Pursuit of perfection

I was recently helping another designer with a project — a kind of DIY project — and in this case I was playing the role of fabricator, not designer.

At a certain point, I told the designer that we had a problem, that there was an issue with alignment and dimensions. To which the designer replied (in complete seriousness): “That’s not possible. I drew it up on the computer and it worked out perfectly.” Some of my readers will laugh to hear this — I did. It’s obvious that my colleague (who has a PhD) did not have a background in fabrication.

Paul Epp

Computers are wonderful tools. It is now hard to imagine accomplishing so many things without one. Writing columns on design is just one example. Sending it to the publisher is another. They have been a tremendous facilitator in design. That’s why I started using one, now almost 30 years ago. I wonder if I would have taken them on, if I had known just how much of the succeeding years would be spend in an unhealthy posture, slaving away on these metal and plastic electronic boxes.

Computers have changed how we do things, and, inevitably, they have changed how we think, as well. They certainly can be a precision instrument. Each industry and trade has its own standards and tolerances. Metalworking has a long history of precise work. Carpentry may only measure to an eighth of an inch, if that. Cabinetmaking is more likely to measure to a sixteenth, or a thirty-second and very occasionally to even less, but rarely to the ten-thou that computers will draw things out at. But because we can design to such very tight tolerances, we have also come to expect them. We shouldn’t. We all know that there is a broad disparity between the virtual world and what we call the real world but we still can confuse them.

A bit of thought will remind us that our actual reality is much messier and less certain. When it comes to the materials that we use, they are often destabilized, at least to a small extent, by factors like temperature and humidity, impurity and their manufacturing history. They are seldom as homogenous as they might be in theory. Nature has a way of intruding its overwhelming capacity for diversity into our carefully made plans and our reasoned-out expectations. And the result is some unpredictability.

Here is the difference: computers deal in certainties and our actual world is far from certain. This both works for us and against us. Our computers will allow us a theoretical perfection that is very useful. But nature gives us a richness that’s full of surprises. Our lives would be much reduced without that.

There are lessons for designers here. One is that all tools have their limitations. And this certainly includes computers. Often, we need to use a combination of tools, each selected for their strengths and with an awareness of their weaknesses, to achieve our goals. The other lesson is that what we ultimately deal with is seldom as simple as it is in theory. Imperfections and irregularities abound. So we have the responsibility to understand things experientially, as well as theoretically. We need to get our hands dirty with real interactions with real materials and real tools in order to understand the nuances of what actually works and what doesn’t.

This creates a feedback loop. There is a computer world saying: garbage in; garbage out. If we don’t supply our computers with the right data, they will let us down. And to know which data is right, we often need to have a range of non-computer experiences, which will give us the discernment we need as well as the correct anticipation of where things might go wrong. That’s why a school like OCAD University places such an emphasis on direct experience of material and process. There was a time when it was felt that computers would make that kind of traditional experience unnecessary. We have learned better.

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

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