Precisely Good Enough

Nov 27, 2019 – by Tom

One of the small, heady pleasures of design is making things line up just so. "Pixel-perfect" icons; harmonized type hierarchies; grids to die for; that final brushstroke that pushes something over the ineffable, razor-thin border that separates "complete" from "incomplete."

I think those delights speak to the primal appeal of being in control. We value minding the details because it means we've scrutinized and accounted for every little thing. Computers have undoubtedly fed this obsession — after all, there's nothing quite like precision verified to the umpteenth decimal place.

But frustration is seldom far behind. With more precise tools come the possibility of knowing how precisely off the mark we can be.

TF X Process 20190207 0656 v2
Don't look too close. Or do.

Which brings me to the wood shop. Last winter I decided to make my partner a seed box — she's an avid gardener and I wanted to try my hand at something new. After some preliminary hand sketches I booted up Illustrator and translated those rough pencils into precisely tuned schematics.

The studio's then-limited selection of tools didn't deter me. If we could build Typeforce window installations with what we had then surely I could build a box.

But I was a novice with more gusto than good sense. My naivety soon translated into mismatched box lids, unsightly gaps, unevenly spaced grooves, and the mental anguish of a million other little annoyances.

Acquiring the right tools helped, even if it initially just meant that I could make the same number of mistakes in half the time. While I grew more comfortable, efficient, and accurate, the level of finish I achieved remained agonizingly far from what I'd envisioned. With Christmas looming, I threw up my hands and settled for something amateurish at best.

Precisely Good — Misalignment
Torturous misalignment.

Crestfallen, I sought counsel from my partner's uncle, an architect and seasoned woodworker with a veritable hardware store in his garage. His advice? Be realistic.

He didn't necessarily mean that I should set my sights lower — though that's sometimes a must. Rather, it was a reminder to not confuse the picture in my mind for the thing in my hand.

It hadn't occurred to me until then that that was exactly what I was doing. The articles and tutorials I consulted told me how to masterfully craft something in minute detail, and in doing so presented the act of making as a one-to-one translation of idea to object. Like a novice chef sticking to a recipe out of fear, the blueprints and instructions in my mind left me no room to adjust and, by extension, to truly experiment and learn.

Recognizing this snapped me out of the antagonistic, anxiety-provoking struggle of imposing my internal expectations upon an uncooperative, messy external world. I still believe that to make is to master, but I now appreciate that mastery not as the product of mostly rote practice or will, but as an accumulated wisdom born of observing, recognizing, understanding and respecting one's tools and medium.

Typeforcex process 3
A prototype Typeforce X box joint and pin.

I learned this lesson too late for the seed box, but I'm glad that I did so in time for Typeforce X. Sure, we still started from sketches and schematics, but the design really came together in the workshop as we prototyped and discussed the results. In the end, no two Xs were exactly alike because we improved with each one we made, and while I don't think we ever got our tolerances down to hairlines or our corners close to orthogonal, you know what?

It was precisely good enough.

Typeforcex process 3

P.S. I made a second seed box a couple of months later. It took one try, some wood filler and way more sanding than you'd believe.