From math major to professional maker
Spencer’s educational background doesn’t necessarily scream designer. He was a math major in college and also studied physics and computer science. However, he does remember visualizing all of his math problems, scribbling or doodling them to make the theoretical more concrete.
Eventually, he went on to study industrial design and got his first job in the Silicon Valley tech space. However, the 2008 recession hit and his role was eliminated. That’s when he and a friend decided to start their own design studio. Unfortunately, the business didn’t work out, so he returned to corporate work. In late 2019, Spencer decided to quit that job and become a full-time creator and maker.
“My garage is my workshop,” he says. “I’m constantly experimenting.” He’s built the ideal maker-space for himself, and spends his time woodworking, sketching, 3D-printing, filming videos, sketching, and prototyping. He’s also a sought-after consultant in the consumer tech products industry and an enthusiastic teacher and workshop facilitator.
Practising visual thinking
Unlike many of his fellow creatives, Spencer doesn’t consider himself a visual thinker. “I don’t have grandiose, vivid things in my head,” he says. While many of his designer friends can visualise something in detail before attempting to draw or render it, he struggles to see much in his mind’s eye. “There’s a word for it: aphantasia. It’s more of a spectrum, and I’m definitely not at a zero, but I do have to work at creating images in my head,” he says.
“My gift is not specific to design,” he adds. “It has more to do with the ability to see something, understand its parts, and how they fit together and work.”
Spencer’s success as an industrial designer demonstrates that you don’t need to be a “natural” visual thinker in order to work in design. Visual thinking is a muscle that you can train.
For many of us, our visual thinking muscles might simply be out of practice; visual communication, such as sketching and drawing, has been a part of human existence longer than spoken language has. We all draw and doodle as kids, but at some point or another, we’re told we’re just not that good at it. Then, other forms of communication, like written and spoken, start taking precedence and we start to lose that visual vocabulary.
Spencer agrees, sharing that this is something his students often struggle with. “Many of the individuals in my workshops are hesitant to express themselves visually,” he says. “They say to themselves, ‘Oh, I’m not good at that.’ That fear of judgment or assessment holds them back.” The only way to get past that, according to Spencer, is to keep practising.
Spencer explored more about visual communication and expression, in his 2022 session “What is a Sketch?” from the Around design festival:
Creating a library of visual communication tools
Another challenge Spencer finds himself explaining to his students is one that is inherent to design: the gap between what we perceive in our 3D world and what we can create in a 2D medium.
“Perspective is hard to grasp and represent on paper,” he says. He often tells his students to go stand on a street corner and just observe. They’ll soon see the horizon line and notice how buildings fade into the background. Once they have this frame of reference, they can begin building out their visualisation skill set.
While many people think of design as a solitary profession, the truth is that many people are involved in making design decisions. That means designers need to be able to communicate and package their ideas so others can understand them— including stakeholders whose own visual communication skills or vocabulary may be lacking. “It’s about having a library of visual vocabulary,” he says. “If I draw this line or transform this object a certain way, then I will get whatever it is I want to communicate out into the world.”
When asked for his advice for aspiring designers, Spencer says, “Take my own advice: Put something out there!” To be a designer, you have to design. And at first, you might get some negative or even rude feedback. “If you want to get better, you just have to keep at it! Be open to learning and feedback, but don’t let the haters get you down!”
He also recommends creating designs that are just for you. There’s no need for high-fidelity renderings or fancy visuals; all you need to do is get something down on paper. “It’s about having a conversation with yourself and fleshing out your own ideas,” he says.
More from Around
You can listen to all the Around Design Podcast episodes, or watch previous sessions from the Around 3D Design Festival — all on the Around website.
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