Design is an area of woodworking that some people find intimidating. With all the woodworking info and plans available, it’s tempting to simply follow a well-designed plan and get a good looking project or copy an existing “masterpiece”. It’s not really that hard to do a good job of creating original woodwork. A good starting point is reading and studying a number of books and magazine articles that have been published. They contain good advice on dealing with issues of style, proportion, symmetry, and construction. Most importantly, as with all things, practice and a solid foundation of knowledge make the job easier.
1) Start with many approaches. Consider a project from as many aesthetic and construction angles as you can to start with, and then narrow the field. I usually try to start with 3-5 concepts. Explore each and then eliminate.
2) No self-indulgent design! Woodwork needs to carry out its function well and have a wide and lasting appeal. As a designer, always be thinking about how people will interact with your work. And, will your design still be a interesting and attractive 20 years from now? If you build a cabinet purely to please your own likes and dislikes you may well end up with a finely built and very unique cabinet that just stores old cans of paint in the garage.
3) Avoid unnecessary complexity. I struggle with this one the most. I like complicated mechanisms with lots of parts because it fits my mad-inventor psyche. But, unnecessary complexity can make a project very difficult to build or give it a cluttered and unbalanced look. Good design seeks an efficiency and purposefulness in both construction and aesthetics.
4) Build prototypes. There’s no substitute for looking at and building a fully scaled mockup of a project to help you work out issues of aesthetics and construction. Prototypes-even just prototypes of parts or individual assemblies can be invaluable. You will teach yourself about the building process as well as the design. Think of it as taking a few warm up swings with a golf club before hitting the ball.
5) Get feedback. Discuss your design ideas with and seek the honest comments of others-even non woodworkers. It will improve your work and often lead to new ideas that are better than your original. Every project I have designed for ShopNotes and Woodsmith has come out better for having gone through the gauntlet at staff meetings. (And I have learned, over time, not to get angry with the commentary, mostly).
6) Get all your hardware as soon as you can. Absolutely have all of the needed hardware before you build. Nothing is as it seems on a catalog page. Vendors change and parts are discontinued all the time.
7) Be patient. Sometimes the answers take time. Don’t give up. I have had ideas that have taken well over a year before becoming a viable project.
It’s true, design can be a bit overwhelming with all the complexity and choices, but keep at it. It’s a wonderful skill to hone or develop as a woodworker. To paraphrase an old saying: The more I design, the less I know, but the easier it gets.