• Interview Excerpt: Thornton Lothrop, Associate Professor, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

    Check out some great work from Thornton Lathrop.

    Interviewed while Thornton was the Director of Advanced Innovations at Design Central in Columbus, Ohio.

    What kinds of portfolios get your attention these days? What brings in an industrial designer for an interview?

    The first thing I look for is the ability to draw, to think on paper. It’s one of the things that separates good designers from the average: how well can they think on paper and work through various design challenges.

    Thinking on paper—what does that entail?

    It’s more than just sketching. It’s a different manner of drawing. There are different kinds of drawing in design, aside from the typical skill that’s taught: the design sketching, learning how to draw straight lines, circles and stuff like that. Thinking on paper moves away from simply exploring aesthetics and initiates a cognitive process, going to a place where you’re having a conversation with yourself, expressing things you don’t really understand. Usually when you’re sketching, you are drawing things that you do know. But when you’re thinking, you’re trying to examine categories of information that you’re unsure of. The ability to do that in a fluid fashion, you don’t see it very often. It’s certainly an essential language that designers use to communicate with each other.

    Has there been a portfolio that you’ve seen recently that really stood out, and what about it resonated with you?

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that particular skill set. I generally see it with more senior designers or people with a background in drawing who learned design versus those who learn drawing through design. The current generation of students appears to be under considerable pressure to learn digital media as a primary form of communication. I think eventually the discipline will learn that digital visualization, while essential to the industry, is secondary in the design process. Engineering and architecture have already gone through this experience and realized how critical drawing is to the design process and the ability to learn 3D software. Research has shown that people react differently to drawings versus computer-generated images. It’s why the movie industry is struggling with the “Uncanny Valley” effect. While digital renderings may be dazzling, they can elicit a negative response.

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    Sketching ability, or the analog skills, is the foundation for anyone who wants to be a successful industrial designer?

    Drawing is still the most difficult single skill to acquire in the design process. Software is becoming intuitive to the point where nice digital renderings require just basic linear thinking. Now you can get your engineer to do computer renderings and there are engineers who can draw better than some designers. The profession has to continually reinvent itself in order to maintain a critical presence, from a business perspective, in the development process. Visualizing while facilitating a development meeting with the business client is one of the skills of a good designer.

    When you do find that designer that meets your qualifications and you bring them in for an interview, what do you expect to learn from them then?

    It’s important to see how intelligent they are. You can’t really tell that until you actually speak to them and see how they handle certain questions. Certainly a portfolio that they send in is refined and they had a chance to do that on their own, but when you come in for an interview you have to see how they interact with other people. The nuances of that social interaction are what firms will rely on as an indicator of the responsibility that they’ll be able to shoulder. The maturity that comes out during an interview is pretty critical. Once you hire someone there’s an expectation they’ll perform.

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    If you were just starting out now, what advice would you give yourself?

    Trust your intuition. Looking back on what people said to me at the time about design, there were certain impressions I had that were dismissed or simply discounted. In hindsight, a number of those intuitions were pretty accurate for me, but when you don’t know anything you have to rely on others and hope for the best.

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    Thornton Lothrop of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design

    Thornton Lothrop of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design


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