This sketch exploration by Ziba designer Sam Amis shows a broad, rapid exploration of gestures for a snowboard-carrying backpack.
This is the third post in a 6-part series from Ziba's Industrial Design Director, Paul Backett, on rethinking design education. Read the Introduction to the series, Teach Less, Integrate More here.
Every design school teaches the mechanics of sketching: line, volume, perspective, shading and so on. But when it comes to project work, most fail to teach students to sketch with purpose. This makes all the other exercise pointless. All too often I see sketches that look fine, but when I ask, "Why did you choose that form?" I get a shrug. As with research, students often see sketching as a step to complete, rather than a tool to be used throughout the design process.
Design has never been a linear series of tasks to be checked off. Experienced designers know that it's more like a loop. It begins with research and problem framing, then falls rapidly into an iterative loop of exploration and refinement exercises, where ideas come to life and grow, gradually solidifying until they're ready for the more linear finalization phase. As designers, we have to ride this loop repeatedly to find the right solution, and sketching is there at every turn. From an early thumbnail sketch at a brainstorm to refined detail sketches to final presentation renderings, it's our best friend throughout the ride.
One of the things I ask my students to do before sketching is to build a design theme: a set of carefully curated products, attributes, materials and details that tell a clear story. It explains, for example, whether the product should be engaging and approachable or refined and technical; bold and powerful or so subtle it blends with the environment. Properly constructed, it becomes a designer's 'go to' when sketching, setting up a brainstorm session, exploring form and refining details. From early on, design students should be in the habit of having one or more of these themes in front of them while they sketch, to reinforce the idea that sketching is only useful when it's helping to realize an idea.
Four design themes, aimed at different target consumers, from a single recent project.
In professional practice, we often think of how we interact with the products we're designing on 3 different levels: attract, engage and extend. Sketching, with its varied levels of detail ranging from doodle to final rendering, should be approached the same way.
- At the attract level we try to think of the gesture of the product—the 10 ft read, the form and silhouette of the product
- At the engage level we consider the details—how they compliment or contrast with the gesture, how the product feels in the users hand.
- At the extend level consider how the product changes over time—how the materials age, how the product can be disassembled at the end of its life.
It helps to think of these layers separately at the start of a project—layers of sketching that will begin to merge as the design develops.
All of the research tools from the previous post are useful here, in particular character boards and 360 models. They can be used as generative tools to push ideas forward while students sketch, and to focus their efforts. Character boards are a great way to introduce a brainstorm, and can be used to evaluate concepts. As they're sketched out, I have students compare them with the character board, asking how well they connect with the target's functional and emotional needs.
As with research efforts, it's important for students to start by "going large" in their sketch exploration. That means filling the wall in their studio, working fast, banging out as many ideas as possible. Only when the wall is full should they take a step back and start sorting. The design themes, character boards and 360 models serve as filters here, for organizing the sketches into groups, and helping to identify the most promising ones.
Now it's time to dive a level deeper, merging ideas and considering finer details. Invariably, students hit a point when they insist there are no more ideas and the exploration is running dry—we call this the 'shit zone' in my class, and the only way out of it is more sketching. I have them go back and re-sketch previous concepts, combine existing ones, or re-work the details on an established gesture. Despite the complaints and frustration, their best concepts almost always appear after they've gotten through this part. This difficult phase is one of the most productive and realistic parts of the class, and something we face regularly in the professional world.
The next steps are familiar to any experienced designer. The best concepts get refined, details and color are added, materials are rendered in Photoshop. This is where the highest, most finished level of sketching is realized, and necessary. The further a student can take the sketch, the easier the next step of the design process will be.
One tool I have championed in my classes and at work is the lost art of orthographic sketching. It's kind of old school, but there's still no replacement for it as an exploration tool. Quick orthographic views using Rhino or Illustrator allow rapid iteration of crucial details like radius values and parting lines. Illustrator allows you to quickly apply materials and finishes to see how it affects the look and feel of the product. It's also important to move rapidly from digital to physical. Often something that looks great zoomed in doesn't work at all at full scale, so I have students print their orthos at 1:1 scale and sketch over them to refine. This is the point where a quick sketch model can help solidify the details, and orthographic views are essential in planning the model before sculpting or moving into CAD.
Of course, the most effective way to make sure students sketch throughout the design process to have them sketch throughout their lives. Every design student should keep a sketch book or two, of course, and push themselves to continually work at several different levels and styles. They should draw big, draw small, make quick cartoons and obsessive studies, take life drawing classes and technical drafting. The point here is not to develop a dozen different visual styles—one good one is enough—but to build an understanding that sketching is a universal tool for expression. Students, like working designers, should reach for a pen and paper as soon as an idea occurs. Expressing thoughts and ideas quickly and clearly is the hallmark of an effective designer, and well-integrated sketching is the fastest way to do it.
A rigorous, research-informed sketching process provides the answers when designers are asked why they chose a form, a material or a detail. It makes telling the story of the product easier and more sensible. A great sketching process leads to a great product, and a great product tells its own story.
Rethinking Design Education Series
Download a full .pdf of this series from Ziba's Perspetives page here.
» Introduction: Teach Less, Integrate More
» Research: Learning Extreme Empathy
» Sketching: Approaching the Paper with Purpose
» Prototyping: Learning to Think and Make with Your Hands
» Collaboration: No Rockstars Please
» Presentation: The Three Stories Every Designer Must Tell
» Designing the Ideal Industrial Design Program
About Paul Backett
Paul leads industrial design teams at Ziba on a variety of strategic and tactical design programs ranging from medical devices to consumer electronics, apparel and footwear. He is responsible for the design intent for all industrial design products, and a mentor to the Ziba ID team. His diverse experience, coupled with the desire to immerse himself fully in the target consumers' world, has helped Paul deliver innovative brand building solutions for clients such as Nike, P&G, Respironics and Dell. Paul enjoys uncovering solutions to problems of all sizes and particularly finds the prototyping process to be an inherently rewarding part of the design process.
Prior to joining Ziba, Paul was a designer at Seymour Powell in London, where he was involved in programs for Nokia, Unilever, and Mission Speakers. Paul is a native of Edinburgh, Scotland; and holds a First Class Honors degree in Product Design from the Glasgow School of Art.