Sketching has long been an effective tool to help imagine, think about, define, refine and realize ideas. Inventors, in particular, often depend on this resource to explore concepts, brainstorm, test approaches, clarify ideas, and explain their creative method. Artistic skill is neither the point nor the standard; rather, there seems to be a mysterious alignment between the mind and the hand that stimulates the imagination. For many, the very gestures involved in moving a pen or pencil across paper produces a thought that will be developed further in gradually more finished drawings.
Inventors may follow the first visual notes on their concepts with scale or measured drawings and in time build a model or prototype. A series of sketches can illustrate the whole “invention biography” of an item. Once completed, a sketch can provoke responses, sparking discussions and other dynamic engagement with an inventor’s work. These jottings are a significant part of the invention record, providing insight into how innovative ideas take shape, from the first inkling to a concrete result. And these sometimes fugitive drafts may be the only remaining evidence of an idea that disappeared or one that was never realized.
Most inventors keep written records of their work, and many of the sketches shown here include text describing functionality and the types of raw materials intended for creating a model. However, words alone are not adequate. Sketches make it possible to envision what something will look like and how it might work—before the inventor, investor, or both, commit time and money to building or manufacturing the item, or even the prototype.
Some of the familiar attributes and properties of sketching: they are unpolished, quick, direct, clear, accidental, without details, open ended—later versions will come—and plentiful. As the examples presented here attest, sketches are made in both pencil and ink. Invention sketches are often collected in bound notebooks, and they are as diverse as their makers.
Note: This blog post is based on an essay written by the author for the exhibit Tools: Extending Our Reach, at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (December 2014 to May 2015) and published by the Smithsonian in 2015.