If you’re designing a motorcycle and you do a bad job, it could mean life or death for the person who ends up riding it. The stakes aren’t quite as high when you’re designing websites and smartphone apps. But Jim Jacoby, the founder of the Chicago-based interactive design group Manifest Digital, thinks digital designers could learn a good deal from the expert builders whose life work is honing their craft. Jacoby’s new venture, the American Design and Master-Craft Initiative (ADMCi), aims to identify the traits and techniques possessed by master craftspeople in all disciplines, in hopes of bringing some of those qualities to the digital design world. So who’s the first master builder Jacoby’s tapping in his quest for better apps and more intuitive websites? World-renowned motorcycle designer JT Nesbitt.
Jacoby had been a casual motorcycle guy and a fan of Nesbitts when he resolved to meet the acclaimed designer during a recent trip down to New Orleans, home of Nesbitt’s Bienville Studios. Nesbitt had just finished his Magnolia Special, a gorgeous, hand-crafted retro roadster that runs on compressed natural gas, but the project hadn’t garnered the attention he’d hoped, and he was planning on getting a job at a bar while he figured out what to do next. A friendship formed, and Jacoby commissioned Nesbitt to design three concepts for the "most impressive motorcycle he could imagine." Now they’re trying to raise $500,000 on Kickstarter to actually build them.
In one respect, the campaign is an attempt to see if crowdfunding might offer a viable new avenue for expert craftspeople in the 21st century. But it’s also part of Jacoby’s greater exploration of what that idea of craftsmanship really means, from the processes it demands to the products it engenders. So what exactly does Jacoby think he and other digital designers stand to learn from the unlikely collaboration? For one, he says, the master craftsman possesses a certain "ethos" or "ethic" that Jacoby finds lacking in digital design, a single-minded sense of purpose and an unwavering dedication to their craft.
"When you talk to these men and women," Jacoby told me, "you find that they sort of do it because they have no choice. They’re doing it because they’re driven to do it. And I think many of us in digital are driven to do it, but we don’t really realize the honor and beauty in that."
But it’s also a matter of understanding the wide-reaching effects of your work—even if that work is designing iPhone apps. "We as digital designers," Jacoby continued, "don’t face the reality that if we don’t get this done right, we’re tinkering with—to get a little overly grand—we’re tinkering with the human relationship. We’re tinkering with the concept of friendship and following, and that’s profound. So when you see that coming from a guy who’s actually living it, and willing to go back and work at a bar because the only thing he will do is design cars or motorcycles and nothing else—no compromise, period—you realize you’re looking at somebody you can learn a lot from."
He’s absolutely right. Just like you can instantly tell the difference between a chintzy, machine-stamped chess set and one that’s been carefully hand-crafted, it’s not hard to distinguish a truly unique smartphone game from whatever Words With Friends spin-off Zynga’s touting this month. It’s a matter of ingenuity, detail, and quality, but also, on a very basic level, one of humanity. Though it sounds trite, a master craftsman puts a little bit of him or herself in every work, and the resulting product, be it a motorcycle, a chess set, or just a good iPhone game, carries a deep human empathy because of it. It’s another thing Jacoby hopes digital design can find in years to come. "When you’re sitting in your favorite chair," he explained, "or find yourself in a room where you just feel like you belong, that’s when the magic happens, and that’s what we’re not doing in digital. We’re dehumanizing digital every chance we get by making it more antiseptic, more clean. And people are messy. We like mess and we like discovery."
It’s a refreshing thought. Somewhere out there exist new ways for us to interact with our digital devices, interactive experiences that don’t rely on outdated desktop metaphors but don’t force a sterilized minimalism on us, either. Experiences that are compelling and intuitive and, yes, a little bit messy. In that respect, who better than a guy who builds motorcycles to help us find them?