The 'Craft' Word

What do you think when you hear the word ‘craft’?

For me, it’s an image of the artisan maker; locked away in a workshop, hands red raw from an honest day’s work, surrounded by their tools. It’s part daydream, part throw back to my previous work as a letterpress printer (the job that inspired me to become a designer in the first place).

But times change, and just as my job description has evolved, so has the meaning of the word ‘craft’. We live in a world where terms like “hand crafted” and “artisan” have become so overused that they carry absolutely no guarantee of the authenticity or quality of the products they’re used to describe.

The use of ‘craft’ as a descriptive term has become every designer’s worst nightmare: a trend. The type of thing that keeps us up at night with the fear that maybe we are just moving things around on a page to make them look pretty after all.

This notion of craft and authenticity began to rise in popularity as the public responded to the financial meltdown of the late noughties. Consumers felt they couldn’t trust slick corporate brands and instead longed for simpler, more authentic experiences and products on a local scale. Which was all well and good. For a while.

Some fantastic design work has been created in the pursuit of communicating brands’ authenticity and dedication to their products. But over time it feels like everyone’s had a go and we’ve seen some brands adopting the language of craft when they really had no business doing so.

In the same way words like ‘artisan’ have come to lose most of their meaning, so too has the visual language of craft, carrying little to no connection to what it once stood for.

Printing labels on off-white paper with some ‘vintage’ fonts and a couple of stamps is now as little an indication of authenticity. See also: Costa referring to its coffee as ‘hand-crafted’. Sure, it’s been made by hand but only in the same way all coffee anywhere has been made by someone at some stage.

This sleight-of-hand – taking advantage of something that it’s true on a literal basis – also applies to using visual cues that suggest something is more crafted than it truly is. You’re not technically lying, but you’re only telling a fraction of the whole story.

As far back as 2011 – ancient history by today’s standards – fast food outlets were being criticised for labelling their pizza as ‘artisan’ or their burgers as ‘farm-to-fork’ (which conjures some uniquely horrific mental imagery all of its own).

The point is that the overuse of craft language – both verbal and visual – has led to consumers distrusting craft brands in exactly the same way they did those slick corporate identities. You can only pull the wool over someone’s eyes for so long until they realise that your £9.00 bottle of hand crafted beer tastes exactly the same (and indeed, is exactly the same) as the mass-produced one their friend bought for half the price.

The question you might be asking at this point is “So what’s next? What’s the next big movement for consumers to latch on to?” But this is still missing the point.

There are brands and products out there that are still genuinely hand crafted by people who can honestly call themselves experts – some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with. It seems like a real shame to me that they should have to change who they are or how they present themselves just because everyone else tried to piggyback on their success.

But here’s the thing: those brands probably won’t change much at all. In my experience, they tend to see the value in being yourself and staying true to what you do and what you believe in.

Completely changing your brand or your identity just to chase design trends isn’t just a complete waste of money, it’s dooming yourself to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

The key to breaking that cycle and creating design that lasts is to always consider one fundamental aspect of all great brands: honesty. Honesty more often than not leads to simplicity, and simplicity lies at the heart of 99% of all great design.

If you’re not comfortable with the ‘truth’ of your brand – well, then there’s a bigger issue at play – and any branding that aims to hide rather than handle this is creating even bigger problems for itself.

There’s a very famous Mark Twain quote that I’ve heard mentioned in our studio on more than one occasion: “If you tell the truth, you’ll never need to remember anything.”

Similarly, if your design communicates the honest truth behind your brand, it’s easy to know where you’re going next. And you don’t need to worry about how you’ll look getting there.