Design phobia

Bowls.  This year’s autumn project is going to be a series of large serving bowls.  That somehow “feels” right and I’m motivated.

That is, until I start sketching designs. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Raffan’s book The Art of Turned Bowls, a treatise on bowl design. I’m learning to see the effect that different profile shapes have on the overall impact of the form, the different uses of rims and feet, and detailing. And now I’m paralyzed by the thought that my designs will be “dumpy,” “turgid,” or other terms of derision he uses for awkward looking forms.

Another author on turning design (Mike Darlow’s Woodturning Design) takes a slightly different approach, more of a “aesthetics is largely personal taste, with some good design elements helping” attitude. After a whirlwind history of aesthetics through the ages, he suggests some general heuristics for sound design principles (focusing mostly on spindles, not vessels). But then again, he shows before-and-after examples of forms that could stand some improvement, and the result is unmistakably better.

So now I’m petrified that my first large bowls won’t measure up somehow. I’m not giving myself any permission to be a beginner and make mistakes – whatever comes off the lathe the first go-around has to be at least satisfactory. Clearly I “know” better – intellectually. I know I need to stumble and make mistakes and learn those lessons viscerally. I’m less worried about technical errors than I am about aesthetic ones, though. What if I can’t conceive of a beautiful design? What if I’m missing that gene?  For the educational psychologists out there, I feel like an entity theorist with respect to my artistic abilities – the ability is largely innate and can’t be improved through practice.  Again, I know that’s BS, but the fear lingers that I’ll just confirm my own worst perceptions of myself.

So, what might I advise a student to do in a similar situation?  Something like “commit to turning 10 bowls – all with different profiles – that will never leave the shop. In fact, plan on cutting them in half to study the thicknesses.”  That is, practice with the planned intent of trashing the bowls afterword for study.  And plan on variation, not 10 attempts to get the “perfect” design.

I was reading a blog by a teacher of furniture design, and he had a great assignment to get students “unattached” to their design ideas. (The full blog posting is here on Fine Woodworking). This teacher demands three different design ideas for a table.  Not three variations on a theme, but three completely different designs.

The problem with having just a single idea is that as more and more work goes into developing it, the stakes grow higher. It becomes harder and harder to turn back, because now so much is invested in it. All of their eggs are in one frail basket.Their precious little design becomes something that must be protected at all costs.  Not necessarily because it is good, but because it’s all they’ve got.

Ah…  Now I see what might help.  Three different bowl designs, all radically different from one another. Execute them. See what I like.  Rinse, repeat.

Yes, that’s the ticket.  Planned, radical variation. As with biological evolution, the better ideas will stick around to appear in subsequent designs. But variation is crucial to the mechanism of biological evolution; perhaps it is to the evolution of design ideas, too.

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