Sketching and the Industrial Design Process

Last week a relatively recent graduate lamented online that he’d not had much luck establishing correspondence with potential employers to whom he’d submitted his portfolio. In response, I offered to critique his work. What I found is what I usually find when I critique a portfolio these days: a general lack of understanding for and/or appreciation of the typical Industrial Design process. In particular, there appears to me to be, in general, a casual disregard among newly minted design graduates for the importance of “sketching”; whether that means putting marks on a two-dimensional surface, fabricating simple foamcore mock-ups, or digitally compositing a variety of visual concepts.

What does Sketching have to do with the industrial design process?

Students trying to enter the profession seem to me, based on this and previous experience, to be increasingly focused on getting that one idea they have in their head into a tight 2D Photoshop or 3D CAD rendering, as if this is what an Industrial Designer is supposed to do. Consequently, what I’ve been finding is that often there’s minimal exploration, little or no opportunity for “happy accidents” and almost no appreciation for what can be learned along the iterative path from the original spark of an idea to that highly desirable glossy presentation rendering.

Furthermore, being an Industrial Designer has increasingly become more about software application familiarity than it has with developing the underlying skills necessary to function effectively as a designer on a development team. Not that knowing how to use the software tools common to the profession isn’t important, but software applications aren’t the only tools at our disposal. To those who believe otherwise, good luck translating your CAD expertise to a conference room whiteboard during a brainstorming session.

So how did a virtual representation of a manufactured product go from being a waypoint to becoming the endpoint for so many young designers?

I don’t know, but I believe it may result from a number of factors, starting with job postings demanding an applicant have experience and expert level skills in both their field and in the employer’s software applications … for an entry-level position. Some job postings are so ludicrous to me they’re laughable, but to a graduate hunting work those bullet points are serious employment requirements.

Another issue, in my opinion, is that an increasing number of student design projects seemingly focus on marketing and market research instead of problem-solving. I attended a student show at a well-regarded university a few weeks ago and between all the words and UX cartoon strips cluttering presentation boards I was lucky if I found a decent design somewhere. I was honestly elated when one of the student designs included parting lines and an indication they might have an idea how their design could be manufactured. That’s just wrong.

Lastly, I suspect the Internet is influencing young designers to increasingly focus on pretty pictures instead of well-thought-out solutions. This is no surprise. Industrial design is still – in spite of efforts to change the perception – often seen as only the styling portion of a product’s development … by development teams everywhere. It’s not that aesthetics aren’t important – they are – but there’s more to the profession than styling, and that’s an issue with which the profession has been struggling for decades. And probably will struggle for another few, at least.

One could, however, argue that the Internet has actually elevated the Industrial Design profession by helping to educate the public about what it is we do. That may be true to some extent, but the world doesn’t visit Mashable or Gizmodo to gush over scratchy development sketches. People mostly want eye candy; fantasy products dreamt up in a perfect world filled with Unobtanium and manufacturing magic. Show the world a rough sketch of a brilliant idea (full of search lines and annotations representing some serious thought) and be ready for a billion plus blank stares. Show them a glossy KeyShot 3D rendering of a mediocre design and watch eyes light up.

Industrial designers have become technology’s alchemists; able to transmute engineering lead into marketing gold. Unfortunately, the effort that goes into achieving this transformation isn’t readily apparent to either the public or, it seems, to a fair number of design students; not the effort expended by professional designers who generate stacks of development sketches, nor the efforts of engineers who are instrumental in making a designer’s subjective vision tangible.

On top of all this I believe there is a key misunderstanding that should be rectified immediately: When an Industrial Designer is sketching, they’re not, hopefully, simply illustrating.

“Drawing is not about representation but about thinking. Trying to understand what you’re looking at … The brain sends a signal to the hand and the hand sends one back and there is an endless conversation between them.” – Milton Glaser

Years ago I used to try to explain in online design forums why being able to draw is so important; to get across to aspiring designers blinded by increasingly available 3D software applications that concept sketching isn’t simply documenting an idea you already have in your head, but about internal/external feedback; about the Industrial Design process. It’s why those of us in the design profession who pre-date the use of computers will suggest switching out drawing materials – from pen to charcoal to foamcore to whatever; even to CAD – because what we see in the output from each of them can spark new and valuable ideas.

This media switching can also be a way to efficiently focus one’s efforts. Shifting from pen or pencil over to charcoal, something former Chrysler design executive John Herlitz would have us do back when I was still in school, limits the amount of detail that can be rendered. This can be an effective way to visually step back and see the big design picture as well as develop some design process conversation skills. More than once I’ve hit on innovative solutions to thorny problems doing this.

To be sure, this technique isn’t limited to 2D. I’ve known designers who sketch in foamcore (with amazing results, I’d add). And there’s nothing that says you can’t do this digitally. For example, concept designer Scott Robertson uses custom brushes in Photoshop and replicators in Modo to generate high level ideas before he selects the best and details them.

The point is, while Industrial Designers can illustrate, what we’re doing when we’re sketching is not illustration; it’s idea generation or “ideation”.

Ideation is the creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas, where an idea is understood as a basic element of thought that can be either visual, concrete, or abstract.[1] Ideation comprises all stages of a thought cycle, from innovation, to development, to actualization.[2] As such, it is an essential part of the design process, both in education and practice.[3]

Believing that drawing for a designer is nothing more than a means of documenting an aesthetic idea, and further believing a designer’s objective is to immediately create a single, highly detailed representation of a lone idea is to miss the point of what we often do. So while everyone is debating the merits of “Design Thinking”, I really wish there was an increased emphasis on “Design Sketching” (or maybe “Sketch Thinking”?), what it really is and how it benefits the development process, because that’s still, in my opinion, the primary skill that will get a recent graduate hired on as an Industrial Designer.

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  1. 6/19/2014

    I like your article and the idea about sketching. I sometimes feel like like I should have the one good idea and people at work who don’t understand how design works think that too. But, its amazing how a design or solutions grows and evolves out of simple sketching.

    • csvenjohnson

      For me this issue hit home when, as a young staff designer at a highly regarded in-house corporate design group, I was given a project in which the solution – and the necessary form to meet all the requirements of that product – seemed a foregone conclusion. I spent a couple of hours sketching but I already had the idea in my head, so I jumped into CAD and modeled the solution. “Voilà”, I smugly thought. “Done ahead of schedule.”

      Our design manager, a very cool gentleman by the name of Rich Ahern, came over and, without suggesting a different solution, told me to go back and really give it some thought; to paraphrase him, “Use the design process.”

      I was honestly a little incredulous. I argued a little and he politely listened. In the end, as I had some time anyway, I sat back down and started … sketch thinking.

      It turned out that I had another project involving a lot of blow-molded parts, so as I was looking for something to consider while sketching, I decided to try to make this injection molded part as a blow-molded piece instead; just rethinking the early assumptions about how people typically made those things. That exploration and some design sketching led me to a relatively unique (and probably patentable) design that was still injection molded, but incorporated living hinges to a) flatten a radically offset part line, and b) completely change how the thing looked.

      Like many good ideas, it was never manufactured, but it was a cool little solution. And I’d not have gotten there if our manager hadn’t simply encouraged me to use a process that involved some design sketch thinking (or whatever we should call it).

  2. Martin Skalski

    I teach at design and I’d have to say that most students graduating now do not have the ability to sketch at a competent level. Those who have solid sketching skills are having little trouble finding jobs. Students are spending too much time on skills such as research, strategy, digital modeling, etc. that are not the core of industrial design.
    With the correct drawing instruction and follow up in their classes all students can leave university with refined sketching skills. The schools just have to make the choice to do that.

    • csvenjohnson

      Completely agree, Martin. I don’t understand why it is that the basics have been so thoroughly sacrificed to make time for non-core skills. Not that research, design strategy, and the rest aren’t important, but the balance seems incorrect. And with so much buzz around additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing), there is apparently less need for manufacturing process instruction as well; as if molding will be a dead process in the next 20 years.

  3. Suman

    is sketching must to become a industrial or product designer? help me please

    • csvenjohnson

      While not necessarily a requirement, sketching in some form is so integral to the Industrial Design work experience that I would anticipate most employers would expect some level of expertise in this area. And again, I use the term “sketch” loosely. There are plenty of outstanding designers who don’t sketch with pencil and paper.

  4. Mika Saurus

    Interesting comments. Here’s my 5 cents: I strongly believe in a design process, and in my opinion more important that sketching is to understand the task and the context. If you’re designing a vase, then sketching is most likely a valid approach. However, if you’re designing, say, a consumer electronics product, it’s much more important to define the drivers: 1. Who’s the user, 2. what’s the desired user experience, 3. possible emerging technologies, 4, materials, 5. manufacturing technologies, 6. form (sketches). This way each step will give you information for the next step, and you can iterate.

    • csvenjohnson

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mika.

      My response would be that sketching is, for me, a means to better understand the task and the context. What better way to understand both than sketching the experience itself?

      For example, there’s nothing wrong with taking an existing product and modifying it in such a way that it begins to address some user experience issues (e.g. “it’s too big but what if I cut off these corners with the bandsaw, put it back on and see how it feels then?”), and calling that a “sketch”. I’d argue that’s very much a part of the “design process” – an important part – and I’ve done it often.

      Furthermore, if after modifying the existing device so that it better meets user needs a designer continues thinking about the problem – perhaps to address manufacturing limitations incurred from the change – but rather than sitting around a conference table talking about the issues the designer instead uses a sketchpad as a problem-solving aid, isn’t that still part of the design process?

      I believe so and I’d argue that sketch thinking helps quite a bit with understanding the task and the context … for non-electronic consumer products and electronic consumer products alike (personally, I don’t see a difference between the two. We just finished some wearable technology concept work and the main problems weren’t electronic, they were non-electronic).

      Finally, regarding your list of design process drivers, understanding the user and the user experience is paramount for Industrial Designers; it’s essentially the reason the profession exists. However, to say that any of these is more important than sketching is to tell me that these are all more important than thinking. And that doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps you can clarify your reasoning a bit and I can respond more effectively. Thank you.

  5. angry design student

    As an adult student studying industrial design (and having some previous experience on design in worklife) I would say that at least at our school the teachers are the biggest problem. Design teachers in my country are mostly 50-65 years old people, not very innovative, and very accustomed to their own way of doing things. And what is the way this 50-65 y.o. generation is used to doing design? It’s aesthetics and only aesthetics, at least in my country. So then these teachers try to force students to learn doing everything just thinking the aesthetics and forgetting usability, user experience, manufacturability, technological innovation etc. And what’s more, these teachers want the aesthetics practice done by pens, pencils, markers, foamcore, wood etc. They object digital technologies on principle, probably out of envy or something. They can’t accept that the whole profession is rapidly changing.

    What this causes for me is that I have to do huge amount of aesthetics stuff for the teachers who never teach you anything about ergonomics, usability, manufacturability and so on. And then I have my freetime, when I could study those aforementioned things about a proper design process. BUT I CAN’T! And that’s because of the greedy employers, who want that the students/ graduates applying for jobs should be professional in CAD, 3D modelling, Adobe package and so on. So the only thing I can do is study the software in my freetime.

    I accuse the teachers of the 50-65 year old generation for this! They have got everything in life so f**king easily and now they even try to ruin the life from us younger generations.

    • csvenjohnson

      It’s difficult to respond to this comment since the specific circumstances aren’t revealed, but I’ll try.

      First, I’m in the same generation as your teachers, and while I devote quite a bit of time to user experience (blog entry up very soon), manufacturability, and other related product development issues, I do also pay attention to aesthetics. They’re important. Like it or not, products of industry are sold to people who make decisions based on aesthetics. That said, in the U.S. a professional industrial designer who focuses only on aesthetics is especially rare considering competition is global, aesthetics are subjective, and talented designers from all over the world have all the skills to compete.

      Regarding tools, I’m a proponent of pens, pencils, markers, foamcore, wood, etc. I also use a tablet and do quite a lot of CAD (self-taught on all but one application, almost entirely in my free time). I’ve also advised students to switch from one medium to another (as mentioned above) to help spur ideas. I still believe this is a good idea, and I still do it. Bottom line: the more proficient you are at all the tools of the trade, the more employable you are. I have no desire to learn more tools, but like you, I’m studying how to use another one in my free time. Maybe I can stop when I’m 70 years old.

      In regards to aesthetics, I don’t see a conflict between aesthetically beautiful shapes and highly practical forms. The world is full of design – both human-made and naturally occurring – which is both functional and beautiful. When I design something that isn’t both, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job. And doing both is an industrial designer’s job.

      As for designers my age who got everything so easily, I don’t know any of them, so I can’t speak to how they managed to accomplish everything so effortlessly. Perhaps I should have had your teachers!

      Cheer up, Angry. It could be worse.

    • Manfred

      Re the ability to sketch with pen & paper in a digital world and it’s validity. . . I’m currently a student in an ID grad program at a large American university. Out of every class and studio, I’d say there are 2, maybe 3 students who are accomplished at sketching. Nearly all have Solidworks/CAD skills.

      Several of our undergrad students recently competed for 2 internship positions at a major global design/manufacturing company. The competition for these spots included ID students from all the major ID school in the US. During the interview, the manager asked to see the student’s Moleskine and didn’t even look at the digital renderings they brought along.

      This student won one of the spots with the company. In the end, how good you are in digital space will relate back to your skills with fine liners and copics. At the end of the day, sketching is just another way to communicate with people(clients/employers/coworkers). If it’s a tool in your arsenal then you are ahead of the game imo. It can’t hurt and can really only help differentiate you from the throngs of competition out there.

  6. […] This article talks about the importance of sketching within the design process for generating unexpected ideas. Sketching is something that designers increasingly lose sight of as they become more reliant on digital technologies. The article discusses how sketching that demonstrates thinking and iteration is just as important as showing polished results in applying for jobs. […]

  7. Ukasha


  8. Anonymous

    This article is spot on. I teach ID (including CAD) and getting the message across about the importance of the sketching/ideation process is difficult. I think many students feel intimidated because they feel their sketching skills aren’t great. i.e. they aren’t great illustrators. They just don’t seem to understand that the ideas behind the sketches that are important, not stunning illustrations.

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