Monday, January 14, 2008

On design. And we breathe deeply again.



After the past few weeks night and day work on our Gigantic Grant Proposal, we're are getting back to normal. It's good for all of us.

I was finally able to detach from my computer and desk and prototype some ideas I've bottled up for months. We are working on some bigger river models--the Emriver is a wonderful tool, but it's optimized for portability and cost. Here's Jessie in the shop today (some things pixelated.)

Jessie and I made great progress today. I love design. The formal stuff is pretty goofy to me. I've read books on design. Seems politics, economics, and especially aesthetics (and, worst of all, the politics of aesthetics) poison what I've seen of formal design.

Our 1986 Vanagon is a good example. The overall shape is good (boxy, you can put a ton of stuff in there) and the camper part is brilliant and still copied today. But the Beetle boxer engine should never have been wedged into that thing. I think my hundreds of hours of working on and modifying our Vanagon have taught me something.

The process goes from problem to lots of thinking and sketching (I have hundreds of pages on the Emriver). And research on the materials and parts available. Then much iteration, drawing and thinking and sleeping in between. Then dumb ideas. You hope not too many of these get prototyped, but in the case of the Emriver's notch gage, about 20 did. Cost and durability and buildability have to be on your mind.

What's interesting to me now is that we build the prototypes and test them, and you slap your head and go "what a dumb idea" or rejoice that the thing works like you thought (lots of that today). But then you move away from the physical model and immediately other ideas come to mind. The models tie you to reality but perhaps too much. They are not easy to build, maybe that's it. Too many hot glue burns. Too much adjusting the tablesaw fence, looking for 1/4" wingnuts. God forbid you have to make a hardware store run. The wrong reality creeps in and messes with your design.

For me, looking at the photos of our prototype models brings a flood of ideas that I never would've had standing there at the workbench. Maybe a Kodachrome effect--the thing looks much different in a photo, you're not distracted by smells and sound and running the tablesaw, and new ideas emerge. Most of them will be entombed in the notebooks, but now and then one makes sense.

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