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The Hidden Trap of Icon Driven Model Railroad Design

Updated: Feb 10, 2023


Who wouldn't love to model this grain elevator in Farmersville, IL? The next town has one just as cool, as does the next. However, as interesting as they are, they are just one element of the overall landscape. Overemphasizing how often icons such as this are represented can detract from the look of your layout as a whole.


We pick our themes to model because there is something about them we find interesting. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t model them!


Often, however, what we find appealing, whether it be an individual scene or region as a whole, can be subtle and we aren’t totally aware of what’s drawing us in. …..and that can open a Pandora’s Box that keeps us from attaining what we ultimately are trying to achieve. By not having that awareness we run the risk that what we build won’t end up looking like what we had in our mind’s eye.


What often happens is the modeler slips into what I call “icon driven design”. By that I mean letting a (always too long) list of cool features declare mutiny and hold the entire design process hostage. A stretch of right-of-way will have a host of interesting features. For example a depot, a viaduct, a specific industry, a massive roundhouse. We tend to get overly drawn in to those, the shiny baubles if you will. We focus on the icons and lose sight of everything else. Design then becomes an exercise in finding a way to take that overreaching, too long, list of “must have” iconic features and trying to find a way to squeeze them in.


Bit by bit corners are cut. We reduce the curve radius more than we should. We drop from #6 turnouts to #4’s and go on Google to see if they make #3’s (they do if you’re curious). The space between towns is cut to just a few feet. Finally, victory! We found a way to squeeze it all in. Except it’s a case of winning all of the battles and losing the war. The layout doesn’t look like what we had in mind and may not operate reliably because of all of the corners that were cut.


The hidden land mine was this: Instead of focusing on/looking at the scene in its entirety, we focused too much on the individual pieces, the icons. It’s a type of tunnel vision.


It’s an easy trap to fall into because often what makes something so appealing is subtle. Where we get stuck is not realizing a scene is comprised of many elements, and the icons are only a small part of them. If you’re modeling Illinois, for example, the vast majority of what makes it so, its essence, are the crop fields. If you continually cut those back to make room for the icons, the end result will look more like the Chicago suburbs than, say, Farmersville. If you’re modeling an urban setting be cognizant of how much space is taken up by ordinary non-rail served business. Notice how much space is taken up by non-descript brick row houses and white clapboard shotgun houses and bungalows.


Here are a few things to keep in mind as you start your design.


-Recognize the crucial role that ordinary non-icons play in what you’re looking at and place a value on them. Often it’s the ordinary that defines a region. Study a scene and look for the non-icons.

-Look at the percentage of space ordinary stuff takes up. If you’re running through Illinois, ninety percent of the trip will be through fields. Certainly, you can’t model that percentage on a layout but if the percentage drops to just a few percent it won’t look like Illinois.

-Place a value on the space between your icons. Place value on the space between towns. Place a value on the space between structures.


Take a breath, relax, and be willing to let go of some of the “must haves” on your list. Layouts never get finished anyway. By overreaching, often out of sense of panic/fear of being bored, you’re just adding to the list of what doesn’t get done and shooting yourself in the foot at the same time. You end up with something that doesn’t look like your prize and has been so compromised in terms of design practices it won’t operate reliably.



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keithmac
Dec 03, 2022

i decided to try my hand at modelling a railroad after i saw two of Lance's photographs: the Maryland Wholesale Food Center on page 24 of 8 Realistic Track Plans for a Spare Room and the warehouse on page 76 of Model Railroading as Art.


my layout is now at a stage that i can work "Lance's" warehouse. when i'm shoving a couple box cars towards that spur i feel like i'm working in a back ally: the track ballast hidden under generations of dead weeds, sunlight glinting off shards of broken glass between the rails, and barbed wire topped chain link fences among the scenic highlights. i'm thinking about putting on steel toe boots and wearing leather gloves the…


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Isaac Fabris
Isaac Fabris
Nov 22, 2022

Get out of my swamp! No seriously, I grew up about an hour from here and Farmersville is the Southern/Western extent of the exact line I model -- they used to load coal trains at the Crown 3 mine in Farmersville, but haven't done so in a few years. Check this out: https://www.flickr.com/photos/29301445@N02/6031014330/in/photolist-2kVDcoW-2mrHBhK-qndV5A-7XnDmf-25rfbGx-6ZszNV-24gAeG4-g9C4jG-WkdNPd-hZWtxa-QgUqq9-TYruAJ-ixjw8b-7JWJCV-yt4GxC-abWwrG-5hrZHC-q3XFKK-dEWNio-fnodYZ-g6xyng-g9AQr8-gaRajK-7EyhwY-dnSGD7-aisMb1-8okcmM-8okcDP-xTAe2m-dGz38w-7HEPDq-5hYXSV-9x2WS1-fnWWG1-5hnEfV

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Burr Stewart
Burr Stewart
Nov 17, 2022

Thanks for those thoughts. When I was a teenager I drove through Bismark ND and took a few photographs of an awesomely complicated grain elevator complex downtown and always had the goal of modeling it "someday". But the truth is our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. I keep learning more about my prototype railroad and forcing myself to keep from adding yet one more feature to my model railroad to make it even more complicated. You could say that having a successful model railroad is like putting yourself on a diet! :)

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sandy_smith
Nov 17, 2022

After reading, re-reading, digesting, envisioning, re-reading the masterwork titled, The Art of Model Railroading, I covet my ordinary, common, plain items and the negative spaces in between that I included in my project. Once you see how great it looks built and you discover these concepts, it will be almost impossible to turn back. I like to refer negative space for others as, T-n-T, track and terrain only.

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gmof3a
Nov 17, 2022

Although I think it's interesting about what you write, it's a matter of perspective and the desire of each individual modeler, what they expect from their layout. You are only speaking of one person's interpretation which is welcome to be weighed into, but at the same time it's not entombed in gold, ie that a large elevator can take away from the scene. This hobby is each to his own and everyone has the right to build and create their layout no matter whether it be full basement or shelf layout, with a huge elevator complex. Each individual is entitled to build their layout the way that they desire it to be built.

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ecnl88
ecnl88
Nov 17, 2022
Replying to

I think you missed the point of the blog entirely. I didn't say there shouldn't be any icons. I said there should be a mix of icons and mundane.

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