I get exasperated when I hear woodworker’s say they ‘can’t design’. Furniture-making is design. Toolmaking as well. Can’t do it well without a good design sense. I think anyone who believes they can’t design has fundamentally misunderstood what design is.

There is a persistent myth out there that design is something you’re either born with or not. Overexposure to Krenov books sometimes leads to this notion.

I disagree. Anyone can design. It’s not magic. It’s work.

So since I’m feeling feisty today, here’s Nelson’s Universal Design Method(ology).

STEP ONE: draw

No – even better: sketch. A lot. Want to design a table? Sketch about a thousand tables. 20 seconds for each sketch, MAX. Do twenty or thirty every day. Do them on business cards in the doctor’s office. A napkin at the bar. Toilet paper in… you get the picture.

Somewhere in that thousand, there’s going to be one (maybe two if you’re a prodigy) that has ‘something’ in it. A lean, an attitude, an ‘air’.

Something in that sketch will say: I AM INSPIRATION. WORSHIP ME. MAKE ME. Listen to it.

Because this is the part no one can explain, but everyone worries about. Where the ‘inspiration’ comes from. You can go for walks in the woods, scour the internet, or take a weekend course in creative visualization to get there if you like, but in the end you are going to have to make those thousand (give or take) sketches. Everyone does.

STEP TWO: draw

Now you’ve got your inspiration. Here’s the part that counts – the part you don’t read about in the design articles in the magazine. The Work.

Draw it again.

This time take five minutes per drawing. Try to reproduce that special ‘thing’ about the sketch. It’ll take more than one try – trust me. Do it as many times as you need to. Eventually you’ll get something sort’ve like the first, but a little clearer. Cleaner. And you’ll have a MUCH better handle on just what it was you liked. You might even be able to ‘name’ it. If so – Congratulations! Now you can ‘speak’ design.


Now take your slightly more detailed drawing and redraw that. This time with precision. Do it on graph paper, with rulers and to exact scale. Or on a computer program – CAD, sketchup, Illustrator; whatever. You won’t get this part done first try either. You’re trying to convert your idea to a mechanical drawing, and finding out the limitations of the ‘lean’, the ‘attitude’, the ‘air’ you have been trying to bring along. You’ll probably find at this point that the ‘attitude’ has become MUCH less extreme than the original sketch. That’s good. Restraint happens automatically here.

Rinse and repeat.

Once you’ve got that done, you’re almost home free. Now you just have to make it.


If this is for your living room, and not a showroom or architectural digest – and if it’s fairly straightforward – then what are you waiting for? This is what you spent all those hours learning to saw and carve and plane and join for. Make it. Create it. You’re a MAKER.

STEP FIVE (advanced): remake

If you’re planning on selling it, or if you just think the design itself is worth really going ‘all in’, or even if you just want people to call your design things like: “refined”, “fully-realized”, and “incredibly coherent”, then here’s the ultimate secret. Ready? You sure?

Make it at least three times.

It’s well worth considering making the first one or two out of cheap, easy material. Cardboard and plywood; poplar and clay; sticks; mud; whatever. In the design world, the technical term for this is a ‘mock-up’. It helps.

it’s a lot faster and cheaper than making it out of mahogany.

Talk to some really first-rate furnituremakers. I’m betting nine out of ten of them use mockups of one sort or other most of the time. In my experience the link between ‘great designer’ and ‘mockups out the wazoo’ is a shocking correlation. Personally, I take that to mean something.

So there you go. Nelson’s Universal Design Method. I named it, so it must be mine – right?

Am I exaggerating here? Yes. A bit.

Not much, really.

Here’s a cool piece from the Popular Woodworking editors’ blog where Brian Boggs discusses design. He’s probably worth listening to.

And if you care for some more detailed – and well-thought-out – ideas on design, Tom over at the Millcrek blog wrote up a really good introduction to design just last week.

And I hope it goes without saying that you might want to read George Walker’s excellent Design Matters blog – incomparable repository for learning the fundamental skills of design (the ‘seeing stuff’ part and the vocabulary) and to get a picture of how to ‘think’ design.