I’ll be talking predominantly about industrial design here.
Motivation 0: Imagine
How cool would it be to express 3D objects with a pen and paper, with the same fluency as you express your thoughts with words?
Motivation 1: Mathematics (and Truth)
The “Blivet” – Not my work, thankfully
Find a cube, and take a photo of it. If you then print the photo and place a ruler along the cube’s edges in the image, you’ll realize that those lines meet at some point. But we’re taught that a cubes opposite edges are constructed from parallel lines – and parallel lines never meet. So what changes between mathematical reality (the real real) and the reality our brains occupy?
Plato thinks that the truest form of reality is the idea of the cube, where it is nothing more than a mathematical object with no physical instantation*. We rely on this geometric truth when we describe cubic products, or make a cube out of clay ( in the brain-to-reality process). The cube comes out seemingly fine. No matter how we then look at the cube, the parallel lines will always seemingly bend. This is a result of geometry and how our eyes perceive depth, although there are other deeper and more meaningful bits of physics out there about the limits to conscious observers’ knowledge of reality. Perspective is both a literary and scientific term describing how humans perceive reality, and communicating things in 3D is very intimately connected with perspective. If you want to draw in 3D, you better know about perspective.
*If you think that’s a bit too romantic, check out MIT physicist Max Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe” which catalogs centuries of human scientific progress, and goes into excruciating mathematical detail, to try to convince you of this idea.
Motivation 2: Emotion
“I don’t know what this, is but I want one”
What is that different between an iPhone and any other smartphone? Yes, you could say it’s so expensive, and kind of restrictive, and that some of its technical specs lag the competition’s, and that Apple only have a 20% share of the global smartphone market.
But Apple still capture 80% of that industry’s profits. Why do millions of people lovingly pay that premium?
How did you feel the first time you held the box containing Apple product in your own hands? That texture, that white. How intuitive was is to use your first iPhone, iPad or iPod?
Instead of designing a product from the inside out, or extrapolating what you think customers would want, the design process involves a thorough study of what the customer wants and needs – in many cases the customer has a hunch of what that is, but hasn’t articulate them himself.
Design thinking is equally about empathizing with your customer, about caring very seriously about how your product (or service) makes them feel, how she perceives the world, what little details make her happy.
It’s probably crude to attribute Apple’s success over the years solely to design. But I would contend that design thinking is in the DNA of Apple’s success.
Here is a seriously important point: people’s emotions make most of their decisions for them, logic and reason often follow to justify those decisions. Now, there is a sinister (yet very effective) way to exploit this such as lying to voters or manipulatively advertising sugar. On the other hand, there is a beautiful way to make use of this knowledge: make a genuine attempt to understand your customer, understand how they feel and help them realize their deepest desires (which they often need help with). Bonus if you can deliver a solution that makes them healthy, wealthy or wise.
Motivation 3: Proportion and Scale (/Lego)
“Something feels right”
If you want to make something cheaply, it helps to automate production, and if you want to automate production, it helps to standardize the product. The problem with mass-produced standard products is that you lose variety, you lose individuality – it’s difficult to get cheap tailored shirts.
But the world needs variety; imagine if you could only get shoes in small, medium and large! But the world also needs cheap mass production. So it seems we have conflict*.
Now there’s no easy solution here, but there is a HUGE market for good solutions. One good one is not selling standard products, but standard construction elements – i.e. Lego – and giving people the freedom to make what they want. IKEA can be thought of as a (much more constrained) form of Lego for humans. It’s all about choosing the right shape and size of your building blocks, and it makes sense to scale them to the human, which is why I recommend you read Le Corbusier in the next section.
For reasons that remain mystical, there are some very beautiful ratios out there that just work in making things – from desks to documents – appealing and comfortable to human beings. One really interesting insight from this Nobel Prize winning physicist is that certain frequencies of sound and light resonate effortlessly with our nervous system circuitry responsible for perception. There is harmony to be found where elements are in the right proportion. Google beautiful ratios and be enchanted.
* We also have a seating crisis – which I’ll get to one day – because designing a chair for the “average person” seems a bit dumb to me, but it’s not that easy to do better.
Motivation 4: The Right Question
Reflection in April 2021: I generally have more software related projects of late – this is because I have started going from just doing things for fun, to trying to make products that actually help people and therefore deserve to be paid for. Software businesses can be started from your laptop, with little to no upfront cost, and quickly help solve people’s problems. Hardware is fairly inexpensive to design, but rather expensive for a solo entrepreneur to prototype, build and then mass produce. This is why my first company Sukune (www.sukune.com) started and failed to take off as a hardware business, as I needed at least £100k for tooling and materials to get the first few products built – it’s now found another life as a software business – although still looking to help the adoption of domestic solar energy!
Okay, I’m convinced. How do I start?
First of all, drawing is only a part of design thinking – a very important part, but a still a part, and probably the highest bandwidth method of communicating ideas. There is theory on how to think design (hyperlinked bullets below), but it’s worth getting competent with the basics of how to produce and draw. Lucky you, here’s a curated curriculum of what I had to piece together over the years, so you can take the fast-track:
- Essential reading
- Practice smooth, straight lines and cubes. Here’s a good video to follow.
Early Block Forms – 2015
- Choose something you love, and draw the hell out of it. Unless you are a professional artists and generally good at everything, it’s worth focusing on what you ultimately want to make.
Some of my plane doodles from 2015-2017
My biro sketches of Peter Opsvik seat designs – 2016
Once you have a good idea of the basics above, you probably want to move much quicker than just using pen and paper. Computer Aided Design (CAD) allows you to use a computer or tablet with a stylus to very quickly express 3D shapes, with varying levels of accuracy. In the last few years I’ve been a huge fan of using Shapr3D – an iPad native application that exploits the Apple Pencil to allow you to intuitively draw 3D shapes. Here’s a video showing how I quickly conjure up a car with smooth curves and complex geometries, starting from basic shapes.
Disclaimer: design and drawing books generally advise you to start representing a design by the largest generic components, say a cube or sphere, then gradually detail down into smaller features. This is a good habit for creating new products that don’t exist today, or in fine art. In engineering and industrial design, you’re normally at the second, less creative step where you know what you’re aiming for, so you can build something up from the smaller bits — this carries the risk that the parts won’t fit together, so you need to know quite accurately what the final product looks like, especially if using CAD. What I love about Shapr3D is you can generally use both approaches – start big and chisel away your product, or start small and build it up.