The Design Process

My designs are usually the result of fulfilling a brief or function, or the embodiment of my imagination. The design process is a little different for each of these, as well as anything in-between. My current project is one of these in-betweeners, and that's what I'll talk about here

A lot of the time when I'm asked to make something, the client (family, friend, or stranger) will have a definite idea of what they think they want. Some have a good imagination and are able to give me a thorough specification, where the only design input I may have is based on the practicalities of building it within the budget. Although this makes pleasing the client fairly straightforward, it isn't so rewarding as when I'm given free-reign over the design. Such was the case with my latest challenge.

The brief was simply to design and build a replacement for a worn out what-not.

A what-not is simply an open display stand for small objects, and at it's most basic is often a three leg, three shelf, corner unit. The sketch to the left shows this design, which is fairly straightforward to make. Up-stands to the sides of the shelves are commonly used to add rigidity to the unit, and legs will usually have feet and finials for decoration.

Inspiration came, during a walk under the local cliffs, from my knowledge of the client's love of nature. They have a prominent fish pond in their garden, planted with water lily, iris, and other plants, and home to many fish. Quite how a beach led me to think of their garden I'll never know, but then most of my ideas come that way. So how to incorporate these things into a what-not? Breaking the plant forms down to their most simple, large flat circles, and tall thin rods, allowed me to construct a circular shelved structure supported by multiple legs--a what-not?

Getting it down on paper was the next stage.

Many times a very sketchy drawing with a few measurements is all I'll do before starting up the computer and modelling the object in a software package such as SketchUp. These have the distinct advantages of undoing steps, copying elements, and most of all viewing from various angles.

Well, I'm sure expert users would have no trouble recreating lily pads, plant stems, iris and lily flowers, etc. but I'm a long way from that, and so it was going to be paper and pencil all the way.
It's actually quite liberating using just a selection of varying hardness pencils and drawing paper.

A few light lines to set the proportions and shapes, followed by shading to develop the structure and form, and finally some harder outlining to bring it all together.

A few accompanying drawings will help to visualise it in all dimensions, and start to establish where joinery will be possible.

A little though sorts through the standard joints looking for the best ones to adapt for strong, yet natural looking attachments.

Scaling the design, which until now has no dimensions, was done by observation of the intended location, and some measurements of the co-located bookshelves. This process establishes the rough sizes of the major components; in this case the shelves and legs.

Material choices could have been a very long process, had I been intent on matching nature for colour and texture. Instead, I limited my palette to the woods I use frequently--I know their properties well enough to ensure sufficient strength and rigidity, which was always going to be a challenge with the lightness of the design. The ability to carve some of the elements was also important, for my carving is a much under-practiced skill.

Well, that's as far as I've got with the what-not so far. The process: inspiration, ideas, developing a sketch, working out joints, scaling, and material selection, is quite simple, but sometimes you need to re-visit earlier steps if you reach a dead end.

There may still be some minor alterations to my design as the build progresses, but that's the fun of this type of project. I'll post photo's of the completed what-not, and needless to say there will be a video too.

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