Disintermediating Craft: Lecture By James Boardwell, at The Shipley Art Gallery: Notes and Reflections


As well as being a co-founder of Folksy.com, James Boardwell’s other company, Rattle (Design Research), states “James has a PhD and MSc in social research combined with over ten years experience researching and designing digital products and services for clients such as the BBC, Channel 4, Comic Relief, INQ, OIX and the Cabinet Office.”

[The lecture notes appear in plain text, my thoughts appear in blue italic font. Link to the lecture on YouTube]

James started his lecture by saying that there is a current movement for people to be interested in the provenance of what they buy and that there is a ‘craft ubiquity’ with corporations cashing in on the scene. He went on to discuss platforms and sharing, and how crafts people can succeed in the new landscape.

Agree that this seems to be the case for craft, food, and purchases in general, for people with higher incomes, purchasing at the higher end of the market, but I guess that many still shop by price. A case for aiming your work at those who value individuality, process and quality, and have the money to pay for it.

He mentioned that the talk was aimed at those selling to retail, rather than artists.

He talked about the Folksy ethos of ‘meritocracy’* and fairness. He said that there were often disputes about what constituted ‘handmade’ (this required proof), or ‘craft’ (decided upon by Folksy).

[* Google defines meritocracy as “government or the holding of power by people selected according to merit.”; “a society governed by people selected according to merit.”;  and “a ruling or influential class of educated or able people.”]

An interesting debate to be had about when ‘handmade’ becomes ‘manufactured’. Folksy allows designers to have their products manufactured for them. In my opinion, handmade should mean made by the designer/maker, if it is made by another company, even if designed by the original maker, it is surely manufactured.

I have also seen disputes in the forum on Folksy about what is crafted versus assembled. (Eg silversmithing v. threading commercial beads onto a commercial chain). I believe that there is room for all forms of creativity, but makers should be clear in their ‘meet the maker’ sections about how much personal input there has been into a product. This leads to a discussion about pricing: most people would expect to pay more for the piece that has been entirely made by hand, but some hobby makers are happy just to cover their material costs, which annoys the professionals who need to make a living, but are undercut by those who ‘under price’.

James went on to say that many people on the Folksy website were makers in their spare time. The turnover of the site was £1 million last year, with an average spend of £19 and that there were 162,000 items for sale.

He describes the customer as looking for something unique, different and personalised (not available on the high street). There was a competitive marketplace with Etsy, Dawanda, Amazon and many others operating in this area.

The terms ‘handmade’ and ‘crafted’ were becoming ubiquitous, often used by big brands (eg, Levis’ ‘Made & Crafted’ range), making it harder for people to understand what it means.

A way to make this more understandable for a buyer might be to have a clear statement of process and lots of ‘work in progress’ images or videos on the artist’s website, to ‘tell their story’, ie to add context to the work. Shared across social platforms to reach potential buyers.

Underlines the necessity of keeping sketchbooks, experiments and research for each project and documenting the process well.

James then discussed the way in which consumers buy today, through social sites and sharing, word-of-mouth recommendations, and browsing. The mobile phone being the main way of searching.

He said that there were fewer destinations/goals apart from Christmas and birthdays.

I think he means that people tend to browse at random, as a pastime, to see what they come across, rather than always looking for a gift for a particular person or celebration.

James recommended that sellers need to market themselves in these same arenas.

He said that some Folksy sellers complain that they don’t sell a lot. He put this down to a lack of framing and contextualising. The key to success was that product descriptions should offer potential buyers a story about the maker and the piece.

Speaking from experience, I think that there are other factors to consider, such as:- the quality of the products offered; their desirability; the pricing; and the quantity and range of products offered for sale; and the quality of the images and descriptions. Also whether the shop has a professional and coherent look and feel to it (uniform branding, etc).

Skill level and the element of craft used – the process – was important. He cited Ernest Wright & Son Ltd, scissor makers, as an example of a business that turned its fortunes around following a widely viewed video of their process.

I bought into this manufacturer’s story, quite literally, and am a proud owner of a pair of their napping scissors.

He said that people must believe in what they are doing so that buyers will believe in them too, and become fans.

Ask yourself ‘What is your journey about?’. Articulate your goal. (He mentioned that Kickstarter have some good advice on this topic).

Skill and effort lead to good earnings. Makers should build a pricing model aimed at the luxury sector. A materials + pricing model doesn’t take account of the 50% of a maker’s time which should be devoted to marketing. Implying that prices should be doubled to take account of this activity.

Taking relevant courses (!), honing techniques and acquiring lacking skills, to improve confidence in self, and the public’s perception, and the quality of work produced.

Also, pricing can affect perception of a product. Low pricing = ‘cheap’; High pricing = ‘luxury’.

He gave advice that you should find a niche in the marketplace, and focus on that niche for success. The rise of the micro brand.

I hate the thought that I should have to stick to one small area: I like variety! However, if you outsource the manufacturing, or sell on the business, that might not be a problem for a designer. Getting ‘pigeon-holed’, (like an actor in a long-running soap), might apply to artists who only ever stick to a narrow range of output. In sticking to one small niche, you may have problems if fashions change and your niche is no longer relevant or popular. Staying flexible and following new technology and trends seems to me, to be important, too.

In summary, James Boardwell outlined what he felt people were looking for in terms of modern craft. He pointed out that it is no longer just the individual maker’s domain, but that big corporations were cashing in on the popularity of consumer’s awareness of, and demand for, provenance when making purchases. He commented on the change in the way that people shop online, using recommendations through social media, and browsing. He indicated a way forward for designer/makers, suggesting sharing their stories through social media and focusing on a niche area that is a passion for them.

 Thinking of what this might mean for my own work: it indicates that documenting and sharing your process through social media is an important activity for engaging interest from the wider public. This reiterates the OCA’s Introductory Course’s advice on keeping a sketchbook and log.

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