Practical Prototyping. Part 1: Pen & Paper
In my last article, The Value of Getting Your Hands Dirty, I talked about the importance of working with your hands. I sincerely believe that it is vital for engineers to compliment their technical tranining with practical experience. There is no replacement for the insight gained from knowing something first hand and observing it with your own senses. This applies far beyond engineering. Professionals in all careers should know the ins and outs of the true substance of their work.
That being said, I would like to share a few of my thoughts and tips about how to get your hands dirty as an engineer. When I am working with a design idea, I find it extreemly beneficial to build a prototype (usually many prototypes). A prototype dosen’t have to mean a fully functioning model either, it can be anything from a drawing on paper to a CAD model and beyond.
In this series of articles, I hope to speak to several different prototyping methods that I have experience with. If you have other methods that work well for you, please share them in the comments.
- 1) The Power of Pencil and Paper
- 2) Cardboard and Foam - working in 3 dimensions
- 3) Tougher Materials - Wood and Steel
- 4) The Powers and Pitfalls of Computer Modeling
The first section, The Power of Pen and Paper is presented below.
1) The Power of Pen and Paper
We are blessed to have a huge number of powerful tools at our fingertips in today’s world. The ability of computers to make our lives easier is truly amazing. As a result it seems obvious to go straight to this high-powered technology when designing.
Always remember, the most powerful tool you have as a designer and engineer is your mind. Don’t be afraid to give yourself time to think. With computer aided design software, you can sometimes create things faster than you have time to fully understand them, and this can lead to designs that will never work in the real world, but more about this later.
Take Your Time
With a pencil (or pen) and paper, you have the opportunity to really get in touch with your work. It takes time and skill to draw. Use that time to develop your drawing skill and really understand your design. With a pencil and paper you can feel the shape of every curve you draw, and take the time to appreciate each element of a design.
Don’t Get Caught Up in the Details
A pencil and paper gives you the opportunity to control your level of detail. Use this to your advantage, and stay abstract until you are ready. When you only have a vauge idea of where a design is going, quickly scribble it out on paper, and add in notes and ideas for features with text and arrows (words can be as effective as pictures sometimes). You don’t need to decide how every piece of the puzzle is going to work right away, and you shouldn’t. When you’re ready to increase your resolution, start a new page, and keep the old one for reference. Avoid erasing or throwing away old design ideas because they will come in handy later.
Use Pencil and Paper to Communicate
Design ideas are usually tough to explain in words, and no one will quickly explain an idea by creating a CAD model. Be ready to communicate your ideas to other designers and engineers by drawing them out. When you draw to communicate, focus on the main principles you want to convey. If your focus is a new headlight for a car, don’t get caught up drawing the spoiler. Often disagreements in design work result from poor communication of ideas, and the people you work with will appreciate your ability to share your thoughts effectivily.
There are a lot of great digital tools for sharing ideas, but nothing beats a stack of blank paper and a bunch of pens, pencils, sharpies, and markers. Spead out your ideas on a big table. Gain inspiration from others, and build on their ideas. There is a reason you are working as a team. Encourage others to flesh out their own ideas on paper. If you’re skeptical of an idea, it might be because it won’t work, but it could be because you don’t understand it. Either way, encouraging your partners to draw out their ideas will help.
Keep it Up
Push your pencil and paper work as far as it will go. The more you think on paper, the easier the next steps will be. It is said that “good writing is clear thinking made visible.” I believe the same is true for good design drawing.
Check out Part 2.
Adam has a Bachelors in Engineering Mechanics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and works for IPT as the Director of Engineering.