Are We Sketchers or Are We Designers?

Sketching is beautiful; it is one of the most timeless talents that never goes out of style. There is something intrinsically great about creating an image of an idea using any old surface with any old drawing utensil. Without sketching, many of the greatest inventions mankind has ever created wouldn’t exist. It can save time in the design process, as it allows the thinker to generate a catalogue of forms, functions, and ideas quickly. As a communication tool, it is a necessity for any designer to play a game of telephone through his sketches to tell a story of an idea. It can also remove all the preconceived notions of what’s possible in the real world, allowing the sketcher to slowly nail down details to make the impossible, possible. Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbook has become famous for ideas that were perhaps farfetched for his time, but communicated several ideas that have carried onto inventions that occurred several hundred years later.

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Indeed, sketching is an incredibly useful skill that has been around since the first caveman decided to draw on the side of his den. It has come to my attention, however, that at times, I am guilty of misplacing sketching’s place in the design process. Since graduating and entering the professional world, I discovered that a lot of my misunderstanding of sketching comes from my education, but it isn’t necessarily because I was taught incorrectly. Let me explain.

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Design has a layer of subjectivity to it which results in an extremely competitive field. But unlike other fields, designers tend to be personal with their competitiveness. I haven’t met a designer yet that doesn’t regularly compare his work to others’. This translates into design education, as there is not another field which contains as much one-on-one competition during school. “Pin-ups” of work is the ultimate comparison of talents, as students work is critiqued between one another. This is a great learning experience. However, one negative aspect of this is that, at times, the students with the best skills, not necessarily the best design, get more recognition. I experienced many pin-ups with students who showed off jaw-dropping presentation layouts, renderings, and sketches. These skills were so amazing, that the actual design of the product that they were presenting took a backseat. The emphasis wasn’t actually on the quality of the design, rather the skills that were complementary to getting that design. There is often a confusion between the two, especially amongst young designers such as myself.

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Let’s discuss again the purpose of sketching. Sketching is simply an idea generator, visualization, and communication tool. Sketching does not, however, improve the actual quality of a design. It does not give a design it’s function. It does not give a design an aesthetic. It does not make a design more sustainable. It is simply a tool to create ideas, visualize ideas, and communicate ideas. I need to remind myself this often, as at times I am stuck in design-school mode where I am expecting a direct pin-up between another designer where my skills will be compared. But now I find myself in the real-world, where skills come secondary to the actual quality of the product. Does anyone know, or quite frankly, care what Jony Ive’s sketches looked like to design the latest MacBook Pro? I think not. What the customer ultimately cares about is not how amazing the designer’s skills to arrive at a design, but the form and function of the end product. That’s what ultimately sells.

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Above are the sketches that Aldo Rossi did to design a famous coffee percolator for Alessi. One of the most amazing things I discovered when I studied design in Italy was how different the designers viewed sketching. Sketching was done as quickly as possible so the Italian designer could move to the shop and make sketch models by hand. Viewed as inefficient to spend more time than necessary to create a beautiful sketch rather than creating forms in space, it isn’t uncommon to see ideas of world famous Italian products done in less than a minute with crayon on coffee-stained napkins. Indeed, for Italians, the communicational aspects of a sketch are often unimportant. The Italian designer is often the be-all, end-all of what qualities a product should uphold, a stark contrast to a designer in other areas of the world who is viewed simply as a spoke-on-the-wheel for how a product should look, feel, and perform.

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The Italians realize that sketching isn’t the end-all, be-all of idea generation and communication. There are endless possibilities, and perhaps the greatest aspect of design is how truly creative we can become from switching up our processes. I often find myself more impressed by designers that design through different processes rather than designers that depend on a linear techniques of designing. A design is born from the process. Sori Yanagi, personally my favorite designer, tells us this with his belief that “true beauty is born, not created”. He had an unusual design process. Sori Yanagi never, ever did a technical drawing or sketch on paper, instead sculpting the relationship of aesthetic and form with his hands. A harmonious relationship between man and material.

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To conclude my thoughts, sketching is a tool every designer should be able to use effectively. But that is all it is, simply a tool to assist in creating a great design. Where it belongs in the design process, and how efficient it is to spend more time making great sketches rather than other aspects of the process is debatable. Yes, spending four hours on a fantastically-realistic marker rendering of a table is great, but is it better than spending two hours on a semi-realistic marker rendering of that very table, and spending the other two hours on a few sketch models to see how it feels in relation to space? Those are the types of questions I encourage every designer to consider when it comes to sketching.