Design Development—An Overview

Unlike the artist who starts with a blank canvas, most of us woodworkers create objects that must meet certain criteria. Even those of us that design our own products know that we must fulfill the needs and satisfy the tastes of our clients.

When we develop a design, we need to take into account the following aspects:

  1. Meet the Need
    1. What is the purpose of the product?
    2. What are the possible types of products that will fill the need?
      1. For example, if the need is for a place to work using a computer we must consider ergonomics, space allocation, accessibility, etc.
        1. The type of product(s) that would fill the need might be a free-standing desk and a built-in bookcase or it might be an integrated workstation.
  2. Define the Style
    1. Broadly speaking, should it be modern, traditional, post-modern, or what?
      1. Within these categories, we may need to narrow it down further. Let’s say that the customer wants a traditional or “period” style. Within that category, they may prefer Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal, etc.
  3. Consider the Aesthetics
    1. Important factors are:
      1. Proportion
      2. Balance
      3. Color, texture
      4. Decorative features
    2. The product must also fit in the surrounding environment where applicable.
  4. Select the Most Appropriate Materials
    1. Here both function and aesthetics are important.
    2. Wood should be selected that will enhance the design of our product and its environment
    3. Often wood needs to interface with metals, glass, stone, etc. Harmony among these materials is important.
  5. Engineer the Product
    1. Obviously, functionality is the primary consideration but we must also consider:
      1. Can it be fabricated, delivered, and installed economically?
        1. Can these tasks be accomplished efficiently in the shop where it will be fabricated and in the field where it will be installed?

I want to examine each of these considerations in more depth in articles to come. Even if we don’t make all of these decisions for the products we sell, it’s still important to understand all aspects of design in some capacity.

For woodworkers, the industry that needs to address these issues most intimately is the furniture industry. Even though the mass production of furniture in this country has been downsized dramatically, there’s still a niche where customers want something special. They might not be willing to accept the available mass produced furniture. Or they might need something to fit into a space where nothing “off the shelf” will work.  One of the most common applications is for “built-ins” that must be custom designed for a given location.

When building furniture to meet this need, it’s usually not necessary to copy the style of the surrounding furniture exactly. Having a room where all the furniture matches is not a popular trend today. But, it’s important to understand the overall style of the room into which your contribution will reside. Even if the furniture you create is to be an “accent” piece, it must be aesthetically compatible with its surroundings. Here the woodworker needs to have a thorough understanding of design.

Often the furniture maker will work with an interior designer in these situations. This doesn’t mean that the importance of his understanding of design is diminished. When working together, the better they understand each other’s field of expertise, the better the results.

For many of us, the original design development decisions are made by others. In the architectural millwork industry, for example, architects or other designers provide the overall design. Then it’s the woodworker who must make sure the design will work. What might look feasible on a set of architectural drawings may be dysfunctional in reality. In fact, the plan view might actually be out of sync with the elevation and/or the vertical section. The woodworker must decipher the design intent, confer with the architect, and then engineer a product that will work. He must be sure that the product is designed in a manner that:

  • Will function as intended
  • Will interface effectively with other trades
  • Will “fit in” aesthetically with its surroundings
  • Can be fabricated and finished profitably in the shop
  • Can be delivered and installed profitably in the field

Although the architectural millworker doesn’t create the original design, he or she is often held at least partially responsible if things go wrong. The best way to avoid the inevitable finger pointing game is to find the best solution to potential problems when the shop drawings are created. The better the woodworker understands the design intent, the better he can find solutions to these issues before they become big, expensive, schedule-delaying problems.

Kitchen cabinets present a number of challenges for the designer. The custom cabinetmaker is often the designer who must take on these challenges. First of all, the space must be created with functionality as the most important criteria. Secondly, the cabinets need to be fabricated and installed economically. To accommodate these needs efficiently, most cabinets are composed of rectangular boxes.

But the trend lately is to make kitchen cabinets look more like furniture. Turned columns, applied carvings, and other decorative elements are added to achieve this look. If these embellishments are added haphazardly, the resulting design looks awkward. It requires intimate understanding of design to make this blending of elements really work.

Door and window manufacturers need to be cognizant of style and aesthetics as well.   If they design their own products, they’re in competition with other manufacturers regarding the aesthetics of their designs. Their designs must:

  • Function well
  • Blend with popular architectural styles
  • Have the right proportions, balance and other features that convey good design

Custom door and window manufacturers usually work with architects. To make this relationship work best, they need to have the same insight into design issues as do architectural woodworkers.

So understanding the basics of design is important to all woodworkers. Some industries demand a more intimate knowledge of design than others. But whatever aspect of woodworking you do, a deeper understanding of design can help you achieve greater success.