Design Beginnings

February 8, 2009

A student wrote about his discouragement in trying to design. Ideas were not coming to him easily. “I’m so mechanical,” he lamented. My response to him went like this:

I think your problem is universal. No one knows how to design. Just like no one knows how to throw a baseball. Try throwing leftie if you a right hander and tell me how natural that feels.

I can tell you however that after years of throwing a baseball, playing catch with my brother, throwing from the outfield, throwing from third base, throwing across my body, throwing over my shoulder, throwing a softball, throwing a mush ball, throwing a wiffle ball, throwing the rock with high hard heat, after all this time if I went out and tried to throw a ball, it would feel like my arm was going to come off. My aim would probably be a little off, my velocity way down. Why? Because I haven’t been throwing. Just like you haven’t been designing.

Any activity takes practice if you want to be good at it. Nothing good comes quickly either. And if you stop practicing it, this skill will atrophy just like my throwing arm. So do not despair. Get looking at designs around you, in books, in magazines, on line. Try to ask yourself what about each design do you like or do you not like. What elements of a design could you see yourself using. Then keep sketching. Draw furniture, draw objects, draw people if you can, but keep drawing. I think this really opens up a pathway for the brain that computer drawing never will.

You must remember that the creative side of your brain is all the way over on the other side of that cranium from the engineering side. We use both sides. We need both sides to build furniture. But to access the design side you have to practice just like you practiced and worked out the engineering side.

Next you need to try designing in the styles you really like. For instance, what are the elements of the Federal style that you might like? Inlay, leg stringing, tapered legs, the austerity perhaps of the designs. Take those features and try to use them in work of your own. Work towards developing a vocabulary of design. Items of design, like words, can become favorites to use such as dagnabit and hornswaggle are for me dadgumit.

But I also like to pin my joints, mix contrasting textures, and use odd numbers in pieces so that I have a center to my design and a more balanced composition. I find that legs that grow wider as they meet the floor give a table a much more solid feel which I like. Some folks think it’s ponderous. They prefer a slimming leg as it goes to the floor. I’ve done both depending on the piece. Sometimes I put feet on my legs, sometimes I put a detail on the leg bottoms. Sometimes the detailing is everything, sometimes it’s very subtle. What kind of feeling am I after when I design work? Is it restrained and serene like Japanese interior design from some centuries ago or do I want more wallop when you walk through the door? Will I use textured aluminum this time or quartersawn ash? Or mix the two together? What’s my intent? What’s my intention with the piece?

Is it just a box? Well fine. Let it be just a box, but let’s put some care into the lay-out of the dovetails. Since they’re hand cut, let’s space them a bit differently as they move up the corner. Let’s let them protrude a bit and have a little rounding to them. Don’t just let the box sit there, put it up on a plinth or on some simple legs. Something that says: Here I am. A presentation.

Maybe a small chamfer on the bottom edge giving a shadow line there is enough. Maybe I’d prefer a dentil molding along the bottom edge like a row of teeth. Is my paneled lid plain and flat, raised and outrageous, painted and carved, veneered and polished to within an inch of its life? All these things inform the piece and how you want your audience to approach it.

Is there a handle on the lid that sticks up or sticks out? Are there two handles curving towards one another like a stylized pair of dolphins or are they a set of eyes? Where do you want people to put their hands when they go to touch this box? You’re in charge now, you’re the designer. Make people look at what you want them to look at.

It starts with the form. What are the proportions of this box? Make it square, a 1:1 ratio and it looks one way, but make it a 1:4 ratio and it changes completely. What kind of wood will work best for your design and for your joinery? Some woods will complement the piece, others will take it over. The joinery is important of course, but so is the texture. Is it all smooth or is there a small tapering chamfer on the top edge. Where will people idly run their hand on this piece wondering about the designer and how marvelous his life must have been?

It is up to you. Do not be afraid of design. You are designing when you throw designs out because they stink. This means you are developing criteria. This is good. It’s good to have standards. Keep making yours higher and higher. Try new designs, quick designs, designs that are silly and stupid and unbuildable just to see what they look like on paper. Leonardo DaVinci could not have designed his version of a helicopter if he wasn’t completely willing to try out the most outrageous ideas. Imagine imagining a helicopter at his time in the world! Astonishing. But he had no limits to his imagination. Quit holding onto yours and start to play. This is where ideas begin: in playing around, doodling. Don’t worry, we’ll pull you back to the earth soon enough when we have to figure out how to build your idea. But start with playing and tell your inner critic to just shut up for awhile so you can see what’s floating around inside. Let your mind wander and your pencil follow. You will be surprised by what you draw, guaranteed.

Have fun with it.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on February 8, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Blang it all, I think you’ve stumbled upon something here!

  2. Hi Gary, I like your musing on design and the fact that you are encouraging drawing … Draw,draw,draw.. Draw a little everyday is my advice to people who want to learn design. Look at stuff you like and draw it. In his recent book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell says that people become ‘expert’ at something after they put in their ‘10,000 hours’. Design is one of those somethings. I myself am at the point where I have ‘so many drawings,so little time’, but still I can’t stop drawing. And, you’re right, I am nearly always surprised …
    dan mosheim , dorset custom furniture

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