As I mentioned in my review of A Whack on the Side of the Head, I am a methodical person. Since that book is designed to incite creativity, I figured that's why my boss, VP of Corporate Strategy & Engagement, Jon Pittman, gave it to me. As part of my Christmas package, Jon actually gave me a set of books. The second one is The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Here's my logic for why he gave it to me.
- I write a blog article each business day.
- Thanks to you, It's Alive in the Lab gets between 25,000 and 50,000 unique visitors each month.
- Because I have other duties, I try to complete each It's Alive in the Lab article in 20 minutes or less.
- I work with our team (Jon included) on an internal blog called POV Dispatch.
- The POV Dispatch is distributed internally, and there are less than 8,000 Autodesk employees.
- Because the audience is smaller, sometimes I get antsy when I feel our team is spending too much time wordsmithing a POV Dispatch article.
So I think Jon gave me The Nature and Art of Workmanship to help me gain an appreciation for things that are truly handcrafted such as writing. My teammate, Bill O'Connor, labors to choose the exact best word for each sentence. Whereas I might blog on It's Alive in the Lab that "We are anxious to have you try our new technology preview." Bill would cringe at this and rewrite it as "We are eager to have you try our new technology preview." because anxious implies a degree of discomfort whereas eager implies confidence. Welcome to my world.
David Pye wrote the book in 1968, and I can tell. It's amazing how quickly language changes. Several times as I was reading it, I thought to myself "Who talks like that?" I guess word choice is important after all. (Don't tell Bill I said so.) For example:
David Pye wrote:
"At any given time each trade has accepted standards of what are good methods, and methods are often reckoned good solely because they are durable. Beyond that, whenever a method can plausibly be said to make for durability, then it is said to." [page 41]
I would rewrite this as:
Over the years trades have adopted standard methods that are considered good because they produce items that are durable.
Allow me to provide summaries per chapter.
Design purposes. Workmanship disposes
Design [verb] is what can be conveyed in words and by drawing (the intent) and workmanship is what cannot (the actual design [noun]). Design is the idea. Workmanship creates the real thing.
The workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty
Since the term handmade is ambiguous (very few things are made without machinery), let's define workmanship as the process of creating something where there is a high degree of risk of ruining the thing being created.
Is anything done by hand?
Automation is actually a process of creation that attempts to minimize risk. It also has benefits like reduced cost and increased speed. "The extreme cases of workmanship of risk are those where a tool is held in the hand and no jig or any other determining system is there to guide it." [page 12]
Quality in workmanship
Workmanship is an approximation to an ideal whose result can be evaluated as good/bad and precise/rough but precise is not equivalent to good (since there are times where rough is desired).
The designer's power to communicate his intentions
Though design is an expression of intent, it is impossible to completely describe all aspects of a design as it would be impractical to spend so much designer effort creating such a detailed specification as well as too much workman time consuming and adhering to the specification.
The natural order reflected in the work of man
Just as no two leaves of a tree are precisely alike yet every tree conforms to a recognizable pattern of a species, workmanship results in creations that adhere to an overall specification but also have a degree of variability in them.
Every design element has a minimum and maximum effective range. This is best illustrated with an example, At a distance of a few feet away, any slight deviations in the cylindrical form of a column may be noticeable. From very far away, these would not be perceptible, but an onlooker could still tell that the object was a column. In contrast, if one places his eye about 1 centimeter from a column, it is no longer recognizable as a column. So as one considers the various aspects that impact the diversity of a design, one must also consider how the design will be perceived.
"All the world knows that any good workman feels a responsibility for the durability of what he makes and feels bound at the very least to make the unseen parts of the job as sound as those which are visible." [page 44]
Equivocality is an annoying design "no no." The best example is a finely polished surface with one rough edge. The author points out that one can just imagine the shock when running one's fingers along a smooth surface only to abruptly encounter a jagged edge. Opposite characteristics such as softness/hardness or smoothness/roughness should not be expressed in the same design.
Critique of 'On Nature of Gothic'
John Ruskin was a highly regarded English art critic of the Victorian era. In 1850 a book entitled Stones of Venice was published which contained a chapter entitled "The Nature of Gothic" written by Ruskin. Though lauded as the "most eloquent words that can possibly be said on the subject" [page 59], Pye took exception to some of the finer points and discussed them in great detail. Pye's point was that though inventing and designing a work adds to the pleasure of making it, there is tremendous pleasure in workmanship that Ruskin did not give enough credit to.
The aesthetic importance of workmanship, and its future
Good workmanship depends on a combination of:
- Highly regulated workmanship that yields a thing done in style;
- Free workmanship that allows the workman to be spontaneous but avoids unstudied improvisation;
- Diversity that extends the aesthetic experience beyond the specification down to the smallest scale that the eye can distinguish.
For me this book was not an easy read. The language kept reminding me of mathematical proofs or dissertations by the Founding Fathers. Language aside, its sentiment is appropriate to be considered by anyone who works for a design software company. Though written in the sixties, the words could not be truer today: "Design is so difficult to learn now simply because the arts are in a state of violent flux and because there are great interests vested in constant innovation." [page 81]
Design appreciation is alive in the lab.