There is an invisible story around model railroading. Invisible in that we take it for granted and seldom question whether it makes sense for our needs.

Widely accepted ideas such as good enough, the three-foot rule, modeling the entire run from one yard to the next; or that the design criteria of HO scale applies equally to all scales, form the foundation of a design system. One that we use to make decisions about the work and one that shapes our beliefs in general.

This underlying system is so commonly accepted, we no longer question it.

But I did, and realized this mostly invisible design language wasn’t going to take me where I wanted to go.

For the last six years I’ve been looking for a different frame work to organize my work and I think I may have found it.

Canadian designer Bruce Mau has outlined a set of 24 design principles that is changing the way I see modeling. His principle of design the invisible suggests that we can become aware of and design the largely invisible systems that underlie our work.

Bruce’s thesis is the we tend to associate design only with the way things look. But design is far more than prettiness. Design is the heart of a system or object.

Consider the smart phone.

We punch a few buttons and are instantly connected nearly anywhere on the planet. Behind that connection is a massive global infrastructure of technology and economics that few of us understand or are even aware of until it breaks. That infrastructure was designed to be largely invisible. Phoning or texting a friend, pulling up a website is so utterly commonplace now that we take the process for granted.

What if layout design were as invisible as the global phone network?

At some point how an object looks and how it works became two separate processes. Architectural design and engineering used to be one function. Today architects design the shape, proportion and finish for a space and rely more on structural engineers to ensure the building is stable and sound.

In similar fashion we separate the elements of a layout into benchwork, track, control systems and finally scenery. We tend to isolate each one as individual steps rather than an integrated whole. 

We are married to the way a layout looks. Married to the form factors of its construction and have made the maximum amount of operation we can squeeze into a given space the top priority in many cases. What is ignored in all this are the invisible assumptions required to reproduce the commercial scale of transportation we are trying to replicate.

Assumptions such as prioritizing the layout over the space it occupies. In some quarters, moving walls or portions of a home’s mechanical systems for the sake of a track plan is considered a normal practice.

Or the assumption that a satisfying design must have a dedicated space that is totally given over to the layout. We seldom consider how a layout and the space it occupies form an integrated design. Instead we impose the layout onto the space regardless of the present or future consequences to the room or the way we interact with the design.

Track planning tends to ignore people.

When a track plan drives our decisions, we force people to squeeze down narrow aisles, crawl on hands and knees to enter a space, or stand on a step stool to switch cars that are out of reach. In prioritizing a track plan, we treat people like add-ons and subject them to a less than ideal experience.

While I recognize that these are individual choices, they have substantial material impacts for our lives and the rest of the world. In many ways, this mindset no longer makes sense to me. In my view, it seems backwards. 

What if we designed a layout in a more intuitive way? What would that look like in terms of its function and our interactions?

I’m a railfan first and foremost.

I like to stay in one spot and watch the action as it unfolds in front of me. I’ve done this for a lifetime as a child and as an adult.

Even though it may be interesting to know, it has never mattered to me where the train came from or where it’s going. My interest is in what’s happening in front of me right now. That understanding explains my lack of interest and follow through in building a large layout.

Mill Road is designed around my experience as a spectator of the railroad. There is time to survey the scene and appreciate the nuance of a place in the landscape. As in real life, a train may appear or not, one just doesn’t know. If a train does arrive, there is time and a place to watch the crew do their work. The pace and sequence of moves is deliberate but not rushed. They have this track to themselves and can make their moves in a calm manner.

I designed the scene for a close up viewpoint of the action. A close up view is something that quarter-inch scale excels at. You get a front row seat but aren’t in the way because there is plenty of room space beyond the layout itself. The experience is of an undistracted time and space to follow the process of setting out and picking up cars. There is time to appreciate the quality of mass and the movement of ponderous equipment. All of these features are by design.

In designing the experience, I focus on the qualities I enjoy. In real life, your viewpoint from a single location may be limited. The train comes to you and then goes somewhere else. Bringing this aspect to layout design allows me the freedom to focus on a smaller scene without compression.

The difference in the realism of train movements through a long turnout for example is very satisfying. The use of lighting and color to lead the eye is also a powerful tool that I’m only beginning to understand.

Through this work I’ve begun to realize that the quality of our experience with a layout goes far beyond a track plan or operating scenario. Mill Road is designed for my enjoyment instead of an operational bureaucracy. 

I believe there is a larger conversation to have around this craft.

I come from an understanding of fine art that encourages original thinking. Looking through the eyes of an artist, I treat the railroad like Andrew Wyeth treated the landscape around Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: as a source of inspiration, imagination and personal connection. Modeling for me is a tangible way to share these things with others.

I believe there is a larger conversation we can have around this craft. A conversation that places it within the greater context of design where it belongs rather than the railroad centric bubble we narrowly confine it too.

What if we thought of the craft as a creative platform that uses the subject of railroading as a framework for expression?

What if we focused more on the creative potential and design of this platform rather than the individual objects of the trains?

What if we gave as much consideration to layouts designed for shared spaces in the home as we do the bespoke designs for single use spaces?

Rather than treat them like the holy grail, what if we acknowledged that end-to-end operating scenarios are simply one choice among many equally compelling others? 

Inspiration is the foundation of design.
(Bruce Mau)
The everyday things we do tell the real story of how we see the work, of how it fits into our lives and the impact it creates for us.

Every time we cheapen our approach, we’re shaping the future of the work. Every article or online post that repeats the same tired content, conveys the idea that this is all there is to consider. My final question is this: What difference do we want to design for this craft and for ourselves?


  1. Herbert "Matt" Mathews


    Very thought provoking post. Over the past several years, my interest in the hobby decreased as other interests (woodworking and homesteading) took more of a center stage. However, of recent I decided to include model railroading because I miss being a “railfan”. In sitting down and looking through past efforts I realized that I built or planned too much model railroad and probably missed the mark of what I really wanted out of the hobby.

    The invisible story, at least for me, is being a railfan, a station employee, or part of a crew switching at a station. To be able to see the action in front of me from different vantage points versus the norm of modeling. Small branchline or end of line stations in the age of steam and early transition to diesel motive power. Not much trackage or switching “puzzles”, but more prototypical track layout. Small layouts, built on baseboards (to steal our English modelers term) that do not neccesarily follow the around the wall construction. Along with baseboard style construction, the use of larger scale models such as S or O scale for added detail and realism. Spending more time on scenery, track details, as well as the architecture of the buildings. Details to help create a scene that interests me as the kid who ran down to the station to see the train, or the station agent, or one of the train crew.

    For many small towns and villages around the world, the railroad/ railway station was a link to the rest of the world. Perhaps others will find this to be minimalistic modeling, however, my feeling is that it is what strikes a cord with me.

  2. mike

    Hi Matt,

    It sounds like you know why you’re doing the work and where to find your happiness in it. More power to you.


  3. Chris Roy

    Thank you for sharing your evolving thoughts with us, Mike. You’ve definitely inspired me, as an artist, to stop separating my interests; allowing my various interests to start co-mingling is proving to crewte very fertile ground for creative concepts (and my take on modeling is evolving as well). A (non-modeling) project I’m currently working on is a kinetic sculptural fountain inspired by semaphore signals, referencing the local community’s railroading heritage: It’s a concept for which I am already looking at future iterations and variations.

  4. mike

    Hi Chris,

    What a lovely design. I can see the reference to semaphore signals and the steam exhaust with the fog. The kinetic aspects will be dynamic and make a wonderful asset for the community. Thank you for sharing and congratulations on the commission.