I'm in the middle of the largest design project I've worked on in years. The design process I use I think is kind of universal and might be helpful to some people who are stuck on how to design their own stuff.
In the past two articles (Part 1 and Part 2) I wrote about how to arrive at a creative solution. Expect to sweat a bit, in keeping with the well known aphorism attributed to the inventor Thomas Edison, when asked to define genius: “Bah! Genius is not inspired. Inspiration is perspiration." (Expect to share credit, too, perhaps unfairly - a writer and educator named Kate Sanborn defined genius as a mix of “inspiration” and “perspiration” years before Edison did.) So now comes the hard part.
Step One: Write down the features that are the motivation for the projectWrite down what will make the project successful. It doesn't matter what it is. If success means you are planning to make a copy of someone's chair, that's the goal. If your goal is to build the chair out of scrap, then that's the goal. You write this stuff down so you find out, as you work out the details, if you're still on track. The number of projects I've worked on where we've lost sight of what we were actually trying to do in the first place isn't small. This doesn't mean goals can't change, but it is too easy for projects to get sidetracked, so that by the time you're all done, the original reason for doing the project has been lost, rendering the project fundamentally unsuccessful. Even the current project I am working on is being sidetracked by maintenance issues on our old lathe. And I have to remind myself that just because a tear-down would be useful, I don't need to do it now - if I want to achieve my goal.
Step Two: Do your homework Whether you're doing something original, something copied, something that is someone else's idea, or just appeasing a client, you'll need to do your homework. Putting together all the information you have and can find on the subject will prevent you from reinventing the wheel. This is what libraries, the internet, and your own experience are for. Suppose you have the urge to design a chair. Looking up standard seat heights will save you oodles of time. If you use a different height, knowing a standard will help you figure out if your design can work as intended. Research is your first stop when figuring out construction details and technique. Someone else probably has looked at some of the problems you're dealing with it and may help you point in the right direction. By the way, the point of research is not to just copy an earlier design. The goal should be to gain insights, improve features, and hopefully weed out some bad ideas that initially seemed brilliant.
Step Three: Start prototypingThink of prototyping as a rehearsal. In the first stages, a prototype is not an early version of the finished thing. Certain things you can simulate in a drawing and get a sense of where you're going. But other parts of the project might need physical prototypes. If you're designing a chair, taking a board and clamping it up at the right height and the right angle will tell you a lot about how comfortable the chair will be. Another thing that's worth prototyping is technique. A bunch of years ago I decided to build a zigzag chair - only I was going to do it better, with a 45° dovetail joint. I prototyped the joint, and because the angles were not 90° but rather 45°, I discovered was that the layout was murder but the actual sawing and chiseling was fine. It was only after I finished my sample joint that I realized that if you sat on the joint you'd split out all the parts and it wouldn't work. So much for my brilliant idea.
I keep a journal for my projects and in it I keep a list of everything that is going on. As the design progresses, we start understanding the complexity of the project. Dates and benchmarks are important because it helps keep us from being distracted.
In my list, I try to articulate every question I have and everything that needs to be confirmed. And I try to figure out where I need some prototyping. I not only prototype the parts, but also technique. I'd much rather figure out and practice my technique on cheap materials than on expensive materials. This is this is applicable daily. This past week I was prototyping a part on my lathe and I failed miserably. Fortunately it didn't matter much because this testing stage is in the schedule. What I discovered is the carriage gibs need adjusting. It was easy to look up how to do that and I successfully tweaked the cross and compound feeds. I should do the carriage, but with the adjustments I did I can get back on track. Figuring this out cost some time and some practice materials, but now I know what I am doing and I am ready to rock on expensive stuff.
Centralizing information is usually good, but we actually keep several project lists - the group list and personal list each person keeps. One huge list confuses everyone.
Especially in the stage when we're doing initial design, we figure out what we need prototypes for, and what would be good benchmarks. Getting back to the chair idea, prototyping a seat for comfort is just a plain board is a great idea. But depending on your confidence in the rest of the design, you might want to also carve a sample leg in some in basswood or some similar material. This will help you understand if you like the way the carving looks, if you have the right skill or need to develop a requisite skill, etc. Sometimes you learn that you need a different approach. If, for example, your chair design involves carvings, prototype cheaper wood without carvings to make sure the chair really works the way it's supposed to. And then when the by the time you're actually using expensive materials, you will be prepared to execute all the decorative steps and everything else you planned initially. You'll know it's going to work, you know you'll have a skill to build it, and the result will be what you have in your mind's eye.
Notice please that I don't have a step four. Actually I do. It's called "Put it all together." That step might we worth a look because of the terrible wasting disease that makers have - the affliction known as "Creeping Elegance." Easy to catch. Highly contagious, and fatal to so many projects.
The purpose of prototyping is an acknowledgment of what I wrote in the earlier blogs on creativity. I am the first to say I don't know what I am doing. If I did, by definition I wouldn't be creating a new design. Understanding that now that I have a design I have to work through a process to execute the design successfully is the key.
I have followed these steps for years. Not only have these steps have kept me from blind alleys, they have also helped provide a great method to keep me from talking myself out of a project. More than one woodworker has had an idea for a great project and then decided it's just too hard. A dresser with 10 drawers of different sizes will seem a little too complicated. So how about building one of those drawers out of scrap? See if you can get it right. A narrow drawer with tiny little dovetails seems too finicky to get right? How about making one corner of the drawer, possibly even a few times until you've practiced enough so you're set up and technique are ready for the whole thing? My prototyping of my current project resulted in the a least one interim positive result: I tuned up the important parts of the lathe so that I could hit dimensions without going crazy (long-term benefit). I made sure I had all the necessary bits and bobs to make all parts of the part. I tweaked the final part to make it easier to make. I got practice on the lathe for some rarely done operations. If I had previously made similar objects, maybe I wouldn't have needed to prototype anything. Now I have the confidence that I will be successful delivering a proper quality part to the team.
N.B. In part 2 of this series Derek Cohen recommended that I real John Cleese's book "Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide." (He suggested I buy it from Amazon, but I got it from my local library - Take that Jeff Bezos!) A great suggestion. The book is most excellent, a very quick entertaining read and instructive. All my team has now read it and felt it was worthwhile.
Actually my blogs usually get at least one pass from an editor. Actually more than one usually. If you look at some of my early blogs - you can see that without an editor I am pretty illiterate. How much editing a piece gets depends on how much time. This particular entry was conceive last weekend but didn't get written until Tuesday morning. So it only had a single editing pass. That being said I wonder what errors you found. But the real truth is that I enjoy writing about various topics but I deadlines don't always the time I need to polish anything and if I insisted on perfection I would be paralyzed and write nothing. So I will try to have better grammer, but I can't promise perfection.
As Thomas said in a follow-up comment. "Maybe the essay is a 'prototype'?" He's not wrong. All writing is a draft on some level. What I don't have is the technical chops to be able to produce syntactically correct sentences while I work on content. I can't draw very well either. I think this blog entry went through about five drafts before it arrived in it's current form. The first few drafts were me trying to figure out what I was trying to say. Then the rest of the drafts were actually saying it as accurately as I could.