Friday, August 8, 2008

Creative Thinking

How the heck did he/she come up with that?

That’s what goes through my mind when I peruse woodworking books that feature original designs. That...and maybe I should turn in my woodworking badge.

A friend who took a furniture design class was taught to brainstorm by sketching ideas and then constructing small-scale models with foam core, hot glue, paper, cardboard, and wood. The instructor pointed him towards nature for inspiration. Flip the piece upside down, he suggested, consider the negative space, the angles, the lines. Look at it from all angles. How does your eye follow the design? Why do you like a particular design or feature? Does a piece have to be square and level? Must a table have 4 legs, 3 legs?

My friend was taught to think outside the box.

In Robin Landa’s book Thinking Creatively (a graphic design book), she lists design principles pertaining to the relationship among elements that, I believe, parallel woodworking: balance, unity, hierarchy, rhythm, and contrast. I’ll add scale, proportion, and pattern.

As woodworkers, we have at our disposal loads of inspiring books that showcase styles from period to ultra-modern. But I think we can also find inspiration from other disciplines including sculpture, painting, fashion, and architecture.

I’m horrible at coming up with original woodworking designs and I’d like to find more exercises for unlocking creativity. One thought is to take a sketchbook along with you. Anything that catches your eye—a doorway, the curve of a leaf, a bridge’s framework, a feather boa—jot it down. I suggest sketchbook rather than camera because you’re immediately forced to make your own interpretation.

That’s the only excercise I’ve come up with. If anyone else would like to offer procedures or books that help with thinking outside the box, chime right in!

Photos are from 400 Wood Boxes: The Fine Art of Containment & Concealment.
Photo 1: Brian McLachlan
Photo 2: Ray Jones
Photo 3: Terry Evans


Woodfired! said...

Thanks for reminding me about this book (as you know I'm a containment and concealment kind of guy). Just having a quick look through it again - I love the Wasabi ring box by Douglas Jones and Kim Kulow-Jones on pg 107. Their other piece on the following page is rather cute too.

There is an interesting mix of good design and awful design. It's a useful exercise to try to understand what it is that you like or dislike about each piece.

I know I promised you a few posts about the design techniques I was taught at art school. They're still in the pipeline. Soon as I finish re-building my dust extraction system :-)

Thanks for the prompt to look at this book again.

Vic Hubbard said...


I think you pretty much nailed design. In the interview of Wendell Castle over at Furnitology, Castle talks about the fact that to create great designs, you have to ALWAYS be designing. Keep a sketch book and use it everyday. It takes practice, but just keep sketching and with time you will hit some good ideas.

Ethan said...

I was with you all the way up to the point where you talked about building small-scale models with foam core.

In a design class in college I had to build a life-sized, 3-dimensional self-portrait using foam core and hot glue.

I got an A on the project, but I paid for it with about 15 burns (you know most of that was done late, late at night, right?) and went through a few dozen Xacto knife blades in the process. I came out with a distinct hatred for foam core (as did our teacher, funny enough...).

Unknown said...

I use journals that I sketch in, I also keep pictures I cut out of design elements that catch my eye.
one of the journals that help me alot is the one I keep all the thing I don't like. Then I try to fix them by making sketches of my ideas that I like based on the design, sometimes I can come up with things I like and sometimes I don't, but it helps unlock my creativeness.

will said...

We've seen the evolution of wood things go from strictly practical, useful things to creative studio- non functional gallery pieces. Wood is a plastic material in so many ways - from using a spokeshave to ammonia fume bending.

The debate whether good design can be taught has never been answered. Many top-end designers say no it can't be taught - it is a trait you either have or don't have. Teachers, on the other hand, feel design can be developed.

One personal observation. I've often wished magazines and books would indicate when a piece is made by a student. The student distinction is because they usually have access to machinery and processing elements the rest of us can only dream about.

But you are correct in observing, some things are so incredible it makes one feel a bit insecure about keeping that woodworking badge.

mdhills said...

Sounds like someone was piqued by Neil Lamens' recent interviews of Mr. Castle ( )

Woodfired! said...

Bill raises an interesting topic. He says "The debate whether good design can be taught has never been answered." I would argue that it has.

The question is based on the fundamentally false dichotomy between genes and environment. The simple answer is that we are all the products of both. If you ask the better question "Can we improve our design abilities by practice and application?" the answer is obviously yes. That is the point of the various exercises that Kari and others suggest. Can we develop our abilities to the level where we create "good design"? Of course we can if we're prepared to put in the effort.

Does this mean anyone can learn to design like a particular "top-end designer"? No - because we are all different. I have a close friend who I think is one best designers in the world. He is exactly the sort of slightly-mad, intuitive designer that people would say was "born with it" (even though he's worked non-stop for 30 years developing his skills). I've learnt a lot from him over the years and have adopted some of his design methods but I will never design like him. Neither do I want to. If I chose some particular area and diligently devoted myself to mastering it I might get to 60-70% of his skill but I'd probably never reach his level. Maybe that's a limit imposed by heredity or early experience but what does it matter? I know I can improve substantially if I'm prepared to put in the effort and that decision is based on what is important to me in my life.

Design is important to me. I can see that some woodworkers are happy to just make reproductions of other peoples designs - they just enjoy the making. Fair enough. But I have always found that the most satisfying activities have a balance between the intellectual and physical aspects of the activity. (I've found this true of activities as diverse as medical research, cooking and software engineering.) I would encourage any woodworker to take up Kari's suggestion and look to expand their design abilities to get the most enjoyment from their woodworking.

Interestingly this leads on the Bill's other observation about students' work. I have been on the other end of this - feeling a degree of hostility at the local woodies guild towards students. In my experience it's not because the students have access to better equipment (often the reverse is true) but because the students come armed with some understanding of the importance of design in their work.

BTW Bill I've just had a read through your blogs. Very enjoyable. Like your poems especially the latest. (Enjoying the Olympics though :-)

On a lighter and more practical note. As we all know, the point of drawing as an exercise is to learn how to see. (This is the one common thing I find among all my highly creative friends - they all see the most amazing and unexpected things that the rest of us have not even noticed. I'm glad to say that a little of this has rubbed off on me.) The one little tip I'll add to the discussion is to not overlook the elements of the piece you are making before you put them together, eg when they are laid out on the bench. Maybe it's my obsession with rhythm and repetition but I often find inspiration from the multiple components when they are laid out in some arrangement other than the one I'm intending. I now take a quick photo or make a sketch when I see a serendipitous arrangement that appeals. It is the practice of the aforementioned designer who often makes complex laminated curved elements to take them out into the sunshine and lay them out in different orientations observing the shapes created by the shadows as he re-configures them. (I'll try to post some pics to illustrate what I mean here when I get around to doing some design-related posts.)

Kari Hultman said...

Thanks for the all the comments & ideas. I'll have to watch Neil Lamen's interview--it sounds interesting and helpful.

Ethan, I have a few art school tragedies, too. Like the time I cut the tip of my finger off. (It grew back--whew!)

Mark, I sense a few design-related posts on your blog in the near future. ; )

Regarding the question about whether or not good design can be taught. I believe technical principles can be taught, and somewhat easily. But for the truly gifted, I believe they were born with that spark.

will said...

Mark, I want be clear on this - I have no hostility towards students or their work. But I have seen student work specifically designed and built with machinery or techniques not available to most. For example, Ammonia bending is a process that makes some wood seem like wet noodles - the wood becomes far more pliable than typical steam bending. Another example - some schools have vast clamp collections or vacuum tables (for veneering) which are all costly and beyond many workshop budgets.

The distinctions between the work of students, hobbyists, serious amateurs and professionals has never been greater than currently. I suspect there are many woodworkers who read only how-to books and fewer who read about historical woodworkers and design. Whether this difference is important, I'm not certain.

A certain amount of “us” and “them” has developed between the various factions. I oversimplify, but typically students don’t attend woodworking clubs and hobbyist in clubs don’t attend colligate lectures or gallery exhibitions.

Yet the quality of work by these groups is often difficult to type cast. I've seen terrible professional work - and incredibly marvelous amateur efforts. and, often there is innovation coming from hobbyists and serious amateurs perhaps because they have fewer preconceptions.

But you are correct regarding the historical and contemporary understanding of which students can bring into the mix. There's nothing better than a good bibliography when one wants to develop a skill. And, the classroom offers both discussion and critique - hopefully based upon knowledge - and hopefully for the betterment of the participants.

Still, woodworking is a hands-on business. Toshio Odate tells of his apprenticeship in pre-war Japan. The learning process was implied, not taught. It was the apprentices obligation to "steal the secrets" of the master craftsmen. If the apprentice could not learn from watching and comprehending what was before him - he was destined to fail.

Woodfired! said...

Bill, I didn't mean to imply that you were exhibiting hostility.

I can understand both perspectives as I have been on both sides. I exhibited with the guild as a complete (and naive) amateur. My piece was selected in the final two for the cabinet-making prize but I was just pipped by one of the student works. I subsequently studied at the same school and exhibited as a student. I gave up on the guild because the reception at the last exhibition I entered was so - well - hostile. But I can understand the feelings of the people that put in the hours to run the guild and the exhibition who then get swamped with strange-looking and often ungrateful students.

I agree that good and bad work is produced by both groups. I just get frustrated when I see someone with brilliant execution who produces a piece that would be beautiful if only they had spent a few minutes thinking through their design.

I have finally gotten hold of Odate's book Making Shoji and I read the tale of his apprenticeship just last week! It is certainly an interesting teaching method - one that works best when you have 7 years (or better still a lifetime) to devote to a single skill set. Doesn't translate directly to our way of life but certainly aspects of it can. Once again it is beneficial to understand and respect the traditions of our now multi-traditioned craft. My training was a well balanced dialectic between Japanese master-apprentice methods and an approach based on scientific understanding of the processes. But that is a rant for another day.


Woodbloke said...

Interesting pieces shown on this blog entry, but the sad truth is that's it's almost impossible to come up with an original woodwork design because sure as day follows night, someone, somewhere during the last 3000 years will have thought of before you. At best we can incorperate the most pleasing features from work that we see around us and incorperate into our pieces and from that some sort of personal style may result, if you're lucky. At the end of the jour, I try to create a piece that I'm happy to live with, that I feel comfortable around and that others look at think the same, they cause no inner conflict. The three pieces shown in Kari's blog have a novelty value that may be sharp and of the moment, but in 50 or 200 years?....I think not. Look closely at the Barcelona chair, designed and made in the early part of the 20th century and still being made. Classic and simple always works...just my two Euros - Rob

Kari Hultman said...

Rob, you bring up an interesting point about our motivation for building the things we do. Do we choose our projects with the thought that they will be cherished 200 years from now? Do we build to please only ourselves? Our family? Gallery owners?

I think there's a blog post in there somewhere....

Woodbloke said...

...Do we choose our projects with the thought that they will be cherished 200 years from now? Do we build to please only ourselves? Our family? Gallery owners?

I'd like to think that the stuff I make will be well regarded in future years. At an amateur level I think we have to make stuff to satisfy ourselves, if making to commission then another set of criteria apply altogether... - Rob

Unknown said...

just found your site on wood whisperer.... I also get ideas from grandkids... made doll beds for two and they 'designed' their own beds. One grandaughter wondered if they had purple wood.. I used purple heart.... for her very modern style bed..
a fun project.
love the variety of your site..
nancy w

Kari Hultman said...

Nancy, I would say that grandkids make for pretty excellent inspiration. And no doubt they brag about what a cool grandma they have!