quality time

Satisfaction is an uncommon commodity. In the context of work and in tough times, its scarcity and value rises like that of gold—the accumulation of which for some is satisfaction. Designers cannot rely on generous material reward for their labours—with each project unique, there are few easy profits or economies of scale. Wealthy designers have usually arrived there via success in ‘business’ rather than designing alone. But we are pretty fortunate in other benefits that design activity can bring. Designers can often see, if not always touch, the results of their labour and although these might have limited life, their physical existence—and on occasion, their effect on others—produces fleeting glows of satisfaction. Good design also demands a healthy interest in the world that many professions and modern lifestyles discourage.

I recently re-read a book (remember those?) which I had all but forgotten since my late teens: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is not really about Zen, Art or keeping your Motoguzzi on the road. It is an odd piece of 70s autobiographical post-hippy-lit combining road trip, father-son relationship, nervous breakdown and fairly heavy (man) philosophical enquiry. It takes its time to get going, makes your head hurt here & there and although it does eventually offer some (unsettling) drama, a reprint is unlikely to give Dan Brown sleepless nights. Written at least 15 years before the the first personal computer, some of the language of this book is of its time (the word “groovy” appears at least twice without irony) but the relevance of its central theme—our relationship with technology—has increased a hundredfold.

Nowadays it is the law for all new works of literature to proclaim themselves ‘life-changing’. This book’s more measured “…will change the way you think and feel about your life” strapline was about right for me. It drew together a number of things that were already pointing me towards life in design: problem-solving; awareness of the wider world; the qualities of materials; the value of understanding things rather than just using them; the important idea that doing something—anything—well can be an end in itself. Above all the word quality had real meaning for me after reading this book.

My first car, a Lime-green Renault 4 (classy!) was a machine I understood—I knew how it worked and how to keep it going and it never seriously let me down. Every vehicle that has carried me anywhere since has been increasingly a mystery to me. I don’t own a motorcycle but I doubt that the modern machine is maintainable in the way that Pirsig described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We are all now at the mercy of our machines, software and systems when they fail. Fierce competition and acceptance of disposability has built us a world where quality in action and outcome is very much the exception.

Quality is almost always still linked to the word high, where good is a more helpful companion. Quality is not a factor of cost. Just as well: big-budget design jobs with ‘high-quality’ production are thin on the ground these days anyway. But there is satisfaction to be taken from solving the small problem effectively, designing well the least significant project—working with good quality. Thoughtful designing improves the quality of the man-made world if only in small increments. There may be little reward/awards for such, but knowing that you responded well to a problem with care, effort and intelligence is consoling as you realise that you may never afford the designer lifestyle to which you—naturally—feel entitled.

We are noticing that we can less readily afford to discard and replace everything now and there is growing genuine interest in sustainability (if not to save the planet, to save our own little worlds). Quality has been in retreat but is overdue a comeback. Designers are fortunate to be able to draw satisfaction from the world of quality, but also have opportunities—bit by bit— to encourage a turning of the tides in favour of a future for everyone which values quality over quantity again. Mr Pirsig’s thoughts may yet take root.

I wonder if that book would have had the same impact read on the iPad?

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