The Power of Observation

Today I’ll bring a little bit of class into the blog. And by class, I mean the one my enthusiastic and talented students are attending this summer to learn the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of furniture design and customization. One topic this past week was observational skills – the art of seeing and interpreting details. It’s a skill that one of my old colleagues continually stressed, that all designers should diligently observe, whether directly with one’s eyes or on some occasions with the aid of a video camera.

Acute observation skills are a defining characteristic of a good designer. But even for the average consumer, better observation will not only make you a better shopper, but will save you time, money and perhaps even reduce buyer’s remorse. But what stands in our way of impartial observation?

For better or worse, we’re driven by emotions and impressions rather than logic and impartiality. From the clothes we buy to whom we date, we mostly respond to our intuition and heart. We might start with good intentions to address our actual needs, but with so many options and sensations we lose perspective and default to desire. Good observation, on the other hand, is all about remaining objective and suffering the details.

This most certainly applies to purchases for your home. We typically don’t say “I need six dining chairs, so high, so wide, made of a grade “A” beech that meets ANSI/BIFMA safety and performance standards.” Rather, we look for a style or shape that resonates with our ideal of what we’d like to sit in and have others see in our home. So how do we suppress our impulses and remain objective? First, understand the product and its details, and then outline objective criteria to make your selection.  

When it comes to home products like furniture and lighting here are some of the details and criteria to observe:

Materials – more expensive products use real, solid and more costly materials. Lift objects, open draws and doors, look behind and underneath things.  Is the same material used throughout or only on parts that are visible. Do the materials meet your standards for sustainability or conservation?

Finishes – are paints, stains and lacquers sprayed or hand applied? Is veneer made of real wood or real metal or is it paper made to look like something else? How deep or brilliant are colors? How has the finish worn in the showroom?

Construction – value is usually equated with strong and solid construction. Particularly look for reinforcements at joints where both glue and screws or bolts are used. Some objects made from plastics or fiber board can be flimsy. Thin metals easily warp and dent. Is the object designed for durability, portability or recyclability?

Hardware – cheap objects have cheap hardware. Knobs, hinges, slides and screws and bolts all should look and feel substantial to last. Cheap objects have hardware that is thin, stamped or hollow and flexes when it shouldn’t. Check the actions of doors, drawers and locks. Are they smooth and easy or rough and hard to open?

Form and Function – does it represent the period or style you want or is it a cheap imitation? ‘Knock-offs’ are fine to fit a budget, but they’re often inexpensive because they cut cost by eliminating or simplifying design features and use cheaper materials and construction. You might save on cost but lose on functionality and longevity. Original designs are successful for reason. ‘Knock-offs’ are more about quick profits for the manufacturer.

Before embarking on your search, try and understand what specific attributes you’d prefer for each of these categories. Even jot them down. By looking at and identifying each characteristic, you can objectively analyze with respect to your true needs. And after a few trips to the store you’ll be more aware of details and realize that they’re not too difficult to learn and differentiate. While in a store, enlist staff to assist you in your search. By being armed with a few notes you take with you to the store, you’ll be able to productively interact with sales people and only target your dollars on products that can fulfill your needs.

Above all, try not to compromise and succumb to your emotional response for something that falls outside of your requirements. If you stay objective and learn to observe, you’ll be happier in the long run. And as an added benefit, you’ll have things in your life that actually serve their purpose and that were worth your money.

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