Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Design or Craft?

I was mulling over an idea recently. Is what I do - sew bags and pouches and the like - really “product design” or “craft”?

I’m not a graduate of a 4 year university course in Industrial Design. But I design and make prototypes. Some might argue that since I have no idea what goes into designing a vacuum cleaner or a medical diagnostic device, I’m not a true product or industrial designer. But I have zero interest in designing any of those things. Admittedly my interest in designing products veers towards outdoorsy products, particularly sewn goods. Given that many people who graduate from design programs know they want to, and go on to specialize in certain areas, does my not having spent a lot of money and years learning about subjects I have no interest in, necessarily a negative? 

Whenever I see what “proper industrial designers” post on a portfolio site like Coroflot or Behance, especially the ones specializing in soft goods, most of it appears to be either rough sketches or 3D renderings – and 
that is as far as many of them ever seem to go. Now, theyre all impressive, but theyre not real items. My sketches for the stuff I design tend to be very rough, and I never do colour renderings or 3D renderings. But I know how many times Ive had ideas  that when turned into a physical reality, turned out to have all sorts of shortcomings. I really dont know how well an idea works, until Ive given the actual object a shake down lasting several months. Fill it up, put it on, get out there, walk around with it on, see how comfortable it is, get it wet, get it dirty, figure out any shortcomings in actual use, etc. Perhaps its snooty of me to say, but I think a real live bag, beats a drawing any day. In that sense what I do is less theoretical (ie, purely design) and more practical (ie, crafty).

Now, my not bothering with any renderings has a lot to do with the fact that I design largely for me. I just want to get on with making other things, rather than spend time on any of that. Unprofessional of me perhaps. If a manufacturer sees what I’ve made and likes it and wants to produce it I can certainly provide the drawings required for manufacture. (I could also design packaging and create marketing campaigns.) My reticence to bother with spending the time and resources to master yet more software and the skills that go with it, is again that idea that a real bag is far more valuable. I don’t know for sure, but I think that if I had a good sewing machine, I could likely put a bag together faster than I could produce a 3D mockup in a computer. And I realize there is a material expense, but a real object someone can hold in their hands, says far more than something on a screen ever will. For a lot of things a rendering in a CAD program that could be 3D printed may make a lot more sense, I get that. But for soft goods, I intuitively feel that just making the thing makes more sense.

A lot of what I see when I see the work of for real, ID’s and not amateur wannbes like me, is that much of the stuff is really flashy. So much of what gets sold in stores is sold on appearance, rather than performance. They need to distinguish their stuff from everything else and attract the customers eye. They’re stylists. Pointless doodads, multiple colours, eye-catching shapes. (I suspect that a lot of people designing bags for big brands have a fashion design background, rather than a product design background.) So many features I see Im left scratching my head as to what purpose it’s supposed to serve. It makes sense in the context of making it visually distinctive rather than practically functional. Style over substance. Personally I care less about how it looks as opposed to what it does. Form follows function. Is it pretty? Likely not. Will it do what it is meant to do - organize and carry equipment in difficult terrain and conditions? Im confident it does.

The means by which I create prototypes, at this juncture anyway, would seem to have more in line with an artifact than a product. In that sense I suppose they veer more towards craft than design. But I make them that way because of limitations, and their production could be done just as easily via machines.

And I think the ho-hum to abysmal quality of the photos I take of the stuff I make makes me little more than a hack too.

So I’m not sure I can really call myself a product designer necessarily, but I don’t know that I am purely a craftsperson either.

s likely my erroneous interpretation, but a lot of “craft” nowadays seems to be felt finger puppets, or a dollar store pencil case with some sparkles glued to it, or a thrift store jean jacket with some beads sewn to it. Which I think is lame. Or “craft” harkens back to the rustic aesthetic of an earlier time. Much of it seems to be about capturing an ideal and perfecting certain techniques. The latter isn
t necessarily a bad thing, but I dont think its what I do. 

And I suppose that product design as it developed over the past century or two, was just a formalization of the crafters skills and knowledge and style into something that could be harnessed by the  means of mass production. Maybe there isnt so much distinction between the two.

And maybe this meandering diatribe is just me over-thinking aloud. Maybe I should stop blathering and get back to making stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Exploriment,

    Nice thought process. Theoretical/Academia vs Hands-on/Real World. Who is the designer and who is not. Craft could be defined by trade - carpenter or mechanic or as a method to constructively use ones non-work hours. Both require skill, knowledge and practice. So, craft, is not a fluff descriptor. Designer, one who goes to school to learn how-to make stuff for others? Maybe. Or is a designer, someone who can take ideas out of their mind/head/brain and render the idea to share with others; before making a real sample to share??? Maybe, you describe a proto-typer, someone who is skilled at design and construction, thus even more valuable than someone who can only use the tools taught at school to make a cute little picture of what the product could look like.
    I, too, favour function over fashion. I don't care if the pack looks great with my Gucci leather jacket. I care whether it can carry 75lbs of gear 32 km's into the backcountry, so I can live reasonably comfortable for a week.
    I think you are on the correct path. Designer/proto-typer that you are. One day, maybe one them big companies will contact you and ask you to head-up one of their projects.