Developing a sense of style in 3d forms


From a technical background (electric engineering and industrial product development), I’m working my way up through self study and courses to become a good industrial designer. But the hardest thing to master is styling or 3d form development.
I already draw pretty well and I have read “Elements of Design: Rowena Reed Kostellow and the Structure of Visual Relationships”, which is very good but difficult to practice with when you don’t have any feedback. I also did a course on figure drawing and sculpting the human figure with clay. Altough those art classes are fun and relaxing to do, I don’t have the feeling that I really learn from it because I’m just imitating what i see. I’m looking for basic information about how you make a form balanced, aggressive, sportive, sensual, dynamic, etc.
What kind of exercises did you do at school or which books did you read to master this particular skill? What art classes can you recommend?


Its not in a book, or class. The sense of style and form development is only found in the eye of the designer. This is what sepporates the designer from the design engineer. The forms are simply the epresion of how the designer sees the product fullfilling the required functional need while seamlessly fitting into the lifestyle of the targeted user group. Most forms are dreived from…well combinations and simplifications of anything and everything around us. It is this form development that leads to about 60%-70% of all ID graduates never finding work in the feild, some have it and some simply do not. It is a harsh truth to many, but it is the truth, and simply having excelent sketching/rendering skill will never mask the lack of form development.

Through practice, and collaborative work (multiple designers in the studio), individuals with moderate form development can improve. But it is through interaction and feedback. Also being in touch with the world around you, the fashions, styles, artistic movements, nature, culture, trends, movments, fads, ect. will help to push this even furthure.

But above all else it is like a seed, if you have it you can cultivate it into a beuatiful flower, but if you do not you can grow nothing from nothing.

That’s such a bullshit in my opinion…It can be taught, it can be learnt…for some people it’s easier, for some it is more difficult. I think you’re on the right track…I’m sorry I can’t help more, but I don’t want anyone to be discouraged by “if you don’t have the seed…don’t even try”

I’d suggest when you draw, try to exaggerate certain features…almost like a caricature…if you want something aggressive draw it super sharp and pointy, and then tone it down in the next series of sketches…maybe.

Most designers will relate their form philosophy to specific things, including:

  • Semantic details (conventions/affordances)
  • Nature (those figure-sculpting classes ARE useful)
  • Capabilities or natural affordances of the material
  • Capabilities of the creative tool and method
  • Regional and Social aesthetic trends
  • Design history
  • Your own personal style or agenda

That last one is tricky… If you’re practicing User Centered Design, then you should be designing for them, not yourself. On the other hand, many designers seek to develop their own style in the quest to build their own “brand.” This can work, but is typically best practiced implicitly–ie. with a client that wants “you” and not the user. If you’re good, this can create those ever sought after intangible hit products that turn you into an instant celebrity. Steve Jobs allowed the talented but represeed Jonathan Ives do this when he took back the reigns, intentionally throwing out the focus-groups that consistantly gave them beige boxes and ran the company into the ground. The iMac was born and the rest is history.

Regarding process, most designers will explore the aesthetics at work in the industry and market in which they’re working. This is typically accomplished through style-boards first, then sketching.

although industrial dersign is based on artistic skills most of it however isn’t really art as we know from museums or art books or even art classes. the fundamental issue with design is material. that’s what seperates it from art.

some designers see material as a limit while others don’t.

those who see it as a limit have two options. one is to research the material and see what it can do or recreate using the same process that has been used to develop that material. then comes the question of relation and the flow chart for developing objects that maintain a balance between parts. some times these are divided into sub categories that include such subjects as ergonomics, color/texture, geometry, etc or other times they are injected into the design. the latter has gained substantial strength specially after late 80’s in the world of design, now it’s moving towards interaction and ephemeral cosmetic functions that might not even be there in the next version of a product. the evolution of design is something that no one can pedict as to exactly where it goes. for instance a lot of people thought that the objects we use will never disolve into each other. i remember before internet when i was talking to people about objects with multiple functions they would just laugh and say you’re talking about those transformer (or what ever it’s name was) japanese cartoons. now we see that toyota has introduced these robotic cars and at the same time creating a new form of design.

so it’s up to the designer to seek the output not to create an input necessarilly. most designers make a mistake of making the input their priority. and that’s when the get confused because those inputs essentailly function like rubber bands that will throw you even further back. the challenge to a designer is not the form but rather the output.

another reality is the psychological aspect of design which has become increasingly important in the new era of computer technology.

it used to be the object had a positive and a negative physical state where the space outside was strictly serving as a container. now we see this negative space coming to life as if it was dead and now is showing a presence. the object in that occupied the space formerly known as the positive space now has to etend itself into the negative space and satisfy all these new psychological/interactive formulas that have been created. these object do not resemble any other objects previously design, therefore the designer has to situate himself in a rather odd perspective to completely grasp every notion of this new existance. the more it gets ignored the less coherent the design.

finally it is crucial at this stage of design development to understand that we are living creatures and eventually will need designs that will fit better with our daily lives. a pretty object is just a pretty object but does it have anything to say when it comes to offering a solution. so the best idea for a designer in my opinion is to create the tools to test different hypotesis concerning a situation. these tools don’t have to be standards or somethings that will remain standard. the standard has to be created for the situation and to do so it must be filtered out as the best tool available just as you go and fix your car you can pick a plier instead of a wrench but is it really the best tool?

i think a lot of schools don’t teach these because we still don’t have individuals who agree on the same approaches or who are willing to advance these ideas into programs. to do so you need many things that ordinarilly aren’t provided in schools which is a set back both from an educational stand point and the industry.

Thank you all for your kind replies.

ufo, I understand that form is not everything, the main purpose why I chose this profession is to make products that really improve the people’s lifes. But I work now as a designer (mostly CAD monkey) and this particular skill (and sketching i think) is holding me back to find a better job.
cg, I think that it is a good list of how a form comes together. I think what I am looking for is the first two: semantics/semiotics and nature, but abstracted and suited for product design.

Of course I assume I have a talent inside me to have a sense of style, for example I think I have already a good understanding of graphic design.
However, just as a painter or sculptor learns from his masters about light, composition, perspective, colour,etc. I believe you can learn the basics about giving emotion to a form or speed, rythm, etc., but I just haven’t found it yet. Many people will say observe nature, other products, magazines, etc, but I’m too stubborn to accept that. If a graphic designer learns about composition, the effect of typefaces, what works, etc why can’t we learn something similar for 3D?
What about the students from Art Center? I hope they are reading this too, because I’m quite curious about what they learn there in Pasadena. I know they do a lot of exercises to make their arm a perfect drawing tool (I have a gnomon DVD from Scott Robertson). But I’m sure they will also learn 3d form development, not just by sketching what comes up in their minds, but with an underlying theory. Are their perhaps any Art Center books or does someone wants to share a handout about this subject?


I think you are focussing too much on finding the answer in a book. I can asure you it is not there. It is in your “designer eye” I for one agree slightly with the guest who posted first, however not so black and white.

CG and UFO are also giving great feed back. The most pleasing forms for product, transpertation, and even art work is a form that captures the emotion of the designer. It is simple yet complex all at the same time.

It can be learned, but I do not believe it can be taught. The best and only way to nurture and grow this skill is as you said, learn from a master like a painter. I have been trained as a designer and a fine artist so I speak from experiance here. The master does not teach the student, he mearly points him toward the correct path of experimentation, while offering feedback and assistance along the way to keep him on the right path.

Here is a suggestion CG, and UFO are you up to assisting on this? (read then reply here)

  1. Choose a product catagory you would like to work in.
  2. Choose a target end-user
  3. Prepare a lifestyle board for this user group. Images, words, song lerics, etc.
  4. Post an image of this on core under the works in progress section with a discription why you choose the images you did. I and hopefully more will comment on it to verify we feel you are on the right track.
  5. Develop a series of 10-20 quick 5-10 minute sketches depicting possible design direction. capture the motion and fluidness that this pace of sketching will invoke. An most importantly stay loose, not rulers templates, or elips guides…free, fluid, and flowing. Use elements from the lifestyles and preferances of the target users to derive your forms and language from.
  6. post these in the same thread, we will go from there.

This is how I learned. Juniors and Seniors were evenly dispersed into 3 studios. Then 3 days a week the classes were schedualed so that joth the juniors and seniors were in the studio for 5 hours at the same time. There were also weekly workshops were each studio meet to work on a joint project for our quarterly School of Art and Design shows. Not art center, just a state school cranking out designers for Frog, Gecco, HLB, Little tykes, Scarab Boats(sp?), Teams, Insight, Product Venture, and many others.

In addition to sketching, designers frequently verbalize forms…quite literally a “form language.” English speaking designers are likely to use words that belong to different categories than non-english speaking designers which partially contributes to different regional “form dialects.”

It’s also common for designers to make up their own vocabulary–frequently adding sound effects to verbalize forms. One of my favorite designers always made sound effects while he sketched. “pswer!” “zitzitzit” “wwrraang…”

ufo, I understand that form is not everything, the main purpose why I chose this profession is to make products that really improve the people’s lifes. But I work now as a designer (mostly CAD monkey) and this particular skill (and sketching i think) is holding me back to find a better job.


aside theoretical challenges that must be confronted by today’s designers who use form as a language, i don’t think there’s any secret rule or function that you can learn to improve your sketching skills.

if you want to know how i come up with my sketches, to tell you the truth, and you might not believe this, i become the object. in other words i personify the object as if it was the living creature me. so the object i design actually has an imaginary dna built from individual pieces of information. it’s a combination of brand development, new possible design ideas, new functions available through technology,optimal material and design, etc. or sometimes i get alead on certain aspect of an object and develop it through that dna piece and create a personality for it. this way the object aquires what i call validity or presence.

so sketching is just a tool to put these on paper as a whole. keep in mind that this is very different from creative sketching that is thaught in design schools like art center although those guys in art center pretty much have it down when it comes to technical aspects of sketching and model making. schools like art center can train you very well if you have what it takes to be a great sketcher , modelmaker, and conceptual designer. but i think most of the students finishing art center still have to go through many years of experience to capture the reality because there’s huge gap between reality and conceptual design.

and finally correct me if i’m wrong, but it seems that you’re going the wrong direction. i’m afraid you have mistaken good sketching skills with good design sketching. i don’t know whether i should say fortunately or unfortunately, but i sorta understand what you are trying to say. the glamorous aspect of design emphasizing on good presentation skills. i %100 agree on that because nobody is willing to see a bad sketch, hand illustration or model presentation. but keep in mind a lot of really good drawings simply fall apart once presented to clients because they fail to meet the reality out there.

looking at it simply as sketching, the only thing that will help you improve that particular skill is practice and more practice.

Play around with paper, cardboard, different types of clay, cloth, coathangers, foam, etc. Experiment, try to make something beautiful and why you think it is. Its best to make things that most people think are beautiful but its hard find out, but you need to know what is. Also spend some time trying to make something that is completely ugly designers . And so on.
Good luck!

Like most things in life, I think it’s 90% training and 10% born talent.

Be more analytical of the products’ forms around you, comparing what makes one better than the other. Do this over and over and over and I think anyone can develope forms. Most people (even some designers) just don’t take the time to really analyze what’s already out there. Cutting and pasting pretty pictures isn’t enough.

another point. before sketching you need visualization. visualization is a process in which the idea finds semi-realistic status. if you can visualize something but can’t put it on paper you need to either find similar objects or break it down to components and design those components individually.

let’s say you want to visualize a shoe, but you don’t know where to start. you have an idea of the strap mechanism and style but you don’t know where to locate it to give the design the best look and functiuonality. so you design the strap individually and you work on it as if it was an independent component and actually the whole shoe! once you establish this detail you go to other parts. for instance it could be the heel, the front, the sole, or some traction element, even color or texture. but you have to go through it using a certain logic.

most designers i have seen first thing they do they sketch a foot as if there’s this barefoot guy looking for a shoe. that’s completely wrong in modern design. it’s not the correct approach. you’re not a shoe maker- you’re a shoe designer. there’s a big difference.

same with automobiles. i see most designers start with a perspective drawing. that’s absolutely wrong. not only it doesn’t make sense to sketch a car like it’s a fruit but it will cause great frustration and burden when it come to explaining things to engineers and model makers.

so a designer’s palette is not just a pallette of surfaces and curves. it’s a pallette of ideas which no software or pencil can offer.

Hmm… I’m not sure if I agree with you, ufo. Isn’t it more important that you design the over all shape first and then fill in the (technical) details? Like a scuplture…but you know I’m not very good in that :blush:

ML, I like your proposal. I was thinking about possible projects for this, a simple product,not too technical or ergonomic but mostly aesthetics.
Some examples:
sports stopwatch

you name it I’ll design it :smiley: !

Ok lets take a look at what we have.

sports stopwatch: I think this is the strongest of the suggestions. Offers new interface, technology, function, and form options.

toaster: My own personal bias clouds this one, I think it is too over done in classroom assignments. Sort of like the mousetrap in ME introduction classes.

watercooker: another strong product catagory. Strong form relationships could be drawn from multiple elements of the process.

flashlight: A little less interesting than the cooker of watch in terms of form relationships. However, by working in new tech or a very targeted user group this could be interesting.

thermometer: just not feeling it, what were your thoughts on this?

Choose the one you are most interested in pursueing. But first, think of the projects in terms of end-product…(What does the product accomplish?)
Toster…a device for heating and toasting of breads, beagles, and muffins
Flashlight…a methode of delivering artificial light to a directed or semi-directed location.

Next steps
Choose one, determin a target user demographic, and compile a userboard.

Look at the purpose of the device, the way it will function, ellements of the activity that relate to natural ellements. Speed…Wind…Motion…

now sketch visualizing these elements and how they relate to the device, user-interface, and function.

UFO is correct if you interperet his writing to say that each product has an idealized view. Meaning that each product has a specific viewpoint from which it is most often viewed. This is the reason why most shoe/skate designers I know concept in photoshop and illustrator in a straight on side view. Forinstance I would begin developing the form for a conventional watch while looking directly at the face. However is the watch was ment to be a completly organic form offering multiple display points I would start in perspective.

I do have an issue with his statement on automotive design. The highly stylized and exagerated design that we see most often the initail concept sketches. These sketches are pinned up with possibly 100+ other sketches. To stand out the purpose of these sketches is to capture an emotional reaction from the selection commities, after all automobiles/motorcycles are purchased on an “Image” or emotional level. This is the reason why they start out in perspective, and no other format would be as impactfull. These are far from depicting an actual car/bike they only are supposed to capture the basic “what if styling”.

A lot of awesome suggestions in here:

A few of my personal methods:

There is a FUNCTION to form. That function is to communicate to the consumer, what can it comunicate: The function of the product, the value of the product (Dualit Toaster versus toastmaster), the philosophy of the company (philips vs sony) to name just a few

Get your overal PROPORTIONS correct before doing any detailing. You must have a rational scaling of elements. I’ve seen busses that where so obviously designed in 1/8th scale, the scale of the forms are all off.

Focus down the visual CONTENT. The design should have a consice theme. There should be a heirarchy to the details and all of the details should relate to the overal form.

While BEAUTY is highly subjective there are great commonalities. FGor example most of us will agree we are not attracted to people with huge warts on their noses. Don’t make your stuff ugly just to be different… unless you want to design the next Saturn Ion.

Study of the human body in perspective, classical to modern architecture, and little car maodles helped me. Try looking at the things around you as if it where for the first time and be critical of those things. Think of ways to make them visually more beautiful, simplified in form contact, have better proportion and communicate more to the user.

it seems that design approach in automotive design is a controversial subject specially now that computers play a major role whether analog, scale, digital, or 3dmechanical.

i think designers have a good bundle of choices to start with but does starting a project simply as a sculptural form or pespective drawing has any advantage over what you might consider to be a design value.

what is the overall value of a sculpture. is it to please the eye, make a statement, be different, hint at a direction,etc.

first, i think we should look at the history of car design.

automobile design has gone from cars that had only an engine, a seat and wheels to modern 700hp tuned cars. at some point aerodynamically designed cars came into category mainly race cars and exotics. i think most of the so called sculpturally designed cars come post WWII era because there was a vast market for automobiles and every car company was looking to impress the buyer with something other than pure aerodynamics- mainly the brand and what identified the car as the product of a certain comapny.

i think what really took place was the expansion of brands each carrying many models or trying to create a market for it. the most recent ones include things like mini vans, suvs, and the latest wannabe cars.

going back to the subject of sculpture, it’s very easy to see now that these cars didn’t start as sculptures or as a concept driven by sculptural necessities. these cars were created because there was a market for them so the sculptural look of these cars was created to match the other cars in the line or to beat the competition.

so far so good but how should a car designer see this process. should it be left alone to ride it’s own path as it has in the past or is there a better way to do this.

i’m sure most of it is not due to styling constraints rather the market and technology. to understand styling purely based on market in my opinion is wrong and that’s what sculptural design really means. it means you sculpt or draw a perspective to grab the attention of marketing and to compete with other cars in the market. of course you need to juggle with it but what about the design. do we go to school for whatever number of years to just learn to draw a perspective or make a scale model of this great sculpture on wheels? i think no :exclamation:.

forgot to log in-

the post above is mine.

i had problems logging in- :laughing:

Hi guys,

I want to let you know that I found a project which is a good one for this thread. It is an internal competition for my old school.
The project in short:
Design enhanced loudspeakers for japanese teenagers, mostly girls, with low-cost technology. They can be mobile, hybrid (e.g. in a cushion, cd player) or stand alone. But… showing my ideas before the deadline (10th novembre) isn’t such a good idea i think, so for this thread I think it’s cool to design my first suggestion (i’ll post the speaker design after the deadline):

Sports stopwatch
brand: Puma (retro, style, cool, finally something else then Nike)
specific sport: running
user group: professional coaches, age 24-60
market: Europe & USA

What do you think?


Sounds like a plan.