Thursday, February 02, 2006

Digital Design Tools

Is the pencil still mightier than the mouse?

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, June 17, 1998 -- Some people say that [Image]
if the only tool you've got is a hammer,
everything else starts looking like a nail.

This may be an exaggeration, but it's true that the
limits of the tools available to us will affect the
outcome of any creative process. In industrial design,
where the sophistication of the software, hardware, and
eventual manufacturing process directly affects the
quality of the product, this is especially true.

One raging debate among designers over the last decade
has focused on the use of computer-aided design (CAD).
There's no doubt that CAD has provided a more efficient
means of working through the design process: no more
sweating over drafting tables with paper, pencil and ink
-- perfect lines and geometric shapes can be drawn on the
screen with the drag of a mouse; solid objects can be
modeled on the screen (using a Silicon Graphics
workstation or a modeling program such as Form Z) a lot
quicker and cleaner than crafting a physical model from
clay, foam or wood. One great benefit of CAD is the
ability to take greater risks in altering designs --
quickly working through variations and "what if?"
situations, where the designer knows that the original
drawing can be accessed in an instant.

In some cases, the product design process has become so
streamlined that sketches are made directly on the screen
and final designs aren't realized in three dimensions
until the part is ready for production. The controversy
arises from the feeling among some designers that the end
result of an entirely digital process is necessarily
inferior to one in which the hand is used to create the
design. For example, when you're given a palette of
geometric shapes in the menu of a computer program, you
may be more likely to use those shapes than to explore
form in a more experimental way.

The biggest drawback to designing products directly on
the computer is not getting to feel how the object fits
the hand or relates to the body. While there are plenty
of resources for determining the average size of various
parts of the anatomy (such as Henry Dreyfuss Associates'
"The Measure of Man and Woman"), there are still many
aspects of object/body "fit" that can't be determined
through the dry application of measured values. Think of
an object as simple as the telephone. It's going to fit
onto your ear, into your hand, on a wall or desk, and, in
some cases against your shoulder. [Cradling a phone with
your neck can cause spinal injury, however. A headset
phone is preferable. -- Ed.] Those variables, among
others, are best accommodated through a hands-on
trial-and-error method where designs and redesigns are
held and observed in three dimensions. While it's true
that these iterations will happen with physical
prototypes even if the designs originated on the screen,
the development of the forms may still have been stunted
by the origins of the process.

While the digital approach to design has been a growing
concern in the design community, there have been a
reassuring instances of "hybrid" design that is part
handcrafted, part digital. In these cases, the computer
is not the sole tool, but can be used to speed up the
process. Hand-drawn sketches can be scanned into a
computer or drawn with a digitizer, and then used as the
basis for draftings or even three-dimensional images.
Similarly, models can be roughly crafted in foam or wood,
then photographed and manipulated (using programs like
Photoshop) to change details or textures.
Three-dimensional scanners also exist that can reproduce
small-scale models in virtual space, so that the image
can go through further manipulation. In these cases,
designers still have the freedom to hand-create forms,
but they don't have to go through the tedium of every
stage of handcrafting models or drawings. This is truly
the best of both worlds.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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