I’ve worked across many types of fashion brand, from large corporate retailers, luxury brands, premium labels, right down to tiny start up studios - it’s not surprising to see that the design process varies greatly across all of them. One constant, however, has been the insane amount of time I’ve spent sat in front of a computer CADing up designs and tech packs, both my own and as an assistant to other designers.
Considering this is such a big and important part of a fashion designer’s life I’ve always been amazed at how little thought is given to the essential skill of CADing. Yes it can be the most boring part of the design process but it’s also a pretty crucial one which deserves to be given more attention.
When I decided to pursue a career in fashion design I imagined a creative mishmash of colour, texture and fit, dreaming up new, interesting, beautiful things every day. Instead, nearly all my time has been spent working on a computer using Adobe Illustrator. Fortunately I’ve always had a pretty good understanding of computers and I actually really like using them as a tool to make the most of my time, but this isn’t true for so many creatively minded people. I’m also not a naturally gifted hand-drawer, so when we started learning how to use Adobe Illustrator to CAD up our designs on my fashion degree course I found myself really taking to it. I would be able to get my designs done accurately and quickly, with the ability to play around with them until they looked fantastic.
In reality of course, my University only taught me the very basics (as do courses in nearly all other fashion schools) so when I went out on my industrial placement year as a design assistant it was a shock to find out how much of my life would be spent CADing tech packs on Illustrator and how much more I needed to learn to get by.
Being thrown in at the deep end was incredibly challenging but infinitely rewarding and by the end of it I loved the way the software worked. I discovered lots of different ways of approaching a design and cool, little tricks you could use to make designs look better.
Teaching myself and learning from others along the way is how everybody really learns to CAD in this industry, but I pushed myself further every time I came across a problem or fiddly way to do something using Adobe. It was only through actively seeking out new tools, shortcuts and better ways of building CADs that I felt like I was controlling Illustrator rather than it controlling me. I would head straight to Google whenever I found a problem or had an inkling there might be a better way of doing something, always tweaking the design methods I was using along the way.
Learning a few things here & there and constantly playing, has gone on to save me so much time over the years and allowed me to enjoy this software rather than be frustrated by it. It frees up more time for me to spend on other more interesting areas of the job, and allows me to become a useful person to have round the studio as a problem solver for all Illustrator and Photoshop niggles.
So while it’s obvious that when you’re just setting out learning a skill you need to actively spend time practicing it, for me the most important learning always is what continues after this point. Most designers can CAD pretty well and produce designs sufficiently to get their samples correctly made - which may be enough to get by but with the intensity and pressure of designing at commercial brands skyrocketing, it’s easy to get swamped with so much work to do that just “getting by” becomes harder and harder.
I see good Illustrator skills as the best way to churn out accurate CADs as quickly as possible so more time can be spent coming up with the actual ideas you're about to CAD, they're pretty important too.
It does help that I have a weird love of Illustrator, but there are some useful ways to help the continual learning process. At my last job, myself and a colleague (who happens to quite like Illustrator too) would set challenges to see who could find the best way of doing a certain Illustrator task, this not only made it more fun but it was also really interesting to see the different ways we approached CADing. He would do certain things in a completely different way to me, we both taught each other great new ways of doing things and even combined our methods to come up with new ones.
I actually think this is a really great way to improve a skill and is similar to a work method from the computer programming world. When developers code new programs they often do it in pairs (pair programming) in order to benefit from the different ways people break down the problem at hand and find the best solution. Two heads are better than one as they say and it’d be interesting if designers spent more time doing this rather than solely designing alone. We often collaborate early on in the creative cycle but it definitely feels like there is more room to work together on our design processes too.
This being said, if anyone has tried to find new methods or work flows for Illustrator you’ll know that finding the answer to your problem can be really difficult. Even just knowing how to frame the question in Google is a challenge. If and when you do find something useful, it’s nearly always related to the graphic design field - Adobe don’t seem to have woken up to the fact that fashion designers use their software all day every day too. This means you have to piece together help and advice from various sources in an attempt to make it work for your unique circumstances of CADing apparel. It’s no wonder most designers can’t be bothered to spend time learning this stuff.
This is one of the big reasons I started CAD it quick because I know how hard it is find the really useful stuff. There’s a deluge of information out there, most of it pretty useless for fashion design and a lot of it pitched at the wrong level of difficulty, often for total beginners. I also know it’s hard to find the time to even look for solutions to problems so having tips sent directly to people’s mailboxes is an idea I'll continue to run with.