19th century artist William Morris’s idea of art is at the core of what I believe is the greatest purpose of the design profession. In his own words: ”art made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.”
In a period, the second half of 1800 in industrial England, characterized by cheap goods industrially produced by workers in miserable conditions and artists focussed in increasingly abstract paintings and uninterested in the real needs of society, Morris rejected both. He wanted artists to reconnect with the people, and the people to live their lives surrounded by good things. So he and some friends stopped painting and instead started to hand-make, and sell, chair, tables, prints, and other objects: the Arts and Crafts movement.
But the problem was that handmade objects take time and effort, and especially in an age when craft had to compete with new low quality, industrially manufactured goods, there was no chance that the “people” could afford things like the ones that Morris made. So despite his initial social intentions, the whole idea of Arts and Crafts turned into a trend of handmade objects that only the riches could buy.
I read about William Morris’ idea of art, and its problematics, in Nikolaus Pevsner’s 1936 Pioneers of Modern Design. At the time, the “happiness to the user” part in Morris’ idea went on to influence the Bauhaus, where artists eventually embraced the potential of technology, and started to design products to be industrially manufactured. But the other important aspect of Morris thoughts, that artists would craft things themselves as “happiness to the maker”, was left out.
Fast forward to the late Information Age that we’re living in now, and we have the perfect conditions for applying the social idea of art that Morris was talking about, in a specific class of craft. Digital products.
A team of one or few can design and craft an app or service through code, keeping full control of its production process and quality, not unlike as if hand-making a chair. But unlike the chairs that Morris made, digital products can of course be infinitely reproducible.
What I’m thinking of is handcrafted software products for the everyday tasks we do with computers, especially as lockdown and remote work made even more chunks of our lives spent through and inside our devices. Things to live our connected life which are as useful, and as varied, as the chairs you can choose for a room.
Examples exist already. One of them is Knowledge base app Notion, which despite its popularity and growth ambitions managed to keep their focus sharp in helping to organize information while bringing an “artist” sensibility in their design. For instance in the way they use emojis as functional elements. Bookmarking app Pinboard and RSS reader Miniflux are also good examples. Both one-man products with a clear and strong utilitarian purpose, although with a very specific - information-dense - aesthetic, clearly designed by and for a developers’ audience. The Indie Makers’ community and the Indie game scene also have some craftsmanship element, but because of intention or scope, they don’t fully hit the mark of the best ambition of Morris’ idea*.
So I think there is an opportunity for a digital products with that Morris’ sensibility. Handcrafted RSS readers, note-taking apps, even spreadsheets, that bring joy to use, and where you can perceive the care from their maker.
This is a note for myself as well as an invitation for artists, technologists and designers. William Morris’ idea of art as a happiness to the maker and the user is the perfect call for digital products maker. And the time for Arts and Crafts digital products is now!
* In many Indie Products makers there is a very explicit goal to bootstrap and then sell (Paul Graham’s design for exit), which makes them focus sometime disproportionally on topics such as growth, marketing, etc. rather than on the product and its users. A more fitting example is in the Indie games scene, but with the to limited scope of entertainment.