Practising 2D Aesthetics skills

I’ve got a bit of a weird realisation. I think it usually happens the other way, however I’m wondering if everyone has a thought on it.

tl;dr question - How do you ‘learn’ aesthetic styling’?

Backstory -
I’m studying an mechanical engineering and industrial design course. At the moment I feel that my strengths are in fusing the two skills sets to innovate (proving concepts), rather than stylise (aesthetics) or realise (engineering). Bold statement, but I know that in the workforce I’m going to need all skills, so I have to start to get onto it. So step 1 is to get onto sketching (as it’s the weakest).

I bought myself a Cintiq to quickly get confident at sketching (controversial I know, but its my own personal experiment if learning to draw with an ‘undo button’ can translate slowly into real sketching skills, especially if I am able to actually reach a completed sketch.). I noticed that I’m doing pretty well at rendering technical designs. I could render all my functional components, which is meaning that the drawing skills is coming along. However I noticed that once I had done all the mechanics, I tried to draw a new form to enclose it. Being a new item that doesn’t have real legacy design directions, I found it really hard to give it a nice form. The issue is no longer ‘rendering’ - its very much ‘stylising’.

Thinking about it now, I love 3D prototyping. In most models I’ve built, I’ve usually given things aesthetics through blue foam/expandafoam (really great when you have a refined engineering solution that just needs a case)… but it hasn’t seem to have translated into 2D. At work, I’ve also noticed that I can rationalise what I like in design (surfaces, body lines, etc), both in clay and in 2D sketches. So its not that I don’t know what is ‘favourable aesthetics’, its more I can’t seem to produce 2D forms which look good.

As an engineer, I love back story to aesthetic design. Think about Dyson forms - although a designer would have had much input to it’s aesthetics, its functional forms create it’s aesthetics, and it’s colours accompany it. I love it, but some people definitely say it’s an unpolished, mechanical appearance that isn’t good aesthetics compared to a clamshell, slick vacuum cleaner. So is it just a taste issue?

Question - How do you practise your 2D aesthetic skills? Is it something that comes with confidence of sketching, or is it something that is personal taste, and I should head towards that?

I always think these are interesting posts.

My perspective on this is always to truly look at the things around you. Look at things you like as well as things you don’t. Understand why you think good things are good and bad things are bad.

I’m typing this on my iPad. At first glance it is just a rounded rectangle. Look closer and you will notice the metal frame in top view slightly chamfers back. Controls are perfectly centered on the side view’s flat surface and are all made up of perfect circles and pill shapes. Beautiful.

Look at all types of design to understand how harmony is achieved using different types of forms. Check out Sam Hecht, Dieter Rams, and Naoto Fukasawa for super minimal design. Look at Karim Rashid and Jayme Hayon to see how they use organic Forms. Look at furniture. Look at sports cars. Look at architecture. Look at pottery. Seek these things out. Get your hands on fukasawa’s plus minus zero collection so you can feel the part lines and rounds. Go to a furniture store so you can feel Hayon’s AQH collection. Shoot, hit up the apple store and check out the Beats By Dre headphones and compare them to the Bowers and Wilkins p5. Then form your own point of view.

Which leads me to my last point. I think designers should have a style it gives them point of view. If I needed a super clean toaster I would hire Sam Hecht. Ultimately, creating beautiful things is our job. We better have our own definitions of “beautiful.”


Sketching is the expression of a formal idea not the idea itself. So if you don’t have the sensitivity to the manifestation of the idea, sketching well won’t help. That said, to learn how to sketch, you also must learn how to see beyond the visual shorthand our minds tend to down res real things to (as David pointed out all the easily overlooked details on an iPad). Sketching, model making, going to art museums, reading art criticism, and simply studying the world 24/7 certainly helps. As does dropping the term styling from you vocabulary. Styling has a perception of low value, but tapping into desire, cultural relevance, and our shared human lexicon has an almost limitless value. Understanding how to manipulate the fabric culture weaves through and playing with semantics is the function of form.

You are not going to learn this is an engineering program and it will be almost impossible to learn on your own, as it has to do with our connection to others. Imagine trying to learn a language strictly from books, never having heard anyone speak it… on that level of difficulty. Right now you are trying to learn Italian in a German speaking environment.

Does that mean that when ‘designers’ sketch, they already have something in mind? Rather than what I am doing, which is experimenting with different strokes which might land onto ‘something’.

I feel like many of the nuances that David is talking about is very familiar - I think I could ‘rationalise’ a piece of design to break it down into why it looks good. I could replicate that in 3D, but replicating all these details into a form on paper, is quite another thing. It’s almost like what you’re talking about - perhaps I have read the dictionary and understand the words, but forming my own sentences is a whole other ballgame. A new question emerges- is my understanding of sketching limiting the transition of aesthetics skills in 3D to 2D? Will it just be a comfort thing?

Perhaps its down to figuring ‘my style’ (may it be technical-appearing) like David suggests. And unfortunately the reality is that its not easy to develop unique forms, and everything needs to always be referenced from somewhere. And the ‘style’ is basically where the references are so blurred that they are no longer the original person’s style.

I just visited the BMW museum this weekend, they had a video playing next to a full size clay model, discussing the translation from the 2D work and tape drawings to the 3D model. There is a discovery aspect of working in 3D. The clay model is brought to reality by in-house trained modelers who work with the 2D designer and discover the final form. In complex shapes, you cannot anticipate all of the shape interactions while sketching or rendering a form. Even at the top of the styling food chain, transportation, this is true.

In 2D work, you discover the form as well, noticing a proportion, noting the effect of shortening, lengthening, making convex or concave any given area. A design emerges after a series of sketches and explorations. As yo points out though, the sketch is just the idea made concrete, it is important to have a mental library objects, museums, exhibitions, books, things around you. All of the things David mentioned are right on.

I think it is almost opposite. The 3D benefits from the freedom of the 2D exploration. Which is why we do it first. Working yourself in both dimensions, like it sounds that you are, is a huge advantage.

Great question.

The planarity of a piece of paper or a screen doesn’t mean a drawing is truly “2D”. You use perspective, shadows or hidden lines (in technical drawings) etc. So, it’s still as 3D as your imagination.
As long as you’re in progress creating something, as an engineer it’s absolutely OK to draw schematics and details in raw strokes, either for yourself or to discuss them with your colleagues. You should be able to draw a straight lines and conic sections (all of that 1st semester engineering stuff) without causing too much pain to viewers, but the aesthetic value to “outsiders” is almost unimportant in this phase. When everything comes near completion (presentation), you likely have to prepare all of that CAx stuff anyway.

In reading yo’s response earlier I realized I didn’t really answer the question, but I’m glad it seems as though it has led to some discussion.

Does that mean that when ‘designers’ sketch, they already have something in mind? Rather than what I am doing, which is experimenting with different strokes which might land onto ‘something’.

This is absolutely the case for me. It comes from years of studying what is around me. I always say I have a built in Rolodex of favorite designs, surface finishes, material combinations, construction methods, etc that I can “pull from” when designing. Going back to the language metaphor, it is almost as though you need to have a great vocabulary and understanding of construction to be a great writer. If you take the time to build your vocabulary, the words (concept sketches) will just flow onto the paper. The vocabulary you use in designing a high performance athletic shoe will differ from the vocabulary you use when designing dj headphones or a chair. Further, the vocabulary you use when designing athletic shoes for Nike will be different than that of the vocabulary you use when designing athletic shoes from adidas. This is all intuition and training yourself to see and communicate proportion.

More and more I’m finding one of the first sketches I make after reading a brief is what gets made. I credit this to the huge Rolodex that is stored in my head.


I’m glad you followed up with more questions, as I said earlier, these thoughts are challenging to articulate. It has been healthy for me to try.

Thanks again.


It feels like you’re speaking about personalised design language. That makes a lot of sense. It helps for semantics and specifics, but what about forms without an archetype?
Its such a bizarre concept that you draw something in your mind - it means that you’ve already got whatever you’ve got in mind, and just need to communicate it. I really like the idea that a sketch is an idea cemented - i guess any ‘record’ (let it be expensive to make as a prototype or cheap like a sketch) is what teachers are looking for.

I was watching BBC’s “The Genius of Design”. Some really good relatable quotes Quoting J.Mays
“Design is not an analytical process, it’s an emotional process”. “It is a given that we want to be best in class in terms of fuel efficiency, safety. My role is very different. I’m kind of the adolescent in the room. How do we make a thrilling product, once the requirements have been met?”. The commentary goes on to say "To designers, the chassis is the platform, which exists to support the design. To engineers, designers… style, sometimes pronounced “packaging”.
Mays continues - "in the 60’s, engineers were the ones who ‘designed the cars’, and designers would be call upon to make the cars ‘less ugly’. "

I guess his little rolodex of design ideas is probably what makes him able to pick the right design aesthetics for Ford.

I was lucky to be able to witness clay modellers do that to a sketch where I last intern-ed. Very broadly speaking, from what I observed automotive designers are briefed on what type of car they are replacing (giving them some functional benchmarks), and off they go. They would go at it for weeks, just sketching lots of different body/fascia concepts. Bar some functional requirements (wheels, grille, steering wheel and sometimes cut lines, all things which probably defines the ‘current’ automobile design), its a purely aesthetic ‘problem’ that I can’t seem to get my head around. It truly baffles me how people can just ‘start sketching’ forms like that. Give me a piece of clay of the architecture requirements and some extra clay and I’ll be comfortable give you something that probably looks good. Give me a sketchbook afterwards and I render that and then add some details. Its almost the inverted process.

Now is that a comfort issue to sketching, or an aesthetic creativity issue? And thats probably the crux of the original post. How do people ‘practise design aesthetics, especially in 2D’? Knowing that everyone can learn to draw, I’m reluctant to accept that its a simple case of “maybe I’m just not suited for it”. Perhaps its all a bit of ‘analysis paralysis’ of the engineering mind which limits the creative mind. But the ID creativity fuels the engineering through simple lateral thinking.

Aesthetics is only one point among maybe 40 categories of design needs. Underestimating or ignoring any of these needs will raise costs, shorten the product’s lifetime or will render it useless. So, if it seems that some designers can create something “out of thin air”, that simply is not the case. They are maybe very experienced and know the constraints instinctively but this does not mean there are none. It is maybe the same thing with all categories of “common” products if designers stick to them: headphones, running shoes,…
I also think the car designer’s example is a bad one because car design is supervalued: neither the technology varies significantly nor dimensions and other constraints do.

I watched the very same BBC documentary some minutes ago and must state that I agree mostly with my fellow countryman, interior designer Dieter Rams. But maybe that’s a German point of view, because here most interior designers who graduated before the term “design” was assimilated into the German language with its internationally orientated “aesthetics-first” meaning, were/are in fact fully qualified (and later specialized) construction engineers (Dipl.-Ing.).

Perhaps I should take a step back and look at another profession. Imagine graphic design, and you’ve got a brief for looking at a poster design, say, for a concert for a band that doesn’t have any brand identity. Your poster has to say the event, the time, the place. Those are they only words that need to be there, and your brief is to design a ‘conventional poster’. (I’m trying to throw out all the chances of innovation, and just focus on aesthetics). Placement is none of your business (say it’s framed in a box on the street). Printing is paid for (coloured, paper picked, etc). Other details… all done. Now just make the poster.

You have your function, now all you need is to create your form.
Now for the same amount of information, there is a whole bunch of fonts, images, etc. there are countless ways of going about it. Some people are better at making visually pleasing poster designs more than others, however everyone starts at he same place (zero).

Now bring it back to 3D form, industrial design. If you are aware of your physical constraints, all is left is a somewhat arbitrary design to package around your function. (Functional aesthetics isn’t countered in order to make this scenario clearer).

Before I seem overly shallow and simplistic, I totally understand that there are heaps of factors which determine a final design (manufacturing, semantics, ergonomics, etc). On a conceptual level to show off the function, some of them are less meaningful than the function itself. (Think about any industry concept product, like concept cars (which cost millions per each), concept mobile technology (which may just be a hard model and a CGI video).

I’m looking for suggestions in order to design things which have no pre-existing forms. But imagine designing a juicer for the first time today

In this day and age where aesthetics can be designed right into products inherently, there is no reason why it couldn’t have been like this in the first place (with the proper R&D and understanding of mechanics)

Now I know I’m really lucky that I’m finishing formal education in both mechanical and aesthetic design. And coming up with solving issues isn’t the problem (like getting juice out of an orange). However packaging it something with an intentional aesthetic (styled, not functional)… that’s something else. So I’m curious, with no other considerations except packaging, and foregoing a ‘shrinkwrapped’ aesthetics, how do some of you tackle these issues? Someone’s gotta do it. :slight_smile:

(If you need another example, look at Dyson’s g-force or DC01, and look at an industrial cyclonic dust extractor)