Physical vs. Digital

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in our garage making things by hand for my office. Admittedly, much of the stuff is purchased, and all I’m really doing is a little sawing, sanding, painting, finishing, and nailing. Assuming it’s not just the fumes talking, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s also been a nice break from creating digital things.

Getting your hands dirty and working with physical tools is a completely different experience. It’s much easier to get caught up in the details and the craft. When you make mistakes while creating physical things, there’s no undo, so you’re more careful and every decision is more considered. You’re more likely to do some tests on scrap wood before touching the real project. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that what I’ve done is really all that special, but the process has really made me think about how we create digital things.

When I’m sanding and finishing something, I take breaks in between each step to really analyze the results. I run my hands over it feeling for imperfections. I look at it from different angles to see if the light is reflecting evenly. I simply handle things more delicately. Moreover, many of the steps necessitate a waiting period afterwards. Stains need several hours to dry. Multiple coats can be applied and require more time. The amount of time spent waiting for things to dry is exponentially longer than the time you actually spend working.

With digital, none of this applies. But, it can. Imagine stopping between each step just to look at what you’ve created. Wrote some HTML? Spend a couple of hours just reading it. Don’t change anything right away, just read it and make mental notes. Then take the time to address those problems. Finished a comp? Just look at it. Soak in the details. Don’t write down notes. Just look for blemishes or imperfections.

With physical things, each step builds on the previous. If you don’t sand something smooth, the end result can’t possibly be smooth. If you don’t use wood conditioner on soft wood, the stain won’t apply evenly. It’s a layering process much like development. If you intentionally neglect details early on for the sake of speed, those will turn into larger and more obvious blemishes later in the process.

The goal of all this isn’t to compare physical and digital work, but to start looking at our practices in the physical world with similar practices in the digital world. It’s just a few of the thoughts bouncing around in my head lately.