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The Hidden Trap of Icon Driven Model Railroad Design

Updated: Feb 10

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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