Home Featured ‘The Pencil Revolution’ and the future of design and illustration

‘The Pencil Revolution’ and the future of design and illustration


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Lucy Royle shares her first exclusive article with WhichPLM, in which she discusses the transformative ways of working for designers in our industry – from paper and pencil to CAD and beyond. Lucy is a fashion designer with extensive experience working for global brands. Graduating from the University of Leeds, she began a career in womenswear design, developing a passion for jersey product and brand identity. She most recently pioneered the sportswear range at Superdry – SuperdrySport – which drew from her experience on the design team at Reebok. Having worked with manufacturers worldwide in the pursuit of product innovation and quality, she is currently working freelance from her home in the Cotswolds. Keep an eye out for future exclusives from Lucy. 

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In the beginning

Lucy RoyleHere’s a challenge for you: using the traditional artisan methods of pencil and paper, and without using templates or guides, draw a fully clothed human figure that is accurate to relative scale. Now, call out all garment details, from stitch lines to branded buttons, with such fastidious precision that it would make the drawing fully interpretable across language barriers.

Complete it in ten minutes.

Upon completion, repeat the process by meticulously replicating the figure, only this time: changing the outfit to communicate different garments.

Complete it in ten minutes.

Repeat the process again… and again… never compromising on detail until you have a fully completed range of apparel drawn with such thorough precision that a garment supplier could quite confidently produce a set of samples from your drawings.

Hard isn’t it?

Chances are, you considered taking up the challenge but remain staring at a blank piece of paper, completely overwhelmed by the initial task of drawing a relative-to-scale human body – let alone an entire clothing range. Committed classicists among us would argue that remaining faithful to the pencil is a skill that must be protected and encouraged, and I would agree with them to a degree, but in the face of the rapidly developing fashion industry, traditional skills just don’t keep up with the pace required. And we all know that no-one waits around too long here.

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A personal note

I began studying Fashion Design at the University of Leeds in 2006 – admittedly, completely ignorant to the extent of the Adobe Creative Suite’s reach throughout the fashion industry – and set out for my first days on campus armed with a pencil case, a cumbersome sized portfolio carrier and the artistic promise of a fresh layout pad. With a hand-me-down laptop and a flip phone (the advent of the iPhone was still  the best part of a year off, and who needs a mobile phone with an Internet connection anyway?), I felt I had everything I needed for a wonderfully creative four years in the design studios.

During my first couple of years at university I worked organically, crafting most of my projects by hand and re-working parts of them where I could with Photoshop.  Assignments would be submitted on stapled, glued and sticky-taped sheets of A3 art paper (I still remember the tacky feeling left by the spray mount on the carpet of my student accommodation), that not only fulfilled the requirements of the brief, but also documented a series of smudged scribblings and handwritten annotated notes along the way – part of the beauty of design development some might argue, but not ideal for professional presentation and communication. The department photocopier swallowed regular chunks of my student loan, as did many of the local art stores as I went looking for the perfect colour of Pro Marker.

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The advent of CAD

For a time, the industry had worked in much the same way; in my first graduate role after university I remember a colleague recalling a time when he stayed late in the office to fax 100 sheets of hand drawn designs through to China with each page meticulously numbered in an effort to avoid any degree of misunderstanding at the other end. Any changes or amendments were painstakingly redrawn and re-faxed with fingers crossed that the message was received clearly. Design offices would bulge under the sheer weight of filing, the innovative colour photocopier worked overtime and the office phones rang out a chorus of international calls. Understandably, collections took longer to develop then than what we’ve come to know today – a matter of months as opposed to a matter of weeks – but the deadlines were still as notoriously pressured …it was just that designers were running with very different workloads to what we are now more familiar with.

Looking back now, it all formed part of a very creative, but incredibly haphazard, way of working and with no secure file storage system or back-up processes we were all working with huge degree of risk. The advent of CAD technology brought with it revolutionary ways of working and completely changed the pace of the industry. Forever.

The first industry-recognised graphical drawing application went under the name of ‘Micrografx Designerand had been available on the market since the 1980s. There was also the ‘Micro Design One CAD full colour graphics system, available for around $6000. Micrografx Designer was acquired in 2001, going by the now more familiar name of ‘Corel’. But, following its introduction in the 1990s it was Adobe Illustrator that soon became the number one choice for fashion designers from around the globe, forging a 90% plus share of the market. And it’s easy to see why.


Illustrator has been in a state of continuous improvement over the years and, today, offers incredibly powerful capabilities; it’s favoured for its offer of a flexible drawing and design environment that provides a level of functionality far beyond that allowed by hand drawing. With a seamless interaction between a pen and tablet function, users of Illustrator favour its replication of the action of hand drawing and enjoy the enhanced experience it brings by enabling designers to work quickly, accurately and with consistency. It provides a creative platform that, when combined with other programs within the Adobe Suite – Photoshop or InDesign, for instance – becomes an overwhelmingly limitless interface for design innovation. Utilising a series of ‘layers’ allows the user to drop information relevant to different departmental workflows onto the same document, without inhibiting the visual creativity of the final illustration. Without the requirement for any traditional drawing equipment, Illustrator allows designers  huge creative liberty – somewhat of an anomaly given that there’s not a 2B drawing pencil or layout pad in sight.

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The changing pace

The increased speed at which a designer can now work reflects in the changing demands of the consumer – as consumer demands for product newness increase, so do the pressures on designers to keep ahead of the market. With increasingly pressured turnaround times in the face of trends that are, let’s face it, changing quicker than ever, the industry no longer turns on a bi-seasonal axis, but instead, is delivering newness every six weeks. In some cases, seasons have been retired and businesses are operating in a continuous, ever faster cycle of newness. Designers are working to higher SKU counts than ever before with less and less design time, and rely on Illustrator for both the speedy realisation of their designs and the timely delivery of creative and accurate work. In today’s design offices, the determining factor in the success of a collection’s delivery no longer pivots on the office fax machine; innovative software has streamlined the process, eliminating all of the inaccuracies, smudging and time-consuming efforts of doing it all by hand.

I can recall the exact point at which I converted from the pencil to the Wacom tablet, and have never looked back since. As part of my university course, I took up a 12-month internship on the sportswear design team at Reebok and will forever be grateful to the team for the time they invested in my learning of Adobe Illustrator. Commencing my placement as a complete novice, by the time I moved on I had become a passionate advocate of the benefits of Illustrator. So, in awe of it’s abilities and the creative potential it would give to my final year projects, I bought myself my first MacBook, complete  with Adobe Creative Suite software, to which I could return to university with.

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 The power of

My year out in industry not only taught me the Illustrator drawing skills, but also enabled me to see it as a powerful tool of standardisation, and I saw first-hand the benefits that Illustrator could bring to a global business. Designers based in offices across America, Europe and Asia could effortlessly maintain visual brand identity by working with a predetermined set of stroke widths, brushes and swatch libraries. When presentations were shared across continents, the designers had delivered a cohesive brand message without compromising on creativity. From twin-needle stitch brushes to branded pop stud fastenings, and mesh swatch infills to basic crew neck t-shirt silhouettes, shared libraries across design teams ensured a collaborative and connected design process.

Subsequent experience in the industry has shown me, however, that not all design teams work in such structured and standardised ways. Whilst their creativity may not be inhibited by working outside of the supposed confines of standardisation, the efficiency with which they’re working can come under scrutiny. Building collaborative swatch libraries takes time, dedication and effort – and trying to find the time to allocate to such a task becomes difficult in the relentless pace of the design office. Developing and using predetermined scaled vector sketch libraries of avatars (scaled bodies) in collaboration with relative-to-scale product designs that have been designed as pieces (sleeves, collars, cuffs, pockets, plackets etc.) allows designers to select and place garment parts with complete confidence that the parts are correct to scale for a particular product type (mens, ladies, childrens, unisex).

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Today’s designers are rarely at such liberty to stand back and consider the extensive challenges of developing a standardised method of creating a project to re-engineer the creative process and, in the majority of cases, would not have the luxury of time and resource to undertake a project of this magnitude.  However, just like the industry moved from the pencil to the computer, it’s now time to recognise that, regardless of industry sector (be it luxury fashion houses, brands or high street suppliers), there’s a generalised set of garment silhouettes and components that remain consistent throughout and that are related to block patterns. From a formal or fitted shirt, a ladies dress, a blouse, a coat, all the way to component parts such as an hook & eye fastening to an inserted seam zip, or a button cuff to shirt collar, standard parts and libraries will help a retailer, brand or manufacturer to remove the inefficiency of re-drawing these scaled details each time they are needed. With just a few clicks, users will be able to access a wealth of predetermined drawings and product components from libraries that ensure illustrations adhere to branding guidelines and remain consistent across an organisation’s entire workflow.

At its most basic level of standardisation, standard vector sketched products and components help to provide a business with a trusted avatar family – a collection of relative-to-scale human figures on which users can base their designs and that relate to the blocks used by the pattern department. With a universal canvas size and a standardised set of ‘mannequins,’ work can be shared across design teams in the confidence that it will remain consistent.

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Saving and sharing

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the weighty document file sizes that Illustrator can create, causing delays and inefficiencies throughout the design office. There are frantic calls to the IT department when documents exceeding 100MB cause computer crashes and a blocked printer queue. There is also the inconsolable devastation when a file is lost due to it’s size becoming incomprehensible to both the server and Illustrator itself.

However, given its modular framework, Illustrator allows “expert” users to reduce the file sizes of a particular drawing, including all of it’s layers, without compromising the quality of the image – this is what is referred to as lossless compression. This enables users to save files in the smallest size possible without losing any editing capabilities e.g. reducing a 100Mb file down to 10Mb. Simply by stripping out all of the unnecessary information that Adobe automatically bundles onto a document (swatches, brushes, fonts etc.), users can work confidently, knowing that they can access the relevant tools they need in order to work efficiently, and effectively share the document through the workflow.

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Given the ubiquitous use of Illustrator throughout the fashion industry, it’s important that graduates are leaving universities with proven CAD capabilities – not only does this benefit employers, but it prepares students for the realities of a career in apparel design. Whilst artistic flair and a natural feel for drawing make for valuable skills, and are crucial in identifying a creative career calling, a strong education in CAD will ensure our graduates remain relevant in an ever-changing industry. I certainly look forward to sharing my experiences with students and graduates in the near future.

And given the very nature of this ‘ever-changing industry,’ it’s incredibly important that the education of designers actively working within our sector is not forgotten. In my own industry experience, many designers would confess to not using Illustrator software at it’s most efficient way possible, but this largely comes down to the majority of designers working ignorantly of it’s true capabilities. Like many software programs in place within business today, we often see that of the full, 100%  solution capabilities only 20% of the solution is “known” and therefore used by a business.  Companies need to invest in the learning and development of their employees in order for them to get the most out of the current software and to keep abreast of evolving industry technologies. It enables them to maximise their potential whilst increasing company output as well as  developing and expanding the skill sets of their employees in the process.

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The future

Reflecting back on the progress of graphical drawing and illustration over the last thirty years, and in light of the speed at which we know things to develop now, it’s incredible to think where we could be within the next decade.

In an industry that’s feeding an ever growing appetite for ‘the next big thing’, and with constant consumer demand for newness, the pressures on designers will inevitably increase. We need get quicker, slicker and more efficient at bringing product to market – and this all starts at the proverbial drawing table (or, more productively, at the tip of a Wacom pen).

Illustrator currently provides the clearest form of communication when linked together with supporting software packages, including PLM , and working together helps to support a global industry that spans various cultures, languages and timezones. With more efficient use of Illustrator, the speed at which designers can bring product to market is incredible. We’re on the verge of witnessing another revolutionary change of pace in the industry, much like we embraced thirty years ago at the birth of CAD.

By bringing 2D and 3D together, we will enter the next the phase of the evolution of computerisation and visual illustration – we’ve come a long way from that sheet of paper and pencil.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.