Order of Operations

Back in grade school we learned about something called order of operations in math class. When solving an equation, we were told the correct sequence was brackets, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. There’s also an order of operations when creating a diorama, but the sequence isn’t constant. It depends on the project. 

The more complex your diorama, the more time it’ll take you to figure out the order of operations. Here’s a case study to illustrate: I’m currently working on a diorama depicting a scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, which shows a group of rebel fighters flying past Yavin on their way to intercept the approaching Death Star. This is a box diorama, so it’s going to be fully enclosed. 

Here’s a list of tasks which need to be completed:

  • build X-Wings and Y-Wings
  • install LED stars
  • fabricate and install EL panel depicting Yavin
  • line interior with black velvet
  • install X-Wings and Y-Wings
  • drill holes in back panel for wiring
  • punch holes in black velvet for lighting
  • fabricate and assemble top, back and bottom panels
  • install front window
  • stain cabinet exterior

These ten tasks can be arranged in many different sequences. In fact, using permutation theory, we can determine exactly how many possible sequences there are. The formula is 10! which equals 3,628,800. Hard to believe there are that many possible ways to build a diorama, but there you have it. 

Since we’re dealing with art rather than science here, there’s rarely a perfect sequence. Each will have its pros and cons. The important thing is to avoid a sequence which unnecessarily increases your workload or makes it difficult for you to complete your project the way you envisioned it (without undoing a large part of your work and starting over). 

A common pitfall is forgetting to include all the tasks on your list. Just as many chefs prepare recipes by heart (and then forget to add the salt), most diorama artists probably don’t make written task lists. But it’s not a bad idea. When you’re going by memory, it’s easy to leave a step out and not realize it until it’s too late. Forgetting just one task in our example means that all 362,880 ways of completing the nine tasks you wrote down would lead to problems! 

Assuming you carefully wrote down all the required tasks and checked to make sure no steps were missing, the other error you can make is of course completing a task out of sequence, making it difficult or impossible to complete subsequent tasks. For example, you might decide the two last steps will be installing the X-Wings and Y-Wings and then installing the front window. But if you forgot to measure your models and realize too late that they’re too big to fit through the opening for the front window, you’d have a problem. 

Rather than trying to juggle over three million sequences in your head, it’s much easier to write down three or four which seem to make sense. Then study each option you’ve written down, verifying that none of the earlier steps will create problems in completing any of the subsequent steps. You may realize at this point that one or two of your sequences won’t work very well. By process of elimination, you can pick a sequence which will allow you to successfully complete your project the way you envisioned it, without complications.

And you thought math couldn’t be fun! 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar