Getting under the hood

A lot of the web people I’ve met over the last couple of years (designers, developers, user experience people, content strategists, information architects, and so on) seem to love physical products, and not just the latest gadgets – at the upcoming Build 2012 conference for example, there are workshops in axe restoration and leather craft.

There’s great satisfaction in using a well-designed product, of feeling its heft and texture in your hand, of knowing its story, and sensing its longevity – these are things that age with you.

This winter I helped a web friend chop five hundred or so logs in the snow for his log store – he lent me his splitting axe, and told the story of Granfors Bruks- the company that made it. It was a beautiful simple tool, and it did the one thing it was designed to do very, very well.

Gabriel Brandy, the CEO of Granfors, took over the company when it was bankrupt, when it made axes that no-one wanted to buy – careless workmanship in the forging of the axe head was ground down and covered by paint, the equivalent of ‘chrome’ on a website, to distract from lack of substance. He decided to take the company back to its core, and to build the best axes they could. Now the company has a devoted worldwide following.

As they old saying goes; ‘on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog’. It’s easy to fire up a WordPress template, or hire a cookie-cutter web development shop and throw up a ‘professional looking’ site, or a boxy form-based system – one that looks and probably reads like thousands of others, but there is a better way.


Curiosity in action - my son at 2 years old, finding out how steering works.

If we start with curiosity  – wanting to understand why things are the way that they are, and how they work, we’ll learn in directions that interest us. We’ll spend time reading, thinking, discussing, drawing and writing – all the time building our understanding of the things that are important to us, and what our place in the world that we’re discovering might be. Over time we develop deep and authentic skill, and we can demonstrate this to others through the work that we do, and the way we respond when things don’t go to plan. It becomes more than chrome, more than presentation or window dressing – it becomes craft.

Steve Jobs used to tell the story of his father’s attitude to craft – taking as much care over the parts of a cabinet or a fence that no-one would see, as those at the front. He insisted on the same attention to perfection inside Apple’s devices, even though most people never see the inside.

If we apply the same level of care to the ideas that we nurture, the copy that we write, the systems that we design, the books we choose to read, the conversations that we have, and the time we spend with others when there’s ‘nothing in it for us’, our work will be like a Granfors axe – authentic, solid, and lasting.