Craft and Philosophy

I’ve attended design conferences for many years, and have seen many colleagues present their ideas onstage. I rank these presentations on a continuum: some lean more towards craft while others lean towards philosophy.


I often hear people complain about the presentations that lean towards philosophy. They’ll say things like “that wasn’t very useful” or “that was very academic” or “what am I supposed to do with this stuff?” They’d rather see only presentations that teach them skills they can use at the office on the proverbial “next Monday morning.” But we need to attend to both craft and philosophy if we are to have fulfilling careers.

How does the word philosophy make you feel? Does it feel light or heavy? Does it energize you or bring you down? Many people don’t find philosophy energizing. They think of it as esoteric; they associate it with abstraction, deep thinking, theory — hard work without a tangible payoff. I think this is because they associate the word philosophy with the academic discipline called philosophy, which can be dense. But that’s not how I mean philosophy here. I mean it in the sense of the phrase having a life philosophy. That is, a set of principles that help guide your actions; a theory or attitude towards what you do that informs how you behave.

A more common way to frame this is using another continuum; one ranging from practice to theory. I dislike this framing. Practice doesn’t capture the dignity of craft, and theory doesn’t capture the purposefulness of philosophy. Philosophy and craft express values in a way that theory and practice don’t. Craft addresses how we do things, philosophy addresses why we do them.

Perhaps this is why we’re unsettled by the word philosophy; questioning why we do what we do may lead us down paths we’d rather not explore. It may even lead us to question what we’re doing altogether, and hey, we have bills to pay! But by the time your life is coming to its end, you’ll probably want to be sure you’ve spent it doing something worthwhile. How will you know?