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The 35th Installment“Recommendation on Drawing a Sketch - For All who Aim at Innovation”

by Tetsuo Fukuda,
Head of Masters Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering

Recommendation on Drawing a Sketch - For All who Aim at Innovation

From a rough sketch (thumbnail, conceptual sketch, etc.*) to a detailed description (design drawing, rendering, etc. *), drawing a sketch has roughly two meanings: one is a record for yourself, e.g. an observation record, and the other is to communicate your intention to others. Among all, a rough sketch is an excellent visualization method that needs almost no effort and requires no cost.

Unlike photographs that instantly take in all information, drawing sketches can extract and express what you find from the result of observation. Sketching means to capture and draw the characteristics of the object, and there is almost no meaning in the evaluation of skillfulness.

In addition, a sketch is meaningful because it is your own subjective information, and it is one of the methods essential for the extraction of your own idea. I would like to lay special emphasis on the contrast with secondary information that has already been processed. Furthermore, you can reproduce or create what you want to communicate in front of an audience without taking too much time; thus, a sketch is an excellent, concrete, and intuitive visual means of communication to a third party. A sketch of a scene (*) in the upstream process is effectively utilized in business as a practical tool indispensable for telling and deepening the understanding of the abstract design concept before making a drawing.

Since ancient times, iconographic information (sketches) has been a basic communication tool, just as letters have been. Cows, horses, and many other animals painted on the walls in Altamira Cave during the late Paleolithic period convey information about the area and hunting of those days to us living today. Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in the Renaissance, left a huge number of manuscripts from detailed observational sketches to concept sketches that helped draw inspiration, together with his comments. When I realize that the contents might have led to innovation later, I want to learn from them as the base method of generating ideas.

Many people in the practical business world, including James W. Young and Jack Foster, unanimously agree on how to generate ideas. In short, make the most careful observations, fully understand them, just relax and let go for a while, and then an idea will suddenly come to you. It may be interpreted as “waiting until an egg is hatched.” Generally, designing starts from this type of observation. I recommend keeping a record of observations, your impressions, shocking events, questions, or other ideas, even though they are off the top of your head, in the form of notes and sketches. One sketch may suddenly become an innovation over time. I would like to introduce one episode from my experience in the business.

It was a quarter of a century ago. Shocked by the crash of a jumbo jet on August 12, 1985, I drew a sketch. I was distressed when I imagined the circumstances of an abnormality around the vertical tail to the flight going off course, and the crash. With a keen observant eye as a designer and the habit of asking myself questions and forming a concept, I tried to create an airframe design that ensures safe, stable flight and, therefore, prevents serious accidents that sacrifice many precious lives. I drew a concept design of a body without a vertical tail. This became the starting point for the concept of the complex-shaped nose of the front car in the Shinkansen vehicle development project about ten years later. This reduced noise and controlled shaking at the same time, which have been significant engineering and technical issues.

In this project, I was in charge of the interior and exterior design. I wanted to achieve consistency among conflicting conditions and aesthetic integration of engineering elements covering a variety of disciplines. The clue to solving labyrinthine problems and the context was not simple. To share recognition among project members with a variety of backgrounds, I noticed that discussions with sketches extemporaneously drawn on a whiteboard, in addition to the sketches drawn on paper, were effective and facilitated early solutions. This is an example where an idea sketch, which I had already forgotten and had no relation to the project, encountered a proposition and stirred the accumulated memories to link together in a chain reaction. It was also the moment when multiple technical issues were all overcome. The shape of the nose was nicknamed “Duckbill” by the mass media after completion. The unique shape was developed from the area rule, which is used in aerodynamics. Application to the train vehicle for commercial service was the first trial in the world. Needless to say, influenced the trend of the world’s high-speed trains.

Apart from my lecture, I recommend to those who visit my laboratory for the purpose of innovation to carry a sketchbook and observe the objects as daily training. On my bookshelf, sketchbooks occupy a space around 1.8 m wide. I have made a huge number of sketches with comments for a number of years, including scenes of the towns I visited, my favorite things, what impressed me, and everything. What makes it different from a diary may be the fact that the transition in my awareness and taste becomes quite obvious simply by turning the pages. When I visit a zoo or aquarium, I often find a clue to the solution to a problem from the movement of fish and animals, and it gives me endless excitement and discovery. Do not laugh at me as it is kid stuff. Even though I wanted to create value with new sensitivity in manufacturing, nothing would happen without the technology to organize and visualize the excitement.

Even if you take a picture as a record, you cannot remember the details because it happens in the blink of an eye. In many cases, you just don’t remember the circumstances when you see the photo album later. On the other hand, if you keep watching the still object until you finish drawing, you vividly remember the excitement you felt at the site as well as the touch of the pen. I use ballpoint pens or felt-tipped pens for the rough sketch, and do not add any color. However, I vividly recall the colors and the scenes at that time, when I turn the page in the sketchbook. It is amazing. The sketches are often obscure and rough, which stirs the imagination still more, and thus an idea grows and the image extends. I would like to recommend using sketches that organize and visualize your impressions.

Cutting-edge multi-function information devices are, of course, attractive. There is a saying in Japan “on a table, on the back of a horse and in a toilet,” meaning everywhere. Always carry a sketchbook, an energy-saving eco-design tool that does not require electricity, with you and go out on the streets to recharge yourselves!

* As for sketches, refer to section 58 in chapter 8 (pages 138–139) “Sketch” and section 59 in chapter 8 (pages 140–141) “Rendering” of Product Design for Everyone Involved in Product Development (written and compiled by the Japan Industrial Designer’s Association, published in 2009 by Works Corporation).

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  • The 36th Installment

    “The World of the Model and the World of Code”

    by Chuzo Akiguchi,
    Professor, Masters Program of Information Systems Architecture
  • The 35th Installment

    “Recommendation on Drawing a Sketch - For All who Aim at Innovation”

    by Tetsuo Fukuda,
    Head of Masters Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering
  • The 34th Installment

    “Project Management and PBL”

    by Kiyoshi Sakamori,
    Head of Masters Program of Information Systems Architecture