here). I love how quickly we can get an app up and running with tools like Meteor. This stage in development has such a low bar of entry that very nearly anyone with a computer and desire can create a web page or app and even be successful.

Success, however, in no way means quality. It’s that, dear reader, which ultimately leads me to my gripe. We have so much we can do, and sometimes bounce so quickly from tool to tool, that we forget a little thing called craftsmanship. Or perhaps it’s not even forgotten, perhaps—actually likely—people never had it in the first place.

Getting Physical

I have a degree in graphic design. In my day (that’s right, I said it), design was a comparatively slow thing. For a comprehensive design degree, one had to learn the breadth of the visual: the fine arts encompassed painting, pastel, pencil, film photography, and mixed media. Of those mediums, the areas of figure study, still life, landscape, industrial, and more where explored. These were physical mediums. These mediums did not have an undo. I was forced to hone my craft and grow my skills one mistake and success at a time. I had to plan, coordinate and execute near flawlessness to even hope for a good grade. Of course, this wasn’t all that long ago. We did the physical in tandem with the digital where we did all the usual things in the Corel, the Adobe suite: advertising and marketing design, web design, posters, etc.

In addition, I took two technical writing classes to craft and learn how to clearly communicate. In all this, I took one whole HTML class where I wrote the markup in Windows 98’s Notepad and did all my layout in tables and frames (this was before Zeldman’s seminole Designing with Web Standards).

Get Real

What am I saying? I suppose I’m saying that I see lots of stuff being put out there by talented designers, and the un-alike, that lacks craft. It may look good on the surface, but a slightly closer look shows that stuff just isn’t quite right. A physical example of this is illustrated so well by the Chinese knock-off industry. Devices, Cars… Chinese version of the Mini What about that massive image at the top of a website with a big fat arrow pointing down—really? This is good design?

Lest I be the first to cast a stone, be aware I’m pointing some fingers right back at myself on this one. It’s precisely because it’s so easy to crank stuff out that I, too, hop on the bandwagon. With little concern for architecture or standards, I can churn out something pretty powerful, pretty quickly. Yes, there is a benefit to that. If you approach something in a lean manor, you get something out quickly and iterate the shit out of it. If you have the discipline to do so, I say continue on, good sir/madame, and we shall clean and refactor as we go. But do we? When we’re doing our own thing, do we finely craft our architecture? Do we take the time to truly understand our users and craft an experience to their needs? Do we spend time on the finer points of visual design—all for the hope that the user never notices our finely adjusted, viewport-width-appropriate line-height, but subconsciously has an easier time navigating and finding the information they need? I think we should—at least more than we currently do.

A distinction should be made here, however. There’s stuff you ship, and there’s stuff you experiment with. It’s true, we could spend so much time “crafting” that we never ship, and I agree with Jobs that great artists ship, but crafting doesn’t mean not shipping. It means refining our process to allow room for it.

I’m not going to craft an experimental app I’m working on that no one will ever see. I am, however, going to craft anything anyone other than my wife is going to see. I owe that to you, the user. If you dein me worthy enough to show you anything I have worked on, it’s the least I can do to craft, tailor, and make your experience in my design as useful and lovely as possible.

Get Crafty

Some stuff on a table that looks kinda crafty We shouldn’t stop everything, shut out the world, and spend the next ten years becoming the very best in, well, whatever. I’m saying we should be conscious of an area we tend to slack off in, and work on that. Slowly ratchet up your discipline in color theory or cleaner, more performant JavaScript. Take the time to read some books on design theory and practice particular techniques. If you’ve never had formal training, take it upon yourself to improve the fundamentals. If you have had formal training, revisit the disciplines and techniques you learned all those years ago.

With just a little extra effort, we can keep above the riff-raff and distinguish ourselves as attractive, crafty professionals.