Art, Craft, and Design in Software Development

A standard line among potters is “If it holds water, it’s craft. If it leaks, it’s art.”
- Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn.

... craft equates with the hands and therefore excludes the mind (the exclusive realm of Art with a capital A), whereas design fosters rationality because it serves machines and the marketplace.
- Lesley Jackson, “Craft Wars,” Icon #16, October 2004.1

I’m … a terrible craftsman by any measure of the term.
- Designer Tom Dixon, in Between Ourselves on BBC Radio 4.2

I’ve been thinking about artistry versus craftsmanship in relation to writing code. Also in there is design, but it’s difficult for me to separate it from craft. Perhaps it’s just a matter of design being more highbrow. Lesley Jackson quotes, in an Icon essay titled “Craft Wars,” an anonymous design graduate as saying that for his or her tutors,

“craft was a dirty word. [They] didn’t want anything to do with it. For them, design is logical and rational; it’s about tackling a problem. They say that craft doesn’t respond to anything. It’s mere decoration.”

When I listened to a BBC interview with designer Tom Dixon, I reacted when he said he was a poor craftsman. To me, this means that he’s good at designing, at inventing and drawing, but poor at making whatever it is he has designed.

So there’s a gap between designing and making?

Jackson continues:

The craft process – expressed as a heightened sensitivity to techniques and materials – is often vital in triggering the design imagination. Tapio Wirkkala (1951-1985), the virtuoso Finnish post-ware ceramics and glass designer, spoke illuminatingly about this: “Making things by hand means a lot to me. As I sculpt and mould natural materials, they inspire me and tempt me to make new experiments.”But equally, the rigour of the design process is vital to the success of a one-off, handmade object – otherwise the results, however technically impressive, will be aesthetically weak.3

The rational and the irrational. It’s hard to imagine any creative endeavor that could do without a good portion of irrationality – goofing around, trying seemingly crazy ideas, thinking outside the box, brainstorming, experimenting freely. If craft represents the more irrational, there should be a portion of craft in all design.

What about art, then? Stewart Brand talks, in his brilliant book How Buildings Learn, about the problem of the architect as artist. “Art,” he writes, “is proudly non-functional and impractical. [It] reveres the new and despises the conventional.” He lets folklorist Henry Glassie define craft, and quotes him as follows:

If a pleasure-giving function predominates, the artifact is called art; if a practical function predominates, it is called craft.

Brand continues:

Craft is something useful made with artfulness, with close attention to detail. So should buildings be. Art must be inherently radical, but buildings are inherently conservative. Art must experiment to do its job. Most experiments fail. Art costs extra. How much extra are you willing to pay to live in a failed experiment? Art flouts convention. Convention became conventional because it works. Aspiring to art means aspiring to a building that almost certainly cannot work, because the old good solutions are thrown away. The roof has a dramatic new look, and it leaks dramatically.

So what about code? If there is a gap between designing and making, that gap is nonexistent in software. If you’re a highbrow architectural type, the diagrams you draw is code. It wouldn’t make sense for a software person to say, as Tom Dixon does, that you’re good at designing but poor at turning those designs into code.

However, I feel there are two different personality types. Some are more comfortable with details, while others are more comfortable with the larger scale. But it’s just a question of scale – not of designing versus making.

Myself, I’m impatient with details, and I simply can’t work if the code doesn’t make sense as a whole: there must be a shape to it; different elements must be similarly shaped; they must connect to each other in a cohesive fashion.

Other people I have worked with (hi, Malte!) love reading protocol specs and perfecting the details. They care about the logic of the low-level stuff, about things making sense in the details.

When it comes to software architecture, the message usually is that to get things right, you must design first and build later. Boxes and arrows. Rationality.

In (real) architecture, people like Stewart Brand and Christopher Alexander see a problem where architects try to be artists instead of craftsmen. The problem in software architecture is similar but the other way around. Software architects are too rational, they try to be designers – in the purely rational sense of the word – when they as well should be more of craftsmen.

But more about this later.

1 The above quote by Lesley Jackson is in the context of modernist Stephen Bayley’s opinion on craft. Jackson quotes him as saying “Craftsmen demand our indulgence and insist we treat them as creative artists without, in most cases, having any access to the higher imaginative and creative functions which qualify art.” Craftsmen, Bayley continues, “lack the discipline and technique familiar to industrial designers who need to be responsive to market requirements.” (Source of the quotes: The Independent on Sunday, February 15, 2004).

2 I don’t remember the date the program with Tom Dixon was aired. I found out about it via Matt Jones, who wrote about it on September 10th. Kenneth Grange was also interviewed. Let me know if you want a copy.

3 Jackson continues with a similar quote from Robert Welch’s book Hand and Machine.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on December 8, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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