Freeing creators and consumers from traditional constraints
It’s all in the name 👨🎨
Craft is a relatively recent arrival at the Apple software party, and it’s caused a bit of a stir. It’s bloody gorgeous, dressed to the nines, and has a growing number admirers.
Craft plays in a fashionable space. Note-taking, wikilinks, backlinks, collaboration… if there’s one thing this app’s not short of it’s buzzwords.
None of them does this incredibly versatile application justice.
Craft demonstrates what can be achieved when developers take a wider perspective. The people behind this app have created something unique, something that offers useful features available in a variety of other apps, adds plenty of its own, and puts creativity front and centre.
The point that a lot of people who write for the internet fail to appreciate about creativity, writing, and perhaps even productivity, is that any solid piece of work is crafted. An engaging, well-written blog post is crafted. The between-the-lines character development of an audio drama script is crafted. A concise, informative report is crafted.
I think I’ve made my point.
Kudos to whoever came up with the name.
There’s already a lot of coverage of Craft’s basics out there, so I’m not going to cover features such as formatting, the slash function and backlinks too much here. Instead, I’ll aim to cover Craft from a slightly different perspective. I will point out a couple of shortcomings, but mostly I’ll explain why I’ve embraced this app after a shaky start, and why I now spend most of my working day Crafting.
Craft is a bit like the pop group Japan. 🎸
(Stick with me here: this is a nice analogy that I’m pleased with…)
If you’re not familiar with Japan, in the late-70s they were Bowie-esque, Roxy Music-influenced light metal merchants with big hair, spangly clobber and an identity that didn’t really fit with anything else going on at the time.
The music industry was about as enthusiastic as the book publishing industry regarding stuff that didn’t fit easily into an existing box. A box the marketing department new exactly what to do with, where it would go and how much it would cost.
Still with me? Good.
Because of their slightly unfashionable sound and image, Japan struggled to gain traction. But at the turn of the 1980s, an image revamp and their greater use of electronic instruments coincided with the rise of the New Romantic scene.
The people in the marketing department were dead chuffed: they had a box labelled “New Romantic”. Putting Japan inside that box wasn’t particularly accurate, but everything suddenly became a whole lot easier for everyone. Japan was kind of New Romantic, but the band was really so much more. Japan, Visage and early Spandau Ballet could go in the same box; but they were very different. As a result, Japan was not only swept along, but enjoyed considerable success.
Craft is in a similar position. It’s benefiting from the note-taking, wiki-links, backlinks, personal knowledge management (PKM) thing that’s got everyone so worked up at the moment, and it can go in the same note-taking, wiki-linking box as apps such as Obsidian, Notion and Roam Research. But Craft is so much more than that. Not only, or not necessarily, because it’s capable of doing more, but because of the way it does things, and the unique canvas it provides for creativity.
Cool as Clough ⚽️
Craft can be a fine note-taking app, from the very basic Apple Notes repository level, to the “how much?! 😲” Roam Research level.
And yes, it could also be considered “a writing app”, from the very basic TextEdit level to the professional Scrivener/Ulysses level. But I think it may be more accurate to think of Craft as a relationships app.
There are relationships and relationships. Craft’s developers are working hard to expand the app’s collaborative features, but I’m talking about relationships between information and knowledge, and the huge variety of influences and inputs that are the true source of creative ideas.
To be creative, we make connections between things in our own unique way. Japan took bits of Bowie and bits of Roxy. Then they plastered their faces with slap, doused themselves in Elnett, turned up the amps and married dive-bomb guitars with moody vocals, synthesisers and oriental drums. They looked cool as Clough and – here’s the most important thing – they had their own identity. The result was something unique. Catching the New Romantic wave was coincidental – and perhaps a bit of good luck.
Craft’s got a whole lot of best bits from other important and influential apps, creatively combined in a package that looks cool as Clough, and has successfully caught a wave – but it has its own identity too. This, coupled with its inherent creative focus, is why Craft has me hooked.
And believe me, I’ve tried apps and apps.
Apps I have loved and lost 💔
I’d bounced around the productivity showroom for a while, test-driving various apps.
I wanted something that would allow me to store all the various materials related to any project I might be working on – notes, links, drafts, ideas, images, todos, etc – all in one place, make them easily accessible, and on any device.
Scrivener offered a kind of solution to my project management malaise with its research folder, but was let down by its use of Dropbox syncing. I tried Evernote years ago, and put a lot of stuff into the app. This is a long time ago, so I can’t remember why I decided Evernote wasn’t for me, but when I wanted to get my stuff out again — oh, boy: I was in Exportnightmaresville City, Arizona!
In a recent podcast David Sparks compared Craft to Apple Notes. I was like what? I do use Apple Notes, but for me it’s an app for storing information I might want to refer to at some point – I’m not sure when – and probably not very often. Apple Notes is for recipes, my guitar’s serial number, notes on how to prune the wisteria and so on. A contender to Craft? I don’t think so.
When I first discovered Craft, I was drawn to the fact that it was described as “a note-taking app” and a “writing app”: I’m a writer, so obviously the latter piqued my interest, and at the time I was experimenting with Obsidian, The Archive and Zettelkasten, so the note-taking thing attracted me too. I saw that Craft could potentially meet my needs regarding management of project assets, so gave it a try.
I didn’t hit it off with Craft at first. This was partly my fault for not allowing enough time to discover what it could do for me, but I also think that, with Craft having been promoted as a note-taking and writing app, I had preconceptions. I think I expected it to be a hybrid of Obsidian and iA Writer. Which it kind of is. And really isn’t.
So having not really connected with Craft, I moved to Obsidian. I do like plain text, and there’s a whole lot of fuss about Obsidian all over the shop, so I thought I’d give it a go.
The Big O, fan dances and toolkits 🛠
Obsidian is popular with many due to its plain text foundation.
I was very enthusiastic about Obsidian for a while. I transferred my Zettelkasten files from The Archive – a process every bit as drag-&-drop easy as the plain text enthusiasts out there say it should be. I linked things with double-square brackets. I explored plug-ins and themes and all manner of faff.
But even at the height of my delight there seemed to be something distinctly Heath Robinson about Obsidian. There was the need to switch between “editing view” and “reading view”; then there was “live preview”, which kind of flicks between the two in a sort of markdown fan dance. I appreciated Obsidian’s speed, I liked to see all those files, but I seemed to have to do a lot before I could get anything done.
“They’re all just markdown files in a folder on my hard drive!”
Just about any Obsidian enthusiast you’ve ever encountered
I get while people prefer plain text, but many Obsidian enthusiasts are spending a lot of time creating elaborate launchpads, daily notes, workflows and what not that won’t be much use if things go tits-up and all those text files get corrupted somehow. I’m sure that won’t happen, but there’s just something so Luddite about the whole plain text thing. It’s also a lot of work to create those complex systems. And you know what? I’ve got better things to do.
I think a lot of people into that stuff are coders or geeks, and find it easy to create such things. If you want to express your creativity by producing elaborate launchpads in markdown, knock yourself out. Me? I’ve realised that I don’t want to spend time manipulating an app to get it to do what I want. I’d really rather the developers just give me the tools, and then get the hell out of my way so I can get on with the work!
These days, even entry-level computers are powerful; why not harness that power to enable creative people to develop new, exciting and simulating ways to share thoughts, feelings and information?
If Craft is a Tesla, Obsidian is a 1970s Austin Allegro. Not sure what one of those is? Put it this way: you need to be handy with a toolkit 🧰.
And I’m not.
So having had my fling with Obsidian I returned to Craft.
And the difference was clear.
Rich beyond wealth 💰
The environment in which we work is as important as the work we do. An inspiring working environment can feed that work, or let it shine through by getting out of the way.
If asked about the apps on my Mac I appreciate the most, those which have contributed most significantly to my work and I enjoy using, the answer would be Scrivener and iA Writer.
I’ve covered these two apps plenty, but the ultimate accolade I can pay them is that they become invisible when I’m working. They give me all the tools I need in beautifully presented packaging, make them easily accessible, then just let me get on with it.
Craft now nestles among them..
A word that crops up a lot with Craft is rich. It’s a wonderful, feature-rich environment in which to work. The app offers a huge variety of tools and options to aid and encourage creativity. Yet in full screen, with Focus mode applied, it’s stripped back to a simple, beautiful, peaceful interface that encourages writing.
“There is beauty to be found in things that are stripped of everything that is unnecessary and that are without ornamentation.”
Zen: The Art of Simple Living by Shunmyo Masuno, Harry Goldhawk, Zanna Goldhawk
I’ve even moved my Zettelkasten notes out of Obsidian into Craft, even though Zettelkasten and plain text are like conjoined twins, and even though I said only last week that this was something I wouldn’t do.
Somehow, Craft’s developers have achieved a near perfect balance of form and function.
Of particular interest to me is that Craft’s features also influence the work. For example, while writing this post I’m aware that I’ll publish this as a Craft page as well as an “ordinary” blog post. So in the back of my mind I’m thinking about how I’ll group the various sections. That an app not only facilitates creative work, particularly something as traditional as writing, but has an influence upon that work, is really quite something.
Unshackled creation ⛓
Links are at the heart of Craft’s power.
While many apps now use wiki-style links to connect plain text documents, Craft allows linking of any kind of content, whether that’s within the app or somewhere out there on the internet.
It’s that rich thing again.
Content with Craft can be linked right down to block level. It took me a while to get used to the idea of blocks. I first encountered them on my WordPress website, and didn’t much like them. I’ve been writing for over 30 years, so perhaps I was a bit of a traditionalist. But having used Craft solidly for several months, I’m now a convert to the idea of blocks in writing, especially at the editing stage, when text has some kind of structure, but that structure remains fluid.
Contemporary internet writing has a growing tendency to comprise short paragraphs. This means those paragraphs are much more likely to cover a single issue rather than being long and exploratory.
As a result, these paragraphs have a greater tendency to be self-contained blocks of text. Blocks that, as the writing process proceeds, may become relevant elsewhere within a document, or redundant. The ability to drag or delete blocks easily in Craft is extremely useful.
On returning to a more traditional app, cutting and pasting seems so quaint. Perhaps this modular content manipulation is what the younger generation of digital natives is bringing to writing. Everything changes.
Then there are the layout options. Craft’s pages and cards mean we’re freed from rigid, linear documents that have to be processed in a specific order; writers now have the ability to produce documents readers can navigate and explore however they wish.
This is something that has to be considered in the writing, in the same way that TV writers build ad breaks into the structure of their scripts. Readers might want to skip, ignore or revisit sections. In a society where we can now access any kind of content whenever we want, the inflexible nature of traditional documents seems hugely outdated.
Purists might say this undermines the integrity of documents carefully constructed to flow from one point to the next; the counterpoint may be that this flexibility frees us from the constraints of traditional creation and consumption paradigms.
Gateways to content ⚡️
The navigational options offered by Craft are not limited to linking between text, but enhanced by pages and cards.
Pages I understood immediately, but cards I didn’t quite get for a while. Now I realise cards are incredibly useful elements.
Pages and cards are gateways to content. To my mind, pages and cards indicate different levels of hierarchy: a card will link to content that’s more important than that formatted as a page; similarly, a large card indicates that it contains material that’s more important than that within a small card. That’s my take, anyway.
Both pages and cards can also be used simply for aesthetic reasons, in conjunction with or regardless of any such hierarchical considerations.
Cards are more substantial than simple hyperlinks. Their visual impact is significant; while accurate, calling cards “decorative” seems to undermine their importance in readers’ perception of their content.
All of which demonstrates the creative freedom Craft enables.
Craft has something else that’s lacking from a lot of other apps — possibly most other apps: a sense of fun.
The make-up box 💄
Craft includes many “decorative” options.
Some might consider these non-essential frippery, but text in a faded highlight font can look very pretty, and is a much more subtle alternative to more traditional highlight formatting. I use such highlights to write responses to my own notes – important for seeing something like a decision-making process retrospectively – or for making in-line annotations.
Some people might find Craft’s decorative features distracting – I did initially. But having learned what works for me and spent a lot more time in Craft, I now recognise that these elements can embellish a message in subtle ways, rather than simply being the icing on the cake 🎂.
Proceed with caution, though: it would be very easy to make a page look like a seven year-old 🧒 who’s discovered the make-up box for the first time. Restraint and simplicity are 🔑 words here, especially if creating 📃 for clients.
All of these features contribute to Craft’s versatility: if you want to create a traditional, linear document with hyperlinks, then share it via a Word document or PDF, you can do that; but if you want to produce something modern, structured but non-linear, which is visually appealing and easy and convenient for users to navigate, then share that as a web page using a secret link or QR code, you can do that too.
Beauty spots 👩🦰
Beauty is emphasised by imperfections.
Craft is beautiful, but at the time of writing there are a few of these.
The biggest for me, as a writer, is that the typography isn’t there yet. Even with the “large” font size selected, it’s just a little too small on my 24-inch iMac and iPad. I appreciate the thinking behind a limited number of fonts, and that’s fine, but I’d like more choice than small or very small 🙏.
It’s not possible to select text within a block and drag it elsewhere, either within that block or to another block; that seems odd for something promoted as a writing app.
When writing some of this on my iPhone, it took several minutes to paste a selection of text because the app would insist on selecting the block rather than an insertion point within that block.
I’d like to see more professional and subtle decorative features. This is partly because the more colourful decorations may not be appropriate for all use cases, but also because I’m concerned that the longer Craft is around, and the more people become familiar with it, the origins of any documents or web pages created in the app will be obvious. Everybody recognises a PowerPoint, right? Same thing. Given their importance, I hope the team doesn’t neglect Craft’s decorative aspects in favour of adding more technical functions and templates.
Final words 🏁
Craft is an amalgamation of modern techniques and tools, presented in a visually glorious package that stimulates creativity.
Craft allows users to capture, organise and structure; to restructure, collate and distil; to learn, develop, curate and create. We can explore and analyse, and forge new relationships between information.
And when we’ve done all that and crafted something new, it can easily be shared, whether to a markdown blog post, slick web page, online resumé or report.
Craft’s unique, innovative features such as blocks, pages and cards free us from traditional structural constraints, and enable new ways of non-linear thinking and presentation for both creators and consumers.
I’m excited to see what each update brings to the app; until now, I think I’ve only felt that way about major updates to Scrivener and iA Writer. Even with the typography issue, I’m now using Craft almost exclusively for content writing, daily notes, weekly reflections, sharing, storing and developing ideas.
If you’re not already using Craft, I strongly recommend you explore what this exceptional app has to offer.
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