Sunday, June 12, 2011

Subjectivity in mechanical work

I often romanticize other professions. In particular that of the long-haul truck driver, and then, of course, the motorcycle mechanic. Many times in my life now, since the age of about 18 I have thought about how great it would be to be a motorcycle mechanic. Or a truck driver. This desire is based on a belief I have always had that these sorts of work are very much 'black and white' – either the goods are delivered or they aren't. Either the bike runs or it doesn't.

The background to this is my actual work as a graphic designer. My romantic notions about truck drivers and motorcycle mechanics are, I'm sure, common and probably quite pervasive within a professional practice that is so permeated by the whim of subjectivity. I could argue that objective standards are apparent in many aspects of my work. Most convincingly this would be in relation to typesetting I guess. I could argue for my work formally and propose objective standards for that. In some senses I might also put forward an argument for a certain level of 'thinking', of conceptual rigor, or of intertextuality. And to some extent I can say I am 'qualified' to make such judgements. I have an understanding of the history and of the trajectory of the discipline.

It's interesting then, that with all my experience and my qualifications, I still cannot convince a client that the way I want to do it is better than they way they want me to do it. (I admit this may largely be a 'personality' thing. I'm not charismatic, or pushy enough.) It's difficult because largely it doesn't matter. I could do you some elegant typography that may aid in a slightly more direct and legible communication of your text, but the kid next door who's good on the computer could do the same thing to some extent. I'm being facetious, but you get the point. I've been a graphic designer for 16 years now and I don't think I've ever got to do a commercial job %100 the way I have wanted to do it. The reason I think this is the case is because largely the 'success' of design, graphic design in particular, is subjective.

Hence my frustration with graphic design and my long-time romantic notions of work where outcomes might be assessed in more objective ways. The bike runs or it doesn't.

At least that's what I thought... until today. Today I have realised things aren't so simple. Actually it all sounds perfectly obvious and self-evident now I'm sitting here trying to write it down, but anyway... Today I pulled the entire gearbox out of the Norton. Previously I've just pulled out the guts of it, the shafts and the gears etc. But today I went deep. John came round and helped (thank God!) as we had to disconnect the engine from the frame to get the gearbox out. It was quite simple theoretically and yet very difficult to actually do. John was great though and I would still be sitting in the garage scratching my head if it wasn't for him.

We were pulling out the gearbox so I could take it to Alastair. Alastair is an engineer, who also happens to have a lot of experience with Norton rebuilds. He wants the entire gearbox so he can assemble it on his bench and go through it's actions and movements thoroughly. What's interested me today, and what's motivated me to try and write this down, is how differently both John and Alastair go about things. They also both tell me different things, and I can sense that each is a little skeptical of the others ideas or approach. The exact quality of the difference between them is not important (well not here at least), the important thing is my realisation that things most certainly are not black and white.

I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps graphic design is not so different from working on motorcycles? But the problem with my gearbox is obviously very real. There is some 'thing' wrong, and when it is fixed it will work properly again. There's nothing at all subjective about that. It's difficult to think of a similarly objective problem in any graphic design job. Some people will tell you there are problems to be solved in graphic design – communication problems etc, but trust me, I've been doing it for ages, and there are no big problems. Mostly the problem is a printer who wants to go home early and not do the job right. I've also suggested elsewhere that the biggest problem I have as a graphic designer is 'the client'. But anyway, my gearbox problem is different – it is more of an objective problem.

Maybe the subjectivity I've been dealing with today, that I wanted to try and figure out here, is located in the approach to the problem rather than in the evaluation of the solution? John and Alastair have different approaches to the same problem. But actually I'm not even sure they would be in complete argeement when it came to the quality of the solution (if we ever actually solve this problem!?). Their own bikes are interesting here. John has one. It is a 74 Commando like mine, but John's had it since it was new, and it's still his daily ride. It looks rough, but it runs well enough, and John takes it on long rides, often two up (his wife on the back). Alastair has about seven bikes in his garage. Not all are complete, but most are. And they are all immaculate looking. Alastair is a perfectionist. John is a pragmatist. Alastair brings a lot of theory to the conversation, whereas John brings his practical experience. For instance, Alastair said I'd have to remove the engine to get the gearbox out, but John knew we could get it out without completely moving the engine. Maybe if we did it Alastair's way it would have been somehow 'better'? It's hard for me to know at this point? And anyway I didn't want to compare them to each other in any sort of competitive sense here, more just as an illustration of the potential for subjectivity in mechanical work, and to demystify my own beliefs.

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