Technique vs. Design

Is technique an example of overcoming ‘bad’ design, or is technique itself a form of design?

I read that Sweden teaches drivers to open their car doors with the opposite arm, so their bodies are facing backwards and the driver is better able to check their blindspot before opening the door, and avoiding clotheslining any passing cyclist. A great safe little technique that costs virtually nothing and protects driver, car, cyclist, bike.

Is this an example of the ‘bad’ design of a car door (opening car doors are a danger to cyclists), or an example of the good design of a technique?

In light of this, are musical instruments ‘badly’ designed? A lot of musical practice is to teach you to adjust your body to the instrument, rather than the other way around.

Why would this acceptable for musical instruments, but not for example powertools?

“The Flanger FA-10 Extend-O-Grip is designed for all instrumentalists, from beginners to professionals.Use the Extend-O-Grip to warm up before playing and to strengthen and stretch the fingers.Our unique ergonomic design allows you to exercise the fingers, wrists and forearms while practicing the correct action for playing musical instruments. Increases finger speed, strength and independence.”

I’m putting ‘bad’ design in inverted commas, as the design isn’t bad, but it may lead to unforeseen consequences.

Interesting thoughts. Music, art, carpentry, most sports all involve a lot of muscle memory and technique. I don’t think it comes from “design”, but rather all of these activities have many different possibilities that have to be done in certain patterns to work effectively. I think that’s why people dedicate themselves to practicing the activity. Not a lot of people have dedicated themselves to playing the triangle and that’s an instrument that is pretty hard to make a mistake on.

BTW, I think power tools do require technique, or at least experience. The basic functionality of many power tools is easy to access, much as anyone can make a racket with a guitar. Doing a solo is hard, as is doing a dovetail joint.

In my opinion, the instruments are a different world, many of them have those uncomfortable postures because of their shape. The shape is determined by the sound they have to make, so I’d say that is hard to find a good compromise between ergonomics and performance for traditional instruments. I would say electrical instruments are another thing, but didn’t dig much into that world so far. I think you can re-arrange things but then it’d be harder for musicians to learn the new postures and gestures and then switch between traditional and electrical. On the other hand, the shape of the power tools can be adapted to the ergonomic requirements much more easily. You can rearrange the components, play with volumes, triggers, buttons, etc.

The car/cyclist issue is interesting, didn’t know that in Sweden they teach to get out of the car in a certain way so it’s safer both for you and whoever is coming. I think it’s also dangerous for the driver or passenger himself, since it could be a bus or truck instead of a bike. Maybe with the new composite chassis that allow engineers to get rid of the B pillar, it’ll be easier to see who’s coming. I think there’s room for some innovations and ideas to solve that problem

The construction of instruments, brass instruments in particular, has always been governed by the materials and fabrication techniques available at the time. You can find incredible examples of odd instruments on line.

In high school I played the euphonium (baritone horn) in band. Our instructor was a brass man and had a private collection of several antique baritones, tubas, and trumpets that he routinely let us play. I was given the opportunity to play a Conn Loyalist “double belled euphonium” during my senior year. I actually found an image of it. If you’ve ever played “horn” the first thing you will notice is that it has five valves instead of three; the fourth affected “pedal” notes (ultra low pitch) and the fifth valve toggled the second bell “on” or “off” and was activated by the left hand by reaching around the the second bell tube (which you use to hold the horn anyway). I never mastered it by any means (far from it) but it was an easy horn to play; the valves were not as long as standard baritone horns resulting in a quicker fingering action.

While I was looking I discover the MutantTruppet invented by Ben Neill. It looks like steam-punk art, but it’s real. You can decide whether it is “ergo” or just the state of its development.


I played trumpet at school, and occasionally mucked around on other kids instruments, but I’ve never seen a 5 valved horn.

I don’t think there are hardly any ‘ergonomic’ instruments. A Google search could only find this, which doesn’t look easier to play, except the position of the ‘keys’ does make some chords easier to reach:

“The C-Thru Music AXiS is described at the worlds first harmonic table controller…a totally new way of playing MIDI notes with the keyboard layed out with relelvant harmonic notes adjacent to one another. This means that you can create unusual and ordinarily difficult to play chord voicings, arpeggios and the like using the new layout.”

Just because instruments are hard to play and master, and give you calloused fingers and sore joints, doesn’t mean the design is ‘bad’. As IDAL said, the main design intent is the sound. I’m sure that there is some ego in mastering a difficult, painful, body damaging technique - a badge of honour amongst players. There’s also the issue of unintended consequences.

I think in addition to the already stated, there is another favor at play, tradition. This is speculation and opinion, but a few thoughts to mull perhaps. Musical instruments were made by craftsmen who honed their painstaking and sometimes very secret techniques over generations. The goal was not to make something easy to play necessarily. The emphasis was on making the right sounds. Compound that with the musicians who take decades to learn how to play their instrument of choice, and then are bound to that tradition, they don’t want anything new.

Look at some of the innovations in musical instruments. From the harpsichord to the piano to the organ to the electric piano to the synthesizer. The input remained the same even though there is no physical relationship between the keys and the sound they produce. In fact great pains have gone into pressure urge sensitivity to make the key response mimic an analog device as closely as possible. Why is that? My assumption is some illogical marriage to tradition.

The electric guitar is another example, even closer bound to tradition. Merely an electrification of the acoustic device. There has been a lot of innovation in pedal based processors, but the input device remains strings and frets. Musicians are so married to tradition that they don’t just want an electric guitar, they want a Les Paul or a Stratocaster or whatever their idol played.

I think it is interesting. It seems like we are due for something new, but even most of the purely digital tools mimic analog inputs.

I think we can find this almost obsessive relationship with the familiar in lots of other areas, sometimes unusually so in areas of high performance demands. Athletes can be difficult to transition to new gear, for fear of injury, performance level, or even superstition.

Interesting topic.

I think that in sum, a lot of the arguments here come to status quo, vs. innovation or design.

For example, in footwear (my area of expertise), a lot has been written/studied about running form vs. footwear design. Though the results may not yet be conclusive, early indications point to the design (status-quo) of running shoes since the 70’s or so (once cushioning, airbags, stability designs and the like came to the market) of having a net zero impact on performance yet an increase of injury. Simply more “technical” running shoes allowed for more sloppy technique via design.

Contrasting this with performance evidence of Kenyan runners, or even how kids run (or how humans have run for 1000s of years without shoes), can show how “bad” design can in some way “overcome” good “technique” at the detriment of performance. (not to mention $ in marketing = sales).

Thankfully in this particular area there seems to be some recent correction in “design” submitting to “technique”. Even 5-10 years ago you never heard about running form. Recently, with minimal/natural/barefoot running in the media I think people are looking more at how design and technique are related and the result is an evening out of the different factors involved. The pendulum may still be in swing (minimal running is seeing some downturn but cushioning/stability is definitely in the decline), but the result is certainly more awareness of the different factors involved.


design is a multitude of techniques that when implemented correctly will provide the basis for improvement for people to perform. in regarding the musical instrument example, I agree with idal and yo in the sense that the design of musical instruments, at least in the analog variety, is determined primarily by the sound qualities required to be output with little consideration for ergonomics. so although the ergonomics are often poor on many of these instruments, the design of them is with consideration for sound improvement through better materials, production and finishing techniques and this can lead to an improvement in performance. as yo mentioned, tradition plays a considerable role in conserving the design of these instruments. as someone who plays guitar and keyboards, i can relate that musicians are as sensitive, complex and traditional in their techniques as the instruments are themselves.

design can both help and hinder techniques. the sometimes bad ergonomics of an instrument compels the musician to perform
even better, they know that many have done it before them through passion and persistence, they work hard to master the techniques and master the instrument. whereas the design improvements in some recent 2d and 3d software make it so ‘convenient’ to design in the context of the software that the resultant design is often bland, obvious and full of overused, under-thought and unnecessary features. i’m not saying that instruments should be particularly difficult to play or that some design software should be too easy to use, just that we need to be more mindful of the techniques and efforts we make towards improving at something.

I believe that instruments have been considered for ergonomics, to the point where it still can be what it is. To say otherwise is like saying all cars look the same because they all have 4 wheels. If you “rethink” a car too much, it’s no longer a car but something else.

I’ll take an instrument that I play myself - guitar. Acoustic guitars have a large body to provide enough reverb volume, but the shape is fit for placing it on your knee - ergonomics. Too say that an electric guitar is just an adaption of the acoustic is incorrect - the volume is greatly reduced, the neck is slimmer, the frets and strings are closer, neckstrap is standard… all those are ergonomic adjustments that could be done because you got rid of the volume and could now play standing. A major change in form factor would require tampering with the string arrangement, which would make it a different instrument altogether.

And that people play whatever their idol played - a Les Paul or Stratocaster - is true, but not as simple as that. The two have different pickups (microphones) that produce very different sound. Humbucker on Les Paul that produces a beefier more distorted sound common in riff based rock, and Single Coil on Stratocaster that has a much cleaner sound favorable in solos. So you want to use the guitar same as your idol not only to live up to the image, but to play the same music, that you want to sound similar. Granted, your first guitar you won’t know or care about those things and you won’t know any other guitars than those 2, but your fist guitar won’t be one of them anyway. When you can afford a Les Paul, you might go for an Epiphone, a Telecaster, or an ESP.

Also, the open-door-with-your-opposite-arm being teached in Sweden is probably false. At least that’s nothing I remember from taking my exam 10+ years ago. Sounds like an anecdote someones teacher once said, but highly unlikely to be a routine. My teacher used to teach that "when you see a sign “Town_X 5” you should be in 5th gear because you are on the highway, which is complete gibberish for reasons I won’t even bother to type. To open the door with your left arm is natural behavior when you open it to the left and cyclist should be in the bike lane anyway :wink:

Not to forget the importance of the wood in the guitar as well. An electric guitar is still an acoustic instrument and a strat with humbucker wont sound like a les paul. (getting off topic)

In many cases being in the bicycle lane means you would pass along parked cars (and be hit by the door of someone not paying attention). Fitting bikes into an infrastructure that for decades have been focusing on (mostly) cars is not easy, but letting cars park between the bicycle lane and the curb is an accident “designed” to happen. (off topic again I guess)

  1. I finally took guitar lessons at 32 years old. I had always had this grandiose designer attitude that, ‘I could design a much better instrument’. The first day after my teacher explained some fundamentals of how music is built (chord structure), I completely understood why the guitar and keyboard are the way they are. Also, I realized how incredibly ergonomic they are considering the job they need to do.

I also developed a greater appreciation for the traditional musical structure. I’m a DIY/punk kinda guy. I want to develop my own way of doing everything. However, I can’t argue with musical notation, chords, chord-structure. It works really well.

  1. Why is everyone so obsessed with dooring? I have no data to back me up, but I would bet the low use of helmets on bikes contributes to more serious injuries than dooring. At least from my twitter feed, I feel like dooring has replaced terrorism and bird flu as the number 1 problem society is facing.

The design of a musical track is very much built upon a variety of techniques, just as a car is designed using a variety of techniques. The exact same iterative process is used to shape the melody, harmony, rhythm, chord progression, intro, bridge, chorus and outro. Recording is analogous to production prototyping.

Unless you are consider growing a few more fingers to play a piece of music composed by Paganini, the ergonomics issues remain moot ( a set of 08s strings on a Les Paul require amazing sensitivity). All music is predicated on dynamic range. Thus, the need for violin, viola, cello, upright bass and bugle, trumpet, french horn, trombone, tuba etc.

No matter the configuration of the material elements of an instrument, it is the iterative practicing and muscle memory mentioned by M914 that make music from material and flesh. Ask an industrial engineer about building an efficient production line, and they will tell you it is a similar iterative process to get a line up and running efficiently and as high volume (same iterative method, different techniques…all design).

You are absolutely right, my mistake.

I got it from this article How safe are the world's cities for cyclists? | Cycling | The Guardian that claims Malmö as the worlds safest cycling city, but the car door technique comment refers to Amsterdam:

“Most motorists here are also cyclists, which enables them to better anticipate the behaviour of cyclists in traffic. Driving instructors teach new motorists to use their right hand to open their door, which forces the driver to turn, putting them in a better position to see if a cyclist is approaching from behind.”

Any Dutch cyclists like to confirm or deny?

I’ve only been badly car-doored once, a passenger getting out of their car while it was stopped at the lights, ripped my shoulder, looked gruesome with lots of blood but didn’t require stitches. Australia has had mandatory bike helmet laws since the 90s, which has reduced injuries and fatalities from bike accidents but ironically has worsened public health outcomes overall as people are less inclined to ride because they have to wear a helmet.

In Spain, the government wanted to pass a law to make bike helmets mandatory, but the cyclist associations were against it just because the predictions showed a decrease in the number of cyclist of a 30 - 40%. The increment in bike lanes and the improvement of the behavior of riders and drivers makes ridding already quite safe, the number of accidents have dropping a lot since the 90s so there’s no actual point in making helmets mandatory now.

If you want to resolve the debate between technique and design, you have to consider who are the stakeholders in the product and the “ecosystem” around it. Whether technique or the design should be the ultimate factor really depends on the ultimate end goal of the product.

In the case of musical instruments, the stakeholders are the musicians, instrument makers and the audience. The audience usually gets bored seeing people tap laptops, even though these are more ergonomic than musical instruments. That kind of thing wears thin. However, they prefer seeing someone to do excessive gestures while playing. It’s all a part of a show. So technique wins in this case. In this “ecosystem”, the instrument makers have to design for the end goal, that is the audience and the player as well.

Basically, design is not just for the user, but it’s for the ultimate final action and aim of the product. So it’s about finding the path of least resistance when it comes to achieving the aim. In very rare cases, we sometimes even have to abandon the technique around the product and also the traditional users of it to achieve progress and efficiency!

I think with musical instruments the real thing that is designed is the sound. I think people often forget that shape is not the only thing that creates an experience. The sound of each instrument has been honed and perfected over decades sometimes centuries. These were not all accidental mistakes that happened to make a better sound. The sound was actively designed to make the perfect sound. Think of a Stradivarius. Stradivarius Violins

The Blackwing pencil is another example. The pencil has been actively designed to give the best experience. In the hand of an artist with the right technique it can make some really great art or a screenplay, but in the hand of my two year old it gets teeth marks.

The sound of each instrument has been honed and perfected over decades sometimes centuries. These were not all accidental mistakes that happened to make a better sound. The sound was actively designed to make the perfect sound.

And then along came Roland Lamb …

The ROLI Seaboard Grand

This was the reason I posted my (still unfinished) BFA project of redesigning the violin/piano on the boards 3 years ago. I figured that might be of all objects the most stuck in tradition. I was surprised at how much affinity for romanticism even the designers here displayed! After reviewing the thread I want to finish it now. Someday. =)

One of the things I found in my research was that instrument makers literally copy and paste centuries old designs purely for marketing/tradition reasons. I visited a violin apprentice shop in Salt Lake City and saw a handful of young adults making violins based on templates from the classical era. No iteration, just mimicry. I kept pushing those involved to find out how much I could change without ‘ruining’ the sound. It was much more than one would expect!

I would bet that a fresh take on musical instruments would have profound improvements beyond aesthetics- ergonomics, mechanical function, simplicity, maintenance, cleanliness, etc. How perverse is it that a Violin or Viola can actually cause health problems? That isn’t perfection!