Turning a pen into a tool
Enschede, January 2020. The visualisation of ideas forms a significant part of any industrial design study. Using paper and a charcoal pencil, a graphics pad or a computer, images are created that aren’t just meant to look nice. Yet, what roles can and should they actually play in product development processes? Industrial designers Bram Norp and Elias van Hoek, both graduates of the University of Twente’s (UT) degree programme in Industrial Design Engineering, recognise big differences between sketching during their studies and in their day-to-day work at the PCV Group – revealing a large gap between theory and practice. The two published a visual discussion paper on this topic at the 21st International Conference on Engineering & Product Design Education (E & PDE) in Glasgow, which can be downloaded from the event’s webpage (www.epde.info/epde2019). In this interview, Bram Norp describes his experience with the actual importance of sketches in the development of innovative solutions.
What types of sketches and illustrations are there?
One can identify four types: technical sketches primarily illustrate the morphology and function of parts, as well as the active principles related to them, and might also include cutaways. These are used throughout the entire development process. The next type is product architecture sketches. Here, the illustration focuses on interrelationships and the interplay between components. The design itself is then developed through design sketches, and the representation becomes more detailed. Colours are added. This step deepens the look and feel of a product. Altogether, however, they only offer relatively limited possibilities. The fourth discipline is use-flow sketches, which are particularly important for our work at the PCV Group. It is through these that we illustrate the interaction between users and products, present individual steps in the lifecycle of a product, identify weak points and opportunities for optimisation, and visualise the ideal-typical operating principles.
Are these all aspects of an industrial design study course?
Yes. However, at the UT Enschede, the clear focus was on design drafting. Technical sketches are far more important in practical product development, closely followed by use-flow sketches. Additionally, the variety of different sketching modes are more evenly balanced, than at the university.
How are these sketch types distributed throughout the development process?
If and when the different types of sketch play a role really depends on the individual project. Their use varies considerably, which is mainly due to the fact that projects can be very different in nature and have varying start and end points. So, a project might only relate to parts or excerpts of the development process. At the PCV Group, design sketches carry the least amount of significance and, in some cases, are even left in the hands of the client themselves. In addition, there are many specialist companies that are highly design-oriented, while we take a different approach. My colleagues at PCV and I view ourselves as inspirers, catalysts, inventors and developers, and so we use a correspondingly wider range of sketches and focus on different things.
Let us return to the relationship between the transfer of theoretical knowledge at university and the developmental practice of the PCV Group. In which other ways do they differ?
The first thing is the tempo of the work. In our job, we are expected to move faster. In the industrial design course, we generally sketch on our own and receive feedback every now and then. Currently, we draw as a team and provide feedback to one another directly. This allows for far more creativity in the work and faster progress. It is only once we start elaborating on our work and using a computer, that we work individually.
Another significant difference is that, in our job, sketching might already form part of the analysis, which is not the case in the degree course. Moreover, they teach that the extent to which sketches are elaborated upon increases linearly with each new stage. In practice, the extent of evolution in each phase of the development process can be very pronounced – a whole new picture! While realistic representation is a priority in academic study, at the PCV Group we also draw schematically and in the abstract.
Nowadays, digitalisation is a buzzword – are analogue approaches still used?
Definitiv. Das wird auch so bleiben. Jedoch zeigt sich auch hier ein Unterschied zwischen Studium und Beruf. Im Studium haben wir entweder analog oder digital gearbeitet. Jetzt wird analog schnell etwas skizziert und im Anschluss digital ausgearbeitet. Analoge und digitale Illustration gehen ineinander über.
To what extent do you think the university education of industrial designers needs to be improved?
Elias and I agree that it would make sense to convey even during one’s studies that sketches are of immense importance as early as the analysis phase. They are necessary in order to enhance the understanding of the project in the framework of a multi-disciplinary development team, and to be able to manage the expectations of the team and the client. In our view, one should generally be trained more intensively during the course to sketch in a group setting, for example, to generate new ideas. Working as part of a team is a very dynamic and extremely efficient process. Sketching in a group is very useful for communicating ideas to other team members, since the spark comes across more easily. Indeed, one could not imagine the development process without abstract and schematic representations, which are an indispensable aspect of working at the PCV Group. It is also very valuable to know how to produce these types of sketches clearly and efficiently. Equally important is to gain a strong awareness of the fact that the degree of elaboration of a sketch dramatically varies throughout the development process and does not by any means increase lineally. There is a much greater need for differentiation than before.