I’ve recently spent some time talking to a guy called Chris Thorpe, who like me and many others came back to narrow gauge railway modelling as a hobby after some time “having a life”. Also like me Chris is a geek; working with the web, interested in design and science and… well, anything interesting. Probably also orders of magnitude cleverer than me but let’s not go there.
Anyway, Chris found that as an adult returning to the hobby he was dis-satisfied with the experience he was getting as a narrow gauge modeller, and realised that the reason was caught up in the most important bit to him (and I dare say all of us) – making stuff.
Ready-to-run Austrian HOe is great quality, but for someone in the UK its hard to go there and measure that part of a station you missed out. UK prototypes are therefore more practical but you’re then in the realm of kits and scratchbuilding. And while many kits are very good quality (and let’s face it, some also aren’t) what grated was the experience around them. When you compare unclear instructions and parts that maybe don’t fit quite right or are just unidentifiable, with the classic, straightforward and familiar visual approach of Airfix kit instructions you start to realise there are things that could be done better.
This is not to suggest that kits are undesirable, or that those in the business of designing kits should just pack up. In fact the complete opposite because making a kit is part of telling a story and making your hobby personal. Making a kit means you’ve achieved something more than just opening a box. But what seems to be missing, or at least rare, is an approach to kit design from the point of view of the user – aka the customer. Coming from a digital background where “user-centred design” is how successful web projects are run this seems like a natural way to go about things.
What it boils down to is that you’re much more likely to be proud of something that has been a pleasure to build than something you had to fight into shape. You can read more about all this in his own thoughts on his blog.
Chris is also a great advocate of 3D printing and has already put a lot of effort into gathering data to be able to start putting these ideas into practice with kits that should be simple and satisfying to build and reproducible in many scales. This process has also led, indirectly, to a wider project on data and cutting-edge technology in railway preservation but that’s a story which will be told in its own time.
While the right moment to fully embrace 3D printing is not (quite) here yet it does feel as if Chris’s way of approaching kit design is absolutely spot on and has given me a lot to think about. It will be hard work to get right, but worth doing right. I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.