Last year, I heard Swedish axe maker Gabriel Branby speak at the DO Lectures. Gabriel’s company, Gränsfors, makes the finest forged axes in the world. He spoke about the essence of product development as craft. His company takes axe-making very personally. To underscore that commitment, each of his axes is forged by a smith who stamps his or her personal initials in the axe head next to the company logo.
Contrast that sense of personal ownership with the professional detachment that is part of many forms of product development. Rarely is product development seen as craft. Most products launched are not meaningfully different than what is already on the market.
When Steve Jobs launched the original Mac, he had the entire team sign their work, literally. If you open the case of a Mac 128k, 512k, or Plus, you’ll find the signatures of the entire team that worked on it.
Imagine the sense of personal ownership you’d feel in signing that Mac before the first one even rolled off the production line. Those developers put their names on the line, in advance, whether the product succeeded or failed. You can imagine the attention paid of every small detail. No wonder that Apple is known for crafting “insanely great” products.
I like the idea of collectively signing your work. I think it’s a powerful statement of commitment that runs deeper than any mission statement. It forces a higher standard. It signals that each and every person on a development team has the responsibility to make that product more remarkable with their individual touch. A product is a composite of thousands of decisions and actions. If everyone takes these decisions and actions personally, products become stronger, not weaker, as they move from concept to launch.
No one wants to put their name on something mediocre.
I also think that signing your work encourages the creation of products with lasting value. Not only are most products designed to be disposable, very few innovations are still on the shelves five years after they launch. Gränsfors axes come with 20 year guarantees. Rarely do we think further out than the next financial year.
Welsh clothing brand howies created a special Hand-Me-Down line that is specifically designed to last long enough to pass on to others. Their messenger bag comes with a tag to track the names of different owners that will inherit the bag. Taking the long view transforms how we see the products that we develop and the products that we consume.
David Hieatt (who founded both howies and the DO Lectures) expanded this concept further recently with an interesting idea called The History Tag. Similar to a bar code, The History Tag would track the development and story of individual products. It stamps each product with the history of who made it and who consumed it. It thereby encourages those who make products and those who consume products to take those objects personally.
As he writes, “The reason I like The History Tag idea is because people like to know the history of things. I like the fact that there’s a reward for making something last. It becomes a badge of honour for the people who own it and the people who made it. And it’s nice that its usefulness takes time for it to reveal itself. Which runs against the current need for instant gratification, which may not be such a bad thing.”