Old School Design Methods and the Value of Craft in Our Digital World


You probably would have read a very rare Jonathan Ive interview on Core 77 by now. If you have not, do check it out? I would say a lot of the interview was generally not surprising, however the last few paragraphs jumped out at me. What I noticed was that despite Apple’s very digital playing field, their industrial design process was, and is, still very old school analogue.

That last part reminds me that there must have been a sizeable team behind the iPhone 4, and Ive confirms it, mentioning the importance of collaboration between engineering, manufacturing and design. It is an intense interplay between these fields that can yield mastery of the material, which is where everything starts with this object. “The best design explicitly acknowledges that you cannot disconnect the form from the material–the material informs the form,” says Ive. “It is the polar opposite of working virtually in CAD to create an arbitrary form that you then render as a particular material, annotating a part and saying ‘that’s wood’ and so on. Because when an object’s materials, the materials’ processes and the form are all perfectly aligned, that object has a very real resonance on lots of levels. People recognize that object as authentic and real in a very particular way.”

Nicely put. No one is an expert, and it is only through a multidisciplinary process that it all comes together; materials, process and design. There must be a meaningful confluence of the elements otherwise it will be like sticking wood laminate on a laptop to make it more valuable. Furthermore, this requires stepping away from the computer and getting reacquainted with materials and processes. Indeed this is quite a hat tip to the old school craftsman approach to design.

“In our quest to quickly make three-dimensional objects, we can miss out on the experience of making something that helps give us our first understandings of form and material, of the way a material behaves–‘I press too hard here, and it breaks here’ and so on. Some of the digital rendering tools are impressive, but it’s important that people still really try and figure out a way of gaining direct experience with the materials.”
(snip…)
“It’s very hard to learn about materials academically, by reading about them or watching videos about them; the only way you truly understand a material is by making things with it,” Ive explains, going on to add that years upon years of making his own models with his own hands is what gave him a deep understanding of the materials he’s worked. “And it’s important to develop that appetite to want to make something, to be inquisitive about the material world, to want to truly understand a material on that level.”
And what about when students graduate and become working designers? Absent the structured assignments of a Production Methods or Materials class, how ought designers stay abreast of materials? The best place for it to happen, of course, is in the workplace itself. “For a designer to continually learn about materials is not extracurricular,” Ive points out, “it’s absolutely essential.”

It is funny how when most designers like us say things like this people go “oh hum”, but judging from the responses on the web, when Jony says this people go “oohhh ahhhh”! Life isn’t fair in design, especially if you have a damn good marketing team and budget behind you.

Whatever people’s feelings are about the actual design of the product is of course subjective. But objectively I can say that the manufacturing tolerances are phenomenal.
~ Ives on the CnC milled iPhone 4 antenna.

That is all nice talk and all, but what I don’t get is Apple’s definition of craft. In the past craft was all about a hand made, slow design process with small volumes. Imperfections in the material and this hand made process was cherished and encouraged for its uniqueness because no piece was exactly the same. However from Apple’s point of view craft is about high volumes, precision, machine made and repeatability. Hmm…
The only thing that is similar is probably the design or thinking process. So then, is “craft” about the thinking process rather than the doing process?
If we continue to hold this line of thought, then how do we value craft and how has the value changed because of what Apple, or perhaps what the mobile phone industry has done? A colleague related to me how you can find beautiful pieces of limited artwork for a fraction of the cost of an iPhone in countries like Vietnam or Thailand. Street peddlers, carving sculptures, negotiate downwards when you are not interested in the purchase. And yet we are happy to pay for a product that practically the whole world has?
Some food for thought, no?
Via: Core 77.

3 Comments
  • Rene Lee

    July 6, 2010 at 4:09 pm Reply

    I think by craft, mr. Ive means not the manual manufacturing techniques that we usually associate with the word, but the sheer mastery of materials, tools and processes that you employ to design an object. In that sense, precision and efficacy has all to do with craft because different processes yield different results, some better than others. The thought and consideration as well as trial and error that goes into designing the process has a very direct influence on the product.
    I was very intrigued by what Mr. Ive said about the design of Macbook Air in the film Objectified: “The design of (Macbook Air) wasn’t so much about the physical thing, but figuring out process.” I attend RISD and there is a very strong emphasis on the process of designing through making. I do acknowledge the importance of focusing on the process along with the product, I do think that there is more.
    Ultimately, I think that Mr. Ive and his team are the luckiest designers in the world. They work for a man who is as much a believer in design as every one of them, Steve Jobs. And it’s his belief and investment in design that allows these designers to innovate and invent new manufacturing processes that result in precision milled metal monocoques and plastic parts with minimal draft. No other company has this preoccupation to the design of their products at the CEO/founder level (save for design agencies, but they don’t produce their own products). As much as I respect Mr. Ive, there are probably several designers who can do his job equally well. However, fewer who can do Steve Job’s job.
    Mr. Ive is a designer in the sense that he designs products. But he’s more than that because the way he approaches product design is by designing the processes that yield desirable products. So in a sense, Mr. Ive is a process designer.
    Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is not a product nor process designer in the strictest definitions, but he did design a company with a particular culture that allows for such innovative products and process was able to naturally emerge. In that sense, Steve Jobs is a culture designer.
    If you design the process, the products takes care of itself. If you design the culture, the processes takes care of itself.

  • Avnish

    July 27, 2010 at 5:59 pm Reply

    Very impressive and thought provoking article.

  • cliff

    August 27, 2010 at 11:06 am Reply

    mouse design needs a lot of changes.hand eye coordination must be develop by using mouse that people will be adept in other hand eye coordinated activities like playing the piano/etc.if this can be done,then we have reach the perfect design.im doing my share and hope to send it to u soon…

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