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Drawing technique and product design

A fascinating post from which I excerpt only the middle:

The interaction of drawing technique and product design is a fascinating question that invites a more thorough analysis. At the time of the rise of the industrial design profession shortly before WWII the prevalent technique for presentation rendering was quite similar to that of technical drawing, with the addition of colour in the form of water-colour or chalk-pastel on coloured board. The thinking was also that of technical documentation in that the form was conceived in the abstract first and subsequently represented on paper. This would appear to be an eminently sensible approach; its abandonment represents a real loss.

Over subsequent decades more emphasis was put on the use of doodling and sketching as ways of stimulating creativity, and that is when products started to “look like sketches”. Shapes came to be generated through this semi-psychological method, as shapes which were by stages moulded first into pictures of products and then into products. The conception of the object in terms of material and technique of making followed several stages later than the conception of pure form. But for the recent imposition of questionable hermeneutic aspects this approach to design persists.

Simultaneously the adoption of felt-tip pens and broad markers, with their propensity to “flow” at corners, gave an unmistakable look to components intended to be injection-moulded in plastics materials, which resulted in the “designed” look comprising graphically bold and simple shapes with rounded edges and corners [Web 2.0; iPads. iPhones]. Look at any product with pretensions to design of the late 20th century, and one can almost see the strokes of the felt-tip pen. This is especially true of air vents and such: here is where someone drew four short lines with a fat bullet-nib black marker. Most importantly, the shapes really want to be injection-moulded plastic, and therefore give an advantage to those who have access to the expensive dies and machinery to injection-mould things in plastic.

Thereafter, of course, computerized rendering techniques arose, but the thinking is still the same graphic/doodle-based, designer-positive thinking. Indeed, the software was developed to pick up on the design thinking that had developed over the previous decades. Both favour abstraction, simplification; both assume a corps of production engineers subsequently to translate pure, abstract shapery into a manufactured, working product.

Of course there are practical pretexts for all of this. Aerodynamic efficiency is a common one, since Raymond Loewy’s streamlined pencil-sharpener of 1934; a pretext to hide the mechanism from the user and discourage her from taking an interest in it, besides allowing more cheaply-made parts to be used under the fairings of motorcycles, for instance.

And this is only that which touches the visible: for the Vision has invisible aspects, too, like the expectation that things will have electronic controls. Most of that is about devising reasons why a Motorola 68000 processor of 1979 would not suffice. This is difficult, as most products just do not have to do so much that a 68000 clone cannot control it, if indeed it needs electronic control at all. Hence a gratuitous multiplication of redundant functionality, all to find a reason to use a newer chip and create a market for it.

Consider for instance the profile of the edge of the battery lid and the main case of a typical mobile phone. If the consideration were cost, or ease of use, or ease of manufacture, nobody in their right mind would shape the cut that way. Other considerations prevailed: first, the free-form interface is hard for others to duplicate, and second, it works well with flexible plastic snap-tab construction, whose rapid failure renders the product unappealing. The prevailing design idiom makes this possible.

Consider plastics as such: most experience progressive embrittlement with loss of plasticizers, so that a product might be robust when new but snap easily after a passage of some years. The embrittlement is predictable if not quite constant. Why is the material used, and why is the product designed to a state of elasticity so early in the material’s life? Likewise, the prevailing design idiom is not really happy in any other material.

In automotive components, the trend is away from the generic and towards the model-specific. In fact it had in the past been quite common for components like lights, generators, starter motors, ignition components, carburettors, brakes, and even gearboxes and axles to be developed on a generic basis and sold to motor manufacturers. Before WWII complete proprietary engines were common. Today components might still be contracted out, but they would be specific to a certain model of vehicle – which changes the nature of the supply contract [hence the supply chain] fundamentally. Because attempts to use intellectual property legislation to these ends has thus far been unsuccessful (see British Leyland Motor Corp. v. Armstrong Patents Co in the UK and Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co. in the USA) the adoption of complex “designed” interfaces plays an important role, interfaces that would be absurd if not for the prevailing design idiom.

There is currently much excitement about the possibilities offered by 3D printing, and rightly; but how much of that is not merely to emulate the prevailing design idiom at volumes far lower than gave rise to it? Does it make sense to put all this effort into achieving a look and feel that is not intrinsically desirable, but which was developed in response to the techniques that best favoured the mass-producer? Does it not make more sense to develop a design idiom that responds to the techniques that best favour the technologically-empowered artisan? In this I submit that 3D printing might play a subtler role than we might expect.

I think many of us would really like to have in the home a refrigerator that looks something like a Shaker wardrobe, if only we can get past the idea that to be a proper modern refrigerator that works well it must look like a large bar of soap stood on end. The former is much more easily constructed using artisanal techniques – including new and innovative artisanal techniques – and if the praxis is well established in a working community the cost may be better than competitive. Moreover, it is natural to and flows readily from those techniques; and as such the refrigerator can be a thing of beauty.

I admit it; I have an iPad. And one application I really love is Paper, which works just like paper, with pens. It's the sexiest application ever. It makes me feel like an artist, even though I haven't spent anywhere near the 10,000 hours it would take to make me a real one.

Do we have any Correntians who sketch, draw, or do design? What do you think of this excerpt?

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Jay's picture
Submitted by Jay on

I think this writer integrates a set of correct observations with facts not in evidence to validate his/her preferred ideology. When your initial assumption is that you are correct, everything you see can be interpreted as confirmation. The tell for me is the character of the writing. Confusing, unpersuasive writing is a characteristic of people who don't know what they're talking about. Someone who has command of relevant facts can articulate a persuasive argument that is easily conveyed to most people. A third category is sophists, who have a command of relevant facts but wish to convey incorrect conclusions because a certain course of action is in their best interests, hence "the Laffer curve proves that reducing taxes reduces the deficit, and that taxing wealthy job creators hurts the economy."

This guy is just confused. Tying up doodling with colonialism with manufacturing processes with fascism with plasticizers and patent law is more of a snapshot of the 20th century than a validation of anarchism. Similar incoherent odors waft off of libertarians.

Jay's picture
Submitted by Jay on

Like what? How so? What difference does a felt tip pen on paper in 2012 make compared to a piece of burnt vine on foolscap in 1850? Are we seriously asked to believe that Raymond Loewy is the touchstone of modern industrial design . . . And sketchbooks? Also too fascism because streamlined pencil sharpeners with cheap parts always lead to authoritarians. Wha? Huh? For a guy who opens his screed with a discussion of fallacies, he would do well to study on this one.

Does all modern industrial design really look the same? Could you describe it? What criteria would you use to identify or exclude it as a specimen? What is the alternative? Could anyone demonstrate how using a felt tip pen versus a draughtsman's pencil would cause industrial design to exhibit these symptoms? How has the nefarious felt tip pen worked its voodoo on CAD programs?

Serious amount of malarkey going on here.