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  • July 4, 2015

Organic Artifacts

I first learned of Wharton Esherick when I took an impromptu trip to his studio outside of Philadelphia. Though he has long since passed, his live-in workspace has been preserved and was well worth the 45 minute drive. Decorative Illustration Esherick is known for many things, as a sculptor and woodworker he was acknowledged as the “dean of American craftsmen” by his peers and pushed the Arts and Crafts movement forward toward organicism and cubism.

Seeing his home and studio in person, I was struck by how every inch of it purposefully balanced beauty and utility in a way that could only come through years of evolution. The site, a piece of art itself, was designed and refined as the artist lived, worked, and grew there—not born out of a single explicit construction plan. There are many details that were created at different phases of the artist’s life, establishing a refined sense of organic order. What began as a humble room to create art, was given more purpose with a living quarters, a bedroom for his son, a kitchen, a silo, a bathroom, and a deck. The artist sculpted the building and its contents around the changes in his work and his life.

Well designed things—processes, websites, houses, furniture, etc.—accommodate change. As a designer, I think about change as a focal point: how sites might change after they’ve launched, how I’ve changed professionally, how my work changes throughout the design process. Recently, I’ve explored how the artifacts I make might change from project to project (and throughout each) in an effort to more effectively communicate to peers and clients. Communicating design in different ways provides a freedom to reshape the design process when situations and teams allow for it.

There is a mutual frustration that occurs when good ideas are lost in deliverables that aren’t effectively understood. It’s easy to blame a sitemap’s poor reception on a “Jan from accounting” because she didn’t understand the document’s purpose—but it probably wasn’t the right artifact for her to begin with. Even if the taxonomy described in the document was perfect, the abstract nature of how the design was communicated can be problematic.

A more effective way to describe design might mean delivering something that actually looks like a website sooner in the process. On a recent project, my team delivered several Photoshop mockups of small screen navigation systems as the first design deliverables, in lieu of a sitemap. This accomplished three things:

  1. It documented the taxonomy and navigation as well as setting the expectation that things were supposed to organically change as part of the process. As we lived with the navigation designs and tested them against the site’s goals, the client was able to understand how our decisions affected the architecture in a practical way.
  2. We were able to gut-check the initial aesthetic choices of color and typography along with the our first version of taxonomy. Because the work was done on small screens first, layout options were constrained and a limit was placed on how much aesthetic thinking was required up-front.
  3. Fewer, more meaningful things were created before the actual site was built. This meant less documentation to maintain and less time before an initial version of the site was in the browser that we could test.

As I’ve experimented with different ways to communicate design, it’s become apparent that how an artifact communicates can be as critical as the actual ideas it contains. By evolving our process to better consider the needs of those involved, the artifacts supporting our process become more valuable. Esherick’s studio is a physical shrine to flexibility and growth in craft, process, and in life. Making things that accommodate change as a goal, elevates our work to be more easily understood, longer lasting, and evolve in ways originally unimaginable.

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