Do the tools we use to design affect the design?

Here’s something I’ve been thinking of lately. How do the tools (or methods) we use to design affect the outcome of the final design/product?

Consider the following-

  1. Back in the days before computers it was almost impossible to get a multi-surfaced product made. Continuous surfaces would be almost impossible to draw by pen and paper CAD methods and the only really way was to carve a clay model. As such, also given production methods, very few consumer products (maybe except for some furniture and cars) had complex surfaces. Think of any of the 60’s pop design items (mostly basic shapes like spheres and circles and such) or modernist stuff (mostly boxes with radii). even further back, things were pretty geometrical or had curves only in one direction (such as a lot of deco stuff).

  2. Then computers started to be used. At first they were pretty rudimentary in terms of CAD capability. Think of 70’s stuff where most of the forms where very rectangular and geometric. Then 80’s where there was a lot more radii and edge treatments applied, but still pretty geometric (think original macintosh). Then in the 90’s or so, surface models started to be used and there was a huge influx of more complex overly surfaced things where every surface had a crown or some such treatment (think original imac, though the style started a lot earlier).

  3. Nowadays, there is both complex CAD that can handle surfaces and a lot of designers use this tool. I also seem to note that sketches and marker (or SBP) seem to somehow be more “prized” and put on a pedestal, compared to earlier when they were more tools to get things done. From this, I notice two things-
    A.) a lot of CAD only designs are made that have overly crazy surface treatments, because you can.
    B.) a lot of designers who maybe don’t use CAD but primarily sketch (and are good at it), design everything with crowns and bulbous feet, projections on everything, because it looks cooler in a sketch than something straight. I’d almost put everything in ID mag and from any of the large studios in this category.

My biggest beef (that started this tangent of though) is that often what looks good in a sketch isn’t so hot in real life. Maybe it’s just me with my minimal and modernist tendencies, but I hate crowned surfaces and superfluous surfacing. But sketching a square rectangle (like the original ipod or anything from Dieter Rams) just looks silly unless you draw it always orthographically (or, ironically do it straight in CAD from the start).

I dunno, maybe I’m way outta whack here or just a Dieter Rams fanboy, but I’m starting to loathe all the random surfacing and such going on in design today.

So the question begs - Does reverence of sketches or using CAD (or any other tool) affect the final design aesthetic?


What about real-world design refinement - hand models?

I know of one design consultancy that does multiple design models in their early concept reviews, partly to differentiate themselves (I think), and partly to get past that hot-sketch-but-not-so-hot-product disconnect…

They way it works, as I understand, is that at their first client meeting, they have 6-10 well hand-modeled concepts, no drawings. The drawings are for getting ready for the hand models, taking notes, and internally refining shapes. I think I would miss the etherial emotion of a concept sketch, but it is very telling of what the client would get in the end.

Another thing I have noticed in my limited consultancy experience, is that because of the cost the models are very sporadically used - you sometimes have one chance to get the design right. In my corporate experience, you can do multiple models, refining the shapes in each pass, which I personally think is the better way to do things if you can afford the time/cost

Overall, I agree, that sometimes drawings can unrealistically show a product looking really good, when either the surfaces can’t be kept as designed or the internals won’t fit as imagined. There always seem to be surprises when you take a sketch to a model, and sometimes with the unexpected engineering changes that can happen, you can be re-doing a cad model over and over to keep it looking nice - I can’t imagine many engineers having the stamina to re-do models over and over just to keep aesthetics at 100%

anyway, I think that was along the lines of your post

good post about hand models. Unfortunately I think they often go on the same path as especially now they are often created from CAD geometry which causes the same over surfacing. Dunno, but maybe this is more a rant on common design trends vs. modernism and rectilinear forms vs. surfacing, but still I think even if you were sanding a block of foam more often than not you’d come up with some overly surfaced form. Hence the prevalence of “worn soap block” designs even before the CAD revolution.
Even in your note about

The drawings are for getting ready for the hand models, taking notes, and internally refining shapes.

I think the same process still applies. Sketches are used for looking at form, and roundy form looks better in sketches…


“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” as Marshall McLuhan said.

I think there’s no doubt that the premise of your argument is right, the tools we use affect the designs we create. When I was still in college I had one tutor who forced us to use non-traditional (in a designer sense) tools and materials to design with - charcoal, oil pastel, watercolour etc. The texture of the paper, the intensity of colour, the accuracy of lines, the scale you have to draw at, even the time it takes to produce an image, all have an effect on the design. It’s why comments such as “CAD is just a tool” are so reductive.

But at the same time I think the argument is not quite as simple as you suggest. The Modernist machine aesthetic you describe in point 1 was a result of what mass production machines liked to produce at that time: flat planes, circular radii, ‘simple’ geometries. The CAD that we use as designers has developed in parallel with CAM, which means that not only can we easily design curvature continuous surfaces, we can also make them. So we’re still following Modernist rules (design things that can be easily produced by machine) it’s just that what machines like to make has changed. Even the iPhone you mention has complex curves across the back and transitioning into the sides.

As designers, most of us have been taught that those Modernist forms are the height of good taste, and so we have difficulty seeing that perhaps that isn’t a universal truth, it’s just a product of its time in the same way that Greek Classicism or Gothic ornamentation were. As the means of production develop designers explore and push the boundaries of what is possible - look at the trend which Tord Boontje epitomised a few years ago which only became possible through laser cutting technologies. So yes, the forms you describe are a result of the tools designers have, but also a result of the fact that they can actually be produced. If CAD existed, but CAM didn’t, maybe we’d only be seeing these forms in CGI effects on screen.


I remember discussing something smilar with another designer about Carl Liu’s sketches for astro, rediculously hot sketching ability but the end result tended to be somewhat of a let down compared to the sketch the main annoyance in this we concluded was because of poor choice of materials and finish.

I dont think this has really anything to do with curved forms looking better in a sketch , you yourself admitted to liking some of MD’s sketches and I recon this is because most of them are good design and a good foundation to build upon. Regardless of them being curved or not. Also should be taken into account that the life in those sketches is fantastic which is alot easier to acheive constructing of an elipse. IMO the better ones on that image are the ones which aren’t bean like.

I should also add that I think sketches and markers are put on a pedastool only by students. Lets be honest we can all look past the sketch. It’s the same when you apply for a job yeah great sketching ability but your designs are dreadfull. If you have a fantastic sketching ability coupled with great design mind brialliant thats why yourself, MD and Blaster have made it. But imo the individual sketch is worth very little in bigger picture (the act of sketching and being able to do it well is however priceless).

Should also add if you the Koss Eissen Sketching book there are plenty of rectangular forms in there which look great.

Just because we can use tools such to build free flowing G2 surfaces doesnt mean we should, our tools don’t dictate the design, we do. It’s our responsibility to have a vision and stick to it.

I actually can’t think of any design that is overly surface for the sake of it (bar lovegrove who doesn’t count) would be interesting to see wan example of over surfaced design in prodcution and the sketches to go with it if possible.

Hence why I think your right in your last post its more discussing modernism and rectlinear forms vs surfacing. Personal opinion I cant stand that B&O phone looks horrendously disjointed to me (although nice idea with what looks like pen pad.) and as mentioned i cant stand Lovegroves 60’s lava lamp style of design. However that said I am a massive fan of Industrial design facility’s work (The laci hard drive is sweet ) and Naoto fukasawa who combine the two but in a smart and detailed way.

Very rectangular forms couple with subtle rads. Its the attention to detail that makes it good design for me. those rads are just right and not overly in your face. Comapred back to that B&O and i think that little attention to detail has actially gone into it. (probably has but doesn’t give that impression). Likewise The iphone isn’t actually rectangular it has very organic back if closely examine it, it is something that is overlooked until pointed out. I read somewhere from teague how they spent hours on the Rads for one of their projectures (which was essentially a round rectangle)

Which brings me back to the sketch, a sketch with carefully placed rounds look great, bean shapes dont.

Think i’ve gone of on a tangent myself but hope that adds something to the discussion

I think it is about restraint and you can do anything with any tool if you are good enough with that tool. I feel like I can sketch any “style” in a way that conveys the gesture of what I’m thinking

Richard, I do mind the example, because, 1 you are saying my designs are not hot in real life? and 2, the particular example you selected is 8 years old… do me a favor, don’t use me in any examples of bad good design :slight_smile:

Here is one from this year. Rectilinear is just as easy to sketch as stuff with crowns. Control people.

Click to enlarge.

Good discussion so far. I’d like to inject a tangent here regarding one thing I’ve noticed in particular concerning complex “overdesigned” forms. Sometimes, it feels like clients expect something highly complex and over designed from “designers.” Their engineers can create boxes with radii and unless they see something completely obscene, it’s like they aren’t getting their monies worth. Many times, the subtleties of a simple, clean design is lost- a good example being the teague projector. Those are not simply tangent arc corners- anyone could do that. There is complexity in simple done well that is hard to communicate to non-designers through sketches and renderings. But when the product hits the shelf, the difference is painfully obvious.

I guess what I’m saying is, do you think the fact that we have all these tools to create highly complex forms, there is pressure to get the most out of them? I find myself sometimes having assure clients that it is okay to show some restraint.

I thought you posted this thread because of this drawing on the Core Blog. At first, I was thinking, “MAN…that is a hot printer/fax/copier thingie”. Then, as I looked longer, I realized it probably would look not that much better than anything else on the market, it’s just the drawing that is hot.

That’s the problem I see with drawings. A good artist can make very vanilla concepts (not that my example is) look very exciting. It’s good for sales, but bad for selecting the strongest design. With almost all projects, I will make physical models. I think it’s the only way to really verify the design.

As for tools effecting design, yeah, of course they do. We’ve discussed this before. From talking to old timers though, designers have always been hard headed and will find ways to make a product no matter how difficult they are to make with their tools.

good discussion going on here. some interesting points.

Yo, sorry if I offended you at all, I didn’t mean anything by it. I’ve taken out your sketch example. :slight_smile:

Ya, I know that of course rectilinear things can also be drawn well, it’s perhaps just a personal feeling in seeing so many overdesigned products with superflous co-moulded santoprene grips, crowns and all, that doesn’t jive with my own likes often.

Another example perhaps of the sketch process lying is maybe car design. Pretty much every car sketch looks hot, even for an econo-box when drawn in fancy rendering style, exaggerated perspective and with 20" rims… Very rarely do you see more accurate sketches (though of course they are done along with realistic CAD and models).

In any case, it’s just been something I’ve been thinking of lately and by no means is my theory well formed, it’s just that a theory so I thought I would throw it out there…

Also thanks sketchme for the Industrial Design Facility mention. I’ve never heard of them but love the stuff. I have that Neil Poulton Hardrive, and it’s awesome. Almost got that Muji CD player too, except who uses CD’s anymore?

benny, your point about using the full capacity of the tools might be onto something along with the client expectation thing. I’ve run into the same thing doing a lot of graphics where the right solution was something minimal, maybe just a wordmark in Helvetica, but the client wanted all kinds of crazy gradients and special effects just because it’s possible.

Keep the comments coming. I always enjoy more in depth discussions like this on core!


Lots of things affect it, drawings, presentation ability, preconceptions, etc.
Lots of designers have to essentially sell “the sketch” before going to the next phase. Lots of well designed products won’t look very hot in a sketch and have to be made more dramatic to look nice (to sell the sketch). Also there’s the factor of who is doing the presenting, their reputation, etc…
I point to the ipod with my students all of the time. If a young designer was working on a project and threw up a basic sketch of an ipod, rounded rectangle, square screen, round button in the middle that magically does everything…that guy probably wouldn’t last very long and the client probably wouldn’t even see that sketch from (randomly high percentage #) of design firms.
And people have a tendency to find the beauty in the design of someone who is already popular as opposed to an unknown.

The tools you use shouldn’t affect the design of the product ideally but having to make the sale to stay employed often means changing the design to cater to those other factors. There’s ideal design in a “perfect world” bubble, then there’s “real design” that has to take all of those other constraints into consideration and do the best with what they have.

I think it takes time to understand this, this is why kids with hot hands right out of college should not be promoted too quickly to senior designer, and why 25 year olds are not design directors typically. Really understanding the product takes a lot of mentoring and experience… at least it did for me.

A hot sketch is definitely part of the process, but it is not the end of it, and as designers, we need to be able to separate the skill from the design. With my teams I’ve had to coach around some really hot sketches of bad design… I stop them before they hit marketing where they tend to pick up an unstoppable amount of steam. Sometimes what makes them look good, weird proportions, over detailing and so on, is exactly what makes them a bad product, but more often than not, and equally compelling sketch can be done of tasteful good design.

well said. All totally true. I remember when was once young and fresh and had a manager put it bluntly- "we are in the business of making shoes, not sketches. "

I guess bottom line is that’s it’s important to understand sketches or any other tool (cad, sketching or modelling are all tools) are all a means to the end (product) and there are certain inate things in each process that can bias it one direction or another…


I thought this would give some contrast, a scribble used to conceptualize a world-class building… at least it’s not a balled up piece of paper, I’ve heard he uses those too

Seriously though, great discussion topic… these comments stand out to me

Sometimes what makes them look good, weird proportions, over detailing and so on, is exactly what makes them a bad product, but more often than not, and equally compelling sketch can be done of tasteful good design.

Lots of well designed products won’t look very hot in a (“simple”) sketch and have to be made more dramatic to look nice (to sell the sketch)

… ridiculously hot sketching ability but the end result tended to be somewhat of a let down compared to the sketch… we concluded was because of poor choice of materials and finish.

A big part of what we do is the business of persuasion. Persuading people to buy the product. You might say persuading people to look at things differently. Persuading people to produce the design.

Product concepts are no different and you often need to steer the client to the best design with what you present to them… to me that means not sketching up concepts that will look bad when produced, and if you sketch something great - make sure it gets made properly

This is an excellent way to put it and I think you answered your own question. I will add 2 things though and first is that the designer has to become aware that the tools are driving the design not the mind. I think your old manager helped spark that awareness. And 2 is not to lose sight of the fact that many of these tools are designer’s “bankable” skillsets and it is important to use them on a level that other disciplines in your organization cannot which can help to distinguish your role as a designer.

Sketching, surface modeling, rendering, and model making are the obvious skillsets of a designer, they’re the visual results of a process, thought, or system, and are easy to use to distinguish a designer from say, a marketing person. But in this discussion I haven’t seen much mention of design thinking as tool as well. There are some designers who’s vis-comm skills have a lot to be desired, but the way they solve problems (or direct others to solve problems) goes far beyond the potency of a hot sketch.

This reminds me of a meeting I had yesterday with one of our China supplier around his creative support. The problem basically being that we are not getting from him what we give him meaning if we give him a drawing he comes back with something completely different. So we had a face to face meeting with him to bring this up and he shows up with a recent college grad. He then introduces them to us as his Creative Director. We all look at each other like how can you be a Creative Director with no experience?

I totally agree that sometimes hot sketches are just that hot sketches and hot renderings are hot renderings. I will also admit that I have fallen in the trap in my earlier years of showing something to marketing and the later when we go to make it a reality it misses the mark and is not as exciting as the sketch. Now we mock-up everything before going forward to marketing. This is easy for us as it is packaging and most of it is paper. This concept can also apply to graphics. What looks great flat may not translate well when it is folded up into a box. I encourage all of our new art to be either placed on a 3D model or a physical mock created.

I think the bottom line is like said before. They are tools and when used properly they can create great design, but when used poorly the create…well you know…garbage. I think the fact that the tool are evolving and allowing us to push ourselves further is a good thing. With out this ID and IDer would not evolve. I think this has been the case through out the history of Industrial Design and will continue to be. We are a group of people that try to better every product we work on so why shouldn’t our tool improve as well.

Sometimes, just “making the sale” ends up taking priority over the quality of the design for whatever reasons (business, client relations, money, etc…)

This is all so true and something we all need to get over early in our career.

I’m convinced that tools affect what we design.

Take architecture: Consider on the left London’s NatWest tower, designed in the late '60s by men who smoked pipes and wore hats. They sat at parallel motion desks, used slide-rules, and validated structure by thumbing through dog-eared engineering tables. The concept was a simple extrusion of the NatWest logo.

On the right is the Swiss Re building, designed by, well, architects and engineers, wearing headphones, (probably listening to Amon Tobin), and pumping CAD on flat screen monitors. (The “concept” was evidently a familiar vegetable…)
Industrial Design has been historically reliant on the same dependencies: up to the '80s either a drawing board (geometric thinking) or a tub of American Wax (hands-on sculpting of automotive forms). IBM can thank the advent of foam-core board for helping to model the controlled 2D radiussing on their PCs of the period, followed by the mass adoption of modeling foams in the late '80s and '90s, which with packages like Vellum gave us that '90’s “crowning” and “superfluous surfacing” language.

As for sketching influencing design language- I’ve worked with a well known designer mentioned earlier up the thread who’s sketching is far from heroic- He’d go straight to the shop with a grubby drawing and start crafting foam right at the beginning of the process.

It’s got to be the core idea that counts. The process will inevitably involve chasing pixels around a monitor at some point, but the Wanders, Gehrys, Fukaswawas, Bouroullecs, Ives and Morrisons of this world will be remembered for ideas that surpass tools.