Digital designer Jim Jacboy thinks people in his field can learn a great deal from master craftsmen, like the famed motorcycle builder JT Nesbitt.

Mainly, Jacoby thinks there’s a certain ethic or ethos missing from digital work. "I think many of us in digital are driven to do it, but we don’t really realize the honor and beauty in that."

To find that ethos, Jacoby created the American Design and Master-Craft Initiative (ADMCi), an inter-disciplinary effort to identify what expert craftspeople can teach designers in mass-produced, digital age.

To see if crowd-funding might be a viable option for master craftspeople in the 21st Century economy, Jacoby and Nesbitt have launched a Kickstarter to support the construction of three new bikes.

The Hellcat, one of Nesbitt’s previous bikes.

A render showing one of Nesbitt’s gorgeous proposed machines. Look at those pipes!

Motorcycles might seem like a strange source of inspiration for a digital designer, but they have a visceral connection to our humanity that Jacoby yearns for in our digital experiences.

"We’re dehumanizing digital every chance we get by making it more antiseptic, more clean," he says. "And people are messy. We like mess and we like discovery."

You can find out more and contribute to the project at the Kickstarter campaign page.

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What Digital Designers Can Learn From A Master Motorcycle Builder

Jim Jacoby wants to fund a series of dream motorcycles designed by JT Nesbitt, and in the process, teach people about the virtues of craft.

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?

You can learn more about Nesbitt and the campaign at the Kickstarter page.

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  • ADMCi

    We're pleased to say this adventure in design culture has resulted in The School for Digital Craftsmanship. (the motorcycle continues 'under wraps' for a couple more weeks.) We've learned so much in this process and we're eager to share it with the design community as well as those interested in entering design. User-Centered Design classes are out as our first offering. More coming soon...

  • ADMCi

    we've added some awards to the kickstarter project especially for the digital design community. in particular, a digital re-creation of JT Nesbitt's design folios. the most advanced includes a narrative as you turn the virtual pages, with backstory and context provided by JT himself. we provide this all simply with a mind to elevate the conversation around craft in digital. let's advance the conversation!

  • Jimbo Jim

    hand-crafted retro roadster that runs on compressed natural gas

    thats not going to give u much of a cruising range, mind as well run EV!
    atleast is much quieter.

  • ADMCi

    the driving range on the magnolia special is 600-700 miles per fill. it set a world record crossing the country from nyc to los angeles and was capped by a great interview with jay leno (a better auto enthusiast than comedian, imo). so what was that about EVs?

  • Brian Gunning

    There's so many layers to design, and one of the most important is craft. But craft by nature, demands real material. Stuff that changes with the light, things that may smell. The digital realm demands craft too, but in a less dramatic sense. Understanding of type, competence in photography, the yen for stitching together decent prose. Start there, and it makes a difference, but when then?

    How to integrate the wabi-sabi of time-worn affection into the digital realm? I think it's a matter of drawing every day, building sculptures out of playdoh with your kids, and remembering that one simple fold of a piece of paper can create epic dimensionality. When you use a well thought-out photo of these, with only natural light, a website can then be the bridge to bringing a wiff of craft back to our senses, and a touch of the human to our eyes online. 

  • ADMCi

    i wish this weren't the prevailing belief. to present craft in the traditional definition as more powerful or meaningful because it is physical misses a terribly important point. our craft in digital is tinkering with the human condition. a few years back i sat in on a round-table at SxSW where one of the speakers confidently stated that he couldn't define the word 'friend' because it was in flux. it was at that moment i knew we had something profound on our hands. the light and smell of hand-crafted design is very important. the psychology of sociology of what we are doing to ourselves and our communities (or better, COULD be doing) is where master craftsmanship needs to go. i hope to bring some of this crowd with me...

  • Nick Guarracino

    Agree 100%. Our digital culture shift has the masses convinced that true craftsmanship belongs to artisans like custom cycle builders and pastry chefs. Ive seen a slow de-evolution of design over the past 20 years that has been accelerated in recent years. Designers are sacrificing their craft for speed and flexibility, resulting in work that is homogenous, simplistic, and just plain boring. Theres much to be learned from real craftsmen who build out of love of the art, and inherently create things that last. Digital designers are too eager to take shortcuts and the work shows it. Lets not lose sight of the main point of the article; we create to enhance the human experience, so a bit of humanity needs to exist in everything we do.