The Roles of Exemplars
Exemplars provide safe models for new designs, implicit checklists of design tasks, warnings of potential mistakes, and launching pads for radical new designs.
Hence great designers have invested great efforts in studying their precedents. Palladio (1508–1580) not only studied Vitruvius [22 BC], he journeyed to Rome and measured and documented the surviving monuments, learning the most successful of the concepts and proportions evolved by the Romans of antiquity. From this tedious and unsung labor sprang not only his own original designs, but a design book that fathered a most enduring style of architecture.
Jefferson carefully studied not only Palladio’s books, but the buildings around him in Paris.1
Bach took a six-month unpaid leave from his job and walked 250 miles to study the work and ideas of Buxtehude. (He lost his job for overstaying his leave.) Bach proved to be a much greater composer than Buxtehude, but his surpassing excellence came from comprehending and using the techniques of his predecessors, not ignoring them.2
I argue that great technical designers need to do likewise, but that the hurried pace of modern design has discouraged this practice.
Besides what individual designers do, technical design disciplines eager to produce great designs need to develop accessible bodies of exemplars and knowledgeable critiques of them.