Better all the time

Even before I became as involved with canoes and canoeing as I eventually did, I found it easy to admire this ‘frail craft of an aqueous navigation.’ All the lines were gentle curves, and, even when at rest, these little boats looked like they were in motion. While I was admiring one in particular, the builder happened to mention that he had designed it. My mouth must have dropped open. Designed it? A canoe? A cedar canvas canoe, which have been made since the mid-19th century? Mike didn’t seem old enough. And then I recalled a similar astonishment that I had seen of the faces of some people when I claimed to have designed a particular chair. Chair? Four legs, and a seat and a back? And you think you designed that?

Paul Epp

Paul Epp

Eventually I learned enough about canoes to respect that particular claim. They are actually a complicated design, with many variable factors: the rocker, the shape of the hull, the size and shape of the stems, the tumblehome and many more. Certain configurations work better, to certain purposes, than others. It is possible to design a unique canoe, which looks very historical, by manipulating all of the constituent elements to achieve a particular effectiveness. And I think the same is true of chairs. When they are of a certain type, they may look similar, especially at a distance, but they may perform quite differently. A claim of authorship may in fact be legitimate.

In the understanding of many people, design is about innovation. That which is proposed should look like something that has never been seen before. It should, in a manner of speaking, not have any parents — it should be original. While this is a laudable goal, the business of design is actually much more nuanced than that.

Our civilization has progressed, to a large extent, on the basis of innovation. Many of the things we take for granted would have been highly original at some point. Maybe everything was. So we ought to be grateful to the innovative amongst us and those that preceded us. But the truth is that very few ideas have ever appeared to anyone in a perfect state. A new idea may turn out to be a good idea, but usually not before some adjustments are made. This is the part we call development. It’s a lengthy affair and usually involves many people, even across time and space.

Some people make their contribution as innovators. And some make theirs as developers, and there are many more of the latter. Without them, the innovative idea may not amount to much. This reality gets skewed by the fact the originality is much more effective at attention procurement than incremental adjustments are. We applaud the brave new breakthrough and it is the part that gets written into our histories.

However, there is a great deal of honour in actually getting the fancy new ideas to function. And even once they do, they will usually be improved, often by anonymous contributors, over a long period of time.


The activity of originality is distinct. It requires a set of skills and talent and discipline (and maybe even a bit of luck) that allows the originator to make new connections and to see new opportunities that the rest of us don’t. The contributions of development usually come about more slowly. They depend on a type of intimacy and patience and understanding that flashes of brilliance usually don’t have. They are often found in a different type of person.

There are lots of examples of this. One that comes to mind is the Volkswagen Beetle. Ferdinand Porsche had the original idea, but over the 65-year-long life of that particular design, it went through many iterations as well as a process of continuous improvement. We can be sure that Mr. Porsche didn’t make them all. He may not even have made very many. Different job. But undoubtedly, the design got better and better. I could even make the case that the process didn’t stop in 2003, since there have been two ‘new’ Beetles since then, which would not exist without the influential original and they in turn are expressions of ongoing improvement.

This double nature of design can be confusing. Students often feel that they need to be creators of original work (where the glory is) when many of them would actually be more useful as developers. And as it turns out, that’s usually how things sort out. As Steve McQueen said as Junior Bonner in the movie of that name ‘someone has to hold the horses.’


Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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