Design Lessons from My Father

Over the last few years I have found myself, more the once, saying things that make me stop and think -  'Whoa that is something my father would say'. I began to realize that much of my design and general 'creation' methods and philosophy comes from my father. My father would not call himself a designer, although when asked what he did at work, he usually responded 'making stuff'. I always found this statement a bit odd and couldn't really relate from my childhood imagination of what fathers actually did at work (this was equal to TV dads). It wasnt until much later that I realized - together with my own desire to create something - what he meant and appreciate certain experiences.

My father exposed me and my brothers to technology at a very early age, as well as gave us ample opportunity to build things on our own (read:blow-up) - model rockets, hot air balloons (too small for people), RC airplanes, computers - you name it. When I was a bit older we were exposed to carpentry, homebuilding techniques (from reading monthly issues of Fine Homebuilding and Fine Woodworking magazines) and architecture. My father also exposed me to all things Japanese. It started with a few bonsai trees and progressed to a full scale Japanese garden in our backyard. This combination of technology and aesthetics has been a powerful combination for my future.

All of these experiences resulted in some useful lessons:

1. Read

My father read (and still does) constantly. I have many fond memories of my Dad reading in the evenings, at the beach, in airports - everywhere. My father also read everything. No matter what book or magazine he found laying in front of him he would read. It was almost that we couldnt help himself (I have the same habit). This resulted in him having a rather wide area of knowledge, that really is an asset when designing solutions. Some of my truly best design solutions are ones that I developed while reading magazines about subjects I wouldn't normally be interested in.  True innovation occurs in the combination of previously unrelated ideas and reading is a good way of exposing yourself to these ideas.

2. Measure twice cut once - Prototypes

My father is now, after retirement, a full time carpenter. I have watched him through the years build furniture that has become more and more complex and elegant. Each project demands planning and due to the work and cost involved, a good way of minimizing risks and avoiding mistakes. Enter prototypes. If my father was making a large piece that involved new techniques he would often make a prototype with less expensive wood. This allowed my father to learned from the process, modify techniques or change the design  without breaking the bank.

In the digital world, I have found prototypes an excellent way of testing to see if a solution is effective in a low(er) cost format.

3. Try it yourself

If my father wanted to learn how do something, he read about, then gave it a try. He wasn't very big on calling in an 'expert' to do certain projects if he was confident he could do it himself. He succeeded many times, and seeing this has given me the ability to try things myself I may not have considered otherwise.

One of the things about designing things digitally is that many of the technologies you can try yourself. There is usually a blog post or tutorial that can guide you through the most difficult technologies. By doing this, you learn what is involved in realizing an idea digitally and also the value of experts in these areas.

4. Tools

I remember going into by fathers shop looking at all the different tools in amazement. My brothers and I would begin to make basic wood 'objects' and realize we didn't have the skills or knowledge to do what we wanted. My father would take out a strange looking tool that could perform the task easily.

'The right tools makes things easier' he would say.

When designing things, using the right tool, can make all the difference.

Editors Note: The opposite can also occur. I have developed some good design solutions using the completely wrong tool. It took longer, looked rather bad, but was a good solution.

Thanks to my brother Brian for inspiration and ideas for this post.