Vision, Design, Build

by | Oct 20, 2020 | 8 comments

(By Helen)
Ending up with a nice piece of furniture that you’ve made yourself is pretty satisfactory.
But there’s more to worry about than just cutting the joints or polishing up the finish.

Sometimes the hardest part is choosing what to build. And often it’s easier to come up with something from scratch than trawl through plans that are available, hoping to find something that perfectly meets your needs.

I’m not much of a woodworker myself (though I’m certainly happy to give it a go).
My role’s all the rest of the business & the video making, and at the core to everything I do I’d say is my background in design.

What first drew me to design was making things pretty. Combining colours, creating patterns, beautiful artworks etc. These things have excited me since I was a kid. But once I got old enough to take my training seriously, I realised that design went so much beyond surface decoration, and it’s actually the more practical side of things that really gets my interest flowing.

Everything we see around us owes its successes (and failings) to a process of design. It doesn’t matter if it’s an item of furniture, a huge feat of engineering, or a piece of software you use to organise your calender.
Everything is brought to life by some kind of design process.

It’s not uncommon for people to say they can’t design. They don’t know how to, or don’t have the right eye.
It’s also not that uncommon for it to be considered blind luck when some things are successful.

I think both of those just dismiss the importance of the first stage in the process though. Prior to design there has to be a vision. And design seems a whole lot less mysterious if we look at it as the steps taken to bring a vision to reality. The stronger that vision is, the more the steps will write themselves.

If you combine your vision with any known restrictions or fixed elements, then you have your guidelines to get you through the process.
Your restrictions could be your skill level, the space available for the piece of furniture, and maybe you want to use timber that you already have at hand.

That all gives you a pretty good starting point, but it still leaves a whole lot of possibilities.

The Suspended Drawer
This suspended drawer (the desk is upside down) was the outcome of the vision in our latest build series – The Industrial Desk

Choice and options are the biggest stallers when it comes to design. In fact they are the perfect excuse for procrastination for just about anything! Too many possibilities can feel more disruptive than having no options at all. And that’s where the power of vision comes in.

An inspiration or spark of thought that says, ‘I want it to have this nifty feature or a specific feel’. Once that idea is defined and you really commit to it, then you’ll run through the design process and not even know how you did it.

A strong vision doesn’t mean you know what the outcome will be. It’s more that you’re choosing the flavour for your piece. If you want to build a bookshelf and know the rough dimensions that’s one thing, but it’s still a blank canvas. But if you say, I want to build a bookshelf and want it to have a sense of an olde fashioned apothecary, with distinct little pigeon holes that offer order and give intrigue. Now you have a direction for your design.

A vision won’t replace the need to follow through a design process, but it will always make the steps feel more natural and obvious.

The Industrial Desk
The complete desk from our latest series.

Over the years Richard has developed his own approach to designing furniture. It’s certainly not the methods you’d find in any text book, but is based very much on practical understanding of the craft, and often overcomes complexities in a very satisfying and elegant way.
I know which ones are going to come out well, because he’s excited and really clear about what he’s going for at that initial ‘vision’ stage.

In our latest series, the design transformed quite distinctly during prototyping. The initial concept became realised in a stronger and more original way, by doing an overhaul of the approach to hanging a drawer. The solution was one long narrow drawer, suspended from above (rather than sat on runners). It gives a very sleek appearance and storage which is perhaps better suited to our modern needs of stashing a laptop or tablet.
Design tends to be an ongoing process, and now the concept has been brought to life, there’s a few tweaks and other ideas that Richard would like to explore based from this.

The series is now complete and we’ve included the prototyping as a chapter at the beginning, along with a lot of the thought processes throughout as the design comes together.
If you’re eager to take a look at this one, now’s a good time because the introductory price will be increasing next week.
You can find full details here.

Related Posts

About Helen Fisher

About Helen Fisher

Helen seeks to explore ways to live with greater joy & sustainability for both ourselves & the planet. Concepts which have led to the launch of her second business We Are Carbon. As the producer of our videos, Helen brings a unique perspective & injects life to our education ensuring it is both a pleasure to watch & easy to follow & learn from. Learn More About Helen & The English Woodworker.


  1. Steve P

    I am horrible at design but can build pretty much anything I can copy. I always tell my wife, find something on pinterest or better yet in a store where i can take measurements and I can clone it, or even resize it to fit a certain spot. but don’t ask me to design something from scratch.

    • Michael Ballinger

      Nothing wrong with that, and I’m a graphic designer. Nothings original anyhow. If you want to stretch yourself just take note of the things you like and try to imagine another object that takes some of that styling and voila you’re designing before you know it.

    • David

      Exactly what I do.

  2. Aaron Sprague

    I really love designing and building. It’s what motivates me in work and craft. I feel I am strong at designing the practical side of things, but I struggle with proportions and beauty. Thanks for all the great content Helen.

  3. Gav

    It is a constant learning curve, even when you have been trained. I found there was not a lot of emphasis placed on the philosophy of your work when I was. Still, many other fundamentals were well covered which form a sound base. The more you develop and refine your own personal approach the more you know when you ‘ get it ‘. Richard gets excited, I tend to be more at ease when a direction and execution becomes validated with an outcome the client and sometimes ,to a lesser extent ,myself are satisfied with. It waxes and wanes depending on the client. I am more personally enthusiastic with an good end result when it is an outcome purely driven by my own requirements because I have my own criteria I am striving for. The vision can be clear and still lead elsewhere, if you don’t start the journey you won’t reach your destination.

  4. Jon E

    Thank you for the post, Helen. Keep them coming!
    One thing I never do and should, is prototyping. I think there are many ways to go about it from cheap wood to cardboard. In at least two of the videos (Industrial Desk and Raw Edge), Richard has prototyped a design, not been happy, and started over. There’s great value in seeing the prototype and sitting on it for a couple of days. I also appreciate you including that process in the videos.

    Looking forward to the next series, whatever that might be.

  5. John T

    I agree with you. I have files of pictures that I use for ideas. That is my starting point. I then look where the end item is being used and adjust its’ size. A sketch or two to work out details and off I go. There are usually a lot of pauses along the way, work out problems or another way to execute a joint or proportion. That is what I enjoy!

  6. US Vintage Wood

    It is really hard to put the ideas into life, but here, you are just amazing Helen. Great job.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Updates:

Related Posts:

Prototyping – Part 1 Now Live! 'The Nest of Tables' series is now complete!Find full details & watch the intro HERE. This nest of tables is based on a design where they'll each come together with a lovely sliding fit, so it was certainly the kind of build that benefited...

New Project On The Way

It's felt a bit back to roots of late as we've been talking a lot about workbenches, but for those already set and ready to build you might be relieved to hear that we're now well on with a new furniture build. After giving thought to everyone's requests and looking...

Timber Movement & Workbench Design

If you know anything about the way that I work then you'll know that I don't like to faff. I will always do a proper job though, in fact I tend to do things somewhat overkill. But when it comes to the tools and techniques used I'll always find the most basic and...

We Teach Online

Practical Hand Tool Education

Watch immediately on PC, tablet or mobile

Browse All Projects