Not just any dog house, but a dog house that looks like an end table. To some, this may sound silly. But our house is very small. Currently, our dog (who cannot be trusted to roam the house unsupervised) spends a portion of her time in an ugly cage with an ugly portable pet crate inside. This ugly setup has been a key feature of our dining room for years. Years.
So when we found ourselves in possession of some disposable income at the end of the Christmas season, my wife suggested that we bite the bullet and buy one of these fancy, more aesthetically appealing dog houses. After browsing the various models on the Internet, I determined that not only could I make one of these things myself, I could also save us a bunch of money in the process. So I tried it.
Even though it took me a ridiculous amount of time and didn’t save us a dime, I think I made the right decision. I was reading Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design while I was building the thing, which allowed me to philosophically muse about the project as I was working on it. In the book (which I highly recommend), Chimero discusses what goes into design in a more general sense. It isn’t about websites or living rooms; it’s just about why design is important and what it should do. The design of this particular thing was important to us. We wanted something that would look nice in the limited real estate of our living room. It also had to meet the needs of our dog. And, perhaps most importantly, it had to be easy enough for me, with my limited skills, to make.
I did some measuring and drew up some rudimentary plans. From there, I bought some lumber and set to work. After a few days, I had the house/table assembled, sanded, stained, and positioned in our living room. It was at this point that the real learning happened.
Max loved it. She barely came out of the box for the first two days. But when she did come out, she came out in a big way. For the purposes of air flow, I left two five inch wide gaps on the top of each side of the house. Max paid no attention to these gaps until the third day when we were having dinner and she was very interested in something one of the kids had dropped on the floor. With almost no effort at all, she was through the gap and happily scavenging for food underneath the high chair. In his book, Chimero suggests that the strength of design can only be assessed when other people (or dogs in my case) interact with it. To me, the house was perfect. But Max very quickly exposed a design flaw that I had completely overlooked. For a larger dog, this may not have mattered, but for my target audience, I had missed some crucial information.
The application of this particular concept is, I think, fairly universal. When we create something, whether it’s a dog house, a book, or a library program, we can’t possibly see it from every angle. We can pour our hearts into it, but we will never know just how good it is until we try to let it stand on its own wobbly legs. This is the sort of thing that I can certainly stand to learn over and over again. Every time I put on a program for teens in the library, I expect it to work flawlessly. But it seldom does.
Patches, re-evaluations of use, and total redesigns should be regular components of all the work we do. We need to be willing to let go of the things we work hard on to see what happens to them in the wild. Then we need to fix them. It’s all a part of the design process.