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Design Matters: My Left Hand

Jeff Russ describes how sketches influences his process




Creative people come in all shapes and sizes. But I believe there are really only two kinds of designers: those who draw and those who don’t. I fall into the first camp. I always carried a pencil and notebook, sketching anything that caught my eye. Conventional wisdom holds that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to attain mastery of any complex skill, and that number seems legitimate.

Like most artists, I was soon recruited to create stage props for school plays, signs for community events and decorations of every sort for local haunted houses at Halloween time. I was soon making decent money painting signs for local businesses and decorating supermarket windows for the holiday season. I believe many sign designers started this way.

ST’s Sr. Technology Editor Darek Johnson also designed signs professionally for years, and is a talented draftsman (and sketches all the time). He and I often discuss the artistic merits of sign designs we see here every month. We don’t always agree, but we both know talent when we see it.
Designer Feng Zhu writes: “There are two parts to drawing. One is the technical execution of drawing itself – a pure mechanical skill.” This is the hand-eye-brain coordination that can be trained and perfected over time. “The second part has to do with understanding and building of the visual libraries in your brain.”

A designer’s job is to solve problems. But to solve a problem, you first have to understand the subject matter. “By analyzing what you are drawing, you fill your brain with potential solutions and visual ideas”, Zhu adds. “Some of these elements include the understanding of forms, perspective, materials, lighting and composition. On the visual-library side, by sketching subjects such as birds, plants, cars, people, lobsters, etc., you slowly introduce your brain to the shapes and proportions which make up these subjects.”

The second part is actually much more important than the first. The building of these “visual libraries” allows someone to move from drawing to designing and beyond.

The ability to draw, and the time spent honing that craft, gives designers a particular baseline with which to judge and create anything, but I think signs in particular. Drawing gives sign designers an “eye”. I’ve always considered it quite an advantage. That said, many of the most talented, creative designers I’ve known have not been able to draw a straight line. But don’t give up hope! After all, there are few human skills which don’t improve with practice.





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