The Landscape Guide

2.3 Modern design methods

Contents list

The master and apprentice system declined in the later stages of the Industrial Revolution. Machines caused a separation between skilled designers and unskilled workers. Craftsmen continued to make machines, but their hands became smoother as their need for theoretical knowledge increased. James Watt, the inventor of several steam engines, studied at university. Though he could, in his own words, "work as well most journeymen', he was refused admission to a trade guild. Eventually, the universities themselves introduced technical training, leading to master's degrees. When governments began to subsidize this type of education, the master and apprentice system declined further. So did the contribution of rough hands to design.

The modern approach, of design with smooth hands, has grown by degrees. It began in ancient times and resumed its advance with the Renaissance. Vitruvius wrote that the architect should be "skilful with the pencil, instructed in geometry' (Vitruvius, 1914 edn). Since the translation of Euclid's Elements into Latin, in 1482, the activity of making new places and products has become steadily re-entangled with the process of drawing. To de-sign is to make signs, originally on paper, increasingly on computer screens. To plan is to make a projection on a flat surface. The early advantages of design-by-drawing were both technical and aesthetic. In shipbuilding, technical considerations were dominant. Drawings made possible calculations relating to structure and function (Figure 2.3). Orders could be sent to the forests, and tradesmen could proceed with the simultaneous fabrication of separate parts. In architecture, the early benefit was mainly aesthetic. But, as construction became more sophisticated, drawings were also required for structural calculations.

Smooth-handed designers use more abstract reason, and more self-importance, than their rough-handed counterparts. To represent a place or a thing on paper, abstract thought is required. "Abstract', as a verb, means to draw out. The draughtsman's tools - geometry and arithmetic - are rational procedures, useful for drawing out. Book learning necessitates the use of reason. The whole procedure is one of simplification and of concentration on fundamental elements. In societies that believed reason to be the grand avenue to human progress, it was natural that rational design should supplant craft evolution. Town plans and building plans came to be founded on survey drawings.

During the nineteenth century, the technical and aesthetic reasons for producing drawings grew apart, as did the architectural and engineering professions. The architect became a gentleman-artist, reliant on experienced craftsmen and engineers to make buildings stand up and resist the elements. In the twentieth century, architects sought to gain control of the whole building process through their drawing skill. So much knowledge was available in books that it became feasible to produce drawings and specifications for every aspect of the building process. When waggon building was replaced by car building, a similar change afflicted vehicle production. Men in smart suits subjugated men in boiler suits.

During the early years of automobile manufacture, vehicles continued to be designed and built by craft methods. Components were machined, one at a time. Each part was honed to slightly different dimensions and often embodied minor design improvements. It was a very expensive way of making cars. With his Model T, Henry Ford applied the techniques of mass production to automobiles. Each part was standardized. A gauging system was introduced. Parts were made in standard sizes to be attached in the simplest possible ways. Assemblers were given specialized tools and made to adopt a single task. Henry the First became king of the whole process. All design decisions were taken before the production line was started. Workers became operatives, not craftsmen (Figure 2.4). Uneducated immigrants to the New World could learn the job in a day. Each had responsibility for one tiny step in the production process and for an endlessly repeated operation, as satirized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Fordist production methods created the modern world. Not since the invention of gunpowder had smooth hands won such dominion over rough hands. Bronze defeated the peasant; the longbow defeated the knight; gunpowder defeated the castle; Fordism defeated the worker, temporarily.


2.4 Fordist mass production - in a UK Ford factory

Fig 2.3 Design-by-drawing facilitated ship-building, through mathematics and simultaneous fabrication.