The Artisan and the Automaton


May 2010

Much like its name, FedEx Office, the store formerly known as Kinko’s and FedEx-Kinko’s, seems to be in a perennial state of reorganization and flux. Much of the very dated but “refurbished” location on Meeting Street in Providence, Rhode Island is unused and no longer houses any viable service. Nearly half of the location’s floor space is occupied by computer workstations behind a glass partition, like a mausoleum from a bygone era when computers were not an everyday commodity. Stacked boxes serve as storage for the location’s new identity as a printing and shipping outlet—a combination that always seemed a bit awkward. For a business that prides itself on its organization and punctuality, (“The World on Time”) FedEx Office feels neither global nor of this time.

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By stark contrast, Hope Bindery, a one-room studio owned and operated by a quirky craftsman, a RISD alum named Jim, is bursting at the seams. Located deep in the heart of a mill-turned-studio in Pawtucket, the location boasts no illuminated sign but instead, a hand scrawled note taped to the stairs reading: “Hope Bindery: Third Floor Fourth Door on Your Left.” Inside the space, there is no division between you (the client) and the craftsman. You are all at once in his workspace, forcing you to become part of the work. And, if you hope to have Jim practice his magic for you, you had better be able to speak the language of bookbinding and design.

While the two don’t offer identical services, the nature of their business, the production of printed matter, and their significance to my personal development as a designer and thinker offer an opportunity to make a revealing comparison between the automaton and the artisan.

As more of our experience becomes enmeshed in “designed” environments, the automaton will continue to affect more and more of our service experience. The departure from relying on human capital for skilled processes has clearly streamlined transactions and improved business, but it has been at the sacrifice of what made those experiences worthwhile and “human” to begin with. We are all familiar with the automaton in our daily life–the self checkout at your supermarket, the voice on the other end of an 800 number–and in more sacred situations like our classrooms–No Child Left Behind, internet universities. Here, I am exploring the specific situation of FedEx Office and Hope Bindery, illustrating something of the relationship between the artisan and the automaton and providing a snapshot beyond scripted experiences into a more aware and educated cooperative process.

 
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Back in the quietly humming, halogen-lit expanse of the FedEx Office, you enter feeling instantly alienated. The black and purple clad employee, who has probably had little training in paper goods (not their fault), follows the guide of a computer system instructing them to enter paper type, quantity, and any other specifications an order may have. The system is effective, standardizes the process, and makes for an efficient and transparent transaction. However, the moment the client attempts to deviate from the preordained path, the shallowness of the protocol is revealed. Essentially all of the “work” autonomy has been transferred from the hands of the transient and unskilled employee, (who remains nameless because each visit to this particular branch seems to yield an entirely new staff), to the machine and its touch screen interface. The photocopiers, just like the computer workstations, sit in mirror positions across the floor, were a revolutionary piece of office equipment at their inception. But now, the entire institution of FedEx Office seems dated and unsure of its position and role in the modern world post-print.

 
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FedEx Office has a designated line area, complete with birthday cards, candy, and other diversions. It sits empty because it is placed in front of the “Office” counters and not the “FedEx” area. More than once I saw a customer enter and pause, confused as they studied the “Form Line Here” sign before deciding to follow the pattern of their fellow customers to the left. It is a testament to either the rigid conformity of FedEx Office retail design or the lack of motivation or power of the employees to change any of these inconsistencies in their retail location, even if they make absolutely no sense.

Hope Bindery is the polar opposite. If you manage to find the location at all, which has no visible marking apart from the aforementioned handmade sign inside of the building, you enter a truly collaborative workspace that demands acumen not only in printing and book-building but also a patience for the artist’s space and lack of consistent client experience. When coming to Jim with a project, you need to be knowledgeable, ready to negotiate and understanding of his creative process. Unlike the rational and pre-organized process at FedEx Office, meetings with Jim are chaotic: projects are shared, gripes are heard, a personal connection is forged and the cooperative effort is felt. In this environment, despite its mess and seeming disorganization, it is clear that he is the master and the machines are merely a means to an end.

Following my most recent visit to his studio, I realized something very different and new. As I entered with a pen, notepad, type samples, and cardboard box for my book, I realized that Jim’s process had actually conditioned me to work better and take more ownership of the knowledge, collaboration, and creation of my work. The process was efficient, even elegant. It was a successful partnership of designer and artisan. I understood his craft and he understood my need for clarity, there was no confusion, the customer became a partner.

Of course, this is never and will never be the case at FedEx Office. At FedEx, the human plays a lesser role and is more expendable than the non-human. As I said before, I have never worked with the same person twice and I don’t believe that they have ever purchased a new printer during my time as a client. There is no opportunity for a learning environment or for a relationship between client and employee to form. In this model, FedEx Office is responsible for fewer people learning a limited range of tasks, which mostly consist of maintenance and transaction activities. This creates a consistent experience but feels oddly detached from the creation of printed matter, a practice that for a designer is akin to an architect overseeing the construction of building.

Of course, this is almost never the case at FedEx Office. At FedEx, the human plays a lesser role and is more expendable than the non-human. There is little opportunity for a shared learning environment or for a real relationship between a client and an employee to form. With this model, FedEx Office is responsible for fewer people learning a limited range of tasks, which mostly consist of maintenance and transaction activities. This creates a consistent but stiff experience that feels oddly detached from the creation of printed matter.

While I have largely focused on the negative aspects of this type of service-based retail environment, there are obvious inherent benefits of the speed, standardization, and increased accessibility of these resources. Still, while I realize that FedEx is a major corporation and Hope Bindery is a tiny, local operation, there are some aspects of the artisan’s practice that FedEx could absorb, and, in fact, already naturally begin to duplicate. For example, one of the most interesting effects of FedEx Office type environments is the way in which the human actors (employees) circumvent and work through the failures of such a systemized corporation. One sees it everyday, the presence of insight, experience, and expertise that humans bring into situations made for robots. Everyone benefits from personal involvement and self-empowerment. Companies like FedEx should encourage their employees to be active participants and creators in this process, with a shared goal of excellence (both personal and corporate).

Strangely, though FedEx Office is the leader in the production of office and consumer print materials and is now a central retail hub for one of the world’s largest shipping conglomerates, it feels increasingly out of sync with any sort of desirable contemporary experience, entirely removed from any human element of delight or creativity. In stark contrast, Hope Bindery, which replicates the artisanal work of a 19th century craftsman, manages to generate the type of mutual understanding and collaborative cooperation in the production process that corporate retail should embrace. As more and more processes become completely automated and available via the internet, the practice of delivering better services with unique value should be paramount. As automation technology becomes more and more commonplace, we, as a society, should demand flexibility, expertise and creativity from our face-to-face interactions with the service industry.

 
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The process and experience on both side of the counter should be valued over the lowest-common-denominator method of efficient product delivery. In many service jobs today, there is relatively little value placed on an employee taking ownership and pride in their work, as many do. If the employee could be encouraged and rewarded for operating as a master of their craft, then we may finally begin to see a balance between the qualities of the artisan and the automaton, to the benefit of both employees and customers.

Parallel comparisons could be made in many of our societal systems. As technology continues to provide us with consistent experiences (fast food, supermarkets), efficiency and standardization are portrayed as benefits. In reality. everyone enters these experiences with unique perspectives, and the homogeneity betrays our individuality. What Hope Bindery shows us is the potential of self-ownership and individual practice as a viable and contemporary model, creating meaningful, engaging relationships. Organic interactions still fit in a world of franchised experiences. It isn’t about pitting the artisan and the automaton againts each other, but of empowering individuals, whether employees or clients, to be creative, not only efficient.

Originally published as a feature on Core77.