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George Ledo
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It occurred to me a few days ago that I should probably do a piece on where these articles on illusion and prop design are headed, and describing the “parts” of a typical design project. This way, each post in the series will have a nice little spot to fall into, and it’ll also help keep me on track. So here it is.

Design projects usually follow a sequence: first you do this, and then you do that, and then you do something else. I spent over nine years at a large architectural firm in upstate New York, where we used a phased approach that actually worked very well. This approach is common in the architectural field, although the actual wording may vary from office to office. It consists of six steps.

Phase 1: Pre-design
Phase 2: Schematic Design
Phase 3: Design Development
Phase 4: Construction Documents
Phase 5: Construction
Phase 6: Close-out

What I like about this approach isn’t that it’s formal and “official” and looks good on paper. What I like about it is that it frees me to focus on each step and do what I need to do, without feeling under pressure to go on to the next step. Sure I can create a deadline for each phase, but if I’m in schematic design, I’m in schematic design, and I know what I need to do in schematic design before moving on to design development.

Good design takes time. It’s really sad to rush from an initial idea to construction without stopping long enough to see the design come together.

Several years ago I managed the design department at a large scenic studio. We used to build theatre and theme park sets designed by outside designers as well as by my staff. But the focus of the company was fabrication, not design. Therefore, the tendency was to want to short-cut the design process and go straight from schematic design right into shop drawings and fabrication. I spent years literally fighting people off.

We had very detailed contracts with clients, we had detailed schedules, and we had a formal process: we knew what had to be done, by when, by whom, and how much it would cost. But no sooner had we produced a schematic design than the production department was on our doorstep wanting to know when shop drawings would be ready – sometimes weeks ahead of schedule. Now and then someone would pull a few strings and we’d end up completing the design while the stuff was getting built, all because the company was totally mind-set on fabrication.

It was a double whammy. The designers were frustrated because the shops were building the stuff faster than they could design it, and the builders were frustrated because the designers wouldn’t leave them alone to do their jobs. We produced some very nice work, but sometimes I felt like an old-fashioned lion tamer with a whip and a chair.

How long does this phased process take? It depends on the project. I’ve designed and built small props in one afternoon, following the six phases to the letter. I’ve also designed sets that took weeks or months, and I’ve worked on buildings that took years.

Anyway, here’s a little bit on each phase, focusing on how it can work in magic. I’ll use the Sub Trunk as an example.

Phase 1, Pre-design. This is where I define the project and spell out the parameters. At this point I do some preliminary research, mostly looking at what others have done and what’s commercially available. This phase ends when I make the overall general decisions, such as “I want to build a sub trunk, but I don’t want it to look like the standard trunk or packing crate. I have this much to spend and that long to complete it. I’ll build it myself.”

Phase 2, Schematic Design. This phase, aka SD, and sometimes referred to as Conceptual Design, is where I begin the real research (for inspiration) and the initial sketches. I’ve already discussed research in “Illusion and prop design, Part 2.” At this point I'm not concerned with the technical details, or even with the final design. Instead, I'm thinking about the prop in general, the overall proportions and dimensions, and a style.

My sketches here are very loose and very small; in fact, I often do ten or twelve very quickly on the same sheet of paper, just to get some thoughts out. I like to put the sketches aside, go do something else for a bit, and then come back and look at them again. Then I go over my research once more and do more sketches, again very loose and very small, as I think about how I want to use the prop.

As I said above, I don’t rush through this step: I let my imagination come up with ideas, and play with them, and have fun with it. This phase ends when I pick a sketch I like and commit to it. For instance, “I’ll design the trunk like a pirate chest, complete with sloped sides and a saddle top. I’ll bring it on stage on a two-wheeled stevedore’s cart. The bag will look like an old and weather-beaten sea bag.”

Phase 3, Design Development, aka DD. This is where I work out the final design, the proportions and dimensions, the details, and the colors. At this point I'm thinking ahead to the construction (the “nuts and bolts”), but I'm not a slave to it. Now I can do some more research and pick the hardware, decorative items, faux finishes, and so forth. My sketches here get larger and more specific as I look at the piece from all sides, figure out how much clearance we’ll need inside (maybe take some photos and measurements of both of us crouching down for reference), and make those final creative decisions.

This is the phase that very often gets skipped over, like when I worked at the scenic studio. But it’s a very important step; it’s where the piece will take on its final form as seen by the audience. This is where you can find out it’s too small, or too large, or the proportions don’t work, or the details are bad, or the colors clash, long before you start building it. Here again, I like to put my “final” design aside for a day or two if I have the time and then come back and look at it again. Nine times out of ten I find a little something that just doesn’t work (or that looks downright stupid), or that could be improved. Fixing it on paper is far more efficient and cheaper than fixing it after it’s built.

This phase ends when I have some good detailed design drawings and am sold on exactly what the trunk will look like after it’s built: the final shape, the planking and worm holes, the hardware locations, what the inside looks like, how the trick works, and so on. Same for the bag and the cart.

But I haven’t started drafting it yet: I’ve been designing it all this time.

At this point, the creative part of the job is over and I'm ready to switch hats and look at the technical side.

Phase 4, Construction Documents, aka CD. Now that I know exactly what the chest will look like, I can start the construction drawings. First I’ll study those inside dimensions and required clearances. How will I make the doo-hickey? What materials and fasteners will I use? What type of joints? Will the trunk come apart for packing? What type of paint will I use? Will I build a carrying case?

Shop drawings (plans or "blueprints") are a funny thing. If you're building the piece yourself, these drawings can literally be on the back of an envelope, as long as they provide you with the information you need to build the piece. If you're providing them to a builder, they'll need to be far more detailed and accurate. I find that the more detailed my shop drawings are, the easier it is to build the thing, simply because I’ve figured it all out on paper (and caught most of the mistakes) before I start construction.

This phase ends when I have some detailed drawings and specifications and know I have all the information I need to build the piece.

I’ll go a bit more into drafting in a future post.

Phase 5, Construction, is where I break out the tools and materials. If I’ve followed the phased approach all this time, I don’t need to worry about the dimensions, or details, or anything else at this time: I’ve got all my information and can focus on building it. This phase ends when the piece is built, painted, tested, ready to go, and I’m generally happy with it.

Phase 6, Close-out, is where I deal with the last little fine details or the few things that still need a bit of work: the corner that needs wood filler, or the hinge that needs touch-up, or the thingamajig that needs a little adjusting. In the construction industry, this is where they take care of the “punch list,” which is just a list of things that didn’t get done, or didn’t arrive on time, or need field repair. It’s part of the process.

I have deliberately not discussed building a model or a prototype here. Models and prototypes can be a great help, but I feel they need their own discussion, and I’ll touch on them at another time.

As I said above, I find this six-phased approach frees me to focus on one thing at a time, instead of feeling under pressure to get there from here. It’s like breaking down a huge project into little mini-tasks and dealing with them individually. And I think it makes the creative process more fun.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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