5 reasons designers shouldn’t do their own CAD

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If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you know is SolidWorks, everything you design will look like RoboCop. You can do better.

Much as I relish a click-bait headline, if you are confused, angry, upset, or disturbed by the suggestion that you stop using CAD as your go-to design tool, (1) reevaluate your life priorities, (2) I didn’t actually say that.

I said you shouldn’t do your own CAD, not that you shouldn’t do it at all.

Take a deep breath and think it through. What percentage of your day do you spend on clickety-clack? Now go back to your fresh-faced eighteen-year-old self and say “someday you will spend the vast majority of your day staring at a glowing rectangle and wiggling a little clicker thing on your desk.” If you’re like me, your eighteen-year-old self just kicked you in the crotch and ran away.

But even if we accept that staring at phosphorescent pixel grids for 80% of our waking life is inevitable, it doesn’t follow that we need do so in isolation. In the end, this is my primary argument: that working alone is never as efficient, effective, or fulfilling as working in a group, and the most productive groups allow for specialization and interdependence.

The idea that designers should do their own CAD work is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I was a college intern, it was still very common for industrial designers to eschew CAD entirely in favor of sketching and physical model building. That work would then be passed along to a full-time digital craftsman, who would document the design in CAD.

How distant that world feels! Today it’s taken as gospel that any designer under the age of forty-five must spend at least half of every day in one 3D digital design tool or other.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But we should question it.

I am no Luddite.

Like you, I spend eight hours every day staring at a glowing rectangle and wiggling that little clicker thing.

I’ve lived and breathed this stuff ever since my dad brought home Photoshop 3.0 on a stack of 3.5″ floppies circa 1994 (the first version with “layers”). As I type these words from my home office on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I can hear my three-year-old daughter downstairs saying “where’s Daddy?” I’m hopelessly addicted. It’s sad, and I love it.

3D digital design tools have been at the core of my career ever since I learned Rhino and SolidWorks in college, Alias as an intern, CATIA V5 as a junior designer, NX7 as a designer, and MODO as a CAD visualization specialist. I spent two years teaching Rhino, SolidWorks, and MODO to classrooms full of college kids and Hollywood visual effects professionals in LA. I’ve traveled the country teaching the same skills to design teams at automotive, sporting goods, and consumer electronics companies.

Designers should not do CAD

Not only do I use CAD myself, I encourage my students to take it seriously. CAD is a crucial skill for anyone designing manufactured goods of any kind. If you are not CAD-literate, you are going to find it exceedingly difficult to find work as an industrial designer.

Taken a step further, I consider skilled CAD use as a form of craftsmanship, not unlike carpentry. Understanding the craft of digital design is essential to understanding the design of manufactured objects.

If you want to design wooden furniture, you must first understand carpentry. If you want to understand industrial design, you must embrace CAD.

There is a difference, however, between mastering CAD and letting CAD master you. This is a crucial distinction.

5. CAD is distracting

How many times have you sat down to solve a design problem, and gotten sucked into solving a CAD problem instead? This is such a common problem that it’s easy to forget just how much of our mental energy we devote to the tool rather than the workpiece. When I work with a pen and paper, my whole attention is focused on the design, not the medium.

By allowing someone else to do your CAD work, you allow yourself the headspace to focus on the design itself.

4. CAD is a crutch

All too often we use CAD as an excuse to avoid difficult design problems. Rather than focusing on the design itself, it’s often easier to sit down and tap away at the slow, steady grind of monotonous CAD work.

We also allow tools to make our design decisions for us. It is not surprising that when Alias was first popularized in the 90s, all of the fashionable designs suddenly became swishy swoopy. When Grasshopper came along, suddenly everything had to have generative patterns. Ever since SubD made its way into CAD, everything’s gone ooey gooey.

Sometimes CAD can even be an excuse for convenience-based design choices: if a given geometry is easier to achieve in the tool at hand, we’ll go with the path of least resistance.

If you allow your mind to focus on actual design problems, your designs will love you for it. No excuses.

3. CAD is slow

You guys. For real. I get push-back on this one, but I always respond the same way. If you think you are fast with CAD, let’s have a race: you with your CAD, and me with my trusty Bic.

When it comes to design exploration and ideation, I will utterly destroy you. It will not be close. It will be a massacre. I will hammer out real-time design ideas literally as fast as I can think them. Meanwhile, not only will you document your ideas much more slowly, but your thinking will be burdened by all of the mental overhead required to operate a complex tool.

Obviously, at a certain point, you have to drop the pen and pick up a mouse (or stylus), and that’s a good thing. 3D is a truly amazing design exploration, refinement and documentation tool. But for ideation, form-finding, and decoration, it’s truly abysmal.

I typically do a bit of both: I start with pen and paper, then jump straight into 3D. Then I take screenshots back to Photoshop for exploration, then jump back into 3D. I cycle back and forth between 2D and 3D constantly.

This works well when working alone, but even better when working as a team. If someone else is doing your CAD work, you can think at the speed of thought. Imagine that! In my experience, the overall design process is significantly faster when I am not bogged down in doing my own CAD work, and instead focus entirely on design.

2. CAD is limiting

If all you know is the Extrude tool, every design will be extruded profiles. This is obvious, and yet people fail to realize just how important this is: you, as a designer, need to be focused on the product not its digital representation.

This might be the most pervasive and problematic aspect of doing your own CAD work, because it severely limits the visual vocabulary of the designer. By having someone else do your CAD, your visual vocabulary will be less limited by your own tools.

To be clear: even it doesn’t matter if the person doing your CAD work has the skill to correctly model your designs in 3D. They can learn. What matters is that you, as you design, are not automatically limiting your design ideas to those that will be most convenient to represent in your CAD tool of choice.

1. Teamwork, people

The single most important reason to have someone else do your CAD is that, by definition, it requires working with others.

When I was an industrial design undergraduate, our first major Sophomore level project was to design a corrugated cardboard chair, document its construction in a printed manual, and have another student build it. Our next challenge was to design wooden salt and pepper shakers, then build a series of jigs and fixtures that a classmate could then use to do the final fabrication. In both cases, we were graded on a product that was made by somebody else.

These projects were excellent. Not only did they pose significant design and communication challenges, they built camaraderie and teamwork within the broader group. We were all inter-dependent. As it should be!

I often recommend that designers work in pairs: you do my CAD, I’ll do yours. That way you can continue to hone your digital craft, but without being limited by it. If you have a larger team, I recommend doing a round-robin: each person does a different person’s CAD work, such that the whole team becomes inter-dependent. It will make your designs better, your designers smarter, and, yes, improve your CAD skills in the process.

Hypocrits Anonymous

I should close by admitting that in my work as an independent contractor, I am all-too-often forced to do my own surfacing. I enjoy it. I even tell myself that I’ve reached a point in my development as a craftsman that I can divorce my designer’s brain from my craftsman’s brain, and work efficiently in both modes. Self-delusion does nobody favors.

The designs of which I am most proud are the ones I didn’t model myself. For similar reasons, the best software I’ve built is the stuff I didn’t code myself. I know this to be true, and yet I persist in taking the seemingly-convenient fallback of doing my own CAD work.

I’ll try to do better. You should, too.

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