Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Too common to name

Thanks to the Discovery Channel, most of us know the word describing animals that are active at night and rest in the daytime (like most bats, for example) -- it's "nocturnal". But is the word for being active in the day and resting at night on the tip of your tongue? It's "diurnal". Because I was a biologist once (a long, long time ago), it's a word I know well. But for most people, it's not a regular part of their vocabulary.

Why is that? It would seem that the word (diurnal) that describes our own mode of life would be more common to us than a word (nocturnal) that describes a foreign mode of life. The reason it's not, I submit, is that some things are almost too common to notice, remark upon, or even name. But those common things make up most of our life experience. The exceptions are memorable, but the common occurrences, sights, and experiences make up our definition of normal life.

"So how does this relate to layout design, operations … or really, to anything I care about, Byron?" you may ask. Simple. When we build a layout or design an ops session, I think it's easy to become focused-in on something unusual, something unique. Some amount of that defines the character of a prototype or a place, to be sure. But too much emphasis on the exceptional can give our layouts or op sessions an air of unreality.

This came to mind recently looking at Jim Boyd's photo of an Illinois Central E6 passing through Rockford, Ill. in June 1965 in the October 2007 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman (page 47). The subject of his photo is obvious, the relatively unusual (by that time) E6 on the point of the Land O' Corn. But there are a myriad of details in the rest of the photo that scream -- OK, whisper -- "reality". The longer I looked at the photo, the more these became obvious: signs hanging from storefronts; some windows open, some closed; access ladders; power poles; etc. While the rare E6 is interesting, the humdrum details make the photo look real.

If we were asked what we noticed about the photo, most of us would be hard-pressed to name a lot of these everyday elements -- they are so common we filter them out. But they are worth the extra effort to think about and include in a design or ops session. Layout Design SIG founder Doug Gurin and others speak of "modeling typicality", and that's excellent advice. And of course, it's possible to overdo these details into a cluttered mess that overpowers the viewer. The typical is not always easy to appreciate, or easy to capture, but its ubiquity makes it an important consideration.

An "eye for the usual" sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it's modeling the things that are "too common to model" that gives a scene life.