The Craftsman, The Constraint

The Craftsman, The Constraint

A story about spoons and budgets.

I’d once read about a designer who’d made his life’s mission the creation of one object. I think he was Japanese, which was interesting given his fascination and commitment to cutlery that wasn’t even natively common in his country. His passion centered upon a singular focus: making the perfect spoon.

His work sought to answer all of the necessary questions on the quest to make the perfect spoon. What is the right weight of the spoon — heavy, tactile, so it feels as if there is a sense of quality and history. What is the right polish? Matte, or shiny? The right material and density of that material. A blend — stainless, or other materials. The tensile strength. How does the spoon rest when placed down, rested sideways, or in a stack of its siblings? The curve of the handle so that there is an intrinsic ergonomic sense of comfort and no rough, displeasingly sharp edges, and of course the size, curve, depth and basin of the spoon bowl itself, to ensure it excelled in the delivery of all types of liquids, but could also hold food, without easily letting a small meatball roll with growing panic right onto one’s lap. And then naturally, there is the style — perfection would necessitate some lofty visual appeal.

He answered these questions and many others over years (I vaguely remember it being more than 10, spent on this spoon alone), because his life — and his craft, was that of the spoon. He was a craftsman, whose craft and dedication was pure. I feel when we hear stories of a singular, dedicated focus like he exhibited there’s a near intrinsic respect and romantic appeal to his mission, because we wish too, in many ways, that we could be so solely directed and therefore solely sure, and in that assurance have no room for creeping doubts and malingering outside influences and circumstances. It sounds like a very safe, driven place to be.

And yet we do have them. Because most of us aren’t craftsmen, despite the appeal. Most of us shouldn’t endeavor to be, because in our roles and positions, in our businesses and teams and industries, and especially in the digital — a craftsman is bad for business.

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The craftsman often works free from constraints that we know, even in design and other creative work, are nearly always present — constraints like budget, timeline, legacy, priority, THE OL’ CEO, and a mingling concert of some of this and some of that from all of the above and others. Often, when faced with these constraints, our inner craftsman wants to peek out and rail at the injustice of it all. And I think it’s good that this happens, because it often provides the nudge for us all to remember that there’s a bigger picture, a grand opportunity that craft and care can shepherd us toward. And yet, there’s also a nudge that needs made from our inner businessman, to remind our craft-loving self that — no, 25 years spent on a spoon is probably not good business.

In this, constraint is our friend — as it is the natural representation of the value assigned to the depth of solution necessary. It’s the gift of experience to say how much craft is relevant for a given product or design and to apply constraint so that it is appropriately scaled, and it is the gift of constraint that creates, what I believe, is the elevated craftsman. The craftsman who can understand business circumstances and respond with solutions that are at the scale of the ‘assigned value at the time’ and prioritized in a way, to be the most potent solution, the most potent representation of their craft possible — given the constraint.

And all of this compounds in digital products and digital design. Where the cycle times are even more rapid, the constraints even tighter and often, the craft itself precariously balanced between design and art. In some of those moments I can’t help but listen to myself when railing at the constraints for the honesty tucked away in my own discomfort. Do I truly believe you can’t design a solution for a given problem with said constraints — or can I admit instead that what I’m feeling is that ‘you’re limiting my art’.

I believe it is the most successful among us that have learned to navigate constraint and prioritize design and the solutions to clear business problems, while still creating art to the degree we can be proud of. A lasting record of successful products and businesses is the pedigree of our best designers, and product people. And it’s the same group of us who our partners and teams have come to look toward with respect, for if nothing else, our willingness to understand the intricacies of more than just our own design, craft or desire for art. Cheers to those of us who’ve learned that constraint is no enemy of my craft, for my craft itself is the dance between all of these things, making the best that can be made each time.

Thought

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