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Principles of Great Design: Craftsmanship

I love beautiful things. There’s very little in the world that takes my breath away quite like an object that was lovingly crafted, built with care and passion, and presented with the sort of pride that befits a marvelously well-made item.

That which is beautiful is increasingly difficult to come by in a world where a premium is placed on speed, and things are made to be disposable. We often sacrifice real craftsmanship at the altar of expediency. While we are still capable of recognizing the value of something that has been expertly constructed, we often choose the cheap and easy option instead.

For years, I shaved my face with a disposable razor. It did the job just fine. It was straightforward and easy. It even looked flashy. And every few weeks I’d pop off the disposable end, throw it away, and replace it with a ridiculously expensive new cartridge. I blew hundreds of dollars on razor cartridges over the years. And I never got shaves that I felt were perfect.

Straight Razor

About two years ago, I switched over to a beautifully crafted and expertly honed straight razor. I bought a hand-made heirloom razor strop, an excellent badger-hair brush, and some high-quality shave cream. I’ve never had better shaves in my life. The process has changed from an occasional annoyance, to a pleasurable ritual. I have tools that I will have for the rest of my life. Tools that will, likely, outlive me. They work better than my old tools. And, in the long run, they’re cheaper than my old disposables.

The difference in the level of craftsmanship between my old disposable razor and my new straight razor is vast. There is a significant and noticeable difference between cheap, mass-produced products, and hand-crafted, carefully detailed ones.

The standard line in this industry is that most clients don’t really know the difference between good design and great design. While that may be true, I contend that it is always possible to detect the hand of a dedicated artisan in her creations. To that end, I want to examine what we as designers can do to bring quality craftsmanship to our work.

What is craftsmanship? Link


Craftsmanship is the quality that comes from creating with passion, care, and attention to detail. It is a quality that is honed, refined, and practiced over the course of a career. It is the quality that defines the difference between a Timex and a Rolex.

"Craftsmanship is what we should strive for, for the sake of both our reputations and our clients’ success."

We recognize craftsmanship in the attention to the little details. Patek Philippe SA, makers of the finest of all wristwatches, strive relentlessly for perfection in their work. From their simplest models, to their most complicated, the details are what makes the difference. Their perpetual calendar models automatically account for leap years, their star-chart models accurately reflect the sky, and even their simplest models are second-to-none in terms of elegance.

We recognize craftsmanship in an object’s functionality. Breitling’s Navitimer Chronograph wristwatches are designed with an exceptionally accurate slide-rule in the outer bezel. Well-crafted and highly effective don’t have to be expensive either. The Lamy fountain pen is inexpensive, simple, and lays down ink like a pen that cost 4 times as much.

We recognize craftsmanship in an object’s durability. My Moleskine notebook holds up perfectly, despite spending a large part of its life in my back pocket. My hand-made and carefully built razor strop will be an item I’m proud to pass along to the next generation.

What does this have to do with web design? Link

Old State1

Our clients often want work done quickly and inexpensively. We grab our standard toolkits and templates and bags of snippets and tricks, and we put out a product that the client is reasonably happy with. So, why all this talk about watches and razors and pens and paper?

We didn’t get into this business to add to the great pool of mediocrity. There isn’t one designer out there who wants to produce work that’s just “okay”. We all want to produce web sites that impress, and make our clients say Wow!2 We want to create the sort of quality that earns us reputations as great designers.

Skilled professional designers and developers often find themselves in the regrettable position of being treated like tools for the exercise of client whims. It is a rare case when we are afforded the respect and acknowledgement that we deserve for the effort and time that we have dedicated to honing our craft.

Developing craftsmanship in our work is the key to escaping those things that are less desirable about the business we’re in. It is the key to creating sites that rise above the mediocre and average, and it is key to earning the respect of clients and customers.

"Artisans are accorded respect for the work they do."

How do we become artisans? Link

Craftsmanship, obviously, isn’t something that just happens. It requires a great deal of time, patience, and effort. Becoming a real artisan requires that you commit yourself to the continuous development of your craft. Traditionally, craftsmen developed their skills through apprenticeship to those masters of the craft who came before them. While we don’t often work that way in this day and age, there are a few things that we can do to emulate that process.


The first step is to practice. Practice every day. Design something new3, walk though a tutorial4, work on a personal project5, whatever it takes to get you working with the tools of your trade each day. The more you do something, the better (and faster) you become at doing it. Practice is, without a doubt, the most important part of developing the quality of craftsmanship in your work.


The second step is education. Web workers have the expertise of hundreds of others to draw upon, through blogs, online documents, and forums. It is critical to our craft that we take some time each week to work on building our skill sets. Use the myriad of resources available to you to further your education6 as a designer/developer. Read what your colleagues are writing7. Participate8 in quality discussion. 9The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more likely you are to find the right one for the job.


Third, learn to accept criticism10, and react appropriately. People have a hard time taking criticism of their work. When you put so much effort into a piece, it can be difficult to hear that what you’ve done isn’t good enough. However, nothing will help you improve so much as a good critic. Criticism isn’t personal. You and your critics have the same goal: a quality product. Learn to set aside your ego, and accept criticism as a means of improving the piece, rather than taking it as a personal affront. Request feedback from other designers11, participate in design12 feedback13 forums, and set up usability14 and A/B tests. Soon, you’ll come to not just tolerate criticism, but actively appreciate how much it can help you grow and improve.

Detail Link

Fourth, pay attention to the details15. As I mentioned earlier, this is where all of the difference is made. A true artisan is meticulous about the details. A website that looks beautiful16, where the details have been attended to carefully, is a website that prompts return visits. Take the time to add polish and style to the small things that can easily go overlooked. Pay attention to hover states, borders, icon placement, grid alignment, microformats, semantic markup, and the like; these are the sorts of details that make the difference. Attentiveness to these details raises the quality of our work.

Future Link

Fifth, design for the future. Items that exhibit the quality of craftsmanship are timeless. They are built well, and built to last. Our websites should be as well. I realize that there’s an extraordinary amount of mutability in the work we do. Trends and practices change rapidly, there are always new features in the software we use, people develop new tools that give us more possibilities. But, despite the ever- changing face of this industry, it is possible to do work that has longevity. Progressive enhancement to include new standards, looking forward to new specifications17, careful attention to best practices, and a willingness to step outside the box and take some risks all contribute to making a website that is designed to last.

A Call to Arms Link

"The standard line in this industry is that most clients don’t really know the difference between good design and great design."

We have the opportunity to change our perception of what we can deliver our clients, and give them credit for recognizing the quality we can provide. We have the opportunity to foster a perception of designers and developers as artisans, for whom craftsmanship is a top priority. It will make a difference to our business, to our clients, and to their customers. Furthermore, seeing ourselves as artisans, and working to build craftsmanship in the product we create, is the key to building quality reputations and securing our community’s future.

So, let’s get to work. Link

Please share with us your thoughts about this article. We’d love to have an interesting discussion about this subject so feel free to contribute to the discussion. Thank you for reading the article. You can follow the Design Informer on Twitter here.

Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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Richard Glover is rather fond of wristwatches, straight razors, fountain pens, and anything else that looks pretty and is well-made (In case you couldn't tell). He works as a designer, developer, and public speaking coach in Mesa, AZ. You should visit his website here.

  1. 1

    Excellent article!!!

    According to me, the most essential characteristic of a craftsman is Patience.

    Practice, Education, Accepting Criticism and attention to detail – all of them require patience.

    Somebody who is impatient cannot look into details and hence cannot design beautiful things.

    It’s really a nice thought of talking about craftsmanship in web design. Web Design is about beauty and functionality and I think we all can improve on these two things by practicing the art of craftsmanship. :)

    • 2

      Exactly! The problem that I see happening a lot today is because we are so busy trying to make a living, we take on job after job and we design these websites without really putting our whole effort into it. That’s when patience needs to happen. We need to be more patient while designing, but sometimes, that’s hard to do when a client is breathing down our neck. ;)

      I think that’s what separates the best designers from the rest. You can check out their work and everything will be of the highest quality. This is what I am striving to do.

  2. 3

    The most important rule: less is more!

  3. 5

    Wow, that was a really great read! You had me hooked from the start, and your 5 steps are so well thought out, thanks for the inspiration!

    • 6

      The same with me as well. I really had a great time reading this wonderful article as well. You can definitely notice that Richard has craftsmanship in his writing.

  4. 7

    Great post!

    I think that the most important thing to becoming a craftsman in design is education, especially in the context of web design. All the other points, with the possible exception of accepting criticism, follow education. You can’t practice if you don’t educate yourself on what to practice, it’s hard to pay attention to detail when you don’t know what the ever changing details are and it’s impossible to design for the future if you don’t understand what the future could bring. This is why I’m so appreciative of this community and the great blogs that I’ve found here. There is so much to learn and we’re lucky to have so many people here that we can learn from.

    Keep up the great work!

    • 8

      I think you make an excellent point, Eric. Further, I think that even accepting criticism is in the interest of advancing education. It’s the key tool to learning from your mistakes, and learning from your audience. Some of my most profound and life-altering educational experiences have been the result of good, honest, constructive criticism.

    • 9

      Education is definitely key if you want to exhibit craftsmanship in your work, especially in web design. That’s why guys like Eliott Jay Stocks, Tim Van Damme, Andy Clarke are always learning and being the pioneers of the newer technologies. We ought to follow their examples and we need to be striving to learn and educate ourselves daily. Only then will we truly be “artisans.”

  5. 10

    I think the idea is great as well. I know exactly what you mean about Dan Cedarholm. You can tell that he is definitely a craftsman when it comes to web design. It’s exemplified in his beautifully designed website, SimpleBits, which by the way got a little bit of a redesign recently. :)

  6. 11

    Thanks for stopping by Josh.

    “We must take every aspect of design seriously as intricate details can definitely make or break a project.”

    Yes, this is so true. I think it’s these little details that can definitely make a designer shine. Take for instance, that SimpleBits website that I referred to with Brad. The use of “Baskerville” as the ampersand definitely makes the design a lot better. It’s a small thing but that’s what craftsmanship is all about.

  7. 12

    Thanks for the kind words Brandon. I definitely try my best to inject some personality into my posts and images. I definitely don’t just hit publish. It takes quite a long time to do it but the end result is worth it in my opinion.

    Also, I appreciate the compliments Richard. You did a wonderful job with this article.

  8. 13

    I appreciate it. I’m really liking the interviews on your site as well. When will I be interviewed? ;)

  9. 14

    I completely agree with vision. We need to definitely be visionaries as well. I think the more proper word that we can use is creativity. We need to learn how to think outside the norm and be creative with our design creations.

    All the points that you mentioned were great and they all go together hand-in-hand. Thanks for sharing your thought and adding to the discussion, Paulo!

  10. 15

    I love the term craftsmanship in relation to design. That’s how someone can set himself apart from the mass, and that’s how we can design websites that last.

    There are some good points here. I also read about it only recently in Dan Cederholm’s book “Handcrafted CSS”, which is a good read.

    • 16

      New here on Design Informer? Nice to have you Birgit.

      I agree with you. That term just sounds excellent when mixed in with design.

      I’d definitely have to look into purchasing that book. I’ve heard lots of good things about it but haven’t had a chance to check it out yet. Thanks for reminding me about that. :)

  11. 17

    Thanks Melody! It’s always great when someone notices the images. :)

    Yes, good quality work is timeless. Now in web design, that might be a little hard to accomplish as we have newer technologies that are always being added, but I think overall, if you take out all the bells and whistles of a site and you strip it down to just the design, it should still be solid, have great typography, layout, white space, contrast, etc. That’s a timeless design!

    • 18

      This is the quality that I wanted to address when I spoke about designing for the future. Timelessness is a key element to items that exhibit craftsmanship. I think it really crucial that we do the best we can to create timelessness, within the bounds of reason and the limitations of our tools.

      Recognizing the rapidly changing face of technology, it’s the quality that is probably hardest to achieve. However, I think if we remain mindful of the future, and keep our focus on good fundamentals, we can accomplish the closest thing we have to timelessness in our work.

    • 19

      “I think if we remain mindful of the future, and keep our focus on good fundamentals, we can accomplish the closest thing we have to timelessness in our work.”

      Couldn’t have said it better, Richard. It’s all about the basics, the fundamental tenets of design. These are what every designer should learn if he or she wants to be a craftsman.

  12. 20

    Excellent points David. We always need to be thinking ahead and not just today. I think too many designers in the field are looking for the quick fix. They want everything now. That’s why we have lots of rip-offs and scam artists because they would rather make a quick buck than build a long-term relationship with their clients which will just eventually be better for them in the long run. I know, it’s a slightly different point to what you brought up, but it’s definitely part of looking ahead. :)

    • 21

      “When people started looking for shortcuts to make a buck fast then we developed less creativity and more duplicity.”

      That’s exactly what I was trying to say David. thank you for your comments and for responding back to mine. :)

  13. 22

    Nowdays, there is so much time constraint that we usually forget the word “craftsmanship”.

    • 23

      Excellent point! Time is a big factor in truly “crafting” something and I think one of the main reasons why we rarely see “Craftsmanship” is because we live in such a fast-paced society that everything we do gets rushed. :D

  14. 24

    Great article!

    Quality craftsmanship is a special thing. It cannot be rushed, and it takes responsibility for absolutely everything within its scope. There is never an aspect that is not justified and thought about in the design, and the gestalt of such thoughtfulness almost always results in a great product and a devoted client. Apple is a prime example!

    The key to being an artisan is definitely knowing everything about your craft, from the inside-out, mastering the fundamentals and thoroughly caring for each little detail. That’s why I love the idea of web standards. It forces a certain degree of craftsmanship on code to avoid the web from becoming a sea of ‘ugliness’. Designing for a better future, indeed.

    Quality craftsmanship may take more time to create than a simple readymade or hashed-together design, in the same way a cobbler or tailor takes their time creating a pair of handmade shoes or the pieces of a bespoke suit, but the special attention to every detail becomes timeless. A cheap $100 H&M suit may go through several wears before falling apart, but a $1000+ bespoke suit is going to fit better, last longer, support the quality of handiwork, and one might even pass it down to their children. The moleskines I have have lasted much more longer than any other notepad. Their durability and quality have led me to keep buying moleskines devotedly even at their remarkably higher pricepoint. There is no substitute for great craftsmanship. I couldn’t agree more that it definitely applies to webdesign.


    • 25

      I agree with both of you guys. :)

      I like the analogies that Brad used about the suit and the moleskines. They definitely last and I guess the old adage holds true as well.

      “You get what you pay for.”

      I’m also with you guys about semantic mark-up and web standards. While this site doesn’t conform to all of them and while I’m not a master developer, I do take pride in these things and I try my best to follow by them.

  15. 26


    Nice article. It’s fresh to see (ha) a word we don’t often hear anymore used in a design context.

    @Paulo Miranda. Dig the courage comment

  16. 28

    Awesome article. Designers are artists, and all works should be treated like a work of art. I wouldn’t want to put my name on a work I’m ashamed of.

  17. 30

    Great article, I really enjoyed reading it :).

    Unfortunately above all (practice, education, accepting criticism and other stuff You’ve mentioned), it takes TIME to become a good artisan.

    • 31

      You guys have both said it well and I just wanted to say that I agree with your conclusions.

      Time is such an important factor in being an artisan, it’s just most of us are way too busy doing other things that prevent us from really honing our craft and creating masterful designs.

  18. 32

    The difference in levels of craftsmanship is vast but with the pace of the world we forget how much it takes to create a disposable razor. So many times I find myself fixed to the screen watching an everyday object we take for granted being made. The technology behind it is fascinating and the final product is just another throw away item. I don’t quite trust myself with a “cut throat” as I like to call them from the old days of Sweeney Todd : ) but want to give it a try.

    The disposable razors aren’t as sharp so don’t last as long, hence keep the production line flowing. But for a minute take a look at the moulding of the item, the size of the razors and think that this one item is designed to be used by everyone, its quite something. There probably was a time when the “cut throat” was seen as just an ordinary item, maybe not in the same way as now but I’m sure the average man didn’t all use a premium crafted razor. I will however agree that picking up an item that has history or crafted well is a pleasurable experience.

    We often just don’t take the time to look at objects anymore, when was the last time you opened up a watch to see the workings, its fascinating or maybe thats just me.

    We live in an era where everything is instant, “Our clients often want work done quickly and inexpensively.” but don’t check copy because we can change it online instantly a world away from checking copy before it goes to print. Our overall mentality has changed from product usage to shopping.

    Great Post and very valid 5 points.

    1 – Practice
    2 – Education
    3 – Accept Criticism
    4 – Attention to Detail
    5 – Design for the Future

    • 33

      Well said Rajesh. We definitely need to be a little more observant.

      Here’s a great quote by Alexis Carrell:

      “A few observation and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning to truth.”

  19. 34

    Thank you for the thoughtful post! Craftsmanship is critical, and yet there is no other quality requiring so much effort to develop. It is the sum of many sciences converging, especially in the web arena. To that end I couldn’t agree more with your five points.

    At the same time there is a quality others have touched on more abstract, but no less essential in the quest to become a craftsman—Taste! Taste is not Vision. Taste is not Patience. Taste is not Style. A craftsman must be driven to become so, dedicated and disciplined to his trade. However all these qualities and the 5 excellent points you made are secondary to Taste.

    Taste is a sensitivity, not unlike your palate. No matter the medium of an artist, whether a chef with his meats and plants, a painter with his oils or watercolors, or even a digital designer with his pixels and code, the quality most foundational to all others is Taste. Taste drives artists to practice, learn, receive criticism, be meticulous, and think of their work as a heritage rather than any common, disposable good.

    Defending taste is unnecessary. Those who posses it know this. They’re not artist to go-along, they’re artists because they recognize details others do not. Neither is it an enlightened quality, as though some mystical force were at work. Rather it’s a rare inborn quality, it cannot be bought or understood. A tool can be bought and it’s purpose understood, but this alone will not result in excellence. No one praises the pen of Shakespeare or the chisel of Michelangelo.

    Often those lacking taste, but desiring the quality, defend their position saying, “Everyone’s tastes are different.” I heartily agree and qualify with, “Some people have a sensitivity to detail and quality, which results in a resolve to settle for no inferior thing. Others lack this sensitivity.” For those who have this sensitivity skill must still be honed, tools must still be mastered. The difference: all effort is an investment in something they already posses, rather than something they wish they could be.

    Taste is essential and the greatest of all qualities. Every craftsman becomes so because they have taste. The world over recognizes craftsmanship, but recognizing craftsmanship and having the ability to become one diverge at that crux of Taste.

    • 35

      Another excellent point that adds to the discussion of the article. I do think that we all have “taste,” it’s just some people’s taste is bad and others is good. For example, there are some people that no matter what they design, their taste always seem excellent, no matter what they design. I’ve also seen people who went to design school, know all the fundamental tenets of design yet their designs always seem boring, and it doesn’t really look all that great. I think the difference between the two is “taste.”

      I can tell by your comments that you indeed have good taste, Heath! :)

  20. 36

    What a great article! Words and phrases like “artisan,” “craftsmanship” and real “attention to detail” are seldom associated with today’s design communities.


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