Designing A System Well

How to designDesigning solid and flexible systems can be challenging, but if you get it right it can radically improve the quality and reliability of your work. Whether you’re in a touring environment or a fixed installation, here’s a few suggestions to think about when putting together your system designs.

Using the system should make my life easier, not harder

This is fundamental to system design but can sometimes get lost in the design process. Remember, the whole point of designing this system in the first place is to make your life easier, not harder. Your design should reduce the amount of time and work required to get everything up and running and show ready. If your system is convoluted, clunky and time-consuming, people will take shortcuts, make amendments or ignore it completely. You are left with a system that no one wants to use and you cannot support because of everyone’s ‘little tweaks’. Think about common tasks that need to be performed that you can either eliminate altogether or make simpler. For example, simple colour coding can make repetitive tasks foolproof and really quick. A good test to see if you have designed a simple system is, ‘ Do you need an intimate knowledge of signal flow in order to set up your system?’ If the answer is yes then you’ve probably not made it as simple and easy to set up as it could be. Colour coding again, for example, allows you to delegate tasks and very quickly visually check correct patching of systems.

Of course, designing a system that is very simple to set up doesn’t necessarily make my life easier if it doesn’t practically do the job I need it to. The goals in system design are always in the following order:

  1. Design a system that works.
  2. Make that system robust.
  3. Make that system easy to deploy.

Ease of deployment is usually only thought about if 1 and 2 are good, but arguably making the system easy to deploy will directly affect the systems robustness and therefore also whether or not it actually works in the first place.

I should be able to change my mind and my workflow easily

You maybe like the way you do things now, but what if you need to change things? What if you want to change things? I know I have definitely refined how I go about doing things over the years. Good system designs are designed to accommodate change not inhibit it. This is really important to understand as your learning and progress can actually be held back by an inflexible system design. Flexibility is often at the expense of system simplicity, however, flexible systems allow complex systems to be changed far easier than inflexible but simple systems allow. Flexible systems make your life easier in the long run by allowing you to solve complicated problems simply.

Avoid unnecessary patching

Mechanical failure of kit is one of the most common reasons behind system failure, especially with some of the delicate connectors and cable grades out there. Breaking things is frustrating and can be incredibly expensive. Wherever possible try to avoid unnecessary patching of cabling directly into equipment. For cabling that is plugged and unplugged many times, it is much better practice to terminate into a facility or patch panel. This has the benefit of mechanically decoupling the expensive equipment from the physical wear and tear of patching and unpatching. It also reduces the damage caused by accidents such as pulling cables that are still plugged in. I can accept breaking a patch panel, but breaking something like the signal input to a projector could set me back thousands of pounds to replace and could stop the show from even happening. Similarly, avoid directly patching long cable runs into equipment. Always terminate long runs into facility panels and then patch short runs from the facility panels into the equipment. Breaking a 1m patch cable is nowhere near as upsetting as breaking a 150m run of installed cabling! Using patch panels will increase the cost of your system initially but it will save you money in the long run by keeping your expensive kit mechanically isolated.

Avoid single points of failure

Systems are only as robust and reliable as their weakest link. When designing systems, try and steer clear of situations where ‘If this bit of kit breaks, the whole system dies.’ Where this type of failure is possible, always try and generate some redundancy in your system. If your desk can easily have power pulled to it, for example, consider putting it on a UPS (uninterruptible power supply.) This could be the difference between complete system failure or a great show.

Other less obvious single points of failure include anywhere there is ‘daisy-chained’ devices. If all your lighting is on one DMX universe and you have a fault with the first unit, it could take out your whole rig. If you have networked your amplifiers to control remotely and you lose communication with the first amp, you could lose communication to your whole system. In these situations, it is always preferable to try and create a ‘star network’ or something that resembles it. A star network gives you differentiation between devices. If one device goes down, it doesn’t take out your whole network. Practically this looks like network switches for networking or DMX buffers for lighting. Anything that decreases the amount of daisy chaining in the system will mean that if failure does occur it will be less catastrophic.

star vs daisy - Page 1

Just because it fits doesn’t mean it’s a good idea

If you cram kit into racks, it will usually have one of two problems:

  1. The equipment becomes really horrible to use.
  2. The equipment fails because of over-heating.

You’d be surprised how much heat kit can give off. Sometimes your whole system can fall over because you bought a rack that was too small! Give yourself room to work ergonomically. This will also allow for better cooling and airflow of your kit. It will also make you enjoy using it which is really important. If you are concerned about kit overheating, install fans in your rack to aid air circulation. If you’re installing this permanently into a venue, make sure your room has adequate ventilation or air conditioning. Don’t design yourself into a thermal corner.

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