I often evaluate my design process to help understand myself, but also plan for future projects. Sometimes I analyze my process during, but mostly after I'm designing a product. I have concluded that a key component of my design process is to balance opposing forces. This blog post outlines five contrasting ideas that I balance during design:
Forced/Natural: My goal is to let a design be what it wants to be, rather than forcing it into something pre-conceived, but the challenge is how to find what the design wants to be. Occasionally, when I stumble on a design solution, and don’t really know why or how, I’ll claim that the universe helped me out – or that something inside me took over. Creativity doesn’t follow schedules, and often my best ideas are ephemeral and occur at weird (slightly inconvenient) times. For example: I can plan a day to design something and work all day at it; but my best ideas come to me when I’m doing something else like cooking breakfast, having a casual conversation, or dozing off to sleep. On some projects I’ll spend months fighting for a solution, and others I can land on a design solution almost effortlessly. I try not to force design solutions, but I also pride myself on punctuality; so it is important for me to find a balance between nurturing the natural process, AND staying on track to meet my deadlines. I find that the best approach is to establish milestones, put in the effort, but keep my mind open for a solution that surprises me. Most importantly, I have to listen during those inconvenient moments when an idea pops briefly into my head, then take the time to document it and consider it – even if it's in the middle of the night.
Analogue/Digital: I draw by hand, build miniature models, and work out details in the workshop before I chose a design solution. I also use computers; not for ideation or design generation, but as a resource to help figure things out – and for documentation, communication, and production. My design sequence moves between many media: from a sketch to a CAD, then to a cardboard model, to a full-scale prototype, to a digital model, to cutting CNC parts, then to 3D prints, back to CAD, and finally back to the sketchbook. The order can vary, but there is always a balance between the low-tech process and high-tech analysis and production. I try not to rely too much or too little on one process or another – rather I look for what best serves the project.
Handmade/Manufactured: Many of our products have components that are cut by CNC, but what gives the final project its distinct characteristics is the amount of time that goes into working the pieces by hand. The challenge is to build something as nicely as possible, but also to respect the natural patinas, and marks of something that is handmade. There are times when I have to make a hard judgment call about whether or not a grind mark, sanding scuff, or bit of wood grain emphasizes the overall aesthetic, or will cause that piece to be rejected. If I get it too “perfect” then the product feels cold, but with the right amount of human touch, the product feels warm, smooth and just right.
Conventional/Unconventional: When I’m designing, I think constantly about how a product will be built: each component, each system, each weld, and each fastener. This process is discursive, both in a positive and negative way. On one hand, I am limiting options by consideration of the construction so early, but on the other hand, consideration of the construction methods can generate design solutions. I am aware of many design and construction techniques, but my specialty is not carpentry, welding or CNC operation. This means that I’m slower than others at these trades, but it also means that I can keep a high-altitude perspective of how these processes might apply to a product – even in an unconventional way. During design, I often think:
this will be an experiment – let’s see if I can get it to work
I am currently working on a full-sized prototype for a product that I’ve been developing since November. Today in the shop, I said to myself: “Oh, I see why nobody else has designed this yet - it’s too complicated to build.” But that’s exactly when my excitement grows. I’ve spent countless hours working out the details for this project, but I hadn’t realized that my nut driver, my hex key, nor my screw gun wouldn’t fit in any of the spaces to get it assembled. Then I found a fortuitous way to fillet the assembly (like a fish) and build it inside out before gets folded back and bolted together.
Ephemeral/Long Lasting: Like many balanced concepts, “ephemeral” and “long-lasting” can overlap and complicate each other. One way to emphasize this point is to ask which of these concepts aligns itself more with beauty. Flowers are beautiful and they have a brief bloom period. Sunsets/sunrises are extremely short lived. Or, how about the Parthenon in Athens: It is among the longest standing structures (even considering that Morosini and Mutino partially blew it up in 1687) and it’s classical proportions are literally a calculated expression of beauty. But, both of these examples can be contradicted simply by juxtaposing them to different time scales: Sunsets/sunrises occur every day (isn’t that sort of permanent?) And the Parthenon’s 2450 year lifespan is quite brief compared to the duration of humanity, so buildings could be considered relatively ephemeral. The point I’m trying to make is that ephemerality and longevity are both worth considering. And, we carefully try to balance these principles when we make our products.
On one hand, we think about how brief a function may be for one of our tables or chairs. But we also design our furniture to be a durable investment that can stand up to years of use.