Crafting Communication in Artisan Manufacturing

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

Heath Ceramics by Dustin Aksland for Dwell
Heath Ceramics by Dustin Aksland for Dwell

By Ewa Guzek

Where do the conversations that shape the organization of artisan, or small-scale craft based manufacturing occur? They happen on the shop floor, around the potter’s wheel, over the planer’s howl, while the beans roast. Contrary to large corporations who invest in planning and organization, in small-scale manufacturing the planning of crucial business strategies happens pragmatically in response to problems, and therefore often lack beneficial foresight.

This issue of strategic planning is not easily remedied while investment is focused primarily on production. This is an important concern, considering that local production of the kind that artisan manufacturing contributes, is one of the most important means of encouraging sustainability through less reliance on transport and fuels, sustaining jobs within the community, supporting local outlets of distribution, and preserving craft traditions.

These issues greatly affect our social, cultural, and ecological environment. The loss of their contribution from outsourcing, poor management, or closures due to our economic state, is devastating. However, as a designer engaged with artisan manufacturing, I have experienced that there are advantages in their communication not present in large corporations. The ability to experiment and collaborate are general strategies that have and can be applied to generate innovation and support these practices.

Due to the scale of artisan manufacturing, there is immediacy in production that is impossible at larger scales. Many companies foster this ability through pragmatic experimentation. Vertical integration, whereby a practice is engaged in multiple parts of production-from raw materials to delivery,  allows for ideas to be tested in material and applied immediately to production. This strategy allows ceramic companies to embrace the accidents that result in new glazes, furniture companies to refine through prototyping, molds to be tested, and refinements to process applied. Companies are able to retain the craft notion of refinement of product and process, but to also continuously innovate through immediate applications of novelty. To strategize this notion, companies can encourage experimentation by creating an atmosphere where thoughtful and playful interactions with material can occur.

Along with experimentation, the nature of collaboration and the garnering of ideas on the production floor are advantageous when applied strategically. Forums for communicating ideas with opinions from those on and off the shop floor allow for the designer to improve on manufacturing, the crafter to streamline delivery, details to be debated, and ultimately, business improvements to be made. This communication strategy can be furthered by creating teams with diverse outlooks. As an example, in working with a furniture manufacturer who sought out a diverse workplace, I designed alongside an attorney, an accountant, an industrial designer, and an architect. This environment allowed for collaboration with varied inputs, and thus resulted in richer projects.

The strategies of experimentation and collaboration have been applied in many instances by manufacturers who consider their implicit advantages over larger production, as corporations lose these abilities due to scale and cost. Other advantages of artisan manufacturing are to be found in such places as the branding of locally made products, community support, and networks of industry. A broader consideration and application of strategies found in the inherent advantages over large corporations may possibly sustain this industry. Artisan manufacturing involves a great deal of investment and dedication to craft, and we should support and acknowledge the value it adds to our society.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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