Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The design process - How I designed the entertainment center

For me, the part of the craft of woodworking I enjoy the most, the part that draws me into deep thought and hours of pleasant contemplation, is the design process. I’m probably unusual in this regard because it takes me back to my roots as a young engineer over four decades ago, when I first stared at the vast expanse of blank white paper on my drawing board. I had a design in my head, but where to start? Where to put that first mark on the paper? At times, the vast expanse of white drafting paper stayed pristine for hours while I grappled with how to begin. How to start. Over the years, I’ve learned two very valuable lessons:

  1. Paper is very cheap, and so is pencil lead and erasers. There is nothing wrong with “false starts” where your initial direction is simply wrong. It is strangely satisfying when you finally admit to yourself that the direction you took is wrong, and it is OK to just tear up the paper and start over again.
  2. The least expensive place in any project to remove errors, regardless of if you are designing a spacecraft, or very complex software, or a Mahogany entertainment center, is while the project is still on the drawing board!
With those two lessons in mind, I force myself to slow down, and to become immersed in the design process. In my professional life I’m a computer expert who has designed and written complex software over nearly my entire career. For my woodworking life, however, I avoid using any computer aided design software. I find I simply spend too much time trying to make the software do exactly what I want it to do, time and energy that subtracts from my overall attention to the thing I’m actually designing. So I put on some soft classical music, carefully tape a very large piece of velum on the top of my assembly table, get out my old fashioned drafting square, my triangles, my lead holder, my lead sharpener, and my electric eraser, and I immerse my mind in the design process.


I consider the drawing phase the culmination of the design process, not the beginning of it! The goal of the drawing phase is to clearly and meticulously articulate the design ideas that I’ve already spent a considerable amount of time contemplating. For this entertainment center, I probably started thinking about the form at least two years ago. I’ve already looked at hundreds of examples of entertainment centers that others have designed, some that I liked, and some I did not. There is great value in each, because knowing what it is about something you dislike is often more important than knowing what it is about something you like. At the end of this process, I had selected the picture of the entertainment center by Andrew Drake that I found on the Fine Woodworking web site as the example of the form that I found most pleasing to my eye. This would be where I would begin, and this is the form that I would incrementally change (not necessarily improve) to make it my own design. The first step is to overlay the photograph with tracing paper and draw the image on the tracing paper. Next, based on whatever dimensions I have about the piece, I use a ruler to estimate the dimensions of the piece in the photograph.


If this sounds like copying, it is not. It is simply not possible for one human being to imagine an original form of anything like this that some other human being, someplace at some time in the past, has not already conceived of. Understanding this basic principle of design, regardless of the discipline, is critical to anyone’s success as a designer. Simply put, originality in design is exceedingly rare, and not necessarily a good thing! For example, if I was obsessed with being completely original, I might be forced to abandon a traditional rectangular shape and use instead a triangle as the basic form for my entertainment center. There is a pretty good chance that I would be the first craftsman to ever design a triangular entertainment center! It would be original, to be sure, but would certainly violate the most basic design principle that “form should follow function!”

Good designers accept that idea and move past it. They realize that true genius comes out of recognizing the great ideas of those who have come before you, then making incremental changes and embellishments to make the piece uniquely yours. The genius part comes into play when your changes result in something that you, yourself find more pleasing. This leads to another critical success factor that is often overlooked: you must really love the thing you’re about to build. Life is too short to waste precious time in the shop building something you really don’t like! Doing so is essentially what some dictionaries defines as work - an unpleasant task! So for me, the drawing process really is the end of the design phase and the beginning of what I hope will be a pleasant and memorable journey into that part of my mind and psyche that most defines me as “me!” It is an intensely personal and completely solitary pursuit, and is one of those activities that sets us humans apart as a species!

Having said all that, let me explain the last couple of steps I took to arrive at the point where I’m ready to create my drawing. Since I’ve started out with a picture of an entertainment center I want to use as a basis for my design, and I’ve estimated the basic dimensions of the piece, now is the time to make changes to the basic form to incorporate my own design ideas. I do this by overlaying tracing paper on top of the first tracing and make my own changes to the form ending up with something like this:


I’ve added elements to the original design that I think make it more representative of the “Greene and Greene” furniture style. These include the “cloud lifts” on the bottom rail and the door, the ebony plugs, and a very subtle detail near the bottom of each leg. I fool around making various versions of this drawing until I think I have enough to take it to the drawing board.

Up to this point, I’ve totally ignored how I might actually build this piece of furniture. All I’ve cared about is the form. Now that I’m happy with that, I need to create a drawing that both further refines the form and that contains the details I will need to actually build this piece of furniture.


If possible, I like to do my drawings full scale. In this case, because the piece is too large, I had to choose a scale to shrink it down to a size that would fit on my drawing paper, so I chose half scale. Notice that I’ve made one additional “design” change by adding the stained glass in the doors. I know nothing about making stained glass windows and really have no idea how I’ll pull this part of the project off. At this point, I really don’t care, and never let a minor detail like having no clue how to actually do something stop me from actually doing it!

So now that I’ve completed my design, it’s time to create my materials list and start the rather unpleasant process of actually obtaining the materials I’ll need to build this piece.

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