Drawing Strategies for Design | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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It will take more than one drawing to get it right – and that’s okay.
M.y best days in carpentry are with my 4 year old nephew, Seth. It’s tall enough to see over the countertop and quick enough to grab any scraps of wood or shaving before it hits the ground.
Typical for a boy his age, his repertoire of sound effects eclipses his vocabulary. Walnut scraps become bulldozers, jet planes and rockets, powered by the noises of the engines and sirens provided by Seth. These are all equipped with loud machine guns and lasers and all tend to crash into fiery explosions.
The sound spreading upstairs is a mixture of my sawing and hammering and Seth’s alien space battles. Yet from time to time, when he rests between invasions, that little boy sings softly to himself. The words don’t make sense, but the music that comes out of her vocal cords sounds like the clear notes of a wood thrush in a forest.
I can’t help but stop and wonder where it came from. It’s tucked away in a small corner in Seth’s mind along with a jumble of lightsabers, roaring lions, and fire trucks.
The more I learn and teach about design, the more I am convinced that we all have a hidden treasure within us just waiting to come out. Each of us has a sense of beauty, even if it only emerges in the rare moment we stop to enjoy a sunset. The challenge for all of us is learning to tap into that inner sense despite all our frenzy and noise.
Drawing is an ancient way to focus our mind and allow us to start tapping into those inner resources. Now, before I go any further, I’m not talking about drawing in an artistic sense. Don’t think you are a great draftsman or artist. All that is really required is that you have a desire to unlock your potential and some tenacity.
What is drawing?
When thinking about design, drawing can take many forms, but it is important not to confuse drawing with blueprints or projects. Our efforts in drawing may eventually become a formal plan, but drawing in the sense of design is more of a process of unlocking and guiding our imagination. It is more about helping us see clearly with our inner eye. It’s not something we can just push a button and turn it on or off.
For this reason, we can employ a number of different drawing techniques to persuade and develop our ideas. These techniques include quick, small-scale sketches, larger proportional drawings of elevations or facades, isometric projections to visualize objects in space, and even full-size renderings.
Also, I would include in the drawing category, full-scale and full-scale 3D models. While these aren’t actual designs, the models aim to accomplish the same thing. They help us get a clear view of the design in real space so that we can better develop the idea.
Let’s focus on the first type of drawing that can unlock our imagination: the quick sketch.
Quick sketches for take-off
I compare this type of drawing to an airplane taking off. The entire flight can be many thousands of miles, but that first small stretch down the runway is necessary to take flight. Instead of jumping headlong into a detailed drawing, it helps to start with a series of quick sketches.
These designs focus on the overall shape of the design and the main parts. Artists often use a similar technique called “notan”. A notan is a miniature sketch that includes only the main highlights and shadows in a composition.
It’s a good way to think about a quick sketch. What part will be a solid structure, such as the legs supporting a chest? What part will the air be, like the space between those structures?
You might also include rough lines that show doors, shelves, or drawers, but don’t worry about the details. In fact, it is best to draw a series of quick sketches; five, 10 or even 50.
Try to get your mind to spread ideas by drawing fast, not cute. Don’t spend more than a minute on a quick sketch. Twenty-second sketches make your ideas flow better than taking your time and trying to think about it too much.
Somewhere in the process, your ideas will begin to gel. Your plane is off the ground and you have a vaguely plotted destination.
Your final project may have nothing to do with this initial snippet, but at least you have an idea. Now is the time to start organizing it into something with a little more detail.
Our brain is programmed to read our surroundings as a story. For objects like buildings and furniture, our first reading is normally bottom-up. We dimension and read a building by looking at the vertical facade. So, if we want to start helping our mind to imagine a furniture design, it is useful to start drawing a simple proportional front view in just two dimensions, height and width.
I always start this design by locking in a simple square or rectangle that will govern the shape. Eventually, the design can develop into something with a lot of curvature, but a simple rectangle gives me a structure to build on.
For millennia, designers have often used a small handful of simple rectangles to block the bones of a design. These simple rectangles had integer proportional relationships between height and width.
For this reason, and because it’s easy, I always start with some sort of rectangle, like a 2: 3 – two parts wide, three parts high. With just a handful of simple ratios I can cover almost any furniture shape: 1: 1 (square), 1: 2, 2: 3, 3: 4, 3: 5, 4: 5. These rectangles can be stretched vertically or horizontally.
The next step is to organize the space vertically. Again, I turn to simple proportions to pinpoint the boundaries of the main parts. I can divide the overall height into five equal parts and assign the lower fifth to the open space under the crate. I keep dividing the remaining space into simple relationships to establish smaller elements.
Likewise, when I arrange horizontal elements, the simple proportions show me where each part begins and ends.
There are several advantages to establishing this proportional facade view first. One is that it will help in the development of the side views. Often the elements of the facade are transferred to the side elevation, so working on the problems on the facade also answers the questions about the side views.
Also, by using the aspect ratio of whole numbers, I am able to easily scale this design up or down.
And most importantly, don’t be afraid to erase, tear, and start over at this or any other stage. Sometimes getting to your final destination is just a matter of exploring the negative notes until you find out what resonates.
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