Designing in CAD vs Sketching

Hoping to open up a candid exploration here that I’m genuinely curious about:) I realize there have been numerous related discussions here but I haven’t seen anyone address this specific question:

Is it OK to design in CAD?

I want to be clear upfront that I don’t want to see our unique art form of analog sketching die. I’ve always loved that there are many hands-on aspects to industrial design, including physical making and sketching. Its one of the reasons I chose the profession. At the same time I want to make sure I am able to design the widest range of things and to focus my time on a particular set of skills to which I will excel.

I’d love to get your take on this. I’ve listed my own perceived Pro’s and Con’s below.

I’ve worked as an Industrial Designer, mostly in Design firms for around 10 years. I was taught in Industrial Design school that it was “bad” to design in CAD. I was also prohibited from using digital drawing tools like wacom tablets. Perhaps my professors were a bit old school but I get the lesson they may have been trying to teach me - that good design is not necessarily about the tools we use - and that we shouldn’t use tools as a crutch. One of my prof’s used to do “renderings” with the shape tool in powerpoint to prove this point (they were actually amazing). I can still appreciate this lesson and I held onto it as dogma for a long time. Yet later in my career I found myself doing things differently.

My Current Process.
I’ve been lucky to have exposure to a number of different CAD programs in Design firm environments over the years (alias, rhino, 3DS max, fusion 360). The one that I took to a level of mastery is Solidworks. I found it intuitive, capable, and I like that it’s commonly used by our comrades in product development: Engineers. I’ve found working in the same tools, facilitate collaboration more easily. After having spent the thousands (really) of hours to hours needed to become both fast and capable in SW, I will now often begin the design phase of a project directly in 3D. I still use sketching to think through details but I no longer make them an official deliverable unless specifically requested (which is rare). The first company I worked for asked me to sketch in the high quantity traditional way but others, have not not expressed a preference for “how” I design, more so “what”. My assumption is that this somewhat unusual for design firms, but I have come to appreciate designing in 3D for these reasons:


  • Greater accuracy. This one is obvious, I know, but has to be mentioned. I can see this being more important in some product categories than others. I work at a company that makes networking computers. It’s all about how much power and capacity we can fit into the smallest possible form factor. Sketching can be nice to work through some details, but in general I am playing Tetris in SW to fit boards and components into tight, machined spaces. This would be impractical on paper. I still have a “look” or in mind - but I let the details drive the result - usually not the other way around. I always have this Buckminster Fuller quote in mind:

“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

  • Products are getting more complex. I love simplicity and minimalism but I also find new, “maximalist” form languages exciting. I have a strong feeling this language is an inevitable part of the future of Design in General, as the markets seek greater levels of novelty in every capacity, including form. I don’t want my ability to draw something to be a limiting factor. You can simply achieve more range in 3D.

  • More accurate translation of design intent. Many companies, especially larger ones, seem to separate Designers into 2D (Sketching, Adobe), leaving the 3D to Engineers or folks from the CGI world. My perception is that there is the potential for loss during this hand-off. Full disclosure, I’ve never worked in a large, corporate environment, so I don’t have direct knowledge of how exactly that can work. I’m sure with the right communication and oversight, it can be made relatively seamless. Personally I have not had the best experiences, having the work of other designers handed to me. Likewise, if I need to hand-off to engineering, there can be ill considered additions or modifications. There almost always seems to be something lost in translation. When you are designing a thing on paper, it is fairly assured that you will face new, spacial issues when entered into 3D. This can sometimes drastically affect your original assumptions about what you thought the product would be. I like working through these road-blocks directly to ensure the sure any divergence is resolved well. Call me a control freak:)

  • Slowing down can be a good thing. Sure, 3D might never be as fast as 2D but I don’t see that as a bad thing. I like being forced to be more deliberate. To think through each feature, each line, each curve. To ponder if that feature should exist at all. Personally, I subscribe to Dieter Rams “no more design than necessary.” In other words, too much “design” can actually get in the way. (Subjective territory, yes.)

Addresses bad stereotypes. We’ve all heard people gripe about having worked with a Designer who sketched them something beautiful but unrealistic. Unfortunately, I feel these are often fair critiques of when we have not done our job well enough. In school I was taught to create dozens of sketches or physical models to “think through” a design. This is great and fun to do, but we know it’s equally important to let market/user/customer/ research and technical feasibility/manufacturability inform decision making. Otherwise you are just “pushing shapes around a page” as one my professors used to say. Working in CAD from the start, can help address technical concerns your client or employer might have.

Iteration through 3D Printing We all know that we learn by making. In my experience, that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to physically make things yourself. For more complex products (ie computers) it probably doesn’t make sense to build in blue foam. I’ve found 3D printing is usually (not always) more practical than physically making things. There are of course exceptions, for example larger scale models might be better in something cheap like foam core.

The CONs to specializing/designing in CAD

  • It could hurt your employ-ability as an Industrial Designer. This is a big one, not to be overlooked, if your goal is to work as an Industrial Designer. I don’t know this for sure but I could have hurt my job prospects at least in the ID space by putting more focus on 3D than 2D. I have tried to show “exploration” in 3D but I don’t really know how that is perceived vs sketches and hand-made models. My current employer and some companies I’ve interviewed with recently seem to appreciate my style but I’m not sure I could get a job at a more traditional design firm again without letting go of my stubbornness and focusing on sketching again. On the flip side, we can’t look into a crystal ball, but I do wonder if analog sketching, as part of real job description will still exist 10-20 years from now. ID jobs are already few.

  • Potential for lost sense of gesture There are certain types of curve-driven products (see automobiles or sneakers) that lend themselves well to setching. It would be difficult (but not impossible) to achieve this in 3D. However, I believe new tools like VR CAD will eventually close this gap.

  • If you focus on 3D your 2D might suffer. People who are good at sketching know that it takes hours of daily practice. The same thing is true of 3D. Unless you are a total freak, you probably won’t be amazing at both. I’ve been decent, never incredible, at sketching but it would probably take me several days to work up to presentation-level sketching again. It’s hard for me to justify putting in that time when I can 3D model 10x different designs in that same amount of time and have them 3D printed in various colors and materials within a few hours/days. I feel a bit sad about this, because I generally enjoy sketching and the evocative result it can produce. It just doesn’t feel practical anymore as a required step process or deliverable.

I’m aware I may be taking taking a risk here by becoming a sort of specialist within an already specialized field. My hope is that some day our field will evolve to become more accepting of designing in 3D. To some extent it may already be happening - they just may not be called “Industrial Designers.” Maybe it means I will eventually leave the field. But my gut is telling me that this method works. Thank you for your thoughts!

I do find myself doing a fair amount of design in 3D, but is usually preceded by 2D sketching. Sometimes I’ll make a quick CAD form for an underlay, but I do find that 2D usually lets me explore more ideas in a freer way. Besides just the time to generate a concept, I find I’m less likely to get stuck doing derivations of the same basic concept in 2D. It’s like the idea of a local maxima. You may make the best version of a concept, but if you zoom out you might find a totally different concept that is better. Like if you find yourself on a hill and your goal is to get as high as possible the most obvious thing is to go uphill and get to the top of this hill. But if you had just backed down a little you may have found a path to an even bigger hill.

I do, though, find that 3D can be very useful when trying to design around very specific constraints. It’s helpful to see immediately how the form will actually flow around something.

It’s also very useful if the form is especially organic or complex and difficult to fully capture in just a 2D sketch. Unfortunately, those can also be models that take longer to make, creating the danger either limiting the amount of concepts you can explore or making you overly invested in a concept just because you spent a long time on it. So I still find that 2D sketching is very useful upfront to work out what you want from the model, then use your 3D skills to make sure it’s translated well.

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I find that like many things…it is our weak skills that need constant development in order to boost our mastery. It is the only way we an increase our ability to become better. By constantly working on your sketching skills, it will indirectly elevate your already proficient CAD skills and vice versa. There is a lot to know about how the brain works when applied to solving problems in both 2D and 3D domains.

Inside of the brain there is what is referred to as muscle memory. If you only flex your cad skills to develop new ideas, the part of your brain that can develop ideas in 2D will atrophy and effectly put the active areas of your brain into an algorithmic rut that will calcify if not stimulated with fresh thoughts. New thoughts drive new synaptical growth. New synaptical growth drives higher order cognitive functioning.

Some call it flow. What it feels like when something only takes 5 minutes to complete versus 1 hour. Staying on top of the software upgrades is not enough to create flow. Compressing the amount of skill retention by working on tangential skillsets, the recall function inside your brain behaves just like lossless data compression in computer science. By challenging yourself to increase your skills in all areas of design, you effectively compress the data in your brain for later retrieval at near 100% fidelity. Failure to increase your capabilities in tangential areas will lead to what is referred to Lossy data compression, where data is recorded but at a much lower quality level that only comes back in a reduced fidelity when summoned by the brain as needed.

Sketching with pen and paper, surface cad, solids cad and VR cad on the same concept is like working your abs with sit-ups, crunches, free weights and machines. Strength and stamina will ensue…not to mention the ability to summon creativity and innovation.

The period of time I improved in sketching the most was also the period of time I made the most physical sketch models. Don’t forget we can get our hands dirty with some 3D 3D… 3D printing doesn’t count. :smiley:

That’s a great analogy:) Thank you, all, for the thoughtful dialog. It does make me want to seek more balance. I’ve been worried about the “jack of all trades” sandpit, especially with regards to my career, but I am ultimately grateful our field leverages a diverse range of skills.

At one point in my career I was also running a small team of graphic designers. I had this one designer who basically only saw their job as using illustrator. I was pushing more concepts that were idea based and lower fidelity, be they sketches, collages, photoshop comps, and this designer just wouldn’t do anything outside of illustrator. If a photo needed to be edited they insisted the photographer on our team do it, backing everything up… at which point I explained that the job was for a designer, not an illustrator operator, and if they want to be a software jokey I’d be happy to help find their next job somewhere else… they lasted maybe 3 more months.

At the end of the day, all of the above skills we are talking about are part of industrial design, which is still a specialty, so I don’t think we are even close to the “jack of all trades” territory.

It is all about the ideas and getting organizations to execute on them at a high level. Everything else are tools in service of that. Different tools are better for different points in the process.

I would consider being a jack of all trades someone who does ID, UX, strategy, research, dables in code, builds functional prototypes, gets into Arduino, does packaging graphics, likes to do video and photography for products… then you really can spread yourself too thin and loose sight of who you are… or be the perfect creative for a startup or small firm! It all depends on how you can show value in a given context.

I do however like the maxim of “be careful what you become good at because that is what you will be paid to do”

Great perspective yo! While ID is itself a specialty field, each of the “big three” domains we are talking about, CAD, drawing, and physically making, can each sometimes feel like a bottomless oceans in terms of time needed achieve proficiency. Not to mention the expected peripheral understanding of business, engineering, technology, manufacturing, psychology ect. One could easily spend a lifetime trying to master each individually. Within CAD itself, one must always be learning new software. I know I shouldn’t cling to Solidworks too hard but fortunately its been an industry standard for years:)

Given the nature of ID work as a bridge between people and technology, I feel we are forced to be somewhat “generalist” by nature. Both people and technology are multifaceted; we must also be.

On the contrary, there is a natural tendency for people (and employers) to categorize or distinguish us in one way or another. While I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, my inclination is to lean into this a bit, to stand out in a very crowed field with only a handful of jobs (let’s be real). I’d rather be known in the end for being a “good designer”, than good at CAD, for sure. But In the same way the world seems to demand “T shaped” designers with specialty in a specific product category, it feels helpful to narrow focus to a small number of strong core skills, alongside a broader range of sub-skills. Good products typically have “diffrentiators”. Why shouldn’t good designers? :slight_smile:

I may be an old guy on here (graduated early 90’s) so my perspective may not be ‘current’ but sketching is not going anywhere anytime soon. Our design team conducts frequent concept generation activities, that then inform some overall system concept illustrations. The variety and amount of content created by hand via mouse is not to be underestimated.

I’ve often heard that between a mouse and pen, the person with the pen will win.

Winning the ‘what’ I feel is the ability to rapidly create a wide range of initial ideas. I’m able to generate 10 concepts, considered, in the amount of time it takes one of our talented design engineers to block out a single CAD idea. To me, I still feel that has incredible value.

Being able to rapidly convey an idea, even in a napkin sketch, is a powerful tool. Whether you choose to eventually render it by hand, build a physical model or create CAD is entirely up to your desired level of output, but a sketch is still the starting point, I feel.

As I get older, I find myself thinking I need to broaden my skill sets to keep up with the next wave of designers and process…but, I find it’s just another tool to have in my quiver. Our workstreams may adjust and change over time, and we should be ready to pivot, but sketching is still and will always be a very powerful and immediate tool.

Well said!

Also, to be frank, I’d rather outsource (or insource to a younger designer) that downstream work vs give up the upstream “what are we making” work… and even in the DFM stage, being able to quickly napkin sketch assembly strategies is so much faster than CADing it all up. Anecdote: A few years ago we had an approved design and my young designer had ever surface perfected, but the project was at a full stop because the ME, EE, and designer were just banging their heads together. After about a week of the three of them getting nowhere and trying to coach from the sidelines I called the engineers, the VP of engineering (my best friend at the company and similarly seasoned salty dog) into a room. Within 30 minutes at the whiteboard the VP of engineering and I had hashed out an assembly strategy that would get it done… now, a lot of work had to happen after that to work out all the details, but when brokering a compromise like that having a dirty sketch that everyone can scribble on and then agree to can be a helpful tool.

Awesome dialog here guys! Thank you again.

Totally agree sketching is an excellent, fast way work through a problem or to align a team around a solution (assuming one is able to sketch at this level). I’m not sure we can say it will never change, but I’m sure it’s at least here for the foreseeable future.

My hope is for future with a blending of “downstream” with “upstream”. I feel whenever you have a hand-off, you invite loss. Designers shouldn’t be trying to make perfect surfaces too early but strengthening our general capacity in CAD and building in 3D sooner rather than later, forces us to think through mechanical details and gives us greater influence on the final outcome (vs letting an ME resolve all the details). “God is in the details”, a colleague of mine used to say. Newer CAD tools like Fusion360 and Onshape are in the cloud so designers and engineers can work more collaboratively. At my office we use PDM, to pass files back and forth, for review, detailing, and analysis. We’ve hit an efficient stride recently, making this work relatively well. There’s a constant feedback loop which seems to prevent major roadblocks.

I hear you affirming part of the unique magic of the design process - the wide lens front-end exploration. To me, the wide lens has more to do with understanding the eco-system surrounding a problem than the form it will eventually take. As a Designer surrounded by Engineers, that is something I need to fight for, quite often. Designers working outside a traditional firm environment, won’t always be granted days or weeks to execute high quantities of sketches. But with a good set of constraints, built from a real user need, market research, and technical feedback, its not always critical to do so. Frankly, even if I had that time, I’d rather spend it doing more research. It’s so easy to make the wrong thing (see: 90% of businesses failing.) 3-10x rough modeled concepts with accurate dimensions can be spun around on-screen for review (better yet physically made) to align on a direction relatively quickly (assuming you are an efficient 3D modeler.) Because of the realism in CAD, there is often an obvious winner. “Oh we can’t actually fit that component” “Oh there’s an overly complex mechanism required here.” “Oh that didn’t resolve as expected.” “Oh I actually hate how this looks in 3D”. I hear, think, and say these things all the time.

Is it OK to design in CAD? Depends what you’re working on. Are you trying to evoke a sprit or trying to resolve a nuts and bolts issue?

I think there’s a continuum (illustrated in the shitty sketch below) where you might have ‘problem solving’ at one end and 'discovering magic’ at the other.

The creative process can be a chaotic and messy business so a combination of different tools works across the spectrum.

I dig that diagram, interesting way to think about things. Not sure “evocative design” or “style” is the exclusive domain of 2D. I might even argue that you have even greater range in 3D.

For example, could you sketch things like this? (Maybe if you are yo!) I’m not sure it would be practical though. I find forms like this just as beautiful as anything my pen could produce.
MicrosoftTeams-image (3).png

I like this. It’s very true and not something, for myself at least, that I considered when I began working.

I think the best tool is usually the fastest tool, and the fastest tool depends on what you are designing. If you could output the work you needed to deliver more efficiently using CAD, why wouldn’t you do this?

I agree with this maxim as well. It feels like there might be an assumption here that 3D is not as fun as sketching. I realize learning 3D can be painful for a few months but it can be enjoyable once it becomes muscle memory, like anything else.

The biggest reason why not to do it, in my view, is because of the bias I alluded to previously; for (some) employers to expect sketching to dominate an Industrial Design portfolio. I believe the bias is real and evident in the discussion here. I can empathize for why it exists. We’ve all seen a bad portfolio that only shows final product 3D renderings - I don’t advocate for that. What I’m arguing for here is some validation that the “exploration” we are looking for in a portfolio can (and maybe even should) happen in 3D as well.

Well put. I agree with that. But with that assumption then I think the topic of your discussion is off. The topic is “Designing in CAD vs Sketching” which pits them against each other, but in the post above you are talking about sketching in CAD.

So to take a shot at summarizing my thoughts:

  1. Sketching is good.
  2. Sketching can be done 2d analog, 2d digital, 3d analog, and 3d digital
  3. all 4 of those are valid, but none should be used exclusively
  4. a designer should employ with combination of those 4 is appropriate for the project
  5. of course a designer will be “better” (higher skilled) at 1 or 2 of the above 4 sketching methods, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t employ all 4

Agreed yo. Analogous to our topic of discussion, I think any good exploration should be somewhat meandering in order to view the problem from multiple angles. This includes re-framing the right questions to ask:) Thanks again to everyone for engaging! I found this all very useful.

That is one of the things I love about the discussion forums. It is a place to turn these things over and develop our point of view and language :slight_smile: