Blog Posts

Design Jigs

Photo of the author using a circular saw.

It’s rare that I make a particular design deliverable in the same way on more than one occasion. The folders of my work laptop are filled with diagrams, maps, sketches, and frameworks that were used, at best, two or three times. Often only once.

The most common deliverable I produce is a jig. In metalworking and woodworking, Wikipedia tells us, a jig is a custom-made tool used to control the location and/or motion of another tool. Jigs are typically improvised, temporary, and built out of whatever is lying around. Your chin and chest form a jig to hold the coat hanger while you unbutton your dress shirt. An upturned sweatshirt is a jig to hold the berries you stumbled upon on that walk in the woods.

Here’s an example from my stagecraft days. Say you need a very long straight cut at a diagonal across an 8’x4′ sheet of plywood. The best available tool to make this cut is a handheld circular saw. This is not an easy cut to make, especially for an inexperienced craftsmen. A jig levels the playing field:

  1. Find the longest straightest board (1×4 or 2×4 is typical) you can that exceeds the length of your desired cut.
  2. Measure the distance between your blade (accounting for blade width) and the outer edge of your saw (call this X)
  3. Measure and mark a new cut, at the same angle, X-distance further in from the original.
  4. Align your board to the new mark and clamp firmly.
  5. Run your saw along the board.

In this scenario, you’re not really paying attention to the cut that you want, to the original line — rather, by focusing on the outer edge of the blade, and its proximity and perpendicularity to the jig, you’re ensured a much straighter cut than if you’d freehanded it.

This is often how I think about my digital design deliverables. My experience with physical processes, with real-world crafts and the making of things, has given me the confidence to know that intentionally framing my attention within a particular set of constraints can yield a quality result, even if my attention is not directly set upon those results. Especially if my attention is not directly set upon the end result.

That’s a long-winded way of saying: good design solutions don’t have to be arrived at directly. In my experience, they rarely are.

Inexperienced designers have a tendency to focus too much on the particularities of a given deliverable at the expense of the particularities of the design need. Those in career transition — from print design to interactive design, for instance — are especially prone to this mistake. Lack of confidence in one’s own abilities creates superstitions about how other designers have arrived at successful solutions.

Saying that “wireframes are dead” or “personas are king” sounds as silly to me as “torque wrenches are dead” or “pneumatic tools are king”. The bad news is that the right tool for your job, for your current design problem, probably doesn’t exist. The good news is that there are only so many types of design problems, and many of them are similar enough that you can learn a great deal from how others are solving those problems. Never turn down a chance to tour someone else’s workshop, but never confuse it for your own.

The next time a tough design problem crops up, take a moment to consider if you could devise something new to make solving it easier. Consider building a jig.