Training your eye for Design


“We need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly.

 Shakti Gawain

If you are new to design, telling you to trust your eye sounds like some joke that everyone’s in on except you. How do you know what your eye is telling you?

First of all, those times when your eye feeds your imagination with rocket fuel is a rare event even for gifted artists. So much so that when that explosion of  juice starts to flow, it’s wise to ride it irregardless of eating or sleeping. Magic should not be squandered.

But aside from those rare bursts of inspiration – every day our eye talks a lot. Mostly it’s like that beeper on a garbage truck when it’s backing up the alley. It tells us what it doesn’t like. A crude example of this is plumb and level. Even though we have accurate tools to measure level and plumb, most of us can do a fair job of gauging it just by eye. In fact, our inner eye is pricked when that picture frame on the wall looks tilted in spite of what a level tells us. Our eye is filled with judgments, mostly negative about proportions. We may not think all that negative feedback is that valuable. It may feel frustrating, like we hired a travel guide who tells us all the sights not to  see. But if you realize that this is the eye’s way of guiding, you can learn to listen to it and best of all, learn to train it. I may get a burst of inspiration, a spark of an idea of what I want to design. But the actual design process is listening to a series of nos that gradually morph into yeses.

This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by  Author

This Doric Classic Order is a lesson in proportions. Drawing by Author

But training the eye? Traditionally this was done by studying masterful work. All the old design guides waxed glowingly about the classic orders. Truth is you may never incorporate a single element from a classic order in any of your furniture designs. Yet, drawing the classic orders gives your eye a reference library of no’s that are inescapable – pushing you, guiding you, until the nos start turning to yes. With a basic understanding of proportions, you can let your eye be tutored by great buildings, furniture, nature, and art.


George R. Walker


George R. Walker


About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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10 Responses to Training your eye for Design

  1. Patrick says:

    The Nantucket town marker! As a landsman, I appreciate the art of your photo from such a practical monument.

  2. Patrick says:

    I imagine there’s seldom been a dentil or column that have ever missed your eye… I can’t help but see the monuments in sidewalks and roads as I walk. Brass discs, iron rods, monuments in marble and granite … Everywhere I go!

  3. Dave says:

    Did you intentionally insert the image of the Doric Classic Order out of plumb to prick our inner eye? 🙂

  4. walkerg says:

    Maybe I should leave some “Where’s Waldo” items in future posts.

  5. Jim Tolpin says:

    Notice the egg-shaped indentation at the base…right at the termination of the vertical line? I bet that is representative of an old plumb stick where that shape was cut out of the board to allow clearance for the bob. Plumb line also implies an exact, invariable delineation point.

  6. Dave Fisher says:

    Maybe a coincidence, but there could be some whole number ratios going on in that stone. Taking account for the tip that has broken off, the taper begins at 1/2 of the height of the stone. Also if you extend the lines of the taper downward to the ground (as if the curb and sidewalk are not there), the width is twice the width of the base of the stone.

    • walkerg says:


      You might need a straight on shot to confirm, but based on looking at many historic design books, your observations are probably on target. Sometimes things like the tapered lines extending downward equaling twice the width may not have been the original driver in a design. These things just happen to link because the form was created using simple geometry. You might call it a geometric coincidence.

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