When I wrote about choosing words, I started thinking about decision-making. Not the decision-making that has attracted enormous attention and investment from everyone from businessmen to philosophers, but the nitty-gritty, low-level decision-making, like how to choose between referring to something as “wonderful,” or “amazing,” or between making your workbench thirty six inches tall or thirty seven inches tall. It has made me much more aware of the thousands of decisions that compose everything around us, and the thought (or lack thereof) that went into the choosing.
Before I received any formal engineering training, I saw intentionality in every engineered dimension, from the height of a doorway to the diameter of the curve of a toilet bowl. Some of my favorite books growing up were How Things Work, and its sequel. I read books on circuit design and simple machines from cover to cover, multiple times, and I saw engineering as the ultimate in thinking everything through. In my head, anything made by human hands was the product of a thorough process of dimensional and material optimization.
Then, I majored in astronautical engineering, and I realized that engineers are not superhuman creatures with profound attention to detail. They are very human, and just as lazy as anyone else. The “important” dimensions might get attention, maybe an optimization algorithm, but most dimensions that will not directly affect the basic functionality of a design are the result more of less of holding up your thumb, squinting, and saying “eh, that looks about right.” No one, certainly, was applying the principles of conic sections and fluid dynamics to determine the optimal curve of a toilet bowl that would prevent droplets from escaping. This is even true in high technology applications – the number of decisions that were made for the satellite programs I’ve worked on based on little more than “well, that works well enough” is still astonishing to me.
Human Dimension and Interior Space leans into similar observations, arguing for a more deliberate approach to dimensioning in design. Yet even applying these principles and thinking through some kind of optimization for a relatively simple design, like that of a workbench, can become immensely complicated. I’m designing and building a workbench for myself, which means that I can base it on just my height and my workstyle, and even that leaves a huge number of considerations unresolved for just the surface height. I learned that two or three inches less than the height of my elbow is usually ideal. But from what stance? Well, whatever stance I use at my bench. Except that depending on what activity I’m doing, my stance will be different. If I’m hand-sawing or planning a board, I will have a much lower stance than if I’m doing detail work or working with power tools, and I’ll have another different stance for the wiring, circuitry, chemistry, and other experimentation that I intend also to do at the bench. So do I build a thirty two inch bench that will make heavy work easier but hurt my back on the detail work, or do I build a thirty eight or even forty inch bench that will be ideal for detail work and doing experiments, but will make heavy work far more difficult?
That’s just a single dimension, bench height, and does not touch on the decision-making involved in deciding on width, length, vices, dog hole placement, storage, bench placement, wood type, joinery used, timber dimensions, mass…I could go on, but this post isn’t about building a workbench. It’s about little decisions, and the point of this discussion is that, for all that I still want every dimension to be logically derived and quantifiably optimized, I understand why that is rarely the case. The number of variables and considerations involved balloons rapidly, even on apparently simple problems, and the effort and time required expands proportionally. That presents us with a different set of decisions: the need to decide which small decisions are worth taking the time and effort to do “right,” and which we can settle on with “good enough.”
I cannot present any simple formula or thought process that will help, because it will vary so widely depending upon the situation. If you have a huge engineering team, an enormous budget, and as much time as you need, you might not need to make those decisions at all. If you’re on a shoestring budget, working alone in your garage, and need the project done within a day, you might have to decide that “good enough” is the answer to just about every decision. Even the materials and tools involved can influence what decisions you make: hand tool carpentry does not require nearly the same precision of measurement and manufacturing as, say, satellite design.
Even acknowledging this, I often find myself wondering how much I could improve a product if I took the time to really think through the optimization of factors that have previously been hand-waved. Like that toilet bowl curve. Could I make a business out of designing a toilet that has a bowl designed to minimize droplet escape? It might not be glamorous, but it’s the nitty-gritty decisions that no one else even thinks about as decisions that can make the difference between a workable product and a great product.