Design and Workmanship

Before the “Maker Movement”, there was David Pye.  If you make things, or design things, and ever feel the need to communicate about making or designing, you should read these books.

In 1964, David Pye published The Nature of Design, a strikingly well-designed little book about how material things come into being and how they are used.  And, incidentally, what they happen to look like.  The Nature and Art of Workmanship, a companion volume, was published in 1968.  They were eventually re-published by Cambium Press, and are still available.

For starters, Pye suggests that we set aside the word “craftsmanship” and instead proposes the more semantically neutral “workmanship”.  He then proceeds to totally skewer the “form follows function” dictum of Modernism and instead offers terms in plain language to describe designing and making things.  At the heart of his argument, Pye invites us to discern making things as workmanship of risk vs. workmanship of certainty.  He rounds off with a scathing critique of John Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic.

“…the sense of quality in general, belongs to the makers particularly, and has come to them not because of making by hand–whatever that may mean!–but because most things can only be made in reach of the hand, and so at a certain distance from the eye.  A maker is in the habit of seeing things close to him and looking at them closely…”

“Technique is the knowledge of how to make devices and other things out of raw materials.  Technique is the knowledge which informs the activity of workmanship.  It is what can be written about the methods of workmanship.

Technology is the scientific study and extension of technique.  In ordinary usage the word is slapped about anyhow and used to cover not only this, but invention, design, and workmanship as well.

Workmanship is the application of technique to making, by the exercise of care, judgement, and dexterity.  As opposed to design, workmanship is what for practical purposes the designer cannot give effective instructions about by drawings or words, although he can envisage it perfectly well.”



About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
This entry was posted in architecture, boatbuilding, carpentry, furniture, woodworking. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Design and Workmanship

  1. itznu says:

    “In our current economy most things are made to sell. They are cheaply made and aggressively marketed. Many things don’t work, are made by victimized workers in dependent economies, and marked up and dressed up with attached ideas so much that people forget that they don’t function well. Too often, when we want something that works and isn’t insanely expensive, we have to redesign it from the ground up. If we make these items well and sell them, there is less markup and no planned obsolescence, so the profits are relatively tiny. Our current system of design, manufacture, and marketing is badly broken and needs redesigning.” -me, just now

  2. I don’t know if you are familiar with David Pye. If not, at least do a search. Most people remark his “workmanship of risk/workmanship of certainty” theory. There’s the inherent assumption that machines reduce or remove risk, and make work go exponentially faster. They can also do a lot of damage fast. Meanwhile, there’s a certainty in knowing what I can do with a block plane or a framing chisel.
    US economy is a sinking ship, let’s move on and create a new one.

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