The second part of this series of posts describes the process of designing a new mouse to be modelled in SketchUp. Although I’m dividing the exercise of learning, designing and modelling into three posts, the reality was that the three were intricately intertwined. Learning SketchUp was an ongoing process right up to the end of the exercise, when trials had to be made to determine the best method of exporting the model to the Objet Connex500 machine which was used to produce the part. The limitations of the software also had a profound effect on the actual design concept, which changed and developed as I started to understand the capabilities of SketchUp better. For a significant part of the design phase there was also a continuous back-and-forth ‘conversation’ between my paper-based sketch designs and the computer-based CAD model designs, as concepts were tested to determine whether their modelling within SketchUp was actually possible.
Before I start, I should say something about the way in which the design phase was conducted. Because this research forms part of my PhD, the design work that I do will be looked at and interrogated in a way that’s very different to the way it’s used in my professional work. I very rarely allow clients to see my ‘raw’ sketches for example, and where I do they will have been edited and put into a ‘logical’ presentation. As a rule clients aren’t particularly bothered about all the experiments and dead-ends that form part of the design process; they want to know about proposal and the thinking behind it. In an academic research context though, the requirements of what’s generally known as practice based research are different. One of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with during this stage of the PhD is that, central to the viability of practice-based design research as a methodology, is the understanding that a PhD is granted on the basis of the quality of research, rather than the quality of design. That’s not to say that any design work undertaken can be of sub-standard quality, but rather that it has to be planned, undertaken, documented and analysed with the same degree of rigour employed by more conventional methodologies. This conscientiousness is probably the fundamental difference between practice-based design research and the practice of design itself, where intuition, tacit knowledge and undocumented approaches are common, not to mention the use of primarily visual, rather than written, forms of communication.
One of the first test models (click for larger image)
In the past there has been a lot of debate, some of which is still ongoing, regarding the validity of practice-based design research and whether it contains sufficient rigour. I’m not going to go into it here, suffice it to say that this particular part of my methodology will form a significant portion of my thesis. I’ve included a few references at the end of this post for anyone that’s interested. My own particular method of recording and reflecting on my design work was to keep a diary which was filled in at the end of each day, this is a technique described in detail by Owain Pedgley¹, a predecessor of mine at Loughborough. The reasoning for this approach is that a diary offers the best compromise between the conflicting requirements of immediacy (to ensure relevant information isn’t forgotten) and non-interference (to avoid interruption or distraction which would hinder the work being undertaken). A diary isn’t perfect of course – the importance placed on a certain activity or decision is naturally prejudiced, and there’s always the temptation of editing to make yourself appear more competent or talented. And I suppose that’s another fundamental difference between research and practice – the need to be honest and show yourself and your work in its true light, rather than the polished eye candy that designers often try and present as evidence of their process.
An early page from the design sketches (click for larger image)
The test model from that page of sketches (click for larger image)
Usually I work on A3 paper when sketching, but for this exercise sketching was carried out on A4 – this allowed the sketches to be easily scanned and also meant they’ll fit (physically) into an appendix. I used images of a minimum volume ‘safe model’ as underlays to make sure any sketches were realistic in terms of size. Because I was relatively unfamiliar with the software, a lot of the design phase entailed ‘testing’ the sketches to see if they could actually be modelled in SketchUp. This is quite different to the way I’d usually work, where I deliberately try to be ‘ignorant’ as far as the capabilities of the CAD software are concerned. If I’m not able to recreate a concept exactly in CAD, I’ll change the concept at that stage, rather than limit myself earlier on. But in this case I knew that I was constrained by the software’s limited toolset, and I wanted to be sure that the product I designed was realistically able to be modelled. A number of concepts which, on paper, had appeared promising were discarded because of their unsuitability for modelling in SketchUp. And so the limitations of the software became an integral feature of the decision making process regarding which concepts to reject and which to pursue.
Two ideas which didn’t go much further… (click for larger image)
A very early, and fundamental, decision was to create a concept which played to the strengths of SketchUp, rather than attempt to force the software to create forms it was ill-suited to model. The lack of ‘loft’ or ‘blend’ tools in SketchUp meant that the construction of complex surfaces – a fairly mundane task within most modern CAD software – was extremely problematic. However the ability to ‘pull’ one surface out from another meant it was easy to very quickly build a multi-faceted model. This capability suggested a design made up of deliberately planar surfaces with hard, non-tangential intersections. After working on a few ideas that suggested themselves early on, I made an image search and built up a couple of mood-boards for inspiration.
Mood boards (click for larger image)
Reviewing the design sheets with hindsight, the earlier sketches show a preoccupation with caricaturing the mood-board images, rather than allowing the new concept to find its own aesthetic. But this inhibition recedes as the sketches develop and a confidence in the design direction emerges. The first sheets show little consideration of functionality, but instead concentrate on an exploration of sculptural form; my intention at this point was to identify a number of directions to explore within one over-arching theme, and to introduce constraints of functionality, ergonomics, production etc as the concepts developed. This doesn’t particularly conform to a text-book approach to design, but in a situation where the product’s functionality was so rigidly predetermined (by using the original product’s pcb), it seemed to be a reasonable approach.
One of the first sheets to show what would become the final design (click for larger image)
A test model as the concept develops (the top surfaces are now curved), I was also experimenting with ‘shelling’ out the interior (click for larger image)
As the concepting phase progressed, and particularly as a number of concepts were rejected due to the limitations of SketchUp’s modelling capabilities, a ‘final’ design began to emerge. In truth, one of the main drivers behind deciding on this concept was a desire to push SketchUp to its limits, because I felt this was the best way to really understand where its strengths and weaknesses lie. I also wanted something which stood out as being different to common computer mouse designs, something which advertised through its aesthetic that there weren’t just the normal considerations behind the design.
One of the last sketch sheets to be made, close to the final design (click for larger image)
And one of the last test models (click for larger image)
In all this phase of the exercise took five days, which meant that including the time spent learning SketchUp I’d taken nine days to get to a design I wanted to take forwards. Although this felt pretty quick, one vague guideline I was trying to follow was that it should take around a month to get to the final design – if it took a lot longer than that it kind of implies that the software actually isn’t that ‘simple’ to use after all. In fact the final stage of the exercise, that of making the detailed, production-ready model, took another 15 days, and this alone demonstrates where the biggest difficulties lie in using SketchUp to create a ‘real’ product. But I’ll come onto that in the next post…
¹Pedgley, O (2007), ‘Capturing and analysing own design activity’ in Design Studies, 28(5), pp. 463-483
And a few more references regarding practice-based research:
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), (2007), Practice-Led Research in Art, Design and Architecture, [online, pdf download], available from: http://www.archive.org/download/ReviewOfPractice-ledResearchInArtDesignArchitecture/Pactice-ledReviewNov07.pdf
Binder, T. and Redström, J. (2006), Exemplary Design Research, in Proceedings of the DRS International Conference 2006, 1-4 November, Lisbon
Durling, D. (2002) “Discourses on research and the PhD in Design”, in Quality Assurance in Education, 10(2), pp. 79-85
Friedman, K. (2010), When the Practice-Led PhD is different to the PhD by Thesis, JISCMAIL PhD-Design Archives [online], available from: https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=PHD-DESIGN;575d58dd.1011
Yee, J. (2009), ‘Capturing tacit knowledge: documenting and understanding recent methodological innovation used in Design Doctorates in order to inform Postgraduate training provision’ in Proceedings of EKSIG (Design Research Society Special Interest Group on Experiential Knowledge) 2009, 19th June, London