Choice

Truly shape and fashion these;
Leave no yawning gaps between;
Think not, because no man sees,
Such things will remain unseen.

In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the Gods see everywhere.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Builders

Design is choice, but, in order to choose you must first be aware of the choices before you. A growing awareness of choice at the smallest detail of a task is what constitutes the development of creative skill. In this way, the progression of learning in most any craft or skill can be described by the following three stages, which I loosely base on Robert Greene’s idea of the Apprentice to Master progression he covers in his book Mastery:

  1. Novice: someone who tackles a creative task with little experience. They are aware only of the very general choices before them, the details being largely ignored or left to unconscious implementation by means of imitating other works. The novice is prone to error when he tries to be original and to mediocrity when he concedes to follow others.

  2. Apprentice: someone who has acquired basic or intermediate eduction in a trade or skill. Their education and experience makes them aware of the myriad of small choices and their effects. Using their knowledge the apprentice makes decisions consciously and carefully, slower than a novice or an expert – the novice moving quickly due to his inexperience, the expert due to his skill – but with generally good results.

  3. Master: someone who has gained enough experience to excel in their craft. The master is not only aware of all the choices before them, but has fully internalized them, making decisions intuitively rather than consciously. This intuition is not based on some inherent talent, but on the years of conscious decision making which has now turned into what the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl: a fingertip feel.

All creative endeavors involve a transformation from the ideal form, a conception of the thing being made in the minds of its creators, to the real form, the concept realized in material reality. This transformation is the implementation of the design, and during this implementation the ideal form suffers a certain level of degradation before it becomes real. How much degradation an ideal form suffers before it is realized depends on the skill, knowledge, experience, patience and dedication of its creators. The forces responsible for the degradation of the ideal form during its realization can be categorized into two groups:

  1. The errors of the hand: unconscious faults introduced through inexperience and negligence. These are the errors one makes without meaning to, things one will try not to do when one gets the chance to implement the thing again – an imperfect treatment here due to an overconfident approach, a bad decision there due to faulty assumptions. As the novice builds their skill and experience in their progression to becoming a master, the errors of the hand will gradually decrease.

  2. The faults of the spirit: concessions, both conscious and unconscious, made for the wrong reasons – that is: choices made not in favor of creating the best work the craftsman deems possible, but in favor of some other purpose, such as rushing to meet the deadline, cutting corners to save resources, making the work appear appear to be more than it truly is, or yielding to the unqualified preferences of a marketer who has no experience in the craft. These are the compromises and the damage one makes not through lack of skill or experience, but by surrendering the ideal form one piece at a time to the demands of Necessity, by surrendering one’s values for short term gains.

Where errors of the hand are of the material domain, errors of the spirit are of the moral. Education in most any craft generally focuses on technique, which gradually eliminates the former, however, it seldom discusses values that form the work. But creative development cannot happen in isolation from moral development, that is, a philosophical inquiry into one’s values and how they relate to one’s work, for even if we eliminate the imperfections of technique we will still be left with the imperfections of the spirit, and unless those are set right the work can never be wholly good.

To further illustrate these two forces, consider the following analogy. When a sculptor carves out his work from a slab of stone, he is in effect chipping away everything that does not belong to the final form of his work. The precision with which a piece of rock will be sliced away from the boundary of his form is the domain of technique. Sloppy technique will introduce faults and inaccuracies. Good technique will accurately realize the his mental construct.

But what is of even more importance here is not the skill and experience that allows the craftsman to realize an idea, but the idea itself – the unrealized form in the stone awaiting its materialization. This ideal form, existing only as idea, is prone to degradation of the spirit, for in that moment that the craftsman doubts his skills and surrenders his ambition, the ideal form will begin to shrink, will begin to lose its beauty and its grandeur, and will be, through the yielding of the maker’s spirit, condemned to mediocrity. No amount of technique will save a work whose integrity has already been compromised through a series of concessions.

In our progression from the Novice to the Master, we must become aware not only of the technical choices that lay before us, but of the moral ones, too – the larger choices that regulate the very nature of the work we do, how we go about doing it and how it impacts our world. One may possess all the technical skill in the world, but one still needs vision enough and ambition enough to use that skill to its fullest. The nature of the work that you do is ultimately more important than how you execute it.

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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