Design Rules…break, follow, or maybe another path?


Proportion study in the human face by Leonardo

I have a good friend who’s an artist and teacher. She was telling me about a promising young art student with marvelous drawing skills but was frustrated at her attempts at portraits. She took some time with her and explained the basic proportions that underlie a human face, basic rules of thumb artists have used for centuries. The budding student ran with it, enthused that she could make her portraits come alive.

I’m just putting final touches on the first installment of the “Design Matters” column for the February issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. One issue I tackle right up front is my approach to rules or design principles. It seems we are divided into two camps when it comes to rules or guidelines. One is the group that looks at a speed limit sign on the highway and sees it not as the upper limit but as a challenge. They either want to know the rules so they can break them or they have gone beyond that and think any sort of rules are useless. That’s been a common thread for creative minds going back to our knuckle dragging cave days. The other camp wants to know the rules in hopes that they can provide a step by step roadmap to achieve a result. You can use design rules in that manner but there always comes a point where your eye must start making calls and go beyond a clearly marked trail. I’d like to propose a third way to view design rules. I don’t see them as a collection of “Thou shalt nots” but more often as a guide to change the way we see things. Understanding some basics on proportion can help you to see the bones that lie beneath a great masterwork. It gives you the ability to see how great artisans were able to manipulate forms and can fill you with ideas about how to adapt and apply them in your designs. I look at and study a lot of pictures of furniture. Often I make photo copies and use a set of dividers to explore the form.

Using dividers to probe a drawing of a chest on chest, Photo Lie-Nielsen Toolworks

Using dividers to probe the underlying form, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks



Warning, don’t pull a pair of dividers from your pocket in the library. That calm helpful librarian may come unglued, don’t ask me how I know this.  On pre-industrial furniture it’s surprising how often there is a simple and elegant proportional scheme uniting the whole design.

 I view rules as a way to help me see better, especially great furniture and great design. They also can help you to visualize how a design will look when it’s complete. This is not something that comes naturally to me even when I have a drawing in front of me. Somehow a drawing in two dimensions never fully connects with the part of my mind that’s trying to comprehend how it will finally look in three dimensions. Learning design principles has helped me bridge that. So much so that I often forego drawings because I have a much clearer picture in my mind where I’m going.  Finally rules serve as a good starting point to begin roughing in a design. Often a furniture piece begins life as a rough square or rectangle to provide an envelope to expand my ideas. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this.


George Walker

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Woodworker and writer
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7 Responses to Design Rules…break, follow, or maybe another path?

  1. Nathan Beal says:

    I attend OCAC in Portland, OR; two years ago the advertising slogan they used in the city was “Learn the rules to break the rules.” The point to this was that the rules help you learn how to see, to train the eye, once that has been achieved we can start riffing off the basics of design in our crafts while maintaining excellent design. I liken it to a musician learning all the scales and arpeggios to learn how to improvise. If you just play scales it is boring, but it provides a foundation that is essential to great musicality.

  2. Melyssa says:

    I’ve always though of rules (at least in the design or cooking world) as a starting point. Once I’ve become good at using those rules its OK to branch out keeping in mind who the resultant item is for.

  3. Jason says:

    Picasso was a great example of a man who knew the rules, even though he’s know for breaking them. If you have the chance to see a comprehensive exhibit with examples of art throughout his lifetime, you’ll see that his early stuff is pretty conservative. I studied music in college. One thing I noticed with a lot of music composition students is the less talent (or skill) they had, the more blatant they were with breaking the rules. It’s sad really. Rule breaking is a skill in itself and care should be used when doing so. Architecture is an obvious example of when the rules need to be carefully broken. Throw the rules out the door and there will likely be casualties.

    (Sorry for the rant. 😉

    Great blog, George. Really enjoying your posts.

  4. AAAndrew says:

    It’s the same with any basic skill, and rules are guides to basic skills and constraints that have worked well for specific purposes in the past. You learn the basic skills as others have found them to be effective, and only then can you add new skills and learn why the constraints were on there to begin with. That’s when you can effectively break the rules because you’ve really understood why they were there to begin with.

    As my old Chinese Brush Painting teacher would say, “You must first paint bamboo, before you paint tiger.” Learn the rules and techniques for bamboo, and then your tiger will be better.

    • walkerg says:

      Can’t tell you how much fun it is to get your feedback as well as the other comments coming in to this blog. A bit of true confession here. One of the reasons I write and occasionally teach is that I end up learning much more in the process. I’m really excited about the possibility of furniture builders exploring design together on this medium. Ours is often a solitary craft, and we can’t really cut dovetails together on-line. But design is visual, this is something we can do together and help each other to see more. Do you mind if I borrow your quote sometime in the future?


      • AAAndrew says:

        Please, borrow away.

        Mine is an open source brain. (sometimes the output’s good, sometimes the output’s worthless, it all relies heavily upon the work of others, and it’s all free for the taking)


  5. Kris says:

    I think for some of us the first step is better design. Ground breaking, rule breaking design is something to strive for in the future but for now rules and guidelines help us take that first step towards good design.

    I look forward to reading more of this blog and it looks like I’ll finally have to go ahead and subscribe to Popular Woodworking.


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