5 Essential Design Tools


"Design is a mix of craft, science, storytelling, propaganda, and philosophy."

— Erik Adigard

Simply put, design is the arrangement of visual elements in a space. However, we know it is so much more.

Part I of the series of articles on The Art of Design:

5 Essential Design Tools:

  1. Craft Skills and Techniques
    Acquiring skills and technique takes time, investment in tools and materials, and practice. This is one of the essential foundations that can take years and thousands of hours to become a master.

    In this age of expediency and DIY, we no longer focus on education and practice but on results. This is drastically different than how artists and craftsman came to be prior to the technology age.

    Apprenticeship came about during the Middle Ages as a way for young people (10-15) to trade labor for their keep (food, lodging). Often after their apprenticeship was over they would become Journeyman, which is similar to a contractor, who would work for a Master in their employ. Then eventually they too would become Masters with time, accumulated knowledge and practice.

    Practice is essential to the mastery of anything. Old Masters (painters) would paint for years before ever selling their work. I think artists sometimes forget, because of economics and the rapid pace of this world, that it is unusual to sell work without fine tuning, editing and developing their story over a long period of time.

    A lack of sales and profit can often be attributed to this lack of development. The connection to the work, the seduction of the buyer, hasn't fully formed. Developing that story and the artist's sense of self, is a process of evolution. It's okay if it takes years to develop and establish.

  2. Drawing Ability
    It isn't essential to draw perfectly to be an artist. Having owned 2 paint your own pottery studios, I was told by 99.9% of all adults "I can't draw, (therefore) I'm not an artist."

    Rarely does someone have instant drawing excellence. It is the accumulation of hours of sketching… practicing. From this perhaps boredom of simple sketching has sprung the popular journaling movement which combines words, sketching and visual collage together.

    The ability to draw is an essential element of communication. It helps you communicate your ideas, document or capture designs for future use, and to work with customers in a commission-based way.

    It doesn’t have to be perfect and often imperfect or stylized drawing can be a creative art form in itself. However, if you plan on selling your designs or having them cast, you will need to learn a more technical approach.

  3. Sketchbook
    Do you keep a journal, a sketchbook, or perhaps both?  Some artists just do quick thumb nail sketches and others are more detailed. 

    A sketchbook can be a great place to keep "recipes".  What worked, what didn't work, experiments, texture samples, finishes, interesting findings and more!  It’s a great place to try out color combinations, engineering ideas too. 

    I find working on index cards handy, as they fit on my bench. They can be glued into whichever sketchbook it fits best or into a special section. 

    Say you design a great clasp, but you end up discarding it for another, more suitable design. You can then easily move it to another page where you keep clasp ideas.  I also love them for class notes as they can be stapled to handouts, etc. so they are easily coordinated with other notes.

  4. Idea/Inspiration Notebook
    I also enjoy keeping many 3 ring binders full of magazine tear-outs, printed photos, and gathered artist postcards for inspiration.

    I have tab separators for techniques, color combinations, clasps, clever engineering/connectors, beading, materials, etc. I think having these sources as a backup whenever you need a “clue” is invaluable.

  5. Sample Journal
    I have an 3 ring binder dedicated to samples. I have these great pocket sleeves and inserts where I can keep in one place all my etching, enameling, hinge, and stamping samples. It’s great for teaching or to keep notes on your process. I can’t recommend this enough!

    When I take a class, I never make a finished piece because I’m there to play not perform. I am always more interested in using the time to make several samples from which to inspire me to create many more pieces. Samples are excellent learning tools.

Don't forget to leave a comment and get entered to win a F*R*E*E give-away from Whole Lotta Whimsy! Drawing is November 15th!

23 Responses to 5 Essential Design Tools

  1. Tonya's tips seem so common sense once you read them, but I certainly hadn't thought of several of them. I love the idea of the index cards and the sample journal! I learned the hard way that if you don't keep good notes, photos and yes, samples, it is pretty difficult to produce another piece 6 months later when someone says they would love to have a pendant similar to the one you sold to a friend. Yikes! Thanks, Tonya, for taking the time to help us become better artists through organization!

  2. Great advice. Am always having ideas that flash through my mind and are gone. Keeping the "idea binder" is perfect. Always will be able to put your hand on any information that's needed without hunting all over the house or craft area. Really appreciate all the sound advice. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and encouraging your artist community. It was helpful to be reminded that it is ok for ones craft and story to develop slowly. I also liked your idea of starting a samples notebook. My last favorite was the idea that keeping a journal is not just about capturing ideas but is also a place to practice one's drawing.

  4. At the beginning of each of my jewelry classes, I tell the students to start a "design notebook", with pictures of jewelry they would like to build. What is so fun is to see them actually building pieces from their notebooks a few weeks into the course ( I do 6-8 wk courses usually). Having notebooks is a fantastic way to develop your own designs, too, and I have some going back 30 years now. Why? As we all have seen, everything old becomes "new" again, like Homer Simpson says, "Wait for it…."

  5. Loved the specific advice about drawing. I keep running into that–my skills are ready for the next step up but need the mental and physical structure that drawing provides. Plenty of creativity and outside-the -box stuff that needs a box to give it shape.

  6. I also work 40 hrs a week. I find the best time to develop sketches is during long boring meetings. Yes – I am listening, but I have come up with some awesome ideas!

  7. I started making jewelry about 5 years ago and joined an art group but have always felt that "I'm not an artist". Your statement, "Simply put, design is the arrangement of visual elements in a space", puts it all in perspective for me. I also like the idea of keeping a journal or "idea" book. Thanks!

  8. Like anything else you might want to do, you need to practice. That's why so many people have family's with 'gifts' or 'samples'. Also when one has tired of a hobby and goes into something else crafty or creative those starts and stops are very instructive.

  9. A great article and I love the quote at the beginning. I've been doing metal clay for about 5 months and yes, you learn with each package more about what to do and what not to do.

    I do all of the things you've mentioned except for the samples and making notes on what works and what doesn't. So I'll add those things in as they occur now. I also keep a book on things I've ordered for the business, such as tools, gift boxes, etc to help me track overhead and know what I've got coming in. Thanks for a great site and great info. I'm saving to buy my kiln from you and hope to do so within the next six months. Keep up the great work and finding us all those tools and things we can't live without.

  10. I love the binder for keeping 3D samples!
    Thanks, Tanya! Keeping the creative impulse fresh and juicy means paying attention and giving myself what I need in tangible ways. I love your articles! I've been keeping notes and even sketches on my iPad and find because always keep it nearby, more and more ideas are flowing. What we give our attention to, grows!

  11. I have been keeping sketchbooks for around 5 years it's good to look back and gain from often a discarded idea to help refine a new one.

  12. I liked the overall encouragement to keep our eyes open and get my scraps of paper into a notebook format very helpful.
    … and to keep at the workbench. Creativity is a process not an ending.

  13. I also use index cards to record the details of a project. I also put pricing info next to the materials list, and then use the index card as the basis of entry into my bookkeeping system. I have a sketchbook in which I put notes, drawings for possible pieces and also clippings from magazines. Lastly, I keep a small sketchbook in my purse for notes and sketches on the go.

  14. Tonya mentions that when she takes a class, she is not concerned with making or having "finished work" at the end & there to play. I'm glad to see her say that. Even though I have been an instructor myself, (in painting & drawing), it's easy to get discouraged during a class, when you see other students actually coming out with finished works & yourself coming out with fragments….I had that happen the last few classes I've taken.Not to mention the whopping $$$ you may pay for 1/2 days of class. Remember…1) like she says, you are there to play 2)everyone learns at different paces..3)you've probably internalized more information than you realize. 4)look at your work 3-6 mos.after the class, compare it to what you were doing before, and chances are you'll be surprised, I know I was. Also don't forget to have fun & play in that sketchbook too!!!!

    • I agree, and it took me a long time to feel ok about not being as productive as my classmates. It takes longer for ideas to brew for me, though that's partly the inner critic. 😉

  15. I needed to be reminded to practice and not expect a finished piece. I like the idea of a sample journal.

  16. the notecard thing and ring binders is a great idea. I have so many sketches scattered in so many places (yes even napkins), and half time time there will only be one part of a design that's really fleshed out and works, it would be great to be able to "cut and paste" it to a better section.

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