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The Meaning of Craft in Design Today

Craft is no longer something to be viewed through the rose tinted glasses of William Morris and John Ruskin. The possibilities afforded by digital technologies have opened up wide, new avenues that will enable the UK to achieve new meanings in craft. However, the UK craft sector is not well placed to receive these new possibilities, nor is the design sector. We must challenge the inverse snobbery of the “craftistas” who turn their noses up at the thought that technology can actually liberate and expand a practice rather than threaten it. And we must motivate designers to embrace a renewed approach to aesthetics and expand the view of what craft means in the digital age.

Morris and Ruskin, as leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement, rightly reacted against the de-humanising aspects of their Victorian industrial reality – conditions in factories of the day were by all accounts appalling. But the nostalgia they attached to past eras, such as the 13th century, is misplaced. Morris wrote that “the Middle Ages was a period of greatness in the art of the common people, because craftsmen took pleasure in their work” conjuring up images of happy makers thriving amidst the chaos of pestilence, war and famine. Those pastoral dreams for a kinder, gentler era are still with us as we look back at the turn of the 20th century. But rather than embracing craft in all its trappings of bucolic charm, we need to look at it through the lens of our own post-industrial era.

Search for “craftsmanship” online and you are treated to a vast supply of videos that fetishise the art of making. From airplanes to shoes, manufacturers fall over themselves to prove the authenticity of their offer by demonstrating just what “handcrafted” really means. They exult the work of the human being, not the machine, in the making of their products. It is a reflection of the popular belief that mass production is bad. But, as Justin McGuirk notes:

“We romanticise the handmade because we yearn for quality, not quantity. The irony is that while western consumers aspire to craftsmanship, the majority of the world's population lives in countries that have local craftsmen but aspire to industrialised products. Mass manufacturing will be essential to lifting a billion people out of poverty, and providing basic goods that we took for granted long ago.”

Not surprisingly, craft in the UK is predominantly the domain of white, middle-aged practitioners. The Crafts Council itself laments the marked lack of diversity in the sector. While it contributes a robust £3 billion to GVA, and has a higher rate of employment growth than any other creative industry sub-sector, the future of the craft sector is hampered by its current demographic profile: 96% of practitioners are white and 73% are over 40 years of age. To compound the problem, 56% are based in 1 of 3 southern regions, giving craft in the UK the distinct air of insular elitism. Not exactly the profile of a sector that is tech-savvy and willing to experiment with new means of production.

Designers, on the other hand, have in many ways turned away from excellence in the doing of design to focus more on the thinking of design. While there are exceptions, many designers see their remit in terms of enabling and facilitating design by others, rather than a practice that seeks to find meaning through the creation of objects and the built environment. While some may see this as a noble and natural extension of the designer’s skillset, the emphasis on outcomes, rather than outputs, pushes design further out of touch with the “graft of craft”. Many designers have eschewed the idea that there is virtue in crafting, preferring the quick win of a clever idea. Good execution has taken a back seat to the desire for the new. This is especially evident in the digital realm.

As we move closer to the internet of things, where all the everyday objects we come into contact with and use are connected via the internet, the role of the designer will become crucial. According to Jason Gorman, the rate of expansion in the world of computers means that by 2050, there will be more computing devices in the world than there are insects. His concern is that despite decades of evolution, software development still comes down to typing words into a text editor and “hoping that it works”. The interfaces by which we will access and control these devices will be of equal concern. In both cases, it will take designers who are acutely aware of the responsibility they have as crafters of robust, considered and elegant solutions.

Towards A Workmanship of Possibility

David Pye, in his seminal critique of craft “The Nature and Art of Workmanship”, published in 1968, made a distinction between "the workmanship of risk" and the "workmanship of certainty". He argued that the “traditional” craftsman is engaged in an activity in which outcome is determined by a series of personal decisions made in response to the evolving process of making, this being inherently risky. By contrast, there is the workmanship of certainty, whereby the designer crafts all of the parameters of production in advance of the process of actual manufacture, trying to remove all risk. What we see today is a need to argue for a “workmanship of possibility”, a crafting of situations that allow multiple outcomes and outputs that are not limited to the experience of the lone crafter, but conversely not bound by a pre-determined plan for mass production.

There are already a number of craftsmen and designers who are experimenting with the workmanship of possibility. Gaetano Pesce, the Italian architect and designer, has for many years conducted research that introduces chance into mass production, seeking variations and mutations in standardised processes by ceding control of outcomes to workers. He champions state changes in materials in order to achieve random, one-of-a-kind outcomes that evidence “living” qualities. Mark Eden has been exploring the relationship between traditional craft and digital technologies in the area of ceramics, creating forms that would not have been possible without development of digital craft. Bret Victor is making it his mission to craft software that smashes the old paradigm of typing, to make an immediate connection between thought, gesture and on-screen results.

The significance of activities like these was recently highlighted in the “Power of Making” show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. While many examples of “traditional” making were exhibited, many others relied on digital tools for their execution. The expertise on display was not the processing power of the tools, but rather the skill and ingenuity of the artisans harnessing that power as the means to realise their ideas. As Pye himself has noted, “The computer’s a tool like any other tool. And if it’ll (reproduce the finest detail of the prototype), then jolly good luck to it.”

A natural result of combining computing with craft will inevitably result in the wider, quasi-Marxist distribution of the means of production. As the technology becomes more diffuse, communities and individuals will be enabled to create the objects that suit them, unfettered by commercial requirements and market constraints. Leonard Bonanni, of MIT Future Craft has been developing “virtual guilds” that promote communities of making. He writes, “The transmission of real, physical skills and resources to distributed individuals, enables entirely new kinds of digital craft communities. The new generation of digital design and fabrication tools lays the groundwork for larger numbers of skilled craftspeople to collectively expand on their respective practices.” Neil Gershenfeld, a colleague of Bonanni’s, comments “The ultimate impact of the digitisation of fabrication will be to allow anyone, anywhere, to make almost anything.”

The dark side of this scenario is of course the distinct possibility, as has been seen with many other digitised activities (publishing, news reporting, photography, film making, etc.) the furthering of what Andrew Keen calls “the cult of the amateur”, where craft becomes perfunctory and mediocrity is celebrated. As such, it is time to expand upon the work of these digital pioneers and build a new approach to craft without fear or limits. If, as Niedderer and Townsend argue, “the context of craft is a discipline which is bound to the sensibilities of material and understanding, of making and haptic perception, as well as to the production of emotional values found in human relationships” then designers must use all the opportunities inherent in digital technologies to foster the excellence of craft. Craftsmanship is an enduring human impulse and there is no reason as to why designers should not embrace, and even lead, the workmanship of possibility in the digital era.


Justin McGuirk “The Art of Craft: The Rise of the Designer-maker” The Guardian 1 August 2011

“Crafting Futures Report” Crafts Council June 2010

“The Nature and Art of Workmanship” David Pye, 1968

Bret Victor:

Sir Christopher Frayling, “On Craftsmanship: Towards a New Bauhaus”, 2010

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