Finding the Balance Between Craft and Automation

Which is more important for your design business, craftsmanship or automation? The former leads to greater quality in each site. The latter leads to a greater quantity of sites. Craftsmanship helps you sell individual projects, but automation helps you sell more projects. Which is more important?


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Two recent posts about scaling a startup or products for an existing business caught my eye. Paul Graham started the conversation talking about startups and Jason Fried extended things to include new products for existing businesses.

The gist of both is that while we tend to think of automation as the end goal, sometimes it’s better to do things manually. The focus of both articles is on gaining customers and hiring employees, but the overall point is that manual is sometimes better than automatic.

Creativity and Productivity

Craftsmanship and creativity seem to be at odds with automation and productivity. The former two focus on what’s unique in each project and place emphasis on quality over time. The latter two reverse that. They emphasize getting as much done in the shortest time frame possible, which means taking advantage of the repetitive.

Craftsmanship and creativity

  • Focus on the unique aspects of each creation
  • Meander to explore every unturned stone
  • Pay extra attention to details
  • Will start over again if things are just right
  • Emphasize quality above all else

Automation and productivity

  • Focus on the repetitive qualities of all products
  • Modularize and abstract repeated tasks
  • Are willing to give up some detail to save time
  • Will test some to ensure reasonable quality for all
  • Emphasizes efficiency above all else

A craftsperson takes his or her time to get things right. Craftsmanship is a slower moving process. It’s not that craftspeople aren’t concerned with time. They would certainly prefer to do things quicker and their experience helps them do just that. It’s more that quality takes precedence quantity.

Automation is a quicker process. It’s not that automated processes don’t want to produce quality. Better is still a goal and parts of the process can be improved again and again to improve quality. It’s more quantity takes precedence over quality.

Where a process based on craft might strive for perfection in each and every product and detail, a process based on automation strives toward a little less than perfection because that little less means so much more can be produced.

Craft and Automation in the Design Process

At first glance you might see designing a website as mostly on the craft and creative side, but automation and productivity are certainly present, especially when you start to think about design as a business.

Even with the most custom of projects, we repeat many steps we’ve gone through on previous projects. For example:

  • Making decisions about type
  • Choosing a color scheme
  • Building a grid
  • Sketching and wireframing
  • Developing a style guide
  • Creating design comps or other deliverables

You might not do all of the above and you probably do some things not listed, but the point is there are things you already know you’re going to do in the process of designing your next website.

Each of the choices you make naturally depends on the specifics of the project. You shouldn’t, for example, choose type or color without knowing anything about the site in question. However, the act of choosing these things is something you’ll repeat again and again.

The specific decisions you make in regards to type, color, grids, etc. are the craft side of the process. That you’ll consistently consider them on every project is the automated side of the process.

Increasing Efficiency in the Craft of Design

How might we make our design processes more efficient while maintaing as much of the craft and the quality as possible? In a word constraints.

For example think of all the possible typefaces you might choose from for your next project. You aren’t realistically going to compare each and every one. You don’t need to. You’re choosing one to help communicate something and with a handful of different faces you can probably communicate most anything your next project needs. So you build a palette of typefaces and learn to combine them in different ways to provide yourself with enough variation for any situation.

The variation is the craft. The constraint of the palette is the productivity. If you encounter a project that isn’t served well by your palette, you focus a little more on craft and reach beyond your palette. You find the typefaces that work and expand your palette for the next time. You can

Not everything will lend itself to these kinds of cross project constraints, but that’s ok. We naturally do things on each project to quickly add constraints.

The acts of sketching, wireframing, and prototyping aim to quickly get at a general solution before having to spend the greater time on the details. Style guides, mood boards, and style tiles do similar. Each presents and handful of options to set a direction for further detailed exploration.

In other words do what we can to quickly add constraints and eliminate as much as possible (productive) and use the time saved to then spend more time getting the details right (craft).

Summary

Whether it’s creativity vs productivity, quality vs quantity, unique vs repeatable, or some other similar comparison, this debate comes up often in business and often in a way that suggests you have to choose one at the expense of the other.

I don’t think this is the case. Both craftsmanship and automation have their place. Each has different strengths and weaknesses. The key to getting the best of both is a balance between them.

Take the time to consider whatever you’re doing and understand how you can isolate different parts of the process. Then look at each of the parts and determine whether it would be better served by a focus on the quality of the unique or the quantity of the repetitive.

Know that there isn’t going to be an absolutely correct choice in how you decide. There’s quite a bit of craft in the choice of what you decide to automate.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

2 comments

  1. Great article. Really enjoyed reading it. I’ve always wondered about the same, but never really gave it as much thought. Even though I also think that whether a developer should be leaning towards craftsmanship or automation may also depend on the nature of the project, which you also eluded to in the summary. Some projects inherently deman more creativity than others. Once again, great post. Thank you.

    • Thanks Ahsan. I like this topic. I’ve written about it a few times. I think it’s one of the debates web designers are always going to face. At the design extreme we want to take our time and explore all the possibilities until we get things just right. At the development extreme we want to build as efficiently as possible.

      It’s hard to do both in their extremes so we have to decide what’s the right balance to shoot for. I don’t think there’s a perfect balance here to cover all cases, but if we understand that we’re always finding some kind of balance we can better decide where it is on each project.

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