I’m working with a friend on a story about layout design and it’s interesting to me because the hardest choices to understand and make have nothing to do with layout design, or trackplanning or any of the usual stuff we default to. In fact, my view is this: given all the factors that influence a layout, trackplanning is the least important.

In terms of the language, I can think of three instances where someone fundamentally changed our view of the work:

  • Frank Ellison’s concept of trains as actors on a layout stage
  • John Allen’s images of floor-to-ceiling scenery, weathering and operations
  • Allen McClelland’s transportation system concepts

There may be others but I feel these three shaped the larger concepts of the hobby we have today. I hasten to add that these people never set out to change anything. They simply followed an idea(s) that seemed obvious to them.

The default discussion about each focuses on the layout forms and operational concepts. The bits and pieces, the physical stuff, the nuts and bolts. I suggest that framing things in that way limits the real impact each had. True, their ideas altered our thinking about the physical forms but far more importantly, these ideas altered our perception of what the craft could encompass. In a word, they altered our experience of it.

After Ellison and McClelland, we were no longer content to watch a train mindlessly chase its tail. They helped us understand that these models could be used and enjoyed in a purposeful manner. John Allen’s vision showed us there was more to scenery than a tabletop. Scenery could encompass an experience for the operator. One could be in the scene, or surrounded by the scene instead of just viewing it. Models could be weathered; boxcar floors could sag and show wear. Finishes weren’t bright and shiny.

Our perceptions were changed and so too, our experience.

In my view, there is a huge amount of complacency among US hobbyists that I attribute to our vocabulary and mindset. We have the hobby we do because that’s all we’ve been presented with. It’s been imitation upon imitation.

Chris Mears shared a little jewel of a UK layout concept that intrigues me as well. It is so thoughtfully conceived that one could explore it for some time and still not grasp the implications of what the designer accomplished.

Here is the link to the overall blog entries: http://www.rmweb.co.uk/community/index.php?/blog/1909-thurso-722/

You may read through the three individual posts but I encourage you to pay close attention to the first and second as they focus on the design. Here is the post showing the cardboard mockup he created:


As Chris mentioned in an email, what this modeler has done is control the viewer’s experience of this layout. By enclosing the front fascia and defining our view via the shape and position of the selective openings, he has brought us to that station and shaped our experience of the scene in ways our normal US design practice never could. That’s what Chris and I find so interesting.

Most North American modelers will look at this and dismiss it as too small or simplistic and cry: “Not enough operation for me.” In our lexicon, this type of layout is something one would have to “settle for” when all other options have been wiped out. We consider such compact designs as a throw-away or a last resort, rather than something one would deliberately pursue. Our design language and space hog mentality simply won’t let us see it any other way.

And that’s the problem. It’s why so many find layout design such an impossible chore. Modelers routinely dismiss perfectly interesting concepts and spaces because they don’t have the design vocabulary to see the potential in them. More to the point, they don’t have such stunning examples to look to for inspiration.

How strange do our multi-deck contrivances look to the rest of the modeling world I wonder? Probably as strange as their compact designs look to us.

Since I have subscribed to the Model Railway Journal, the leading finescale oriented magazine in the UK, I’ve become more familiar with this design aesthetic and language. As a result, my views of layout design have shifted greatly. I’m more aware of the emphasis on aesthetics and recreating an experience that is prevalent over there and I find it increasingly appealing.

What might the fourth turning point be for this craft? I have no idea really but I would hazard a guess that how we experience the craft will be at the core of it.