If Steve Jobs had been a potter

“When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was producing a random array of computers and peripherals, including a dozen different versions of the Macintosh. After a few weeks of product review sessions, he’d finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a Magic Marker, padded in his bare feet to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid. “Here’s what we need,” he declared. Atop the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro.” He labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he told his team members, was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. All other products should be canceled. There was a stunned silence. But by getting Apple to focus on making just four computers, he saved the company. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he told me. “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”” Walter Isaacson, The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs

If Steve Jobs had been a potter, looking at the dilemma facing an industry that doesn’t always know what it is doing and for whom its doing it, Jobs might have gotten that Magic Marker out and drawn the same diagram, just with different categories. He might have kept something similar at the top with ‘Consumer’ staying the same but the idea of ‘pro’ would have been tweaked. While its true that no one appreciates pottery like fellow potters do, if we end up only selling a majority of that ‘pro’ specific work to ourselves, who is actually making money? Unlike professional computer buyers who often times are also professional computer users, professional potters are the ones making the product, the pots. The market of ‘pro’ pottery buyers turns out to be almost entirely identical with the ones offering that work for sale.

So Jobs might have redrawn the board with ‘Collector/Connoisseur’ replacing the ‘Pro’. Who but a potter who has split wood all day in the brain melting Summer heat and stoked a kiln continuously for days in the bitter soul sapping Winter cold could truly appreciate what went into a wood fired pot? Other potters can appreciate it vicariously and make the inference based on the hardships of their own experiences, but who outside potters themselves is remotely qualified to understand what it took? “It takes one to know one” about sums it up.

Take, for instance my newest purchase: Who but a fellow potter would care about the nuances of handles and how they are made? In a cup like this, made by Allison Coles Severance, who but a potter looking at this or using it would have their mind blown?

Allison Coles Severance mug. That handle looks like its a caged animal crouched and preparing to spring into action. Everything about this mug thrills me: The nuance of the handle attachments just blows my mind, and the throwing marks and form are subtle, nuanced, and have an understated sophistication. Its not a simple pot. Its not an obvious pot. Its not a pot that you'd expect people to understand unless they knew what they were looking at.....

Allison Coles Severance mug. That handle looks like its a caged animal crouched and preparing to spring into action. Everything about this mug thrills me: The nuance of the handle attachments just blows my mind, and the throwing marks and form are subtle, nuanced, and have an understated sophistication. Its not a simple pot. Its not an obvious pot. Its not a pot that you’d expect people to understand unless they knew what they were looking at…..

So lets say Jobs would have expanded the ‘pro’ section to include the better funded more numerous field of collectors. Collectors have invested the most, outside of potters themselves, to understanding and appreciating pots. They look at pots sometimes as much if not more than other potters. And they certainly care about pots in a way that rivals potters. For every one potter making serious collectible work there may be anywhere from a handful to legions supporting them. And the nice thing is that collectors often spread their love around. Its not just exclusive to this one potter anymore than potters collecting work will be exclusive to just one other potter. There are broad shoulders supporting potters who make this sort of work.

Now that Jobs has the columns sorted out we can imagine him turning back to the board and posting the rows, Along the side he would almost definitely have replaced the computer specific ‘Desktop’ and ‘Portable’ with the more pottery specific ‘Decorative’ and ‘Functional’. I won’t use this space to quibble about the hazy lines between some decorative and some functional work, but simply note that these are generic categories that potters understand and often respect. We can move on from there. The diagram now looks complete. And what you get is that we find very well defined goals for what we make and who its intended for.

Consumers get their very own version of decorative ceramics, and so do Collectors. Consumers get their very own version of functional work, and so too do Collectors. And the point is that we are clear that each version is something different, made with that purpose specifically in mind. Its not the same thing, in a significant sense, just being ‘functional’ or just being ‘decorative’, and the difference may be as telling as how much it will cost or the way it was designed, fired, or assembled. If you are making work for Consumers that is intensively crafted with subtlety and hidden nuance and priced relatively high, you’d expect it to fail. If you are making work for Collectors that is inexpensive, broadly appealing, lowers the bar, and perhaps cheaply (inexpensively) made, then that too might be expected to fail. There is a difference, and it makes sense to know exactly what that difference amounts to. There are no-frills pots, and there are exceptional pots, and there is no use denying it.

If Steve Jobs had been a potter, he’d have told us that a pot is not simply a pot. Just because it functions doesn’t mean its comparable to other functional pots. Just because its decorative doesn’t mean its comparable to other decorative pots. The rules are written differently, even if the pieces themselves share a similarity. Its like holding a deck of cards, function and decoration can aim in many different ways. It can be as varied as the difference between Bridge and Solitaire. Just because they are all cards doesn’t mean the same game is being played. Just because its a mug or a vase doesn’t mean that its playing by the same rules or aiming at the same ideas as other mugs or vases.

Steve Jobs was a savvy fellow, and so he would eventually have picked up on the situation potters face regarding how we turn non-potters into collectors. Without the hard labor of actually making pots, what exactly is the gateway to appreciating the nuance and sophistication of exceptional pots? Of course, potters have struck on the strategy that we can lead horses to water. Exposing the general consumer to collector quality work will at least potentially stand a chance at furthering the education and commitment of an ordinary audience to the more financially rewarding line of higher end products. Sometimes the craft and visual sophistication are things inexperienced observers can get clued in on, so its worth making that attempt.

So potters have some choices. We can spend 60 hours a week making 200 bland and unexceptional mugs a day or we can spend 60 hours a week making just 200 mugs with more attention to the specificity and artistic potential of each one individually. There is an audience for both. But its a gamble making pots just for the exclusive market. Of course if you already have a track record selling to people willing to spend $42 a mug, its not a leap in the dark. But every potter wants to grow their audience, and the truth is that collectors are spread pretty thin as it is. The challenge is getting our pots in front of more people who could potentially become collectors. And if we can help those horses take the first drink it will have been worth it, if they keep coming back.

So maybe its still “four great products”, but the quadrants have a blurred or overlapping center vertical patch. Maybe for potters there is a viable middle ground of transitional ware leading ‘Consumers’ up the food chain and even ‘Collectors’ back down? Can a collector also be a user of affordable well crafted if unspectacular handmade pots? Why not? Can regular consumers take a chance on a seemingly overpriced but magnificent centerpiece for their home? We can only hope so. Maybe the difference between ‘Consumers’ and non-potter ‘Collectors’ is more fluid and porous than the simple scheme Jobs suggested for computers? If Steve Jobs had been a potter one can image that he would have thought so……

Something to think about, at least!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!

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About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts education, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to If Steve Jobs had been a potter

  1. Pingback: The bitter truth about professional standards in pottery (and art) | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  2. Pingback: Repost: The bitter truth about professional standards in pottery (and art) | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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