What does it mean to be a designer in this modern era of Sketch templates, fluid grids, atomic systems, and rapidly prototyped interactions? There seems to be an overwhelming sense of systemization that may feel at once powerful yet humbling.
Yet one pervasive quality that defines being a “designer” regardless of tools or rules is “craft”—shaping materials with masterful familiarity towards a benchmark of quality, via one’s dedication to refining the details so the result is worthy of personal pride and general appreciation.
Craft is what makes design a maker’s profession, delivering exemplary artifacts and products—something tangibly defined with deep attention.
Accordingly, when it comes to software design (filled with interactions, interfaces, data formats, and so forth) that craft aspect is vital to the execution of a well-formed digital experience—including the colors, fonts, alignments, timing and sequence of behaviors, tenor of audio cues, and tone of messages.“Craft is what makes design a maker’s profession.”
And a well-crafted product conveys quality that can be seen, felt, shared, and paid for with confidence in the brand and its perceived benefits of use.
Craft clearly matters.
This is why it’s important to go deeper to expose various levels of craft a designer (and design leader) brings to the profession. I propose there are 3 levels of craft that are at work in the course of “doing the work” of a professional designer, while engaging with clients and stakeholders to ship a design out. And, in correlation there are multiple kinds of logic subconsciously guiding such craft behind the scenes.
Let me explain…
Craft level 1: Tradecraft
This is the level of craft we typically associate with design, at the tactical level of executed details for final production. Every element is precisely, carefully shaped with an exacting attention per one’s abilities with the tools, potentiality of the material (code, pixels, vectors, etc.), and needs of the context at hand. This also aligns to the features and functions of a product in a visceral way—what is seen, felt, and experienced. This is the basic existential level of being a designer, truly practicing one’s trade with mastery and focus of execution.
Underlying tradecraft is a kind of logic that may be phrased as “procedural,” as elements are manipulated and delivered with a sequenced sense for what needs to happen, a precise order of operations to produce and deliver a design.
We know—but outsiders may not realize—that ‘pixel pushing’ is far more than some monotonous, mindless task. It is a tuned dialogue among the the designer’s eye, hand, and tools, with an intuitive cadence of feedback and iteration that is quite focused and disciplined (likely with awesome music flowing through some amazing headphones). Truly, a procedure must be followed when you’re grinding it out.
Craft level 2: Stagecraft
However, detailing out the finer pixel and code-based nuances of a digital artifact are only one part of a designer’s craft—albeit the most visible/noticed.
Such artifacts, as beautifully executed as they may be, are useless unless there’s a compelling story that evocatively enshrines them in a meaningful way—to the stakeholders and especially to the ultimate users—so they grasp how it all fits into a theme, a brand philosophy, a manner of living or working.“‘Pixel pushing’ is a tuned dialogue among the the designer’s eye, hand, and tools.”
That’s right: this involves those vital presentation skills, some performance theater, poetry of mantras and pitches, pulling on emotional levers of the audience, while grounded with a good intent to persuade.
Stagecraft ties into the organizational and relationship aspect of designing through the power of inspiration, which connects to an emotional core via storytelling.
So, the governing logic is something akin to a “perceptual” logic guiding the relationship of emotive and dramatic elements into a compelling narrative that connects with the audience (clients, stakeholders, etc.), per the artifacts being showcased. There’s a bit of illusion and theater (with good intentions, of course!) to enchant and engage as you personify the story of your design solution and its value to the brand.
It’s not a strictly step-by-step procedure, but more of a dance that taps into fickle and latent emotions, shaping the story and reality you want your audience to believe, to persuade them. Think Don Draper, not The Joker.
Craft level 3: Statecraft
Yet, to get that beautifully defined, well-articulated design actually built and shipped requires nuances of compromise, negotiation, and influence. We know all kinds of devils live in those production details.
To deal with them effectively, we must dive into the political pragmatic stuff that’s inherent to any product development process because… well, people! Everyone has agendas and egos and strives to defend their position (due to various incentive models or belief structures of an organizational culture)—and every designer who wants to be effective must grasp this “school of hard knocks” point.
Indeed, success as a designer requires a heavy dose of statecraft, driving relationships with people towards shared aims, with principled debates on risks, tradeoffs, and outcomes. This connects to the organizational and cultural aspects of design overall, and this doesn’t have to be icky or backstabby at all.
Done well, statecraft can lead everyone towards a pursuit of purpose and value embodied in a design direction that should emerge—sometimes painfully!—in those tough negotiations.
Guiding this is what might be termed as a “rhetorical” kind of logic, not in the sense of empty speechifying but in the Classical sense of back-and-forth discourse to understand, guide, and develop shared points of view.
This requires a deep sense for human nature, how “people” are truly (pro tip: read up on your Shakespeare or Mark Twain, true observers of human nature), so you can achieve your aims while addressing their concerns or wishes.
Does this sound a bit sneaky? It shouldn’t be at all, because negotiating and compromising are how we interact as professionals in all walks of life: from the post office to the doctor’s office. Building relationships is the only key to getting your design built the way you want it, with all the dynamics of craft at the core.
Tradecraft, stagecraft, and statecraft are the levels of craft a designer must master in an ongoing journey in their career.
They aren’t necessarily sequential, either. Just like any design process, mastering craft can be messy and demand iterative repeat attempts, flexing different types of logic muscles in various ways, with some parallel processing, too. For example, imagine applying statecraft to a business team to provide air cover for a new idea’s development, while guiding a staff of designers with the storytelling and tactical execution.
But at least knowing about these levels of craft and logic can help a designer bring a more informed approach to their design work.