The Joy of Design

Paul Epp

My take on the ultimate how-to manual

Lately, I’ve found myself busy being a designer. It seems that I should describe this as working, but it actually feels more like playing. That might be more accurate, as there isn’t likely to be any remuneration downstream, but it’s still essentially the same activity that paid my way through much of my working life.

When I’m doing this work, I confront a challenge. That’s what design is. Whether its self-defined or provided by a client doesn’t actually make that much difference. A challenge is a challenge and its useful to take them all personally, regardless of their origin. We seem to do a better job of resolving these opportunities when they feel like they are impacting us directly. Obtaining that first-person based perspective can even be described as one of the steps in a design process. By our natures, we’re selfish creatures and we reflexively look after ourselves first.

Apart from identifying with the task at hand is the task of defining its parameters. What problem is it that we are trying to solve? While it would seem to be critical that we get this nailed down early on, so that we can proceed, I find its actually a kind of work-in-progress. I’m always adjusting my view of what the problem is, as I gain a better understanding of it.

The longer and harder we focus on it, the more we will learn about it, finding its nuances and the necessity to adjust our earlier perceptions and assumptions. That can send us right back to the beginning and a fresh sheet of paper. Images of playing Snakes and Ladders come to mind. But it’s no hardship to be compelled to start over, because it gives us more opportunities to play and to indulge ourselves in the joy of design.

What is the joy of design? In my view, it’s the searching for new solutions. It’s the mental gymnastics of turning a problem around and around in my mind (and not just my mind), considering different configurations and potential new versions. It can be frustrating, but I’ve never complained about that.

I got my start at this early, through a bit of good luck. It was our family’s habit to spend a lot of time in church, and the wooden pews were far from ergonomic. To help me endure the interminable sermons, I would redesign what I saw. A new pulpit. New pews (my start as a furniture designer). New pendant lights. Once I had the interior redesigned to my satisfaction, there was the exterior and when that was done, a whole parking lot full of cars that would surely benefit from my designer attention. I can thank the hard benches for nudging me along.

I’ve learned a lot since, and one lesson is that design isn’t as easy as just imagining things. The real work starts when one is faced with turning these dreams into reality. One especially hard lesson is that our imaginations lie to us, pretending things are possible when they are not. But, an experienced designer will allow for this and have devised checks and tests to keep him honest.

I’ve earlier described the process of design as an alternating use of our right brain and then our left, with the discipline to indulge our creativity without restraint and then, in turn, subject our dreams to the hard discipline of our rational criticism. It turns out that most of our good ideas aren’t that good after all, but we’ve learnt that if we have enough new ideas, the chances improve of having one or two worth keeping. So, we have to play that first part very hard, twisting and turning ideas around and pushing, pushing, for more. It’s almost like work.
Books have been written about the Joy of Cooking, and the Joy of Sex. There is probably a worthy book about the Joy of Design. But I won’t write it, I’ll be too busy designing.

(Knowing Paul, I think I’ll bookmark this one and see what happens. – Editor)

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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