In his work as a mechanical engineer, product designer and art school professor, David McCormick knows that successful companies need creative engineering solutions and innovative ideas. Unfortunately, many engineers lack a vital skill: the ability to draw and communicate their ideas.
“In spite of sophisticated design software, engineers need to start with a pencil and paper,” McCormick says. “Research shows that drawing encourages the mind to see new connections and form new ideas. If you look at the drawings of Leonardo de Vinci and other incredible innovators, you’ll see it. Leonardo was solving problems and innovating through the simple act of sketching.”
McCormick now offers a unique course to teach engineers the drawing skills they need. Engineers learn the basic forms and techniques of perspective drawing.
Learning how to draw in this mode is possible for anyone, McCormick says. However, engineers are especially receptive because they instantly understand the power it brings to communicating their ideas.
A case for the vanishing role of sketching in the art of engineering
By David McCormick
“Thought is impossible without an image.” Aristotle
Let’s face it: designing innovative new products entails uncertainty. That is where risk comes in.
What’s more, the risks vary. Product designs that require new and untried engineering ideas carry more risks than we find in incremental improvements or design revisions of established products. As in most endeavors, however, there is potentially greater reward for greater risk.
It is in order to manage risk that rules have been created to make product development processes, as much as humanly possible, into predictable, repeatable, and linear strings of events.
Engineers have adopted productivity tools that promise more predictable outcomes. Computer-aided design is one of those tools.
The evolution of design documentation made a huge advance when engineers no longer defined their designs in the universal graphics language known as orthographic projection drawings. Engineers now create a 3D simulation of the solid design instead of creating 2D representations of “views.” The 3D CAD process is closer to sculpting the design than drawing it.
The results contain far more information and are not subject to misinterpretation by the reader of a drawing. The output is also machine readable, improving all downstream processes such as revision control, archiving and manufacturing.
However, when it is used exclusivelyin the creative process, 3-D CAD can actually compromise the designer’s ability to innovate.
Creating new products that will sell requires an ability to identify a problem and to visualize a solution. The engineer’s work is to define that image in as clear terms as possible so it may be transformed into a real physical device. However, the transformation cannot begin until the image of the solution is clear enough in the designer’s mind to define its physical attributes. In many instances, building designs in CAD may be too confining and too slow at this early stage of development.
Before CAD, engineers were more likely to take time to sketch their preliminary design solutions to develop and communicate their ideas. They still need to.
The process of visualizing a physical object may seem trivial in the complex engineering processes used today, but the importance of this step in the journey of a product’s life cannot be underestimated. If engineers hastily set out in the wrong direction and the design is developed in detail, there will be a lost opportunity for real innovation.
The process of sketching is the bridge between the engineer’s idea and the actual product design.
Sketches are associated with innovation. Historical advances in engineering, like the works of da Vinci, Von Braun, or Edison, are recorded in their sketches. These sketches are a record of the moment of inspiration. The power of sketching is most evident when there isn’t a clear picture of what the invention is to become. The act of drawing lines on paper and of looking at the image that is forming brings closure to the incomplete mental image of the object. Sketches make ideas spring to life.
When an engineer draws the image of the design forming in his or her mind, the pen makes a mark and the eye interprets the mark as part of a form. The vague notion of a form starts to solidify rapidly as more lines are drawn. The eye sees the image take form on the page and gets feedback on how the design is taking shape. As ideas become objects on the page, opportunities and obstacles become apparent. Adjustments are made. Sketches are erased or abandoned as the idea is worked and through this iterative process there is a rapid convergence to a rough design concept.
This process takes place quickly and is free of constraints that might hinder a creative mind. Menu-driven CAD conventions can be distracting when developing a nascent idea. Sketching encourages divergent thinking by putting an engineer’s mind in a less restricted mode. Free of the details, designs break away from pre-conceived ideas and explore new territory.
Sketches are part of a successful design process acting as a channel between creative engineering thinking and critical engineering thinking. Visualizing a design prepares the way to more traditional analytical engineering activities. In this early phase, engineering decisions are being made with little if any data. Intuition is a guide to get the project to a point where data can be collected and analyzed. No data exists for designs that have not been tested.
Prototyping is done to test designs. At the beginning of a project, these are low-resolution, low-risk prototypes or simulations that yield some quantitative information. As the design develops, the simulations and prototypes have higher resolution and yield more data.
A sketch is the lowest-resolution prototype. It is the starting point for concept design development. It can be quickly created, reviewed and revised or redone without significant cost and time. Think of it as RRP—really rapid prototyping.
Quick sketching ultimately gets new products to market faster and with better design solutions. The faster the iteration happens, the quicker the ideas converge to a solution.
Collaboration and Amplification
Most work in engineering is collaborative. The communication of engineering design ideas is a key part of collaborative design with the multidisciplinary groups that constitute a product development team.
With CAD-rendering packages, engineers are now able to communicate designs with realistic clarity. There is often quick sign-off on a design that is so easily visualized and so deceptively close to completion. But, slickness of presentation has no correlation with innovation—especially in the early design stages.
In contrast, early collaborative work benefits from the lack of detail or resolution inherent in viewing sketches. They communicate a fluid design that can incorporate an improvement. It keeps the door open to change.
Sketches themselves influence the structure of the work process as well as the product. Due to their informal nature, they can be used to breach divisional boundaries, say, among engineering, marketing, and manufacturing. Even within the engineering department, communications boundaries can exist between CAD users and engineers without CAD training. The universal language of engineering innovation is a sketch of an idea.
There are times when the inflexibility of CAD licenses, database vaults, and access rights impede the flow of design information needed for fast paced collaborative design. A sketch promotes dialogue.
Equally ubiquitous to CAD workstations are whiteboards, which have become standard equipment in every engineering office as a tool for a) creating or working out a design and b) quickly describing designs visually, since articulating a design verbally is nearly impossible.
When engineers sit down together, their use of whiteboard sketches can be a powerful tool in design development. With a few marks on the board, an engineer brings a design into existence so others can turn it over in their minds and envision improvements. A little erasing, more marks, further discussion, and the whiteboard sketch now reflects the group’s combined expertise. But it was the engineer wielding the marker who propelled this collaboration. The better we are at communicating a design visually the more effective we are as engineers.
Sketching is not a resistance to technology. Sketches can be scanned or created on a pen tablet to maintain a digital design history file from concept to completion. Pen tablets have the additional advantage of being used as a sketch or mark-up tool in web meetings.
Anyone Can Draw
Business leaders universally speak of the need for America to leverage its innovation to remain competitive in the global economy. Management is looking for ways to do that.
Your organization can encourage creative engineering through the use of sketching methods. Being committed to using these new skills may require new procedures and best practices to be included in the product development process. This usually involves some training and the possible use of outside consultants.
It is important to recognize that sketching is a teachable skill that may improve creative output. Sketches can be created by anyone, including customers.
The rewards of this will be measured in successful and longer product life cycles as well as a more satisfying and creative workplace.