Today I Hung a Mirror

What was supposed to be a 30-minute chore turned into a frustrating reminder that maddening design constraints aren't limited to my day job.

The Chore

My wife asked me to hang a large mirror in the dining room along with 3 little pieces along side it. No problem. I'll just grab my drill, measuring tape, level and AW-CRAP.

The Problem

You may not know this, but levels are absolutely useless in 80 year-old craftsman house - nothing is really flat and the floors slope like crazy. I'm a self-confessed idiot when it comes to working around the house, but I've hung a bunch of things and have never run into a problem, yet this was different for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the 3 pieces were to be evenly spaced between each other and the mirror. If I can't rely on some kind of constant, like straight lines or gravity, what do I easily use for a point of reference when measuring out my spacing?

Secondly, the wall we were using gets this crazy shadow because of a recessed area with a large window. As the shadow moves throughout the day, it creates a softness to one of the lines we're putting the mirror parallel to.

Crude drawing of my wall

Taking a Step Back

There I stood, just staring at the wall, weighing what had to be done against my wife's expectations. I didn't want my wife to think I was half-assing this, but I just had too much going against me to make this "perfect".

After a good 10 minutes of staring, something finally clicked. This was a design problem and the issue wasn't that I suck at using measuring tapes or power drills. I can do design problems.

Designers often have to work within a lot of tight limitations - we design for the constraints we have, we do what works and accept what can't be changed.

The Solution

This was ultimately a visual problem and no amount of measuring would solve this on its own and, just like any other problem, I had to start somewhere. Jumping in, I hung the mirror where I needed it to be and eyeballed it to level. From here I used the mirror as my point of reference, measuring and remeasuring for each of the 3 other pieces.

While crude, this works. It is not a perfect solution, but the 4 pieces look level and fit well in the space. Things start falling a part when you remove context, though. Without the visual weight of the mirror, the 3 pieces look like they're stagger above each other. If, by magic, you remove the house and leave the 4 hanging in the air they'd totally look misaligned and crooked.

As for the shadow - screw it. There's nothing I can do about the orientation of my house or the sun, and leaving the wall bare just isn't an option. I can't solve that problem and, you know what, it's probably not even a real problem.

The Lesson

Without proper context, it's hard to say whether a design solution really works. Dribbble shots don't even try to communicate a whole, portfolios rarely go into explanation about the problems being solve, and sometimes constraints can be too complicated to succinctly describe.

This has really reminded me that I need to tell better stories about my design work or else it'll look like junk floating in the air.