Levels of design craft

One of the most critical, even inherent, aspects of design is the notion of craft — shaping a material with masterful familiarity towards a benchmark of quality, based upon a dedication to refining the details so the result is worthy of personal pride and general appreciation. Craft is what makes design truly a maker’s profession, delivering exemplary artifacts and products — something tangible and meticulously defined with careful attention.

Accordingly, when it comes to software design (comprised of interaction, interface, information, and so forth) the 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. 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. Craft clearly matters!

This is why it’s important to go deeper and expose various levels of craft a designer (and more accurately, a design leader) brings to the profession. I suggest there are three active levels of craft which interplay in the course of “doing the work” of a professional designer, while engaging with clients & stakeholders to ultimately ship the design to customers.

Tradecraft: This is the level of craft we often typically associate with design, at the tactical, tangible level of executional details, or final production. Every element precisely and carefully shaped with an exacting attention to the abilities of the tools, potentiality of the material, and needs of the context at hand. This also aligns to the features and functions of a product (or service, app, etc.) in a visceral way — what is seen, felt, and experienced.

Stagecraft: However, detailing out the finer pixel & code-based nuances of a digital artifact are only a part of a designer’s craft. Indeed, such artifacts, as beautifully executed as they may be, are useless unless there is a compelling story that evocatively enshrines them in a meaningful way — to the stakeholders and especially the ultimate users — so they grasp how it all fits into a theme, a brand philosophy, a manner of living or working. This all involves those presentational 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 aligns to the organizational and relationship aspect of designing through the power of inspiration, which connects to an emotional core via storytelling.

Statecraft: And yet, to get that beautifully defined, well-articulated design actually built and shipped to customers requires nuances of compromise, negotiation, and influence. It’s the political, pragmatic stuff that’s inherent to any product development process because…well, people! Look, everyone has agendas and egos and seeks to amplify their position (due to various incentive models & belief structures of an organizational culture) —and every designer who wants to be effective must grasp this “school of hard knocks” point. Indeed, it requires elements of statecraft, shaping relationships with people towards shared aims, with principled debates on risks, tradeoffs, etc. This aligns to the organizational, political, and cultural aspects of design, which doesn’t have to be icky! 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.

Tradecraft, stagecraft, and statecraft may be the primary levels of craft a designer should master as an ongoing journey in their career. They are not necessarily sequential, either — just like any design process, mastering craft can be messy and demand iterative repeat attempts, with some parallel processing, too! (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 can help a designer bring a more informed approach to their craft of design.

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