Ready To Inspire: Owen Gregory – A Spanner In The Works

Owen Gregory is a copy editor from the UK. He works on the 24ways.org advent site, and tweets as  @fullcreammilk.

  • Want to draw attention to how we use received ideas about craftsmanship as designers; how traditional physical crafts have influenced our approach to our work, and how we overlook our own materials. A true web aesthetic.
  • This is not a practical talk, there will be no list of tools or resources; it is a talk made out of other peoples words and ideas.
  • ‘Craftsmanship’ carries the glow of history. In an era of commodification and speed, ‘craftsmanship’ is a signifier of time; the master and the apprentice; we appreciate the craft of the people who created things. A well-made item speaks to us of the hand of its maker. ‘Craftsmanship’ is almost as tangible as the objects themselves.
  • Craftspeople make real objects. What do we as web designers and developers have in common with these physical techniques and experiences? Is hand-coded equivalent to hand-made?
  • Practices and disciplines from other areas such as print have informed web design; at the birth of the web, there was no better field available to describe what we were doing. Computer-based work has needed concrete metaphors to help everyone understand: Desktop, window, trash, cut, paste, etc. These metaphors anchor us in reality.
  • We are creative people, making things. There are techniques and best practices; room to learn from experts. We collaborate and compete, and strive to be better at what we do.
  • We have embraced traditional craft disciplines as sources of inspiration. We search for and profess our craft credentials; call ourselves architects and builders and engineers and makers. We clothe our work in the trappings of craft. “Code is poetry.”
  • There is some value and truth in this outlook, but there exists a rarely acknowledged tension between our perception of ourselves as craftspeople, and what craft in the web medium actually involves.
  • This tension does find oblique expression. James Bridle attempted to create the atmosphere of a workshop for code — the This is a working shop project. In a workshop you get the sense a skill is being performed, craft is being done. You understand work, time and skill went into making a thing. Our work, skill and craft are not valued and appreciated in the way traditional work is, which leads to misunderstanding. The invisibility, intangibility and obscurity that goes into our craft turns us into magicians, possessing a body of arcane knowledge. We must be proficient in many disciplines, and understand still more. Our audience doesn’t want to understand how the trick is done, they just want the magic to work.
  • I can’t agree with James that we work with our hands. Working with your hands lies at the heart of craftsmanship… but our hands don’t guide our tools. You can’t run your fingers through elegant JavaScript. We just type, and this is a profound disconnect; all interactions ‘feel’ the same.
  • There is an increasing fetishisation of “the one-off”, the authentic, the hand-made. Web designers have leaned heavily on traditional printing crafts, not just as inspiration but as craft, producing magazines, letterpress posters and books. For a number of web designers, the attraction seems to be the tangibility of the object itself, the process in making it, and the response of people to the object itself.
  • The Manual is a thrice yearly hardback book with a “textured handcrafted feel” that is “a collectible artifact” created because “web design is defining itself as a discipline.” At BuildConf, workshops were held in axe restoration and coffee-making. The Manual was created to inspire reverence in the reader, add weight and heft, texture and the crackle of age, to the intangibility of creating online. There can be a feeling of thinness about developing digitally.
  • Web workers have to be fascinated with process and craft, rather than with finished product… there is no finished product, because it changes immediately, and in time will probably disappear.  The presence and longevity of a physical thing have a value that we aspire to. Craftsmanship invites permanence.
  • Could it be we believe that craftsmanship belongs in the realm of the physical and traditional?
  • Wilson Miner in “When We Build” said he had an inferiority complex to architects and industrial designers that make things. Websites seem flimsy, fragile and fleeting; underserving of serious labour. Even the longest-lasting websites are “a blip on the timeline” compared to a house, car, etc. We are craftspeople shaping the world of screens.
  • Understanding our medium and our tools is essential. Older disciplines are useful foundations, but it is time for us to reassess our relationship to the web. Responsive design  is an example of how empathy with the medium can deliver new techniques.
  • In ALA, Paul Robert Lloyd wrote The Web Aesthetic, where he discussed how we look too much for standardised technical solutions, instead of creating new ones. We rely on things we have done years, rather than reset our assumptions. We should be inspired by the conventions of other media, rather than governed by them.
  • We need  craftsmanship that matches our medium. The web is flexible and mutable, so our craft must be too. Our products are never finished products (Agile acknowledges that). Simply keeping up is a challenge. What kind of crafts can acknowledge the breakneck pace of web development?
  • New tools are appearing — Bootstrap, Typekit, FontDeck, et al — the best tools, the ones that will last and be treasured, are the most appropriate tools, the ones designed for manipulating our unique medium.
  • It’s only through the application of tools in flexible processes by people that understand the medium that the new web craftsmanship can be born.

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