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Feb 21, 2008 3:20am

blog all dog-eared pages: the nature and art of workmanship

Until his death in 1993, David Pye was a professor of furniture design at the Royal College of Art in London. The Nature And Art Of Workmanship is a guide to his theory of workmanship as distinct from design. The tone of the book is slightly musty, frequently dipping into old-mannish complaints that ring slightly of "the kids today", but on balance Pye is a clear writer with a coherent idea to communicate.

The book focuses on laying to rest the fallacy of "things done by hand" in favor of the terminology of risk and certainty. These two terms form the core of Pye's theory of workmanship, and boil down to "can it be fucked up?" For Pye, the meaningful distinction is whether a thing is a result of a risky process, or a certain one. The former requires dexterity and judgement while the latter requires an assembly line and planning. The division was a new one to me, but it has occasionally snapped into focus since I started this book over Christmas, as when reading Jeff Veen's latest blog post on Indi Young's new book:

In the end, using Indi's process, we were able to convince teams that we weren't researching all the creativity out of their projects. We were researching the risk out. And no matter how the industry is faring, that's a story people want to hear.

For what it's worth, Stamen is teetering on the cusp of this distinction (among other cusps we teeter on) as we investigate the sense of formalizing our process with an explicit producer role. Thus far, our work has been raw risk. I don't mean to say that we routinely snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but we consciously lack a "process" as someone like Jeff, Indi, or the company they helped found might understand it. It's personally interesting to me that computation and programming can still be seen to be risky in the same way that woodworking or pottery can, especially with the rapid growth of social websites whose success can not be measured by technical means alone.

(slide nabbed from Scaling Twitter)

As we take on larger slices of work, there's a natural inclination to manage risk by introducing certainty into the workflow. Namely, developing a process, knowing whether we're sticking to it, and starting think about hiring as filling holes rather than seeking out fellow travelers. I offer no opinions on this, except to say that it's an active debate.

It's also worth noting that Pye is no dogmatic fan of doing things the hard way. He devotes a number of pages (some excerpted below) to exploring why precise workmanship has been historically valued, notes that much work traditionally thought of as "hand labor" is really as jigged and regulated as machine work, observes that in many settings certainty and uniformity are desirable, and takes the Arts and Crafts movement itself to task for misunderstanding the potential joy inherent in competent work.

Page 17, on design, workmanship, and defining terms:

In the last twenty years there has been an enormous intensification of interest in Design. The word is everywhere. But there has been no corresponding interest in workmanship. ... This has not happened because the distinction between workmanship and design is a mere matter of terminology or pedantry. The distinction both in the mind of the designer and of the workman is clear. Design is what, for practical purposes, can be conveyed in words and by drawing: workmanship is what, for practical purposes, can not. In practice the designer hopes the workmanship will be good, but the workman decides whether it shall be good or not. On the workman's decision depends a great part of the quality of our environment.

Page 20, on risk, certainty, and defining more terms:

If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgement, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall this kind of workmanship, "The workmanship of risk": an uncouth phrase, but at least descriptive. ... With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation. In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single salable thing is made.

Page 25, on doing by hand:

Things are usually made by a succession of different operations, and there are often alternative ways of carrying any one of them out. We can saw, for instance, with a hand-saw, an electrically driven band-saw, a frame-saw, and in other ways. To distinguish between the different ways of carrying out an operation by classifying them as hand- or machine-work is, as we shall see, all but meaningless. ... The source of power is completely irrelevant to the risk. The power tool may need far more care, judgement and dexterity in its use than the hand-driven one.

Pages 32-33, on roughness:

In the workmanship of risk rough work is the necessary basis of perfect work, just as the sketch is of the picture. The first sketchy marks on the canvas may become the foundation of the picture and be buried, or they may be left standing. Similarly the first approximations of the workman may afterwards disappear as the work proceeds, or they may be left standing. For the painter and the workman it is sometimes difficult to know when to stop on the road towards perfect work, and sooner may be better than later. In the workmanship of certainty, on the other hand, there is no rough work. The perfect result is achieved without preliminary approximation.

Pages 49-50, on design intent:

The intended design of any particular thing is what the designer has seen in his mind's eye: the ideally perfect and therefore unattainable embodiment of his intention. The design which can be communicated - the design on paper, in other words - obviously falls far short of expressing the designer's full intention, just as in music the score is a necessarily imperfect indication of what the composer has imaginatively heard. The designer gives to the workman the design on paper, and the workman has to interpret it. If he is good he may well produce something very near the designer's intention. If the workman is himself the designer he almost certainly will (but that does not imply that the designs a workman intends are necessarily good ones).

Pages 58-59, on the origins of precision:

In nature we see varying degrees of disparity between the idea and the achievement wherever we look. To Plato it may perhaps have seemed that things would look better if there were no such disparities. We, having lived in an age where to all appearances such disparities really can be banished from our environment, may doubt it. ... Our traditional ideas of workmanship originated along with our ideas of law in a time when people were few and the things they made were few also. For age after age the evidence of man's work showed insignificantly on the huge background of unmodified nature. There was then no thought of distinguishing between works of art and other works, for works and art were synonymous. ... Then and for a long time afterwards - and even now in some remote places - all the things in common use for everyday purposes were of fairly free or rough workmanship and anything precise and regular must have been a marvel, amazing and worshipful.
This reverence for precision had, I think, two explanations. ... The second, and I believe deeper, reason lay in the opposition of art to nature. The natural world can seem beautiful and friendly only when you are stronger than it, and no longer compelled with incessant labor to wring your livelihood out of it. If you are, you will be in awe of it and will propitiate it; but you will find great consolation in things which speak only and specifically of man and exclude nature. When you turn to them you will have the feeling a sailor has when he goes below at the end of his watch, having seen all the nature he wants for quite a while. Precision and regularity, in those days signified that, to the extent of his intellect, man stood apart from nature, and had a power of his own.

Page 62, on spatial frequency and diversity:

It is a matter of the greatest moment in the arts of design and workmanship that every formal element has a maximum and minimum effective range. In can only be "read" - perceived for what it is - by an observer stationed within those limits. ... In nature, as in all good design, the diversity in scale of the formal elements is such that at any range, in any light, some elements are on of very near the threshold of visibility: or one should say, more exactly, of indistinguishability as elements. As the observer approaches the object, new elements, previously indistinguishable, successively appear and come into play aesthetically. Equally, and inevitably, the larger elements drop out and become ineffective as you approach. But new incidents appear at every step until finally your eye gets too close to be focused. The elements that at any given range, long or short, are just at the threshold, that we can just begin to read, though indistinctly, are of great important, aesthetically. They are perhaps analogous to the overtones of notes. They are a vitalizing element in the visible scene.

Page 118, David Pye doesn't like John Ruskin:

The deficiencies in the Arts and Crafts movement can only be understood if it is realized that it did not originate in ideas about workmanship at all. Indeed it never developed anything approaching a rational theory of workmanship, but merely a collection of prejudices which are still preventing useful thought to this day.
Much of what Ruskin writes is ambiguous because it is impossible to be sure what he is referring to. When he cites examples he always manages to leave room for doubt about his meaning. So far as one can judge, the essence of the ideas he wanted to express was that: 1) To make men do tedious repetitive tasks is unchristian. 2) High regulation always involves such tasks and must therefore be eliminated. 3) If the workman is allowed to design he will do rough work and so will eliminate it.
Above all, the workman's naive designs will be admirable. What Ruskin is inveighing against is not hard labor, but patient work. He did not realize, or so it seems, perhaps because he never had to work for a living, that a fair proportion of patient tedious work is necessary if one is to take any pleasure in any kind of livelihood, whether it be designing or making, for no one can continuously create and no one ever has. He did not realize there is great pleasure in doing highly regulated workmanship.

Comments (1)

  1. I have a lot of respect for what you guys do because you innately understand the root of what people are trying to accomplish or explore. You can gather much of the very human back-story behind certain behavior and hold it in your mind while designing solutions. Synthesizing from that set of deeper, human motivations, I think, lends a ton of certainty to even the most informal approach.

    Posted by indi young on Thursday, February 21 2008 9:57pm EST

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