Digital vs. Physical: Why designing in digital beats traditional methods every time

02 apr 18

Digital vs. Physical why designing in digital beats traditional methods every time

Written by Austen Miller, 3fD, featured in Eureka Magazine

Unlike many design companies, we design in digital from the very outset of a project. We don’t spend weeks sketching with pens and pencils or building models by hand. I’ve heard other designers argue that using digital from the word go is far too abstract to be of any real use. But when you think about it, the physical alternatives like sketching and making prototypes are equally as abstract. Neither digital or physical methods will give you 100% accurate feedback because you’re not using the actual materials or processes that the end product will use. If that’s the case then which approach should designers choose? I’d argue that at early stages of a project digital is by far the better choice because it’s much faster and offers much more flexibility. Here’s how.

The traditional tools for a designer are marker pens and ‘blue foam’ models. Although many have now replaced the handcrafted model with a digital rapid prototype, the dependence on the hand-crafted sketch is very much still alive. The irony here is that to utilise the benefits of the latest prototyping you need to be able to press ‘F1’ from a digital medium. This implies that, at some point, time has to be spent reverse engineering the artistic interpretations with another set of tools.

From a purely business perspective it makes economical sense to start the process in the digital environment. That means sketching and exploring design concepts in 3D from the very beginning. It’s not the speed of carving a 3D digital model that is the advantage; it’s the amount of extra information you get for the effort.

Some argue they can sketch in 2D quicker. But this only refers to one aspect of a design i.e. how it might look from chosen angles. Even then, a sketch is an idea at its most flattering; an artistic prompt for what something might be. It’s not spatially exact. It has its place, but it is limited. Even the most experienced 3D artist will scribble some of their thoughts on bits of paper or a shower screen! ...more for convenience than necessity. After all, if you put too much effort into a 2D render it will all have to be done again to access the downstream processes in the digital environment.

The wonderful thing about the digital environment for exploring thought and sketching ideas is that you do so in 3D. This allows your brain to visualise the real amount of space that is available, the true proportions that implementing a notion may put on the final form. Manipulating geometry in 3D space presents hard to see opportunities very early; before everyone has committed to the first reasonable idea. At the point of launch, new products often have things that could have been done better in hindsight. Even with this being so there is no reason to make sure by not using tools that are already available to use.

For example, I could be doing a spatial model in a digital environment to work on the aesthetics of a product but then I will think to myself, “that part looks a bit thin, I wonder if it’ll be strong enough”. Because I’ve been designing in digital I can take the data I already have, the same sketch, and with an hour or two of extra manipulation I can use my computer to test if it is in fact strong enough. Of course, further testing and development will be needed, but it’s that ability to troubleshoot and test concepts from the outset which makes designing in digital such a no-brainer where efficiency and productivity are concerned.

Alternatively, designers only sketching in pencil and pen would have to get a sketch signed off, move onto the next part of the project, and even the part after that, before they realise that what they designed earlier on isn’t actually possible. The team will then have to start deviating from the original design, which has already been signed off by the board, and you end up a million miles from the concept and the finish line of the project.

We have designers who join us who instinctively want to use pencils to sketch, which is a fantastic skill to have. But we teach them how they can sketch faster and more intuitively in 3D. Once they get past the initial block of learning how to express themselves in a new medium they get on much better because it offers far greater opportunities and benefits in other parts of the project. For example, as technology develops, we’re finding that it’s often easier to show clients videos and animations of our concept work to help them understand the design, rather than a static image or sketch. That stage can be reached very quickly if you’ve worked in digital from the outset.

As other new technology like VR and AR become more and more embedded into design practice too, the designer already working in a 3D environment is much better equipped to embrace that technology. Designers who can sketch and draw in 3D and then understand how the same data can be used to create videos, animations, VR and AR realisations of their work will be more and more in demand. I believe instilling a culture of designing in digital is the best way to ensure agencies, and their clients, get the most out of this rapidly developing technology.

I suppose that this leads us onto the question of ‘is it possible to design only using digital tools?’ I think that’s probably best answered with another question: ‘is it possible to design only using physical tools?’. The extraordinary capability that digital tools have given us no longer makes the latter commercially viable at scale. But at the same time, despite being an advocate for a digital-first approach to design, as long as we are designing physical products I believe we will never completely remove the need for physical tools. The trick is knowing when it’s best to use them and understanding why you would use them over quicker, more efficient digital alternatives.

If you’ve designed a product in digital and shown a video of it to a client so they get a good sense of how it looks and behaves from all angles, you could then machine quite a primitive, inexpensive blue foam model to show them how big it looks sat in a room with them. This might sound a bit low-fi, but in this scenario a physical model doesn’t need to be any more elaborate (or expensive) than that because its only purpose is to demonstrate physical size and scale. The digital work does the rest and is far more powerful and flexible. After all, it’s much easier to change the material of a product on a video than it is to re-spray and re-finish a physical model (and while you’re at it you could even find out if the change in material has an impact on weight and function of the product).

In a recent consumer electronics project, we used our digital approach for the vast majority of the design work. To accompany it, we created a basic 3D-printed model to test how it all fitted together and how it felt to use. We then moved onto a sampling-up stage before manufacturing. We didn’t have to do physical mock-ups and models of how it looked, or spend years developing the design, because of the efficiency of our digital sketching and prototyping approach. It simply gets us to a manufacturing stage far quicker than more traditional approaches.

Designers therefore need to make the decision at every stage of a project about how to balance digital and physical approaches to achieve the best results for them and their client. For us, this means sketching, concept work and prototyping belong largely in the digital realm because it gives us the greatest flexibility and a head-start over pencil sketches and physical models that, whilst often beautiful, simply aren’t as useful, flexible or powerful as their digital counterparts.