Why Craftsmanship Still Matters

Craftsmanship seems to have skipped a whole generation.

Especially in a Lean Startup hyped world, where throwing code against the wall and iterating until people use the product is promoted as the way of the future. No doubt, the movement towards small teams, quick iterations, and listening to your customers is part of building a great product.

But to believe this is how you craft thoughtful experience with a clear purpose, is wrong. It’s like telling an artist to smear colors on the wall until people buy the painting.

True craftsmanship has a purpose.

Originally called Artisans, these builders spent their life time shaping experiences with their hands. Perfecting each product, they weren’t afraid to take their time. And although the tools have changed (keyboards for pens, power tools for hammers, mass production for sewing machines) it doesn’t mean the art of the craftsmanship has to be lost.

So in a startup paced world, how do you embrace craftsmanship?

Understand the History
Everything you are doing has been done before.

Humans have been communicating, building, eating, making, working, living, and reproducing for a very long time. The only thing that has really changed are the tools we use.

And the best artisans understand this. They understand the history of their products and the intent behind them. They understand how they were made and how they evolved over time.

Facebook is the modern day coffee shop.

Twitter is a faster way to send a telegram.

Rain Shadow Meats, a butcher in Seattle, makes it clear they understand the history of being a butcher. Their fresh meats, open kitchen, big chopping blocks, simple language, and amazing smells take you back in time. Even if you only read about what butchers used to be like, you instantly feel comfortable.

Chrome Industries, famous for their seat buckle messenger bags, knows its history. Started 17 years ago, they still use military duffle bags as their inspiration, sewing machines to make their products, and American factories to hand craft. Despite the pressure to grow, they have stayed true to their purpose of utility and mobility. And you can feel it everytime you touch their products.

Even software makers are thinking about the history of writing code. [The Pragmatic Programmer( and the Software Craftsmanship relate software engineers to original artisans.

Before you can craft, you have to understand the artisans before you.

Pick a Metaphor ipod.jpg
Metaphors are a powerful way to bring the past to the future. No more evident than Apple’s use of Dieter Rams’ design as a source of inspiration. It’s no mistake that the iPod looks alot like an old radio. Because when you see it, you are instantly familiar with the shape, size, and expectation.

Outside of designers, what a lot of people don’t realize is that you subconsciously recognize familiar experiences the minute you see them. The sights, smells, and the smallest of details instantly become comforting.

To make history clear to your team, pick a metaphor they can understand. Something in the past that is directly connected to what you are doing in the future. Not easy to do, the right metaphor will help make your brand, design, and customer experience authentic.

Contour’s metaphor was a movie camera. Especially when GoPro was a picture camera, it was important our product and brand went back to the origins of film making. Where perspective was important, the shape was long (not square), and you could feel the quality of the materials.

Take Your Time

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over?” ― John Wooden

Building a masterpiece requires incredible patience. It requires you to prioritize quality over quantity. Less over more. Simple over complex. Even worse, it requires you to be consistent, even while the pressure to ship grows like a tidal wave over your head.

Don’t be confused. It doesn’t mean you perfect your work, void of feedback. The Lean Startup methodology of iterating with people is right. And although Apple doesn’t iterate in public, they do spend years internally crafting and recrafting until it is perfect.

I missed this at Contour. The financial need to ship with the fear of falling behind in the technology race created unnecessary illusions that shipping was more important than crafting. Easy to critique after the fact, there were times we shipped when I knew the experience wasn’t even close to perfect. Saying I wanted to create amazing product experiences, my actions spoke louder than my words.

It took almost nine years to get the experience right, but Contour Roam2 finally delivers on the original promise, to make action video easy. A compact, single button, bulletproof action camera. A nearly five star product, I’m incredibly proud of this work.

The hardest part of craftsmanship is being vulnerable. Pouring your soul into your work is like opening your heart to be broken multiple times over. A necessary experience in finding true love.

Recognizing they will spend their lifetime building, true Artisans aren’t in a hurry to move on. They are willing to open themselves up against the struggle of failure until finally they get it right.

Image Credit: jfeathersmith via Creative Commons.