Digital Craft: a benchmark for the future

Published:  March 19, 2015
Sam Maguinness

Craft, by definition, is an activity that involves making things by hand. It involves patience, skill and dexterity. From pottery to beer, the word craft exudes the type of quality we expect from handcrafted artefacts. But, while we mainly associate craft with physical making, it is an activity (and a process) that’s nonetheless needed in the digital realm. If digital design is to ever evolve to beyond what it is now, it requires the tenets of craftsmanship to get there.



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In May 2013, I joined Melbourne’s CHE Proximity as head of digital craft. At the time, the digital sector of the agency was expanding and required a focus on innovation and quality. Chris Howatson, managing director of the company, wanted to bring to the digital department a similar unit of craftsmen who were usually involved with refining print and brand executions.

“It was motivated by a passion for quality,” explains Howatson. “A belief that every piece of work that carries the agency’s mark must reflect an uncompromisingly high standard.”

When I joined the team, I had a decade of print design experience and was well aware of the perception of good design. But with digital design, it’s different. It’s inanimate. To create a similar perception of the quality of print, even more attention to detail is needed to create an  experience.

As digital has evolved, we’ve relied on replicating the experience of print, like the invention of the eBook and its crappy ‘page turns’. As John Payne from Moment explains, “New technologies almost always cause a wave of fear, which results mostly from a lack of understanding of its possibilities and the new opportunities they open up. Linking new technologies to day-to-day resembling is a way to ease up the transfer to the digital world. Keeping a known design does not teach us how to use digital technology, but [how to] use our past experiences and apply that understanding to this new experience.”

I always wonder why part of my digital review process is to still print out digital design concepts and review them on a wall. Why? Is it to invite collaboration? Is it to notice a confusing user journey? Is it more suitable to mark up changes? Or is it to ease my personal transition into digital?

Contrary to those who stand by the modern ideal of skeuomorphism, tactility in digital design can mean a smoother, psychological blend with our everyday lives. Therefore, it’s not just the visuals that make the design work, it’s also the build of the code, the experience of the animations. It’s the feeling of being uninterrupted, and how content is filtered to you. These all make the overall experiences feel tactile, considered and crafted. For this to happen, you need the best craftsmen to own each asset of the digital experience.

One particular craftsman, Ernez Dhondy, specialises in UX (user experience). He has long been using traditional research techniques to demonstrate UXs online. His process imitates life and marks him as an example of the type of creative that digital requires. “Great design can’t happen until we understand the people we are designing for, and the space they inhabit when using our product,” he explains.

Simply, in order to create crafted solutions, you need people that are equal parts passionate and pedantic about the possibilities of digital. Those who recognise that craft does not nibble at a job, but swallows it whole.

We’re already seeing the effects of such people upon the industry. With innovations like Google Material, language is grounded in tactile reality and inspired by the study of paper and ink. Only three years ago, Google was an ugly brand. Gradually it has redesigned and reimagined every little detail, which has completely reinvigorated the user experience. These innovations allow us to link our past experience of print with the new digital world. As Moment’s Payne says, they ease the transition.

But with technology continuing to develop so quickly, how do you maintain ‘craft’? I believe, again, this is due to passion and belief. Craft means relentless refinement; it inherently has all the classic principles of good design.

“The emphasis of ‘craft’ in our digital department has created a new benchmark for quality that has become central to new business development, and a driver of innovation across the agency,” adds Howatson. “Most importantly, the team has motivated other departments to rise to the same ambition of uncompromised quality, driving an agency-wide cultural agenda.”

Craft is vital today because we are the generation that is living through phenomenal transition, yet we still reference the tactility of the past. It will be down to the next generation of designers to view the screen as the predominant consumable material ripe for invention, and evolve the design of the future.

Sam Maguinness is Head of Digital Craft at Che Proximity

Illustration by Daniel H Gray

One Response

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for sharing!

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