Introducer: Hi, every­one. Welcome back. My name’s Ben. I’m from Webstock. I’ll just be tak­ing you through the next ses­sion doing a few intros and so on. It’s great to have you all here. Hope you enjoyed your lunch. 

Next up, it gives us real­ly great plea­sure to intro­duce Erin Kissane. She’s a reg­u­lar on A List Apart. She’s in fact a for­mer edi­tor of A List Apart. She’s the co-founder of Contents Magazine. She’s con­tributed to many books, and her lat­est is called The Elements of Content Strategy. She’s come a very long way to be with us today, all the way from Brooklyn. So please give her a very warm Webstock welcome.

Erin Kissane: Hello. One oth­er thing I want­ed to men­tion. I’m also the lead con­tent strate­gist at Brain Traffic. We are a con­sul­tan­cy who does exclu­sive­ly con­tent strat­e­gy, and I want­ed to men­tion that as well so Kristina Halvorson, who is my boss, does­n’t strike me dead from afar.

It’s so good to be here today. Thank you so much to our orga­niz­ers for mak­ing this such an extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence. And thank you for invit­ing me here. It’s so good to be in this beau­ti­ful coun­try and meet all of you.

Photo of a small brown knitted figure, captioned, "Hi, little fella"

I’m here to talk about sys­tems, and the very first thing I want to do is make a con­fes­sion, which is that my title, Little Big Systems” is actu­al­ly tak­en from a video game that some of you may know called Little Big Planet. This lit­tle guy is Sackboy. He’s the pro­tag­o­nist of Little Big Planet. As you can see, he’s sort of knit­ted and has but­tons for eyes and kind of a zip­per. The whole world of that video game is much the same way. Everything looks as though it’s been stitched togeth­er or made of clay or card­board or some kind of hand­made play­ful mate­r­i­al. That real­ly changes the feel of the game, even though it’s essen­tial­ly dig­i­tal images pro­ject­ed onto 3D mod­els inside a video game. So Sackboy has been with me all the way through.

I’m here to talk about mak­ing sys­tems. But before I can talk about mak­ing sys­tems, I need to talk about an elephant.

Some of you may rec­og­nize this. This is Kevin Cornell’s illus­tra­tion from A List Apart mag­a­zine. It ran in [2008] along­side Kristina Halvorson’s The Discipline of Content Strategy, and of course what it’s refer­ring to is the encounter of four guys who run into an ele­phant in the dark, as you do, and are all sort of reach­ing for the part of the ele­phant that’s clos­est to them and try­ing to fig­ure out what sort of crea­ture they’ve encountered.

So one touch­es the leg and says, I think it’s a tree.” And the oth­er guy’s got the tail and he’s sure it’s a snake. And some­body else has the ear and says, I think it’s actu­al­ly a palm tree?” So this illus­tra­tion of the trou­ble defin­ing con­tent strat­e­gy was so dead on that the ele­phant has become our sort of infor­mal sym­bol as a prac­tice. We have our own ani­mal. It shows up in a vari­ety of places, includ­ing the logo of Contents Magazine.

The thing about this trou­ble defin­ing what exact­ly it is that con­tent strate­gists do, it’s not that inter­est­ing a dis­pute on its own. I mean, the con­ver­sa­tion might be inter­est­ing, but I most­ly leave that sort of thing alone. Except for one prob­lem, which is that Mars needs con­tent strategists.

One of the trou­bles with mak­ing new con­tent strate­gists is that they don’t grow from cab­bages. We have to find them. Find peo­ple from allied fields, find peo­ple with the right back­grounds, from edi­to­r­i­al work or library sci­ence or infor­ma­tion sci­ence, and bring them into the fold, explain this is what con­tent strat­e­gy is shap­ing up to be and this is your tran­si­tion in. And it’s been a lit­tle bit tricky because con­tent strat­e­gy strikes a lot of peo­ple as weird. And I have a the­o­ry. I think the rea­son it seems weird to peo­ple is that it’s actu­al­ly a form of sys­tem design.

What that means is we don’t make things in the same way that for instance an edi­tor might make a mag­a­zine or a book or a news­pa­per or…all of us, design­ers make spe­cif­ic kinds of arti­facts. We’re used to think­ing about the things we pro­duce. In con­tent strat­e­gy we don’t real­ly make things, we make sys­tems that make things.

So, as I was think­ing about how we could bet­ter bring in some of these peo­ple from the sort of artifact-producing mind to how they might make sys­tems (in our case con­tent strat­e­gy sys­tems) I became aware that this was actu­al­ly kind of an issue for peo­ple not just in my field but also in design and devel­op­ment, a lot of inter­con­nect­ed fields with­in web design and now app design, and the broad­er elec­tron­ic design field. Part of this has to do, I think, with the resur­gence in inter­est in craft, specif­i­cal­ly in the val­ues of craft. What I mean by that is, when we think of the crafts­man, we think not just of excel­lence but of mas­tery. Not just of qual­i­ty or high qual­i­ty, but of exquis­ite qual­i­ty, of true excel­lence in the thing itself. And also a human scale. So mas­tery, excel­lence, and human scale are things that I think have been com­ing back into our own world of web mak­ers in real­ly inter­est­ing ways, many of which are com­ing up in the talks we’re hav­ing here at Webstock.

That’s all well and good, but I’m notic­ing that many of my younger friends and col­leagues are con­fin­ing them­selves to small­er and small­er projects, I think in part because this is very attrac­tive, this sort of crafts­man­’s work. It’s sat­is­fy­ing. It’s human. And if you work on only very small things that have a very defined scope, it’s eas­i­er to see how that trans­lates. But the prob­lem with that is that we miss the oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring those val­ues and prac­tices of craft to larg­er projects.

Before I go fur­ther I want to say, what is this sys­tems” thing about, what is sys­tems design? For me, all big projects are sys­tems. In fact the OED has a def­i­n­i­tion, a sys­tem is any set or assem­blage of things con­nect­ed, asso­ci­at­ed, or inter­de­pen­dent, so as to form a com­plex uni­ty.” So real­ly any­thing suf­fi­cient­ly tricky, that is not just A to B to C, is a sys­tem. Now why do we care about that? 

If we’ve got a real­ly sim­ple design prob­lem, say you want to get from A to B but you’ve got to deal with C along the way, that’s quite a sim­ple process that’s real­ly bound­ed. This is a sys­tem design problem:

The rea­son that it’s dif­fer­ent is that you can see there are all these sort of inter­de­pen­dent sub­sets, so you can’t just step through and say, I’m going to go from A to B to C to D,” because all of these things are inter­con­nect­ed. You can’t just divide this up into small­er pieces, which is often our first impulse when we see a com­plex prob­lem, and go through them in a lin­ear way because they’re all interwingled.

The archi­tect and won­der­ful design thinker Christopher Alexander (some of you will know him from A Pattern Language) writes about sys­tem design as a ques­tion of adjust­ing and in fact elim­i­nat­ing bad fit.” Here’s what he means by that. If you have a sys­tem design prob­lem, if you have a series of knot­ty, con­nect­ed prob­lems, you have to go into one and work on it until noth­ing mis-fits, until there are no bad fits, until you’ve solved all of these micro-problems. But then you have to go back out and see what your changes have wrought on the larg­er sys­tem. And it’s this iter­a­tive process. Then you go into anoth­er sub-system and come back out. This is what makes sys­tem design dif­fer­ent from the sim­ple design prob­lems that we might in some cas­es pre­fer to deal with.

So why does that mat­ter? I think the answer is that our indus­try can’t afford to let these two streams diverge. We can’t let our young design­ers and devel­op­ers and writ­ers, who want to be crafts­men, be sep­a­rate from the stream of peo­ple who are work­ing on these real­ly com­plex, often kind of daunt­ing, intim­i­dat­ing, tricky prob­lems. For me, I’m a con­tent strate­gist, so most of mine have to do with con­tent sys­tems, but it’s far from lim­it­ed to that. Any kind of large pub­lic design project, any kind of real­ly sub­stan­tial, even cor­po­rate design project involves this sort of sys­tem think­ing, these sys­tem skills.

So what I’ve been won­der­ing for some months is how can we bring the val­ues of craft that we most eas­i­ly see in small projects to bear on these big tan­g­ly prob­lems? And I have a series of five pro­pos­als for pos­si­ble prin­ci­ples we might use to do exact­ly that.

Various styles of Japanese sweets

The first one is that we should return to the arti­fact. Does any­body know what these are? [From audi­ence: Japanese sweets.] Yes. You get a bag of Japanese sweets at the end of the talk. They’re called wagashi. They are a tra­di­tion­al Japanese sweet served with bit­ter green tea, matcha. They’re tiny, and they’re quite exquis­ite­ly designed. In their most refined form they are entire­ly made by hand. Not just by hand, but made with spe­cial tools, spe­cial equip­ment, and peo­ple who have trained and doc­u­ment­ed their process­es for years and years, decades, in fact this goes back cen­turies, to make a very spe­cif­ic kind of artifact.

Close-up of a pink, flower-shaped wagashi

This sys­tem is designed to pro­duce one kind of thing. This is the sort of wagashi that you get dur­ing cher­ry blos­som sea­son; it’s the saku­ra. They’re quite dif­fer­ent from the high sum­mer wagashi, or the fall wagashi. It’s a very com­plex sys­tem. But it’s tuned to pro­duce a sin­gle arti­fact. By arti­fact I mean a mate­r­i­al and a goal brought togeth­er. So in this case you’re talk­ing about par­tic­u­lar kinds of sweet bean paste and sug­ar, brought into this par­tic­u­lar form through the use of tools and hands.

This sys­tem is tuned for one kind of arti­fact. If you begin with a dif­fer­ent arti­fact, like for instance the Aero bar, you’re going to need a dif­fer­ent kind of sys­tem, like this Nestlé fac­to­ry in Dubai.

I think most of us would pre­fer the work­shop to the factory.

So the first prin­ci­ple is that an inti­mate knowl­edge of arti­cles is some­thing that we real­ly need if we want to make bet­ter systems.

This is a man called James Krenov, and he is well-known for being an extra­or­di­nary cab­i­net mak­er. He makes—he made (he passed away in 2009) real­ly love­ly hand­made fur­ni­ture. He actu­al­ly start­ed carv­ing when he was six years old. Someone gave him a jack­knife and he began mak­ing his own toys, and even­tu­al­ly stud­ied in Sweden under the father of Swedish fur­ni­ture design before strik­ing out on his own in his own tiny workshop.

But he’s also real­ly well-known for being a teacher. He wrote a series of books in which he dis­cuss­es not only his own process­es and the meth­ods he uses for hinges and joints, but also his phi­los­o­phy of work­ing and his phi­los­o­phy of under­stand­ing what the wood wants to be. That sounds a lit­tle woo but he means some­thing quite con­crete by this, which is that if you under­stand the wood that you’re work­ing with, you know which uses it is and isn’t suit­ed to. So if you force onto a piece of wood a bad shape, some­thing that it’s not well-suited to, it may look okay in the begin­ning, but it’s going to crack lat­er on. You’re actu­al­ly going to see it phys­i­cal­ly come apart if you use the wrong mate­ri­als. And it dis­hon­ors the mate­r­i­al you work with, so you need to match the right mate­r­i­al with the right goal to pro­duce the right artifact.

And all of his sys­tems, all of the tools that he made by hand, all of his work­shops, all of his instruc­tions, are designed around that par­tic­u­lar kind of arti­fact. So inti­mate knowl­edge of arti­facts makes bet­ter sys­tems, and bet­ter sys­tems pro­duce bet­ter arti­facts. So always return to the artifact.

These are the Mast Brothers. They make choco­late in a tiny mag­i­cal choco­late fac­to­ry in Greenpoint in Brooklyn. They are in fact broth­ers, and they have this won­der­ful place that has all of these cus­tom and semi-custom candy-making imple­ments, and it’s all very shiny and brass and it’s won­der­ful. They’re here as a reminder that many of us make sys­tems that have more than one kind of user. We tend to think about this as our user:

A young boy sitting cross-legged on the floor with a pile of various candies in front of him.

This is the guy in his charm­ing I think Harry Potter cos­tume who eats the can­dy. He’s our con­sumer, he’s our end user. And we in the web indus­try have been learn­ing more and more over the last decade and a half that we must trea­sure this user. We should­n’t, for instance, make web sites designed around our org charts. We should design them around our users’ needs. But there’s also this kind of user, which is the maker:

In the con­tent strat­e­gy world these are edi­tors, they’re writ­ers, these are the peo­ple inside orga­ni­za­tions who are actu­al­ly using the sys­tems we build to make things. And it’s not lim­it­ed to con­tent strat­e­gy. Think about oth­er inter­nal users like cus­tomer sup­port and tech­ni­cal sup­port. Anyone inside a com­pa­ny who uses sys­tems, often the sys­tems that we make, to serve that candy-eating consumer.

In the con­tent strat­e­gy world, and I think for any of you who’ve used very many CMSes, there’s a com­mon prob­lem. Most con­tent man­age­ment sys­tems are real bad. This isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly their fault. It’s a young indus­try. We’re ear­ly in the devel­op­ment of these tools. But a lot of them are real­ly awful. They’re super clunky. It takes eight steps to do things. You have to imple­ment workarounds. They get between the mak­ers and what they’re try­ing to do for the user. This points up a prob­lem that I think…when we tend to focus through user-centered design (as we all should) on the need of our users, we for­get that if we don’t serve the mak­ers, we’re doing a dis­ser­vice to the end user as well.

I think some­thing that points this up is the suc­cess of WordPress, not just as a blog­ging sys­tem but also as a CMS. There are 71 mil­lion WordPress installs. Most of those are indi­vid­ual. Most of them are small-scale, for blog­ging. But many are actu­al­ly for what we would con­sid­er enter­prise” CMS use. So I think that show that the peo­ple who are inside our com­pa­nies, the mak­er audi­ence, they have the same needs as the oth­er users. They need sim­plic­i­ty, they need ease, they need things that are intu­itive and that don’t get in their way, that are eas­i­ly con­fig­urable. I think this is why we’ve seen WordPress win­ning against these enor­mous, extreme­ly expen­sive, entrenched, frankly hor­ri­ble to use con­tent man­age­ment sys­tems that many of us came up with. So what we need to stop doing is mak­ing sys­tems that hin­der excel­lence by harm­ing our inter­nal users, our mak­ers. So we need to remem­ber to val­ue both kinds of users.

A large round loaf of bread baking in an oven, captioned "work in craftsman's time."

The next thing that I want to talk about is bread. One of the won­der­ful things about bread is that you can’t rush it. Bread is going to take the time it’s going to take. It has to rise, it has to bake, it has to cool. If you try to cut it too soon it’s going to fall apart. So I think there’s some­thing of the craft of bak­ing that we can learn from, which is that we need to begin insist­ing that we work in crafts­man­’s time.

What I mean by that is not the time of rush­ing, not the time of com­pressed project sched­ules in which we know we know can’t do the job that we want to do, we can’t achieve the excel­lence that we want because there sim­ply isn’t enough time for the scope. That’s a mis-fit, and also not the kind of dif­fu­sion that a lot of big, com­plex projects come along with. When I’ve spo­ken to friends and col­leagues about why they tend to avoid a lot of big projects, or at least very many at once or in a row, the sin­gle most com­mon thing was time. They said either on a big project the scope is so big that you know you can nev­er get down to the details and get them right, and it sort of hurts as a craftsper­son to let that go by. The oth­er side is that kind of dif­fu­sion. It’s going to be a two-year project, am I still going to be here when it’s done? It’s sort of drawn out, things have moved too slow­ly, deci­sion process­es take too long, and peo­ple lose inter­est. So this is a problem.

And I was think­ing about this. I’ve been watch­ing a series of short videos pro­duced by Prada, the fash­ion house. Prada employs hun­dreds of crafts­peo­ple. They make things lit­er­al­ly by hand. All of their cou­ture lines are hand-sewn, hand-cut, and one of these short films is of one of their cut­ters. This a guy who, from some very expen­sive pieces of leather, cuts out the shapes that will even­tu­al­ly turn into hand­bags. I’m not that inter­est­ed in hand­bags, frankly, but I do think that there’s some­thing real­ly quite extra­or­di­nary about the kind of time that a crafts­man like this works in.

The thing about a crafts­man­’s time is that it’s actu­al­ly quite effi­cient. There no wast­ed motions here, but it’s also not rushed. If it’s rushed, you com­pro­mise the mate­r­i­al. This is a kind of time that we need to win for our­selves, and the peo­ple that we need to work with, to win it from, are these guys, the project man­agers. So if there’s one thing that I would say about how we can do bet­ter to inte­grate crafts­man­’s time, a craft sense of time into our work, it’s that we need to love our project man­agers better.

The first part of that is we need to under­stand their craft bet­ter. It’s not mag­ic what they do, the way that they make scopes and sched­ules and han­dle num­bers and make those Gantt charts and all of that. It’s com­plex, but it’s learn­able. It’s some­thing that we should all prob­a­bly know a bit better. 

On the oth­er hand, we need to teach them more about our craft, which means that we need a good under­stand­ing of the nat­ur­al pace of our work. And that’s tricky because some­times if you’re talk­ing about com­plex projects, you might have a project that dou­bles in com­plex­i­ty. But the sched­ule does­n’t just dou­ble. You might need three times the amount of time to do it jus­tice. So it’s incum­bent on us, whether or not we have actu­al project man­agers stand­ing between us and the sched­ule, to know the nat­ur­al pace of our work and to say if the com­plex­i­ty lev­el changes either the time is going to change, and it’s going to change by this much, or you are going to see these prob­lems in qual­i­ty and they’re going to have these effects. So we have to learn to be defend­ers of our time.

The crafts­man­’s time in the end is also a lot bet­ter to work in. On small projects, you might be able to sprint for two months or four months, or God help us six months, but if you’re work­ing on a two-year project or a three-year project that’s not actu­al­ly ten­able. So that’s the oth­er thing about the crafts­man­’s time. It’s human and it’s humane, and we deserve to have good, real lives, even as mak­ers of things. So this is what we can learn from the bread.

The fourth prin­ci­ple is to ship small but excel­lent. This idea of work­ing from large to small has gained a lot of cur­ren­cy recent­ly, I think in part because of 37signals’ work and some of the things Jason Fried’s writ­ten about work­ing large to small. What that means is don’t get hung up on the details too soon. Details are impor­tant, but unless you’ve dealt with the big design prob­lems with the out­line of things, with fea­ture design, it’s not the right time to get into things like labels and col­ors and pix­els and place­ment and all of that. That’s cer­tain­ly impor­tant. I think most of us have prob­a­bly been in a con­ver­sa­tion or a project where you stopped and worked on details too soon and that means the big stuff does­n’t get tak­en care of. If you’re work­ing on a sys­tems design project, this is dead­ly, to do any­thing but work large to small.

But the flip­side is that we need to ship small to large. By that I mean this idea of the Minimum Viable Product that’s been in con­ver­sa­tion a lot, thanks to Eric Ries. The min­i­mum viable prod­uct can be a lot of things to a lot of peo­ple. There are a lot of choic­es embed­ded in this simple-seeming notion of what a min­i­mum viable prod­uct is. If you want to bring the val­ues of craft to sys­tem design, then your min­i­mum viable prod­uct has to be some­thing that’s small enough for excellence.

Photo of a first-generation Apple iPod.

This is an exam­ple. Apple did­n’t start their mobile rev­o­lu­tion with the iPad or with the iPhone. They start­ed with a music play­er. In con­tent strat­e­gy at Brain Traffic, one of the things that we help clients do is fig­ure out what the core idea is, their core con­tent strat­e­gy, their core pur­pose. Really the core pur­pose of their online work, of their site, or their sites. What are they doing? 

And in the begin­ning we usu­al­ly hear some­thing like We want to serve world-class con­tent.” Which is great. But every­one wants to serve world-class con­tent. And the way that you can tell if this is nar­row enough in scope that it can be exe­cut­ed with excel­lence is to imag­ine that inter­nal audi­ence, the mak­ers. What hap­pens if you take our pool of writ­ers and edi­tors and give them a state­ment like this and say, Okay. Go do it.”

These phone calls don’t end well. So this is too broad, this is too gener­ic. It’s not some­thing that we can actu­al­ly exe­cute. So let’s say that our project is a site for house­plant lovers, peo­ple who are enthu­si­as­tic about their plants. What we’re going to do is try to serve world-class con­tent for plant lovers. It’s clos­er, right? But that’s still a lot of ter­ri­to­ry. That could be almost any­thing about plants, and that’s a lot of words. So this is still too broad.

Now we’re get­ting some­where. Let’s say that we want to pub­lish unique­ly help­ful con­tent (that’s con­tent that can’t be found some­where else) for first-time plant buy­ers, This anx­ious audi­ence of peo­ple lined up to buy their first fern. This is going to be our strat­e­gy. So what do you think, writ­ers, is this some­thing that you maybe could work with? Oh, we’re get­ting closer.

So this is our core strat­e­gy, this is going to be the thing that we’re going to build on. That’s real­ly quite lim­it­ed in scope, cer­tain­ly com­pared to serve world class con­tent.” This is nar­row. This is small enough that we could actu­al­ly work with it.

Where do we go from here? Well, we might say we’re going to tell our audi­ence which plants won’t you kill imme­di­ate­ly. And which ones might you like? Here’s some pic­tures of plants. We know you don’t know their names; here they are. And how do you care for them?

This is actu­al­ly some­thing you could give to a team of writ­ers and edi­tors and they could make it, espe­cial­ly if you then say: We’re going to do it by mak­ing a guide to 20 com­mon house­plants. We’re going to have blog posts and videos. We’re going to post those every week. And we’re going to fol­low a spe­cif­ic pub­li­ca­tion process.

That’s some­thing you can actu­al­ly accom­plish. So that is nar­row­ing the scope until it’s small enough that you can do it real­ly well.

That brings us to our final prin­ci­ple, which is respect deep knowl­edge. This is a recipe dia­gram from a con­fec­tionery that makes wagashi. It’s part­ly print­ed, it’s part­ly hand­writ­ten. It’s been anno­tat­ed and high­light­ed and passed along from chef to chef, and it con­tains quite a lot of deep infor­ma­tion. One of the things that craft can teach us as mak­ers is that we don’t need to rein­vent every­thing from the begin­ning. In fact, we should­n’t rein­vent things if we can find deep wells of knowl­edge that show us how to accom­plish them. This isn’t just the case of process­es that we know. This is about find­ing those deep­er pools of exper­tise, of mas­tery, that show us things we might not have thought about with our mate­ri­als, with our arti­facts, with our processes.

A rolling shelf with many large, old-looking binders on it.

Back to Prada for a sec­ond. They have these climate-controlled vaults which are full of carts like this one. These are pat­tern books, some of them from the 1890s, and these are in com­mon use at Prada. These get dragged out in 2012 as they are design­ing new cutting-edge lines. They bring out these old pat­tern books and documentation. 

A hand holding a cutting tool.

So this is one of the places that deep knowl­edge can come into our lives. Another is not just books but also the hands and the minds of the crafts­men them­selves. These might be peo­ple on our own teams. They might be peo­ple in our client orga­ni­za­tions. The CEO of Prada said some­thing real­ly inter­est­ing in an inter­view, which is that

I like to employ old peo­ple. I believe that a com­pa­ny needs a bal­ance between young and old peo­ple. Young peo­ple are not nec­es­sar­i­ly the key to innovation.
Patrizio Bertelli, Prada CEO

So when I go back and con­sid­er the knowl­edge implic­it in a hand like this, some cas­es we actu­al­ly are lucky enough to know spe­cif­ic indi­vid­u­als who can bring us along. We can take appren­tice­ships in sort of a tra­di­tion­al way. For many of us more like­ly it’s a ques­tion of look­ing back into the his­to­ry of our own fields and say­ing, Where are the mas­ters in our work? What can we learn from?” So for peo­ple in my field, con­tent strat­e­gy, it’s a new field but it’s real­ly made up of a num­ber of oth­er fields. 

If you go back and look, we’re tak­ing from a very long pub­lish­ing tra­di­tion of edi­tors, man­ag­ing edi­tors, all the peo­ple who make books and mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. Also library sci­ence peo­ple. The librar­i­ans who’ve come up with cat­a­loging sys­tems and been sling­ing data via index cards in those amaz­ing long draw­ers. Those are also mas­ters from whom we can draw. Old-school infor­ma­tion sci­en­tists have things to teach us. Museum cura­tors have things to teach us. 

Of course it’s not just in my field. I think anoth­er one that is par­tic­u­lar­ly per­ti­nent is web typog­ra­phy, which if you remem­ber ten or twelve years ago, it was a pret­ty clum­sy thing. We were all work­ing with big Duplo, wooden-block chil­dren’s tools com­par­a­tive­ly. And web typog­ra­phy has devel­oped into a real­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed field with obvi­ous con­nec­tions back to cen­turies of type design. So it’s incum­bent on us to do the appren­tice­ships, whether they’re lit­er­al or fig­u­ra­tive, to find those mas­ters and those deep wells of knowledge.

This is a guy who’s learn­ing to make wagashi. He’s going to be at this for some time. Right now his job is to mix the col­or into the sug­ar until it’s even. He’s going to do that for a while. That may not be the most fun phase for some of us, but we need to do that kind of apprenticeship. 

But we also need to take appren­tices. When we do begin to devel­op exper­tise in our own field, what­ev­er it is, we need to make sure that we’re bring­ing in peo­ple and teach­ing them what we know, through lit­er­al appren­tice­ships whether intern­ships or by build­ing bod­ies of knowl­edge. This is some­thing that I think sets our indus­try apart. It’s an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly gen­er­ous field, and I know that in con­tent work in par­tic­u­lar, the lev­el of shar­ing ver­sus the lev­el of com­pet­i­tive­ness is very very high on sharing. 

There can be some dan­gers to a real­ly highly-communicative online com­mu­ni­ty. People can talk about an echo cham­ber. But I think there’s a lot to be said for not just the social aspect, but real­ly com­mu­nal­ly build­ing these deep pools of expe­ri­ence that are going to out­last us, that are going to help with what­ev­er comes after con­tent strat­e­gy, because I promise you this field will not be here in this form in ten years. It’s going to be some­thing else. It’s going to be some­thing also real­ly excit­ing. But there are things that we can leave for the peo­ple who are going to be doing our work next. So, respect­ing deep knowledge.

A shelf holding many woodworking tools, captioned "handmade systems."

All of this is an attempt to fig­ure out how we can bring these val­ues and prac­tices of craft into com­plex sys­tem prob­lems. But what would that look like if we suc­ceed­ed? I think the answer is that we are work­ing toward, or maybe we can work toward, a world of hand­made sys­tems. This is a work­shop. These tools, many of them [are] made by hand mod­eled on James Krenov’s tools. 

One of the books that Krenov is best known for is called With Wakened Hands. What I did­n’t know until fair­ly recent­ly— Krenov talks about work­ing with wood, being able to com­mu­ni­cate with the wood, in a real­ly sort of non-woo way. He’s talk­ing about what you learn from touch­ing, what you learn from weight and den­si­ty. These things that you can’t learn from read­ing. So he talks about the hands of the crafts­man as being awake to pos­si­bil­i­ty, awake to the wood, awake to what you might be able to make from these mate­ri­als of your craft. It turns out, as I dis­cov­ered just a cou­ple of weeks ago, that the name of the book comes from a Lawrence poem in which Lawrence writes

Things men have made with wak­ened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with trans­ferred touch, and go on glowing
DH Lawrence

I think this is some­thing that we could be work­ing toward. This is some­thing, if we imag­ine a world of hand­made sys­tems, some­thing that isn’t just a fac­to­ry. Something where we don’t allow sys­tems design, the com­pli­cat­ed stuff, the thing that runs pub­lic tran­sit and our real­ly big, com­pli­cat­ed sys­tems, we don’t let those diverge from our craft, then we’re talk­ing about a whole dif­fer­ent kind of net­work of work­shops. And I think that’s where it gets real­ly interesting.

So I want to talk for just a moment about this one par­tic­u­lar thing that Krenov made. I men­tioned that he was famous for his fur­ni­ture, which is quite beau­ti­ful. And for his books and for his teach­ing, which is he. But he’s also famous for this. This is a wood plane. Are any of you wood­work­ers? Do you know this? Have you used any of these? Not a big wood­work­ing audience.

The thing about this, it’s the most lit­er­al inter­face between the arm and hand of the crafts­man and the wood that he’s work­ing on. It’s the thing that you actu­al­ly use to smooth a plank of wood. It’s a pret­ty sim­ple device. It’s real­ly made out of a few pieces. It’s wood, it’s got a met­al blade, and you’d think this would be per­haps and appren­tice project, some­thing that you learn to do ear­ly on. Krenov, as I men­tioned he passed on in 2009, but for some years before that his eye­sight became so bad that he was unable to con­tin­ue work on his fur­ni­ture. In fact his last cab­i­net had to be fin­ished by his appren­tices. He had to stop halfway through. 

But even after his eye­sight had failed, he con­tin­ued to build, through touch, these wood planes and make them on his own time, at his pace, which was fair­ly quick, and send them out into the world at just about cost. So there are many many wood­work­ers of our gen­er­a­tion who have in their pos­ses­sion one of these trea­sured Krenov planes. And like any oth­er nerdy pur­suit wood­work­ing has its own sort of online rab­bit holes and forums and you can find these peo­ple talk­ing about the mys­tery of the Krenov plane and tak­ing pic­tures of them. One guy that I was read­ing some of his sto­ries about his plane, he said that he’d had it for 15 years and in those 15 years he had made 12 planes him­self, going from quite crude as you’d imag­ine, to some­thing that looked remark­ably like a Krenov plane.

But there was a prob­lem with each of them. Even the ones that looked like a Krenov plane did­n’t quite feel right in his hand, did­n’t quite have the same weight. And the clos­er he got, there was still some­thing that elud­ed him and that sad­ly con­tin­ues to elude him. I have hopes that maybe he’ll even­tu­al­ly make it.

The thing that sets apart the Krenov planes is the sound that they make. Most planes rat­tle, they vibrate in sort of an unpleas­ant way when you use them to shave the rough sur­face of the wood. But Krenov talks about this explic­it­ly. It’s one of his sort of core ideas. He talks about the fact that when you have the right plane and you under­stand the wood and you slide the plane across the wood, the sound that comes across isn’t just an ugly vibra­tion or a buzzing. You’re actu­al­ly mak­ing music.

And if you hear the music, that means you’re doing it right. You have the right sys­tem, the right wood, the right touch, and you’re mak­ing the right thing. And I think that all of us, whether we’re doing lit­tle projects or doing big crunchy sys­tem design things, I think we could do worse.

Thank you.

Further Reference

Slides for Little Big Systems (though for a dif­fer­ent, so slides are not identical).

An online com­mu­ni­ty built around Alexander’s A Pattern Language.