Training Wheels for the Analytical Mind

Article - September 27, 2010

Recently, I read an article in Fine Woodworking Magazine called “A Visit to the Design Doctor”. Three nice-looking projects each received a design critique and a virtual upgrade by an accomplished designer. Looking at the proposed changes, I couldn’t help but think about how tricky it can be to design your own pieces. Many of the changes were simply things that I would not have thought of. Now these weren’t necessarily changes based on design rules, they were simply aesthetic changes that came from a creative mind. This immediately reminded me of how the world of woodworking is analogous to the world of music. So here are a few thoughts on music, design, and your role in the woodworking ecosystem.

The Music Analogy

When I played drums in college, I learned something about my personal level of creativity. I joined a band that was in need of a new drummer. Spinal Tap anyone? So one of my first tasks was learning the old songs. I found this process very easy and natural as I would digest the original drum beat, and then modify it to my liking. Sometimes I would find areas that could do with some improvement and the end result was clearly just a refinement of the original. Other times, the situation called for a complete overhaul. Either way, I followed my instincts to create what I thought was appropriate for the song and life was good. Unfortunately, my creative challenges didn’t stop there. I was also responsible for creating beats for the new songs. I found that I was much less creative and a bit stifled when I was responsible for the beat from the ground up. You might call it paralysis by analysis. I actually longed for someone to take that initial responsibility out of my hands and create the starting beat for me. That way I could see what direction the beat was going, and then I could cleverly guide it to the place it should be. Obviously, getting someone else to make your drum beats isn’t really a good way to stay in the band, so I had to do my best at creating the new beats from start to finish. How did I do it? Read on!

The Art of Emulation

My secret weapon was what I would call emulation. This is vastly different from blatant copying. I would listen to as many songs as possible, waiting for inspiration to strike. If I found a particular beat or fill that I liked, I would try to modify it so that it would fit into my song. And sometimes, that one fill or small part of a beat would be enough to inspire the rest of the song. A small spark that turns into a roaring fierce fire of creativity. Did I copy? Well….sort of. That’s why I call it emulation. I took inspiration from an idea, built upon it, and turned it into something I can call my own simply by following my instincts. Now I didn’t think much of this process at the time. I was mostly focused on getting the job done so I wouldn’t look like an idiot at our next gig. You know, girls to impress and all that. But as a woodworker, I can see how these same limitations and creative loopholes exist and I still struggle in exactly the same way.

Emulation in Woodworking

I take inspiration from many places and countless other woodworkers. But instead of copying something, I try to emulate an idea and modify it in such a way that it is pleasing to my eye. I’ll even combine concepts from multiple pieces and create something completely different, but still owing some credit to the original ideas for the constituent parts. I see nothing wrong with this method of creating and I encourage others to do it. As a person who feels he lacks the gift of natural creativity, this system allows me to build pieces I can be proud of, while slowly but surely increasing my tool chest of options for new designs and concepts. Call it “training wheels for the analytical mind”.

We All Have a Role

As I see it, there are three types of woodworkers:

  • The Creators – the few who are gifted with the ability to create truly unique designs.
  • The Copiers – the people who re-create existing designs.
  • The Modifiers – the people who take inspiration from exiting ideas, and modify them enough to call it something “new”. I think most of us would fall into this category.

Regardless of which type of woodworker you are, you play a vital role in the woodworking ecosystem. If you are an emulator, don’t feel bad about it! All the advances in modern science and medicine wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for people emulating the work of others. The story of Rock & Roll probably wouldn’t be the same if the Beatles weren’t a part of it. As time passes, it becomes more and more difficult to create something truly unique and original. In music, there are only so many notes to work with. A song is simply the result of shuffling those notes into a different order and time. In woodworking, our “notes” are things like joinery, wood species, and shapes. Your final creation is your “arrangement” and your creativity manifests itself in the uniqueness of that arrangement. Use the design rules to help you avoid dissonant tones, but be careful not to let the rules stifle you into creating elevator music. There is nothing worse than a perfectly-designed piece that is completely forgettable. Let your creative fire rage on, but try to make it a controlled burn using design rules as your guide.

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