Can you teach a new hand old tricks?

27Oct06

Since finishing my degree and receiving some serious shock treatment at New Designers, I have been working pretty hard on developing my technical (design) skills. Whilst I was at University it was always difficult to try and balance the academic side of design with the technical side, so it’s good to finally have time to concentrate on my skills.

Technical Skills

I am sure you may wonder what I mean by technical skills. Well back in the a day before the Mac (or PC) was common place in a studio, a product designer’s technical skill set primarily involved manual draughting, rendering and model making, the skills that allowed them to communicate their ideas with others. These skills took many hours of blood, sweat, tears and discarded first attempts to build up, but were, and still are and invaluable component of the designers??? tool kit. To put it simply, if you were going to make it as a designer, being able to draw well and having good (visual) presentation skills well was pretty much a prerequisite.

3D, the traditional way
At University, I learnt that this is now becoming less and less the case, as the widespread use of computers in design at every stage is negating the need for these basic skills. As a kid I always enjoyed drawing, and took art at GCSE and A??? level, and always saw good drawing skills to be incredibly important in design. After all, they say a picture paints a thousand words, and what is design if not communication?

When I first started my product design course I was surprised by the lack of emphasis that was put on these basic skills, and in fact in many ways it seemed they were considered to be secondary to the more academic aspects of design. Whilst I do not question the value of what I leant at University, or the quality of my course, I am still amazed that what was once a fundamental skill for any kind of designer is now considered much less important.

The gift of sight

With the extensive use of computers in every part of the design process, this can now be the case, as you do not have to be able to draw a beautiful sketch or layout to be able to produce something of remarkable quality on a computer. I remember my art teacher talking to me at secondary school and telling me that the key issue with drawing is not how you draw, or the act of drawing itself, but rather in how you look at the world. If I drew something that didn???t look quite right, it wasn???t because I had drawn it ???wrong???, but rather that I hadn???t looked closely enough at the subject. This can be exemplified by analysing how children and indeed the majority of adults would sketch a face. You can guarantee that the drawing won???t look quite right to you, and more interestingly if you ask an adult how they think they are getting on whilst they are drawing, they likely be pleased with their progress at the time. However, once they have finished the realisation that it???s not quite right will begin to kick in. The reason for this is that during the act of drawing we are so absorbed by the process itself, that actually looking at the subject takes a back seat. What we actually draw is not what we see in front of us, but rather what we think we see.

This idea is even more apparent if consider this concept from a different angle and you look at the work of a sculptor, or more specifically, a wood carver. I once asked a wood carver how he produced his magnificent works, and he simply replied that it was all in the wood. He said he could look at a piece of wood and ???see??? a form inside, waiting to be released. He had his sight so finely tuned that he could see the final piece in his minds eye before he began work.

Fundamentally I believe that artists and designers are not gifted with the ability to ???create??? specifically, as creativity is a core attribute of humanity, but rather that ???creative types??? have the gift of sight. By this I mean they look at the world in a different way; they see beauty and promise even where there would appear to be none, such as on a blank canvas. This gift is something that must be nurtured in order to harness its true potential. This is why I feel that this basic skill should be developed and held as a core value of any design curriculum.

Physical to digital

Like many others who transitioned from working in traditional mediums to working with a digital workflow, I still use my drawing & model making skills daily. Every website, graphic or 3D model I create starts life as a drawing in my sketchbook or a quick 3D mock-up made from card or blue foam. The computer becomes a tool for me to either work quicker, more productively or to a higher standard than I could reasonably do by hand.

Cyber Angel in 3DS Max
Can you judge the true size and form of this product?

The downside of working digitally is that in a sense I loose my connection to the work. There is no feedback other than what I see on screen, and how it correlates to my input. When I first started working in 3D on the computer, I found it quite difficult to maintain an understanding of the model I was working on. Even using Pro|Engineer, which allows me to use actual dimensional constraints to construct models, in a similar way I would do by hand, I still found it a challenge to truly understand what I was creating on screen. Without that direct interaction of the real world where I could feel as well as see my creation, I felt as if my senses had been numbed. However, having my original sketches and mock-up models to fall back on meant I could experiment with ideas with my hands, and then tweak them on the computer. Using this process I feel I can work much more productively and produce a much more effective end result.

Comparing the size of the CyberAngel to a Mobile Phone

Skipping a step

Unfortunately there appears to be a growing trend for working straight on the computer, removing that essential initial step, producing work which is often more an offspring of the undo button than your own creative process. The way I see it, a computer makes it so much easier to create imagery because it removes the need for ???sight???. Multiple iterations of a design can be carried out much more rapidly, and complex changes can be made by the click of a button, rather than working by hand through a long process of careful consideration and construction (whether it be a 2D image or a 3D model).

Creation on a computer can become more of a process of trial & error than anything else. When working by hand, be it pen & paper or sculpting wood or modelling foam, there is a direct connection; a relationship between the artist and their work. A canvas or a sculpture demands your care and attention, for one mistake could ruin the piece. In real life there is no Ctrl+Z, there is no undo. Without having the undo key to fall back on, you are forced to painstakingly consider every line, stroke, or cut.

Getting Lazy

The other issue here is of course that most modern software programmes handle the technical aspects of producing a piece of work. Taking page layout for example, Photoshop or Illustrator, in fact any program you could use for this automatically deals with typographical issues like kerning and word spacing. The computer user does not need to know, nor care about these technicalities.

However, having an understanding of these technical issues is core to knowing how to lay out a page of text correctly. We have all seen pages badly justified or even worse, truly horrible layouts created in something like Microsoft Word; most likely using the infamous Comic Sans, and which defy every typographical convention there is. Many a time I have seen people make obvious errors (and I???ve been guilty of the same from time to time), through laziness brought on by the very fact that the computer does so much of the work.

What can be done?

In no way am I against the use of computers in design, far from it. However I think everyone, particularly students or those just starting out in a career in design, need to make sure they can crawl before they learn to walk. Take the time to invest in these traditional skills, and I can assure you the investment will pay for itself many times over throughout the years to come. Even if you know 3D Studio Max better than the back of your hand, take the time to come back into the physical world and create something out of whatever materials are at hand, even if you only have paper. Just how refreshing this change can be might surprise you.

If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Presentation Techniques by Dick Powell, of Seymour-Powell fame. I bought this book back in secondary school and found it an invaluable resource which contains a complete overview of traditional drawing techniques from how to create simple perspective layouts to complex presentation drawings. The book also covers in great depth the various pieces of equipment you might use for these tasks

Finally, don???t forget, all you really need is some paper and a pen/pencil to hone those skills!


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