It’s time for a new series of daily design prompts. This summer we’re going to focus on building a visual vocabulary and creating interesting forms.

Visual Vocabulary

Visual vocabulary is about knowing how things look. Imagine you’re a professional power tool designer and a project director asks you to design a chainsaw. You’ve examined and sketched chainsaws (ideally several models and several brands of chainsaws), so your visual vocabulary for chainsaws is strong.  You know what a chainsaw looks like. You can picture it in your head. You can draw a realistic chainsaw, with all the important parts. Your new chainsaw designs will work, because they will look like real, believable power tools.

This works the same for any design, whether you’re designing power tools and toys for manufacturing, or goblins and giant robots for entertainment. Your unique vision makes your designs innovative, but a good visual vocabulary makes your designs accessible to your audience. A successful design needs both. Your audience should recognize the design as a power tool, or a toy, or a giant robot, and they should be excited by your innovative new twist on the concept.

We develop design vocabulary by sketching what we see. So a portion of this summer’s daily sketch prompts will focus on sketching objects that already exist. You’ll analyze them carefully, looking for the details that make the object recognizable.

Here’s an example. This summer I’m working science fiction and fantasy illustration, so I’m building my visual vocabulary of creatures, props, and fantastical settings. This week it’s creatures (specifically creature heads and faces), so these are form studies of real-life animals (deer). I didn’t try to create anything new here. I just focused on the basic overall shape and the key details (antlers, ears, textures, etc) that make deer look like deer.

Form Generation

This is where you take your new visual vocabulary and create something new. Move the parts around. Use them in new ways. Exaggerate them. Mix them up with other vocabularies and see what happens.

Your form generation sketches should be rough, but clear. These are ideas, not presentation drawings, so a few rough lines, smudges, and false starts are OK. Just make sure you do these four things:

  • Work quickly—Give yourself enough time for good perspective and clear communication, but don’t let yourself get stuck on a single sketch.
  • Communicate clearly—All the forms should be clear and identifiable. Use perspective, line quality, surface lines, and simple shading to make sure that viewers can understand what they’re seeing.
  • Explore a variety of ideas —Don’t draw the same thing twice.
  • Focus on the big ideas—Save the fine details for later

Form generation is fun, but it can be very challenging. Sometimes the image in your head doesn’t match your sketches. Sometimes you can’t come up with anything new. Don’t let yourself get frustrated, just practice every day (well, almost every day). Over time, your work will get better.

Here’s another example, based on my the research drawings above. These sketches use the design vocabulary of deer (especially antlers. I love antlers), but they use them in new ways. All of these ideas could use some refinement, but that comes later. For now, I just wanted to explore what I could do with deer-like creatures.

What’s Next

I’ll post a week’s worth of sketch prompts every Monday morning at 6am Pacific. You can find them on the main page of this blog.

If you’re new to this, you may also want to read “Welcome to Daily Sketch Prompts!” It’s a good place to start