So how do you teach drawing in design school?

Kevin O’Neil for the

I am currently reading this book – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – and making very little progress. The stones, the smoke, the wall, the stray cat and well all the ink details are proving too distracting. Its endless the details, the touches, the stylised touches. The point is? All these touches work.

Mattias Adolfsson

Then – I am also a complete fan of Mattias Adolfsson. When I asked him to speak to my students, his response contained the line – I am very busy. Which made me lough out loud. How privileged is he that he can obsess about his drawing. I have watched him draw, endlessly. In youtube. It is mesmerizing.

Charles Lin, Professional Work

The first, Kevin O’Neil, is a comic book illustrator who has a quirky style and a straight off expertise in working on comic books. His work in league is very detailed, assertive and infinitely entertaining. He is always sure footed in his perspectives and proportions – something that is crucial for a comic book artist.

The second, Mattias trained for a bit as an Architect before leaving and taking up drawing. He does isometric drawings. Just for this I elevate him to the status of a demi god. I am a trained mechanical engineer, trained also in isometric drawing. A technique of illustration where you can measure off dimensions from the drawing. Isometric drawing has had a sudden surge in popularity, and I am glad I can finally say that we need to start making a huge fuss about it. What is brilliant about Adolfsson’s drawings are his endless details – the liquid in the bottle, the label, the knobs. Always the round knobs. Just like the Rolls Royce and the Genesis cars. I dont know what the fuss about touch screen is, give me knobs.

Charles Lin, Honours Project, RMIT ID, 2006

The last Charles, drew when he was in design school. He was passionate about drawing. He drew all the time. Studying Industrial Design gave him a boost, he could draw things with insight. The above picture is from his honours project, that he did in design school. Moving to Singapore he extended his work to focus upon these very complicated scenes, for games? for movies?, with heaps of people.

Drawing all the time

These are three people who are exquisite crafts people. What gives them the ability to become exquisite is that they draw all the time. This is what they do. They are passionate about the act of drawing. They are passionate about their practice of drawing. In their day, they mainly draw.

But it takes time. It takes years. To draw well, to draw at this level, at the level these three people function at, takes years.

It is 15 years since I was a teacher and Charles was a student of Industrial Design, who could be sharp and dismissive about things design people hold dear. 15 long years that Charles does not have to hear that Drawing is not important, that it is merely a tool, a means to an end. Just a step child in the design tool kit family.

For more in depth information use these search phrases to find advice, discussion and opinion on the topic of “drawing for designers” or “drawing for product designers”. This post is not about the functional and utilitarian approach to drawing.

Where you work

As a mechanical engineer, it was a given that I would find the bespoke, one off, commissioned work side of industrial design challenging. I was to find the mass production sector more natural, as a place where I would focus. While I haven’t found much opportunity to bang on about how great isometric is, I certainly have had occasion to draw like the way I was taught in Engineering school.

Orthographic drawing, or the drawing of things in elevation is the expected way to draw in engineering. You are expected to be able to measure off from the drawing, from the ammonia blue print. I love the smell of blue prints. If there is a gap in comprehension, it is overcome by training the viewer in the stylised way of depicting things in orthographic ways.

Naturally in design workplaces, and in books I was to encounter ways of drawing to actual dimensions. Plus to colour, and render drawings to make the image pop. All in orthographic ways. So far so good. You can think, analyze, resolve and design through orthographic sketches and drawings.

During a stint at the Hitachi design studios in Kokubunji, my choice of working on the large drawing table in the studio had colleagues bemused. I would draw to actual size, render and mark up my drawings. What you see is what you get. I was designing televisions in that stint. TVs are best drawn in elevation and to size, I am told.

Yet industrial designers are expected to draw stylised images of products and details using perspective. Often the hand drill serves as the prototype of the ‘thing’ that needs to be drawn. Though the hair dryer offers stiff competition to the drill. It is possible this is a particular school of thought.

I have for some time been speaking about this form of stylised product drawing as a thing for people who work in design consultancy establishments. That is the way it would be spoken off in large industry R&D workplaces. It is a thing, as in a consultancy there is a client to be shown the design, for a corresponding fee to be charged, for a client to be billed. Withing the R&D set up of large corporations there is no such client. No driving need for an ‘illustration’ or ‘hero shot’ to be sold. So the drawing has a functional reason for its existence, and it does not have the opportunity to be treated as a commodity. Drawing as a commodity is thus a unique artefact. We can discuss the value of this form of drawing as important within certain contexts. Plus we can also discuss the significance of this form of drawing as pertinent in specific schools of thought within academia. In short what is drawing for industrial designers is very much contextually defined.

Which opens the door for me, as a teacher of drawing, to ask – what if we were to set aside the ‘canon’, ‘the correct way’ of drawing aka orthographic, versus isometric versus perspective or a requirement that all these modes be learnt? So that we can ask the question – what form of program of drawing can we imagine if we place the student at the center?

Everyone draws

I arrived at the answer to this question in one particular way in 1996, when I had a short period of time with students in a drawing course. One semester, and in that a couple of hours a week is what you are given as face to face time. The starting condition of students, the skills and passions they come with, can be quite diverse. So there would be many pathways – each specific to the student.

What is more worrying about drawing is that there is no ‘content’. There is just a goal. Which is spoken of as a program.

  • The Things: Faces/ portraits, the human body, nature/ flowers and leaves, buildings, objects/ products/ things, landscape
  • The Ways: Orthographic, isometric/ axonometric, perspective

Plus there are many preconceptions – I cant draw. He/ she can draw. They have talent. They have a gift. So drawing is something you are born with (nature) and cannot be developed (nurture).

My project of teaching drawing thus started with a learning project – one that can do something. To activate the individual to become confident, to believe, to start a program of self development, to commence the rebuild, the reset and the re-enchantment with their relationship to drawing. A re-enchantment such as the invoking of the feelings of the child in them, the child that used to draw, used to believe that that body, that mind could draw.

Children draw. Everyone draws. In the Instagram era, all the different ways that people draw, is now accessible. All these ways are okay. There is possibly a significant turn underway. A re-enchantment brought about by the account holders of instagram accounts. A loss of self consciousness. This is in the 2020s.

But back in the mid 1990s, I did not have this wild and exuberant emergence of drawing. So I built a three stage process:

  • Kinetic drawing: Where I got students to stand at the drawing tables. We had these standing drawing desks, rows and rows of them, in the drawing classroom. The student stood and drew lines, and circles. Repeatedly. To free the hands – very much like a Heather Hansen performance!
  • Betty Edwards: Drawing on the right side of the brain – and these days brain plasticity – provided me with a pivot to the ‘child’ in the student. To draw faces, to draw hands and to draw crumpled paper. These days I speak of this exercise, this stage, as ‘slow’ – a way of drawing slowly.
  • Product Drawing: The third and final stage is about students exercising the hands and their mind in attempting to draw simple and then complex objects.

At best this program serves then a foundational purpose. If we were to look at it as a skill development exercise.

I do not see it that way. I see it instead as a program of activation. Look not at what this student can draw. Ask them what they feel, what they can say about their relationship to the idea of drawing. About what they can do if they were to set themselves on a program, a ten year program, a five year program of drawing. A bit each day.

For me then being in the space where students are putting themselves through the paces, of learning, of beginning to draw is about holding space. It is significantly about helping students realise their agency.

Potentially one day, very soon, they may begin to draw a lot. And draw all the time.

The World of Drawing Curated

I made this video mashup a few years ago to say; that is not it, that is not it at all. As a response to the singular way of drawing products being taught to industrial design students. That word, those ways of drawing. Not relevant anymore.

I have pinterest boards on drawing.

How do I unlearn the drawing style, where I am reproducing objects photographically?
Drawing into sketch books is such a revelation.

By Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

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