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Sketch Series: Draw Anything with Spencer Nugent Recap

Design Museum LIVE • July 2020

By Sara Magalio

In our July Sketch Series, we welcomed Spencer Nugent, founder of Sketch-A-Day.com and IDSKETCHING.COM. Spencer has been working in design for almost two decades with companies including General Motors and Astro Studios. He is originally from Jamaica, and he currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he uploads regular sketch demonstration videos to his YouTube channel: Sketch A Day, which has 115k subscribers. 

At the event, Spencer explained that he wanted to commit to drawing every day, not just at work, to keep himself accountable in continuing to improve his design and sketching abilities. He found that the best way to stay motivated was to interact with others while sketching regularly, and so Sketch A Day was born. 

Before showing us how to sketch everything from basic warm-up exercises like straight lines and ellipses to alien spaceships and futuristic sports cars, Spencer shared a presentation on the fundamentals of communication, and the importance of the skill of sketching, even for the modern-day designer who has access to a wealth of technology. 

Visual Language

Spencer explained that he originally came from a math background, which he said is similar to design in that both disciplines involve problem solving and creativity. However, Spencer noted that early in his transition into the design field, he realized that he would need to develop a different skill set in order to convey his ideas, namely sketching. 

He revealed that the ambiguity that can plague verbal communication is not as present in visual communication, such as iconography, because these shapes and symbols can transcend language, culture, boundaries, and disciplines so that many individuals can understand the concept being presented. Spencer cited no smoking signs and stop signs as examples of universal iconography that conveys a message.

Spencer continued to explain that visual communication can be augmented when tone, shadow, perspective, color, and surface finish are added to the overall figure in the sketch, thereby enhancing the communicative power of the object.

Spencer also made the point that sketching with a writing utensil and paper is far from the only form of communication that can convey a design. CAD, or computer aided design, 3D printing, and sculpting can all be effective ways to share design ideas, though these methods can often be more time consuming and expensive than sketching with a pen and paper.

“There is something encouraging but also intimidating about a blank sheet of paper,” Spencer said. “You effectively have no limits as to what you can do, the only limits are your imagination and your skill.”

Rapid Visualization

Spencer explained that with sketching, less is more, and it is often best to use simple and efficient drawing techniques, since the goal of sketching is to abstract and simplify reality, while adding in some style. Thinking about the lines and colors as merely symbols of the item can change your perspective on the design.

He reminded viewers that designers are essentially salespeople— pitching ideas to coworkers, bosses, and investors. He explained that salespeople have an incredible command of vocal communication. They know the right words to use and they understand people, the psychology of humans, and how to communicate the right message. Spencer noted that all of these characteristics are also beneficial to the designer. Sketches can evoke emotions and create perceptions that allow the designer to pitch their designs more successfully.

For the sketch process itself, Spencer noted that sketching is an iterative process– it is helpful to adopt the mindset of going step by step. Understanding that the sketch doesn’t have to be perfect the first time helps take the pressure off of the immediate product, while thinking about the sketch as a progression, rather than a final product, and understanding how the product would be made in production, allow the designer to have a kind of conversation with the work and retain control of the process.

So what makes a good sketch page? Spencer shared the following four components that the designer should try to incorporate into their sketching:

  1. Form – what is the object
  2. Function – what does the thing do
  3. Context – where does the object live
  4. Detail – zooming into the object and taking a look at important parts of the object 

All of these facets come together to create a narrative for what the object is.

Levels of Sketching

Spencer clarified that there are different sketching methods for different situations, these include:

  1. Personal communication – doodles meant for the designer, may not be as clear to others, rough and loose sketches
  2. Thinking/exploratory – more iterative, forms and shapes thematically related to each other
  3. Functional/technical – how something works, showing the different components of the object that make it work
  4. Presentation – sketches tend to be a lot tighter and cleaner than a regular sketch, these are more time consuming, Spencer tends to use digital tools to create these images
  5. Emotive – serves as a high note in presentation, think about the variations in a piece of music, designers should try to connect with their audiences in the same way; use a different point of view or perspective

The Key to Getting Better

Spencer concluded his presentation by stating that there is no “magic pen” or technique that makes someone a superior designer. He estimates that talent is only about 10% of the equation, and the rest is up to the designer to practice consistently by keeping a sketchbook, trying new techniques, and always being aware of the inspiration that can come from one’s surroundings.

Spencer’s Tips for Drawing Anything

  • To warm up, draw straight lines, circles, and ellipses (practicing incremental degree increase).
  • Draw with your shoulder and elbow, while keeping the wrist as stationary as possible.
  • Get in the habit of holding the pen loosely and placing the hand farther back on the pen, for a more fluid look and feel to the sketch. 
  • Start by taking a shape that is 2D and convert it to 3D by thinking about the top view, side view, and rear view and sketching or visualizing the representative plane(s) for the perspective to translate the sketch to 3D.
  • If you’re stressed out, it will show in your drawing, attitude will impact how you are performing when drawing. 
  • When drawing a transparent object, draw in a background and show how it warps when looking through the transparent object, this helps to clarify the concept of the object.
  • When beginning a sketch, it can also be helpful to use a 30% gray marker (or pencil). This gives you some room to progressively get darker.
  • Curious about the tools and supplies Spencer uses? Check out his must-haves on his website!