Welcome to John's Blog World...

Welcome to my little sharing space--where I come to showcase some of my custom projects and to share "how-to" info with others out there. As a lifelong "maker", design enthusiast, and design professor, this blog explains some of the little projects I occasionally throw myself into, with the intent that I may help inspire others toward self-actualization and to show them how easy it really is to construct and realize their own ideas and dreams. As Brancusi said, "Create like a god, work like a slave."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My "Woobie"--The Comfort of a Sketchbook

Those of us who were raised in the 80's (or even those of you who otherwise experienced that wondrous decade after the fact) may remember the term "woobie", which (as far as I can tell) originated from the now-classic film "Mr. Mom". In the movie, Michael Keaton's young son has a very sentimental attachment to a blanket that he calls his "woobie". His son takes this blanket everywhere he goes and clings to it because of the emotional comfort it provides him. While I admittedly had a special teddy bear (home-made by my loving mommy) that had some similar woobie-like qualities for me as a shy little boy, I recently realized that I have a current, less obvious woobie that I frequently feel lost without: my sketchbookIt is something that I constantly have with me, constantly holding on to, and constantly using. Because of how much I’ve used my sketchbooks through the years, it gives me a certain degree of comfort having one close by. So, in today’s blog entry, I’ll try to explain my affinity to the sketchbook and how it may be of benefit to others to keep one as well. (Here's what my current sketchbook looks like...unassuming on the outside, but full of my "ponderous" sketches...)

I was exposed to the idea of recording my ideas at a very young age. My grandfather, who was a high school teacher, could tell that I was an inventive child, and he lovingly encouraged me to write my ideas down in a notebook. He taught me that it would be best for me to carry my notebook with me at all times so I could write down my inspirations as soon as they came. As a result of his encouragement, I recall making my own small notebook out of paper and staples, with a cardboard sleeve that would fit over it so that I could carry it in my pocket without worrying about bending up the pages. The notebook filled up very quickly because I ended up making a flip book animation with it called the "Omega Robots" in which two Transformer-like robots battled it out to an explosive end. It probably wasn't what my grandfather had in mind, but his encouragement to record my ideas planted a very important seed. I went through (and lost) many small notebooks when I was younger, but by the time I was in high school, I started keeping a full-size sketchbook and regularly sketching in earnest. As a freshman in high school, my art teacher (wisely) required us to routinely draw in our sketchbooks, regardless of the subject matter, to help us build our skills. If I could go back and talk to my gramps and that art teacher of mine, I'd thank them in the most grateful way possible, because the simple act of regularly drawing my ideas (rather than just writing them down) is what has helped form an important habit of design conceptualization and development that has turned my design skills into what they are today. From the standpoint of my professional work as a designer, my sketchbook "habit" has helped forge an important pattern of design documentation--something that has been especially important with projects requiring thorough documentation for competition, intellectual property, patent, and regulatory reasons. At latest count, I have over twenty five sketchbooks (that I can still find!) that document my thoughts and ideas sketched over a period of more than twenty years. Here’s what a small handful of those sketchbooks look like:

There are a variety of reasons why people keep a sketchbook. Some of these are discussed in a ThinkSketch by Paula Briggs of AccessArt--which is a nice little reference I found after I’d already written most of this blog. (Interestingly, much of this book's content aligned very well with my own reasoning for the usefulness of sketchbooks.) Similarly, I have a few personal and also pragmatic reasons for consistently keeping a sketchbook over the years. For one, sketching helps me work through my ideas--of which I probably have more than my share. Sketching (just like writing) is a sort of mental solidification process for ideas. It helps me take an amorphous thought from its original, ethereal state into something more gelled and tangible. With additional directed thought and sketch development, that simple idea will then solidify into a concrete, well thought out, concept ready for further physical testing and product development. It's as though sketching allows me to gather my bits of mental dust, use my pen to stick then together into a loose, muddy paste, and then carve them through more mental refinement into a well-defined conceptual sculpture that can then be fired in the kiln of physical modeling and testing. For example, here's a shot of a carbon fiber side mirror I created for a concept car that I'm working on, and the sketches from which that design was formed, designed, and fabricated:

I believe that sketching also helps me to communicate my ideas with others through visual means. Humans learn to speak by actually talking--by making mistakes, finding the proper pronunciation and grammatical structure in round after round of vocalized trial and error until effective communication is achieved. Likewise, a musical instrument is learned by practicing the proper muscle coordination and mental construction and deconstruction of notes, rhythm and harmony until real music is possible. These each take time and untold hours of practice. And sketching is no different.  Regardless of how many how-to books you read, how many sketchbooks you study, or how many video tutorials you view, it is still the act of practice that makes the sketches, and their ability to effectively communicate, better. (Here's a relatively recent sketch of some bike frames...with a little marker added for better readability...)

With sketching, I feel that I get to share my unseen thoughts with others in a way that helps me better connect my ideas with them through visual communication. Words can only express so much, and sketches are their own type of language. Sketches  requires some communicative refinement and style to avoid cognitive dissonance between the designer and viewer of the sketch. But pictures have their limitations, too...which is why I find that annotation is so important in design sketching. Art sketching tends to be very expressive and "free" in nature, leaving itself open to interpretation of the artist's intentions. Design sketching, on the other hand, requires a certain degree of responsibility to the needs of the viewer to correctly explain the intentions of the contents of the sketch. For example, here's a sketchbook entry I drew of a visitors' site in Japan during a work visit I made there several years ago...simply for artistic reasons:

By contrast, here's a sketchbook entry showing some of my design thinking on the form and ergonomics of a new digital SLR camera:

To a certain extent, the mental process of design problem solving is illuminated through the flow of ideas that are revealed through the sketchbook. I have to admit that this area, in particular, is of keen interest to me as a design instructor who is constantly called on to explain those mental processes to students. (Admittedly, it is probably this later focus of mine, and my natural tendency to try and explain complex processes, that has made my three books on composites so successful among composites enthusiasts.) Here's a view of some of the process thinking that is going into my current concept car project:

While my sketchbooks show my design focus, the iterative processes that I go through, and even my understanding of a given problem as my experience in that subject develops over time, they also provide an enlightening chronological record of my ideas as they develop and mature. This is especially evident through the level of quality and complexity that my sketches have shown over the years. Some interesting growth is apparent here between a sketch I did in high school in the late 80's ("Then..."), and one I did earlier this Spring of 2012 ("Now..."):

To a certain extent, my sketchbooks are even a self-affirmation outlet that helps me feel that my thoughts and skills are worthwhile and incrementally developing the more I sketch. They show a personal record of my thoughts--and the variety of thinking that goes on in my head. In one way, my sketchbooks were my private, low-tech blog-space before I ever decided to send out my written and photographic ideas through cyberspace in this public blog. They even help me express my (often suppressed) inner engineer...which is why I like exploded views so much:

Although I have become accustomed to certain sketchbook norms, such as drawing on white, smooth paper with ballpoint pen (because of its permanence and lineweight versatility), I am constantly on the lookout for another good sketchbook. I can't go into a bookstore without going to the journal section in search of an unruled sketchbook (since lines are too confining to my sketch processes) that could be my next design record keeper. I'm always looking for just the right paper (smooth and thick, yet flexible, bond feel best to me), with the right binding (something that allows the covers to lay flat or fold over is best), and even the right size (big enough to rest my big monkey hands on, but small enough for easy, unobtrusive transport). As you can see from this "wad" of sketchbooks in my office, I tend to prefer coil-bound sketchbooks (again, because they lay flat and the cover can be bent back during sketching...which tends to be more comfortable when sketching on your lap):

I am constantly looking for a better sketchbook outlet that will help me express my ideas even better...at least until technology makes it possible to perform direct mental downloads of my ideas (which would be sweeeeeet!). I've even looked for good digital sketchbooks over the years, and have tried several Wacom Cintiq, Intuos, and Inkling models, as well as spent considerable time sketching on apps using Apple's iPod and iPad and a variety of other touchscreen tablet interfaces. They all have some benefits in the range of image manipulation, color, and output formats that are available, but I always come back to paper. There are still some significant limitations in both the hardware interfaces and the software packages that help the designer draw, especially if you've got a significant number of "legacy" neural connections fused through several years of successful hand-sketching techniques on paper. Digital sketching interfaces are increasingly important in design, but pen and paper sketching still have their own substantial merits.

A few times now I've been asked by my students to make copies or to publish parts of my sketchbooks for them to have. At some future date, I may actually go through the hassle of publishing some of my sketched works and random designs...if it seems that would actually be worthwhile as a learning tool for others. But we'll see. Until then, I'll just keep sketchin'.


Unknown said...

John, you're amazingly talented! Glad I can call you my cousin. :)
-Erin (Moss) Burch

mlebagley said...

The fact that I knew exactly what you meant when you said 'woobie' pegs me as a child of the 80's. I have a very dear and talented brother who shares your obsession with drawing. I have always thought he was a genius, but because of you I realize that his arrival at genius status was a journey which took many, many years. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

Mike C. said...

You are amazing! See you sometime on the RTD.

Chef Tess said...

You remarkable freak! I love your skills and more important than that, I love your candor! Thank you for reminding me one again to dig up my sketch notebook! I have about 20 like yours but with recipes...and I have to say I agree 100%. When inspiration strikes, it is so important to capture it!

Pia G. said...

I LOVE your sketches. You got talent! But thats not why im posting this comment. I was actually wondering where did you get that black sketchbook in the first photo&how much did it cost. Im trying to start my own sketchbook for fashion designing and i could use a new sketcbook.


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