This is the fourth 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.
Despite the rise of digital tools and rapid prototyping, it has never been more important for designers to make things with their hands. Comfort with three dimensions as a sketch and development tool enhances a designer's sensitivity to form tremendously, and helps them understand how products are made in the real world. If you can build it, you're halfway to knowing how it could be manufactured. Instead, schools often allow students to jump into 3D CAD before they have a solid understanding of form and construction.
Over the past decade I've reviewed hundreds of portfolios, more often than not full of glossy 3D renderings based on weak underlying designs. Rendering technology has gotten so good and so easy to use that students quickly become reliant on it. Iterative exploration and refinement using your hands is essential, and in fact makes CAD modeling more effective and efficient in the long run.
More than that, building models by hand is fundamental to Industrial Design—it's what makes our profession a craft. Spending time with CAD makes you a better modeler, but spending time with a physical model makes you a better designer. It allows you to see your design in the real world, in a way that simply superimposing a rendering into an environment cannot replicate (and please, if you're going to do that, make sure to get the perspective is right).
During my first week as a professional designer at Seymourpowell in London, UK, I was handed an orthographic drawing of a handle for a roll-on suitcase, and sent down to the model shop. My task was to build the handle by hand using foam. Thankfully, a large part of my time in design school was spent in the shop, being commanded by our tutors to refine and refine physical models to the point that it felt tedious. The very task I was asked to complete in my first week made me realize why they had been so insistent. I'm not sure many courses push their students this way anymore. This lapse is having some very real consequences. A couple of years ago, a student I was interviewing showed me a design for a handheld device. But when I asked how many models he had made during the exploration phase, the answer was none! I couldn't believe it—how could anyone design something to be handheld without holding it in their hands! Some of the worst offenders in student portfolios are simply unmanufacturable. Simple questions like where to locate the parting lines leave students dumbfounded. In the real world, it's simply not possible to shortcut the design process like this.
Technology alone isn't to blame, but it offers ways to shortcut the design process that weren't there before. Rapid prototyping, for example, is an amazing tool with an important role to play in design, but increasingly students use it as an excuse—why make a model by hand when they can just get it printed? Equally amazing and terrifying is that RP allows you to make impossible objects, with no grounding in how things are actually made. That's dangerous. The sad thing for me as a professional is that this trend is also moving into the professional design industry; fewer and fewer firms see the need for a model shop when they can buy an RP machine to do the work for them. I fear that we're losing one of the most important elements of craft in our profession.
At Ziba we often do what we call 'form storms.' Like brainstorms, these bring a group of designers together (and occasionally clients), and start with a tight design brief, often based on the previously developed Character Board and 360 Model. Instead of a pile of blank paper though, we create model blanks—foam cut to the rough dimensions and proportions of the product being designed. Then we sketch in 3D, using rasps, craft knives and sandpaper. This exercise is especially useful for handheld products, offering immediate tactile feedback. The key to sketch modeling is iteration, just as with 2D. Don't be precious, try things out, build on previous versions to explore and refine. At worst you start again fresh; at best, you watch the form evolve in your hands.
In the course I'm teaching now, many students lack access to full shop facilities, or the kinds of modeling foams we use professionally. But I still demand they do 3D exploration in any way they can, using cardboard, foam core, plywood and bondo, or whatever else they can get their hands on.
3D exploration isn't just about form, it's also about function. We use sketch models to build and test functional 'works-like' prototypes. These quick and dirty models need not be pretty, but they must be rugged enough to prove out a mechanism or moving part design before they break.
Such prototypes have been hugely important in our Oregon Manifest project, especially recently, as we worked out a bicycle sidecar concept. We spent an exciting Saturday afternoon a few months back quickly attaching wheels to a wooden board, with a plastic tube as the axle, and a bucket built up with white foam on top. We realized it wouldn't work before even leaving the shop. So we added a second stabilizer arm using duct tape...better! Riding around it became apparent that it was just too large and cumbersome, but a quick trip to the bandsaw improved the feel significantly. It may be one of the ugliest models I have ever seen, but to us it was beautiful—the seed of an idea that we could build from.
The final element of prototyping worth mentioning is the finished 'looks like' model. At this point in the process, the design is locked and the next task becomes storytelling. There is nothing more compelling than having something to hold in your hands that's as close as possible to the real thing. This is where RP can be a great shortcut, but it's important to remember that even the best RP requires substantial finishing, and final models can still be built by hand. The real benefit is that no mental leap is required of the audience. A model is real. You can touch it, hold it and maybe even use it. This is especially useful when designing for a real user, who can take the model and test it, talk about it, learn from it. You can photograph or film it in context, and use this to great effect in your final presentation.
Making final models may seem tedious, but there's no better way to learn about surfaces. We don't quite work to this level in professional practice—it would cost too much—but every hour I spent sanding finish models in school has made me a better designer. When I look through portfolios, I want to understand how you arrived at your solution, and model-making must be a part of that process. Building models helps develop a sensitivity to form, surface and proportion that you will never achieve in 3D CAD. Quite simply it makes you a better designer.