The Elements of Good Craft

How details, focus, time, and taste elevate craft.

Attention to Detail

The number one distinction among designers who need a lot of direction and designers who do not is their attention to detail. This is because attention to detail is commonly misunderstood.

Attention to detail is not a personality trait; it is a manifestation of a preference for order and consistency. When that preference is fundamental, it makes it nearly impossible for a person to not see mistakes, flaws, inconsistencies, or differences.

Many studies have been created to observe how and when children develop the ability to classify objects and ideas and even how some children show very early preferences for the kinds of classification they apply to what they see. I’d wager that people who have a strong attention to detail as designers would have been observed to have strong preferences for order at a young age, prior to having learned any form of practical discipline.

This is why attention to detail cannot (easily) be taught. Teaching a person to “see detail” requires them to care about and prefer certain forms of order. Not everyone does! This is good for the world. But it does create a relatively firm division between designers and good designers.

Every designer must have some preference for order, and where they lack it, learn to prefer it on behalf of the audience of their work.


Here, I mean the focus of the work, not a designer’s focus on the work. The former is what makes a work of design effective; the latter is what makes a designer able to produce that work. In other words, this is not about designers avoiding distraction from working, but about designers not introducing distractions into their work.

A good work of craft must be as focused as possible on achieving a purpose. Ideally, that purpose is — at least, in the mind of the designer — as specific as conceptually possible. For instance, a “good chair” might be a furniture designer’s brief, but their purpose might be to create as sturdy, repairable, cleanable, comfortable, and inexpensive a chair as possible. Those priorities will directly shape their choice of materials, and the process of making they follow.

In graphic and interaction design, this is an especially critical aspect of craft. Every digital design is born into distraction — distraction is, unfortunately, the default context in which the products of digital design function. So it is all the more necessary that they be rigorously excised of any internal distractions. We must be ruthless editors.

As an art student — my focus was on filmmaking — we were taught to watch sequences of films repeatedly, each time focusing on a discrete element like editing, lighting, sound, composition, and so on. This exercise taught me that focus reveals the more in less. A good choice can be incredibly simple, but once recognized, open up an entire world of ideas and interpretation. Most of the time, you can see it because someone had the good sense to not crowd it.

Sometimes, the most important design choice you can make is not what you add, but what you take away.


We all know the adage — good, fast, cheap; pick two out of three. Good things tend to take more time.

But what is beneath this is what is more important to good craft. Good craft requires mastery of materials and methods. Mastery requires repetition. Repetition requires time.

Another important truth I learned as an art student came from my drawing. professor, who said, “the only way to make good things is to make many things.” He taught me that you learn to make good things by learning how to see which of the things you’ve made are good. It’s a minor semantic distinction, but it means everything. In order to do that kind of selection, you’ve got to have inventory.

What’s interesting about this principle is that time requirements are not uniform over time. Repetition creates mastery, but mastery produces efficiency. Sometimes good craft can come quickly. (But that doesn’t mean it has to come cheap.)

A good designer works for mastery over and over again across their career as new ideas, new techniques, and new technologies reset their need to practice.


Good craft cannot simply be evaluated on the basis of precision. Attention to detail, focus, and time are all essential elements of craft because they serve a purpose. That purpose is the expression of your point-of-view. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to this as taste.

Taste is one of those things that is difficult to deconstruct; it’s almost irreducibly complex. But it’s that special combination of your preferences, personality, and perceived novelty that makes it possible for an observer to distinguish your thing from someone else’s.

Ego can get in the way of good work — it’s that need we have to use our work to satisfy a feeling we have about something else. But a feeling we have about the work itself is our taste. Our attention to detail, focus, and time create stable environment in which we can put our taste to work.

Every quarter, I have my design team participate in a competition. We call it The Tidiest Designer. Each person submits a design composition file for inspection evaluation. We look for order, consistency, clarity, and utility. We do this not because order alone makes a design good. We do this because order allows good design to happen.

When order is our foundation, we can spend more of our critical energy on the responsible rendering of taste.

Honorable Mentions

Observation is a skill much more deftly applied when it is enjoyed. Another quick anecdote from art school: An art history professor of mine assigned a particular museum artifact to each student. We were required to find that artifact and observe it and only it for three hours. Afterwards, we had to submit a short essay on the object. Like the repetitive film analysis exercise, I learned to enjoy observation and the way the depth and power of a thing can unfold and expand over time.

Outside feedback is the only way to measure your progress in your craft. At its best, it reveals to you what you cannot see. At its worst, it reveals to you how you feel about the world in which your thing exists. Understanding both are essential to good craft.

Facility is important. It’s good to remain hands-on at some level, even as you move “up the ladder.” I think it might be essential. Rick Rubin has famously said the opposite — that his craft is 100% taste — and I can’t say I object to that entirely. But for me, having the experience of making things is essential to how I evaluate the things that other people make.

Have I missed anything? I love conversations about craft, so if you have an addition, objection, or comment, email me!

Written by Christopher Butler on May 13, 2024,   In Essays

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