Craft & Design
Zero to Maker: Gateway to Making… Drawing

David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is on a journey, intensively immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

The Zero to Maker column has been more than just a great learning experience, it has also been a fantastic conversation piece. It gives me a fairly unique answer to the monotonous, “So what do you do?” question, and more importantly, it’s allowed me to authentically approach interesting makers for advice. Regardless whether it’s an email exchange, Skype call, or an in-person meeting, I always make sure to ask them for one piece of advice they would give a wannabe maker. More often than not, the response is some derivative of: just get started. Make that first mistake, pick up that tool, or go out and get your hands dirty. I agree with all of that, but I want to offer another piece of advice: start drawing.

With all the modern software tools available to a beginning maker, it’s easy to overlook the original drafting technology of pen and paper. It makes some sense to skip right to the computer-aided design. In order to use the laser cutter, your design needs to be in a vector program. In order to use a CNC machine, you need to have a CAD drawing of your desired part. With the the prevalence of this software, and the ever-increasing access to tools (falling prices, products like MakerBot, places like TechShop), a new maker might think it appropriate to jump right into working on a computer. However, I think analog drawing (and sketching) is a critical step in the design process. It’s more than just getting a preliminary design for your project into 1s and 0s, it’s about training your mind to think visually and it can serve as a tool to overcome creative barriers. Oh, and it’s fun!

Nearly every maker I’ve talked to has mentioned drawing as an important part of their process. Many of them carry a specific pen or pencil that they love, and nearly all have a sketchbook for ideas. It’s never a direct suggestion – no one ever mentions it as their one piece of advice, but it always bubbles up in the course of conversation. Kent “The Tin Man” White, an old-school metalsmith, made a point of bringing up drawing in our discussion . AnnMarie Thomas discussed it in our conversation about her Maker Faire presentation, Making Tomorrow’s Makers, and requires it of all her first year engineering students. In the book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford brings up his side interest in drawing (and includes many of his hand-drawn pictures) which, if it wasn’t for the recurring theme in my conversations, would have seemed otherwise irrelevant to the rest of his meditation on the experience of making things.

I’m not sure I would have noticed the undercurrent of drawing amongst these makers if it wasn’t for a sketching course I took through a community college earlier this year. Before my desire to start making, I had a fear of drawing that I wanted to overcome. A pen in my hand and a blank piece of paper used to send shivers down my spine. Anytime I tried to draw anything, whether it was a map for directions, or a diagram for something at work, or just for fun, the moment the pen started to run across the paper, I would mentally seize up with doubts about my creative talent. Even my stick figures made me cringe.

The sketching course was a creative godsend. Every Saturday, I’d escape the typical routine of hovering over my laptop to the sanctuary of the Pasadena City College and the creative barrier-breaking activities that had been laid out by our instructor. I loved it. It wasn’t a typical art school drawing class because it was completely focused on sketching; techniques to make quick, beautiful, proportional expressions of designs and ideas. The course started right were I needed it to – just letting the pen feel comfortable in my hand. We moved on to lines, then to shading, then to contour. The great part about being such a novice is that you’re able to make a lot of progress with just a few simple changes.

I still refer back to the book that guided the course curriculum, Rapid Viz, and block off hours of the week to work on my sketching. Not surprisingly, many of the makers I spoke to, when I mentioned the Rapid Viz book, nodded and acknowledged the book as having been a similar influence. Apparently, it’s a cult favorite within the design community. You can pick up a cheap copy of it on Amazon. I used the older version (with the cover below). A few people have told me there was a newer version, but they preferred the old.

If you’re a budding maker like me, I hope this tip provides some value on your journey. If you’re an experienced maker, do you have any other drawing tips? Or any other getting started in project design tips? I’d love to hear from you.

Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey


Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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