Richard Sennet and The Craftsman

So, as you might have gathered, this Design and the Market module I’m doing at uni has had me thinking about my future rather a lot.

I’d had Richard Sennett’s book, The Craftsman, languishing on my bookshelf for quite some time and thought now was probably as good a time as any to read it.

Sennett is exploring the idea of craftsmanship, of doing something well for its own sake, as a template for living.  He argues that pure competition will never produce good work.

As a student, studying  jewellery and metal design, of course this is going to be of interest (which is why I bought the book in the first place, with all those good intentions, quite some time ago…).  Because the making part of making seems to be becoming increasingly redundant.

You don’t need to set stones yourself, you can send them away and someone else will do it for you.  You don’t need to cast things yourself – you can just send away a mould.  CAD (Computer Assisted Design) is another interesting one…

Sennett questions what has happened to the idea of craftsmanship in the 21st Century.  We live in a culture that is driven by mass production where everything is manufactured by machines rather than crafted by human hands.  We employ this method of making to speed up production, , keep costs down but ultimately, what we sacrifice is an understanding of the materials we are trying to work with.  There’s a fundamental disconnect.

CAD allows the instant modelling of products and allows the designer to see the object from multiple points of view.  The on-screen rendering can be lengthened, shrunk or broken into parts.  Sections can be copied and replicated into a variety of different designs within minutes.   And then your PDF can be emailed to a company who will… cast your design for you.

When you draw and physically make something, it’s a process of constant refinement.  Of repetition and practice.  But this process is removed by CAD.  Once points are plotted on-screen, algorithms do the drawing.  Used properly, it can be flawless in its accuracy.

The act of drawing and physically making pieces, even if they are just samples, also makes you consider colour, texture, materials and how they can be worn – other elements that are lost using CAD.

There seems to be a conflict between getting something right and getting something done, quality based on correctness and quality based on practical experience. Skill is a trained practice, and in many ways, modern technology deprives us of the repetition required to develop skill. And when the head and the hand are separated, there is going to a fundamental impairment of the development of skill.

I’d be interested to hear your views on this.



Filed under Inspiration, Random Ramblings

6 responses to “Richard Sennet and The Craftsman

  1. This whole debate is all very interesting.

    I disagree with your assertions that using technology like CAD makes you lose elements of design like texture, materials etc. Even though I use CAD I can still prototype textures, materials and colours and then I can put them into a CAD model.

    I will never be a mass producer of anything, and neither will many of the jewellers I know, but still prefer to design utilising various technologies rather than on paper and metal. Another thing that needs to be considered in debates such as this is that jewellers who can struggle to set up a practice can’t command the prices they need to make things by hand all the time, it isn’t cost efficient so sometimes small batch productions will be required in order to make profits, you can’t fault anyone for that, or call into question their ‘craft’ credentials.

    The whole thing about ‘you just send it away and someone does it for you’ isn’t really true either, it’s generalising in the extreme. I can put as many hours in on Rhino as I can sitting at a work bench, to me there’s no difference, whatever I’m doing in my design process, I’m still being creative and I feel I’ve lost nothing, there is certainly no fundamental disconnect, quite the opposite in fact. I would maintain that I put more into my practice these day than I would have pre-CAD.

  2. I was one of the first of the Mac generation of graphic designers – never drew things on paper, always designed on screen. For me the computer was the sketchpad. Back in the day (even now) this was seen as a Bad Thing, and not “proper” design.
    I’m torn between the two worlds. I like to sketch things on the proverbial back of the napkin (and my final designs never look quite as good as they did when they were doodles!) but ultimately it’s down to preference. Some people use CAD as their sketchbook, they refine things on screen, they prototype, mess things up, try out ideas… Others do it with the actual material. I suspect the end results are very different but neither is more “authentic”.
    (Architecture is a good example of what happens when CAD is involved – being able to design structures that were impossible simply because the materials used to mock them up weren’t available, or because the maths needed to work out the stresses and strains were far too complex, has led to a vast array of building shapes. (Some would argue that’s a bad thing!))

    What design/craft education should never do is impose an “authentic” stamp on things – allow people to do what they want the way they want to do it. At DJCAD we’ve got many people who encourage rapid prototyping in areas where in the past long, slow, deliberate development was seen as the “right” way (and only way) of doing things. The end results can be astoundingly original. They can also flop but the point of iterative approaches to design and to learning is that you learn from your mistakes. Risk taking is now an essential aspect of being a craftsperson whereas in the old days of apprenticeships and guilds, the only way to advance was the careful accumulation of a core set of skills handed down from the master.

    I had a conversation with some 3D designers in Singapore last summer. They were saying that it is impossible to teach 3D design without being able to handle the material, to get to know it and how it can be worked. While I agree that actually touching the material can be important (but may also be limiting), I disagree with the “impossible” bit. Why is it impossible? It’s just different. I think the same with all types of design – it isn’t wrong or impossible to teach, say, embroidery using online resources. The result will be different than the “old fashioned” (or “traditional”) way of doing it, watching someone demonstrate then letting them watch you repeat, then doing it again and again and again. That produces a certain type of craftsperson and development of technique is slow and steady. Innovation is rare but revolutionary when it happens (see ceramics and how the biggest innovation for centuries was simply applying the sort of principles that Adam Smith observed for pin manufacturing in “The Wealth of Nations”, and which later got applied to car manufacturing and other areas)

    Doing things differently opens up all sorts of potential. Something is “lost” but something is “gained”. If I develop an idea on a computer and send it to China over email to be embroidered using a computer-controlled device, the “craftsmanship” exists somewhere other than it would if it were done by hand by someone living in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. But there would still be “craftsmanship”.

    An aside – just occurred to me. Can’t think why it’s relevant but it seemed so at the time… Edward de Bono suggests a creative thinking technique that essentially relies on you asking “what if?” but the emphasis being on accepting the worst case scenario. I used this technique with some design lecturers from a college in the south of England once. They were complaining about the lack of space for the large number of students they had. They said they couldn’t teach with those resources. So we played the “what if” game – what if you had no studios at all. What would you do?
    Well initially of course they insisted they couldn’t do anything… But after an hour we’d come up with lots of really interesting ways to teach that they thought were worth pursuing.
    Ten years ago I was having a conversation with a colleague who was lamenting that students didn’t read any of the books he put on his reading list. So I said “what if you didn’t give a reading list then?” From that conversation came the idea I called the “one book book list” – just recommend one book, but one that will turn students on to the idea that reading could be interesting, in the hope that they will then ask for more: a “pull” approach rather than a “push” approach. It worked. Students given one book to read ended up reading more than those who had a book list!
    So I’m all for doing things differently but not because you’re forced to (fire fighting) but because you want to.
    I think the point I wanted to make with this anecdote was that design education should itself use the tools we teach – risk taking, challenging conventions etc. And embracing CAD in to areas not because we’re forced to by circumstances, but because computers are just another tool that someone invented that we need to get to grips with – that would be the right way to approach it.

    For me the interesting aspect here is “value” or “worth”. The “value” in a CAD-developed or realised piece would lie somewhere else. In the robot-made version the value lies in the idea, and the use of the final thing, the intention of the person who buys it for someone else to wear (remember Baudrillard’s “economy of the sign”!). In the “crafted” piece the value lies in the effort, the accumulated knowledge, the tradition… Unless the person buying it has no idea about all that!

    I’d recommend looking at chapters 8 and 9 of Understanding Bourdieu for an explanation of the difference between autonomous and heteronomous “art” (we looked at that in second year, remember), and why gatekeepers see their role as protecting skills and knowledge from the masses. The debate over whether something can be done “with computers” or without years of specialist training has a lot to do with the idea of keeping something exclusive.
    As someone who got mightily fed up with people asking if “your computer can do this job” I see all sides of the argument but ultimately the meaning of something lies at the point of consumption, not at the point of creation. So how it is created, and how finely it is crafted, is less important than how it is used, worn, gifted, inherited…

  3. Fascinating…so glad I just stumbled upon Mike Press’s RT of this debate – Really interesting what is being said about the relationship between our hands as makers and how things change once we delve into the world of CAD. I started to include Rhino into my practice as a jeweller a year and a half ago when I started a MA in Design.
    My practice naturally changed, there is no denying that a very special relationship occurs between the time from our sketchbooks to the bench and during making. It’s an intense hands-on experience that cannot be compared to sitting in front of a computer building a CAD model on Rhino. They are two different processes done for two different reasons – hopefully, I mean the whole point of using CAD creatively as a craft maker is that it allows us to realise designs we cannot hand manufacture. Since starting to use Rhino and 3D printing in my work, I spend a lot more time at the drawing desk and have about 5 times the amount of sketckbooks as my pre-CAD days. I find it has forced me to design better, I know that before I even sit down at that computer and build the file, my designs have to be EXACT. With bench work it was different for me, I worked from my technical drawings but there was the time and space to change things around and experiment.
    At the end of the day, I’m not an engineer/software guy/programmer…making jewellery, I am a jewellery maker using CAD and 3D printing as just another tool, of many others I have in my kit. They are 2 different processes used – bench and computer – what the results are from either is up to us as makers.

  4. I was interested by Jonathan’s reference to the “what if?” question above, and that made me recall something said by the Autonomatic group – Katie Bunnell, Justin Marshall, Tavs Jorgensen and Drummond Masterton – four digital makers based at University College Falmouth – They are post-doctoral researchers in craft who create work with the latest digital manufacturing technologies. They say: “We do research that explores the use of digital manufacturing technologies in the creative process of designing and making three dimensional objects. We are design practitioners with skills and experience in designing in ceramics, metals, glass, plaster, plastics, amongst other media. As creative researchers we have a basic urge to invent new ways of making things, to ask “what if?” , “so what?” and “what next?”. Through our individualistic and autonomous approach to using digital technologies we hope to inspire other designers and makers to approach digital technologies with a creative mindset.”

    There is a lengthy debate around all this concerning technology as a deskilling issue that embeds previously individualistic knowledge as part of its processes. This is indeed the dominant use of technology, principally as a means of gaining management control and increasing predictability of outcome. However, technology can be subverted and humanised – and I would argue that this is what Autonomatic – and others – are doing. The trick is to find examples of how digital processes can be incorporated into the craft and design process as a means of enhancing creative potential, as opposed to reducing it.

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