Artisan Souls in a World of Mass Production


“But the point remains: the human spirit, as it moves toward spiritual health, knows intrinsically that the artisan process is better for the soul than any process that moves toward mass production.” – Erwin McManus, The Artisan Soul, 2014, p. 30

For those of you who haven’t read the book The Artisan Soul, it is a concise and well-written argument for how we are all the work of an Artisan Creator and are inherently artisan. McManus drives home the message that we, bearing the imprint of our Creator, are made to dream, create, and build masterpieces with our lives.

Artisan is a word used to describe two things: (1) a craftsperson and (2) a product made in limited quantities using traditional methods and ingredients [1]. The antithesis of artisan products in McManus’ view, are mass-produced products (i.e. high volume products made using automated systems with little variation between units).

As an industrial engineer working in mass production, I was intrigued by some of the comments McManus makes in his book about the nature of my work. Here are a few of the statements McManus uses to describe the difference between artisan products and mass-produced products:

“Artisan bread is the result of a craft; nonartisan bread is nothing more than a product” [2, p. 29].

“Artisan bread comes from a process and environment that reflect imagination and intimacy,” implying that mass-produced processes do not [2, p. 30].

After reading the above, you may have guessed that reading McManus’ view of mass production ground my gears, so to speak.

I would like to use McManus’ discussion of our so-called gravitational draw towards the artisanal as a launching point to discuss three themes: (1) how we view people, (2) how we view mass-produced goods, and (3) how we view our work.

1) How we view people: The human soul is inherently artisan and should be treated as such

I agree with one of the major premises of McManus’ book: that people should be treated uniquely as individuals and not as “things”. McManus describes the way in which God works as being highly customized to our individual needs. He states,

“We must never lose sight of the fact that God never chooses to give up on us or to put us on an assembly line and treat us as a commodity… And with each of us he avoids standardization, working to form each person into a unique image of God” [2, p. 31].

Adapting our approaches to each person we encounter in our daily lives is one way we can acknowledge his or her inherent artisanship just as God does with us.

Many issues facing societies today stem from people viewing other people as things rather and as unique human beings. Our desire to segment people into something “less than” is also seen in industrial spheres. Joseph Pine, a business author, researcher, and consultant, discussed in a conference keynote presentation how businesses often segment customers into “types” or “profiles”. Once customer segments are established, entire value chains are designed to service these segments in the most optimal way. He argues against taking this approach, saying, “Customers are people. There are no such things as customer segments; there are only individual customers” [3]. When working with people in our daily lives and in business, individualized treatment always triumphs over generalization and segmentation because it properly acknowledges the way each person is created.

2) How we view mass-produced goods: Mass-produced goods are, in fact, made by artisans for artisans

Mass production systems take enormous amounts of imagination to create. Having worked in various industrial settings, including a large-scale bakery, I argue that there are artisans both developing and operating the very mass production systems McManus criticizes in his book. One problem with modern supply chains is that they hide the faces of the artisans working to create and deliver products from us as consumers. Unlike buying your bread at a bakery, buying your bread at a supermarket robs you of the chance to see the baker’s hands, see their smile, and hear about their passion for their work.

Despite the downsides of modern supply chains and mass production, there are many benefits to utilizing these systems. First, these technologies and infrastructures allow businesses to make products at lower prices and deliver products into the hands of far more people than is possible with traditional, craft processes. Furthermore, mass producing certain products supports artisans by allowing them to invest their artistic and creative energy in areas where artisanship is valued. Many of us wouldn’t have time for our current hobbies and creative outlets if we were required to grow and make all of our food from scratch rather than buy food at the supermarket. Mass production enables artisanship.

While profit does drive mass-production companies, good and noble companies are also driven by a desire to create value in the lives of others, much like the traditional artisan. The moment companies lose sight of the “craft”, “meaning” and greater purpose behind their production enterprises, they risk losing their competitive edge in the global, highly-competitive marketplace.

3) How we view our work: What you do is a craft 

You are the only one who can bring artisanship into your work. A journalist named Thomas Friedman believes that we should always “think like an artisan.” He explains that the artisans who made our daily goods before the era of mass production “brought so much personal value-add, so much unique extra to what they did that they carved their initials into their work at the end of the day” [4]. I love the perspective that this statement brings to how we view our own work. No matter your vocation, we can all choose to view our work as a craft. Whether we specialize in care-giving, optimization, sales, or actually crafting works of art, we are in fact artisans. It is up to us to intentionally refine our skills through diligent study and practice to create work that we are proud of which bless those around us.

Despite my grievances with some of McManus’ views, I highly recommend his book for the light it sheds on our nature as artistic human beings who desire to be treated uniquely. I also hope that after reading this you gain a new appreciation for the mass-produced items you use daily and the people like me who bring them to you. Now, go and create.





[2]  Erwin Raphael McManus  (2014). The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your life into a Work of Art.

[3]  Joseph Pine (2017). Keynote address at the 9th World Mass Customization and Personalization Conference, Aachen, Germany.

[4] Thomas Friedman (2017), interview with Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert and John Hagel 

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