How should engineers work with graphic designers?

Engineers are an analytical bunch. Function always comes before form. Take street signs, for example. Virtually all of these signs were written in all capital letters. This didn't change until recently - when research proved that that a combination of uppercase and lowercase characters is easier for the elderly to read. Now, signs are being replaced with the easier to read text. The engineers at the Federal Highway Administration didn’t make the decision to switch to a more attractive type until someone provided research that proves that it’s easier to read.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 10.34.30 AM

Image via The New York Times

Know what to look for

I come from the Point of Purchase display industry, where graphic elements are at every corner. I have spent a lot of time working with graphic designers, and I have learned a lot about where miscommunications occur. Nothing makes me cringe more than going into a local Best Buy and seeing a graphic with an element covered up by the product (ok, maybe I’m more bothered by ugly welds, but that’s a whole different story).

Once, I was working on a prototype for an in-aisle section of a Staples store. I was anxiously awaiting the completed graphics to come in for testing. They came in at ¼th the size! Not great. We had to re-print the graphic, and I had to pester the graphic designer to update the art to fit the appropriate size. I’ve even seen graphics get printed backwards, or upside down, too. You might find this hard to believe, but it’s difficult to put a graphic together when the holes that are supposed to be on the bottom of the graphic are on the top.

As is the case with all engineering, these issues can be prevented by providing the designer with better information. A great engineer knows how to communicate above all else, so let’s go over what I’ve made a habit of doing to provide the graphics department with what they need to get the work done right every time.

Use what you know

First off, you have to stay diligent. Most of the time the graphic will be nothing more than a rectangle, but your drawings should provide more than that. Like any other manufacturing process, printing has its own set of complexities that demand your attention. Ask yourself, what does the designer need to know? Is there a section of the graphic that is covered up after the design is assembled? If so, you definitely want to call that out in your drawing so they don’t put art in the wrong place. Are there holes, or special cutouts in the graphic that make it asymmetrical? You’ll want to add an annotation that points out what side of the graphic is the top.

Additionally, make sure the graphic is displayed as-if it is facing toward you, otherwise the art may get printed on the wrong side of the graphic. In addition to the drawing, you’ll also want to send a 1:1 DXF of the graphic to the designer. They can import the DXF directly into Adobe Illustrator and develop art off of that, using your drawing to confirm that everything imported correctly.

My process, using SolidWorks

I went ahead and modeled an example of a drawing I made for a graphic, and uploaded it here.

  1. Model the graphic
  2. Create second configuration of graphic, titled “FOR DRAWING.” This configuration will allow us to add extra information to the graphic that will help the graphic designer, without accidentally breaking mates in the assembly context. Untitled
  3. Make sure you’re editing on the FOR DRAWING configuration. Use the split line tool to outline any areas that are hidden behind something. In my case this is typically a J-Channel that holds the graphic in-place, a product, or another graphic. The split line tool will break the face into multiple faces, creating edges on the face of your graphic with no depth.
  4. UntitledCreate a drawing, dimensioning the graphic and all relevant edges created from the split line features
  5. Use the hatch tool to fill in all “dead areas”Untitled
  6. Copy the drawing view, and paste onto a separate sheet
  7. Set the scale of the view to 1:1
  8. Export the view to a DXF, not AI. Exporting to AI from SolidWorks segments the curves and makes your graphics look hideous. DXF makes nice lovely curves that will make your graphic designer a very happy person.

Cater to your audience

As an engineer, my personal goal is not only to create the best design possible, but it is also to provide everyone with all of the information needed to do their part in bringing the design to life. Professionals come from a myriad of backgrounds, and have knowledge in different areas. We need to strive to do everything we can to provide details to everyone in the way that works best for them. Graphic designers see the world differently than others, and have a specific way in which their details need to be provided to them. If you take your time, and give them the correct information in the best way possible, you’ll end up with fewer surprises.