Are "CAD" sketches "cheating" ?

I know of a few great designers I really respect, that would go straight into CAD for ideation instead of actual sketching.
Of course I understand the use of underlays and that’s fine.
But they would add a few sketchy looking lines to their already built model and call that a sketch.

Is this something that is accepted in other design studios?
Should it be?

Does it serve the purpose? Does it communicate and sell the design? If he is a designer that you really respect as you said I assume the answer is “yes”. Therefore the answer is: yes, totally acceptable.

You can question the tools if the results are not fulfilling the requirements. As long as it works it is none of your business how people prefer to work.
Work smart, not hard.

Yes it is accepted, but it all depends on the project.
If you are starting a project from scratch and the shape is not defined or very open to interpretation, then I would recommend sketching so that you don’t get bogged down.
If the project requires minimal tweaks, or is a very geometric design, or proportions are crucial then I wouldn’t be afraid to start with CAD.
A good example is a medical cart. It had a bunch of components coming together and a lot of fabricated parts rather than injection molding. I created a 3D CAD model and rendered it and then sketched on top of that modifying the extrusion profiles, adding details, sketching in the few molded parts, etc.
Whatever tells the story more efficiently.

Not cheating, but probably also not good or effective or efficient design.

Are the designs good? How many designs are being explored? How different are the design options? I’d bet anything I can do more quick sketches and variations in 10min than anyone can do in CAD.

Adding lines to a CAD model is not a sketch. That’s just a waste of time.

Sketching on top of a CAD underlay of competents or reference geometry for scale and dimensions is a different thing than going straight to CAD.


Do you have to be GREAT in drawing to be a (industrial) designer? I ask!
Saw projects presented with hand drawings and others with “photoshoped” sketches, personally it’s all about communication.

Experienced designers have often gone through hundreds of ideation rounds exploring form and design details.
If you have a good grasp of the product, you have a mental library with hundreds of potentialities and to draw these out would be pointless if you already can make an informed decision as to what the product is going to be. If there are limited resources, you may well step to creating the production file from step 1. However for more complex products we would always want to see some sketches and explorations - as long as you can reason towards the chosen design. If it is just for communication or artist impression purposes, we often start in CAD and add a sketchy feel if that is what the client desires.

The consensus seems to be that it’s not cheating.
That ideation can be in the form of CAD as long as it’s effective and efficient.

Totally get it, the end goal is to design good products/experiences after all, not just draw nice pictures.

I would say if it’s an organic shape or there is potential for form development then always start with sketching.

Another good example of when to use cad and a quick rendering is IF your concept is a basic geometric shape (think consumer electronics) and you want to convey the subtleties of a precise monolithic shape in a high gloss finish or with a play of 2 materials. It would be easier to model it and render it than to try and sketch and render using markets and pencils. You can do this and then use Photoshop or Sketchbook Pro to add buttons or partlines over the rendering, etc.

The times I do this I always go in and add details digitally to give it that “sketch” look. If you leave it untouched then the client may think it’s a finished concept.

I hesitate to say anything is cheating. If it is the honest efficient way to explore an idea, than you should do it. That said, I don’t think CAD is truly the most efficient way to explore any idea for the following reasons:

  1. it encourages depth exploration vs breadth, potentially locking you into a solution and trying to fix it vs finding the best solution
  2. it is a solitary activity compared to sketching which can be done in groups and easily shared, talked about, and feedback/workshoped
  3. your form language tends to be highly dependent on your platform/skill level. Might be fine while minimalism is in, but it will change.

What ever gets you to the design solution… I’m sure any self respecting design studio would accept body painting and potato stamps if it somehow got you to design hit products.

With that said, I think all ideation mediums, whether sketching, CAD, sculpting… all have their pros and cons (speed, communication, type of geometry) but also have biases towards certain solutions you need to be aware of when evaluating solutions.

For example, I find it easy to fall in love with a sketch more than the product it represents. It’s hard to dismiss hot sketches even though the product they represent may be far inferior to a good idea on a dirty sketch. I also think sketching tends promotes organic forms. As far as sketches are concerned, it would be hard to make an iPhone look better than a Palm Pebble. Anyhow, its hard to dismiss the efficiency of sketching as a way to quickly ideate and create discussion.

As Yo mentioned CAD has a tendency to tunnel vision your process. It’s much easier to refine an idea over time than to explore avenues. Though its a great tool to explore geometry, proportions and ergonomics and can be used to make accurate underlays quite quickly. I also find CAD has a bit of an uncanny valley aspect to it. A quick and dirty CAD model where proportions aren’t on point and details are missing look really bad.

Anyhow, I had this idea pop in my head today. Bias in design is not something that’s discussed often.

I do think it is ok, and good actually, to go back and forth. Blocking in proportions in CAD, then ideating overtop in sketches. A lot of times the mechanical engineers I work with will send me STEP files, I’ll screen cap them and sketch overtop in photoshop or sketchbook pro and iterate a bunch of detail ideas back. I have one project I just wrapped up where the client’s ME group would send me weekly CAD progress and I’d sketch out detail refinements for them to work on in the next week. I think it is important to remember that the design process is not linear. sketching might lead to some CAD and some mockups and back to sketches and then back into CAD and round and round. You need to use the right tool to advance the idea in that moment.

I was just at the Square 1 sketching conference and Jeff Smith gave a workshop about going from CAD to sketching and I really liked his approach. He didn’t talk about what happened before this step but I can imagine it goes like this : Sketch thumbnails/ideation sketches, narrow down your concepts, quickly model a rough underlay in cad, throw an environment around it and then save and use as your underlay. This provides not only your underlay, but all of your light and shadow is figured out for you accurately. And you can very quickly change the views of the model so you can output 10 underlays in the amount of time it may have taken you to output 1 or 2 with sketching. Everyone has different speeds though and this approach is new to me so I’m still experimenting with it, not sure if it will stick or not, there is something I love about using a grey marker for creating underlays

I would always go back and forth between CAD and sketches as an underlay - each step leads to more detail and refinement.

It’s one thing if you’re trying to rapidly ideate on radically different forms, then CAD doesn’t often make much sense unless you’re limited to certain shapes for technical reasons. But once you have a basic shape down I’d always use screen grabs of the CAD to hash out ideas on different details, textures, color breakups, etc. Certainly not cheating when you’re only really worried about specific pieces of the design.

Also - there is no such thing as “cheating” in design. Every tool when used effectively for the right purpose is good. If your job is to hold water, a shot glass or a swimming pool both meet the requirement. If your job is to get drunk, thats another story.

I totally agree, Mike. To the guys do quiche and pastel renders on canson paper, would markers be cheating? of course not. New tools open up new possibilities. I think the key is to not become too reliant on any one thing.