I didn’t realize it at the time, but studying violin in my youth would give me inspiration, insights, and have many parallels to my future work in product design.
A couple of years into playing I realized that not only was I fascinated with the music, but also with the very instrument itself. A violin has such detailed beauty and cleverness. Its old world technology inspired me to learn more about it. All of the stringed instruments in the orchestra are scaled versions of the same basic design and I thought that was pretty cool. I was captivated.
In middle school I set out to build my own violin. Only in retrospect do I realize what a grand task I was attempting, but that had never stopped me before. I’d already built many things up to that point. I read all I could find at the public library (this was before the internet!) about how to build one. My admiration for the instrument AND the instrument makers, luthiers, only grew as I studied their construction. I realized how complicated the violin is and how many elements must be considered in its creation. Everything from the different types of wood on each plate and which part of the tree the wood is harvested from, to the precision of the placement of the F holes must be considered and executed carefully. I consider the violin to represent an ideal amalgam of art, science, and music. Ultimately, I did make my own ¾ size violin like the one I was learning on, but it wasn’t the one I used when playing.
As I progressed to play in orchestras and ensembles later in my youth, performing also had a strong influence on my future design skills. Most people intuit that music is important for development; now as an adult I clearly see all that it taught me.
Yes, you learn how to work hard to understand the music principles and develop the necessary dexterity, but you’re also encouraged to explore the emotional content and express yourself through the music. Similarly, during my engineering education, I had to spend years learning the core knowledge through practice that would be the foundation for my product design work later.
Playing an instrument in groups requires that you practice, cooperate, stay in rhythm, and finish on time. In many ways a group of designers, each playing their part, work as an ensemble. Our clients give us guiding principles for a product and a time frame to work with. Within the many technical constraints of the project we collaborate creatively and come up with something unique and exciting.
Andrea Amati is cited as the creator of the modern violin family. I find it awe inspiring that his design, over 400 years old is still considered state of the art. I wonder if Amati would have believed his core design would be copied for centuries and played by millions of people. My attempt to build a violin was clearly a hack but it revealed to me a passion for exploring design and later for understanding how design affects our lives. As a boy in the new world, centuries later, he had a profound influence on me; now that’s a great design!