Working with skilled partners

Working alongside people with craft skills honed by years of practice, be they machinists, upholsterers, platers or cabinet makers, requires of the designer a sensitivity to the particularities of how these trades work. For as much as the products that form the Tools for Everyday life collection very obviously highlight the skills of those involved in physically producing them, they also act as testament to the designers’ ability to work with a diverse range of people.

‘Designer types’ blundering in to long established systems of trust and recommendation with their ‘fancy’ ideas will more often than not be confused by the sometimes less then enthusiastic response of a specialist to get involved in the fabrication of a speculative prototype that sits outside their day to day business.

There are various barriers that have grown over time that can prevent art school trained industrial designers from freely entering and making use of these highly skilled services. One such obstacle is the common practice of the cost of engaging a specialist not really being discussed until after the process is complete, the assumption being that if a designer asks for something then they will have to pay ‘the going rate’. For the inexperienced this can be a real mystery/shock/surprise/ sharp learning curve and may also reveal that haggling is seen as the province of people who do not value the skills involved in the process.  The conversation should more usefully revolve around timescales and is the job actually possible at all, rather than a debate about the specialist’s business model.  Working with a highly skilled manufacturer does not eliminate the need for a designer to have an understanding of the processes involved, rather an understanding of the craft skill in question leads to valuable short hand modes of communication and informed exchange that allows for the nuances of difficult to describe options to be explored that otherwise might need many samples as well as numerous complex drawings. The architect, industrial designer and craftsman David Pye, an author admired by the designers on this ‘Tools’ project, talks eloquently of the designer’s (in)ability to communicate his intentions* and the inherent value of the skilled workman’s discretion.  Looking at the processes involved in the products developed for the latest phase of the Tools for Everyday Life project, it is clear the wider the gap in terms of knowledge and experience between designer and partner the more detail needs to be articulated in order to get ‘things’ done.  These observations chime with what Albert Borgmann, Professor of Philosophy at Montana University, describes as the inversely proportional relationship between skill and resolution of information**.

It is learning what the technical and social barriers are to working with skilled manufacturers and over time navigating the defenses that exist in their trades that lead to connections that are prized and contacts which are protected by experienced designers. Passing on the contact details of specialists is only done once the experienced designer is sure the recipient of the introduction will appreciate the social and cultural etiquette involved and do nothing to sour the relationship.  The experienced designer in effect acts as gate-keeper to another world (or in the case of this project, various parts of Birmingham).

Whilst these reflections describe layers of difficulty to cut through in order to access the skills needed to get a new product developed, they also say something profound about the role of trust, the protection of knowledge and respect for those that have it.

*Pye, D. (1968) Chapter 5. ‘The designer’s power to communicate his intentions’ in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (revised edition 1995) pp. 56-57, London :Herbert Press.

**Borgmann, A. (1999) Chapter 14. ‘Virtuality and Ambiguity’ in Holding on to Reality: the Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, pp. 179-192, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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