Hitting the Target of Design Success, Part 1

What aspect of my ‘dream layout’ project is going to serve up, on a silver platter no less, the degree of satisfaction I hope to achieve?   Seems to be such an obvious question.  So basic, and yet very few of us ask it, probably because we really don’t know the answer,  As a result we end up with designs that leave us feeling luke warm about our railroad.  We spend more times sweeping cobwebs off of them than actually building something.

It can be hard to hit a target when you don’t really know for sure what the goal is in the first place.   At its core that is probably why model railroaders struggle so much with design.  We aren’t really sure how we define “success” for ourselves.  How can we come up with a successful layout design when we don’t even know what that looks, or “feels” like?

A successful design isn’t so much about the technical minutiae of curve radii, maximum gradient, or staging yards.  It’s more basic than that.  Regardless of the form it takes, a layout that delivers the degree of recreational enjoyment that the owner expected has served its purpose.  I’ve known many highly accomplished modelers who produced designs that, to my eye and everybody else’s, looked inspirational and well thought out.  For whatever reason though, as they got into it, they didn’t enjoy the process of working on their railroad.  They weren’t really inspired by what was coming together in front of them.  They had come up with an unsuccessful design.

Because self-awareness, in any aspect of our lives, is challenging at best, modelers often take a less well thought approach.   “I like the paint scheme on Santa Fe war bonnets so I’ll model that” or “Coal mines and ports are cool so I’ll be happy with a layout that incorporates those.”   We’ve all been there and then end result is a layout we get bored with quickly.


Here’s one way to get a handle on the lack of self-awareness that is the root of the problem.  In my experience modelers generally derive satisfaction from one (or more often a blend) of three main categories; visual satisfaction, satisfaction of assembly, and/or operational (or interactional) satisfaction.   If we know which of those areas drives us, and build a layout that hits that target, we’ll find ourselves chomping at the bit to hit the layout room more often.


Visual Satisfaction:  Often we want to be transported to a time and place that evokes pleasant memories.   If there is a collection of scenes, real or imagined, that puts us in a good place simply by viewing them, that’s a compelling reason to create them in miniature.  In short, we just like looking at what we’ve created much as with a painting or photo hanging on our wall.

Satisfaction of Assembly:  Whether it’s woodworking, electronics, or our hobby of model railroading the basic act of taking a pile of “nothing” and toiling to make it “something” can be tremendously rewarding …o.k. for some people anyway.  I use a questionnaire as part of my layout design business and one of the key questions is “what aspect of the hobby do you enjoy most?”  Structure building is consistently at the top of the list (wiring is last in case you were wondering).

Operational Satisfaction:  Finally, there is the satisfaction of making our miniature machines run through the paces using the same procedures that their full size counterparts do in the real world.  If this is your cup of tea, scenery or beautifully weathered rolling stock, may not even be necessary to achieve your goal.  If satisfying operations is your goal, you’ll need to be totally clear on two things.  First is the type of operations you enjoy (main line, passenger, TT&TO, switching, locals, etc.).  Second, and often overlooked, is a realistic assessment of how long your operating sessions will last.  If you have two 90 minute commutes to your day job during the week, operational satisfaction may just mean unwinding for a half hour in the evening switching a few industries.  If that’s the case, you don’t need a layout that will sustain a four hour session.

Before picking up your compass and graph paper, maybe we are better served by stepping back and giving some hard thought to what actions we want to be engaged in to enjoy the hobby.  If we can get a real handle on that, the chances of hitting the target of successful design increases immensely.


In the next installment we’ll look at a hypothetical example illustrating how this can be put in to practice.