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  • Writer's pictureTingbin Tang

Da Vinci, Role Model for Designers

Whenever talking about Leonardo da Vinci, people will think of his paintings, the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and so on and so forth. But actually Da Vinci is not like any other artists, who just paint for artistic expressions; Da Vinci has designed many products, and his broad knowledge in engineering, crafts, human factors, usabilities, and so on, also fit into our modern education for designers. So, I would say, Leonardo da Vinci is more of a designer than an artist.

1. Design Foundation Skill Sets

When my friends get to know I am a designer, many of them will start to ask, hi, so can you draw a portrait for me? Your house must be very artistic. Yes, it is true, even though not all designers are also artists; but all designers can draw. However, most artists cannot design.

Art is just a foundation skill set for design. Design is a combination of art, technology, psychology and more. Why do designers need the art skill set as a foundation? Because it gives designers the power to visualize their vision. Through art training, designers master the skill set and sense of form, perspective, color, texture, proportions, and so on… Designers can do a quick sketch to capture their ideas during brainstorming; designers can do a color rendering to show more details of his/her design, color, texture, finishing…


For an art work, they do not have to follow strict rules of perspective, they do not have to consider symmetry, proportions and geometry; an artwork can be very abstract, can be very emotional/spiritual, because art is a way of self expression. However, design is for the mass market, the best design is the most selling design. Designers have to consider the manufacturing process, consider the cost, consider the acceptance and experience of the consumers, designers’ “art work” will consider more aspects. Design work is where art and science, aesthetic and technology, emotion and rationality meet.

For Leonardo da Vinci, it is the same. His art work is not abstract, his art work follows a very strict perspective, proportion, etc. There are eleven surviving manuscripts of his notes and drawings, amounting to thousands of pages, which are design sketches. In other words, Da Vinci has a lot more design pieces than his art pieces, so to me, art/painting was just his foundation skill set, his true talent and his true passion is to design, to innovate, to produce products for the people.

2. People-Centered Research

Designer’ work will be used for the people. So, designers have to research target consumers, to understand what they need and what they want, to find out all the factors around people. Most artists would not. However, like I said, Da Vinci is more of a designer than an artist, his research has always been about people. Actually, he is even a pioneer, and the most important contributor to human factor study in the early days.


Leonardo learnt human anatomy and he dissected 30 human bodies of different genders and ages. He has produced more than 200 paintings about human anatomy. For a designer to design functional products for people, human factors need to be seriously considered, and anatomy is one of them. Even though in modern design education, we would require design students to dissect a human body like how Da Vinci did, designers will surely need to have such knowledge and such sense during design.


The Vitruvian Man is a drawing made by Da Vinci. It depicts a man in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and inscribed in a circle and square. This drawing represents da Vinci's concept of the ideal human body proportions. Even today, this drawing is still used as the cover of many “Human Factors” textbooks for designers. Of course, nowadays, human factors have been further developed into physical factors, psychological factors, social factors, cultural factors, cognitive factors and so on. And it is a must to learn knowledge for all designers. And we have also developed many methodologies for designers to research and dive deep, to find out all the factors around target users.


3. Cross-discipline Knowledge

Not like an engineer or a chemist, whose knowledge is very vertical; a designer’s knowledge base needs to be very horizontal, very broad.

To ensure the success of a product, designers need to understand target market, target users, competitors, material, manufacturing process, costs, tech trend and fashion trend; accordingly, designers will learn cross-discipline courses from market research, user study, to materials, from sketching, rendering, to prototyping and manufacturing process, from users’ physical needs to psychological needs and user experiences. For some products, designers even need to understand more unique knowledge in that field. For example, for transportation designers, they also need to understand aerodynamics; for UI/UX designers, they also need to understand computer programming; for motion designers, they also need to understand filming and video editing… A successful designer is expected to have passion and curiosity, he/she will be very sensitive to the trend, and immerse themselves into people’s daily life to gain empathy. So he/she will also love art, history, culture, craftsmanship, music, and so on and so forth.

Da Vinci is the same, he has very broad knowledge, and has done research in many disciplines. Besides human anatomy, he has also done research into physics, mechanical engineering, aerodynamics, bioengineering, architecture, and so on. These are the fields that a designer may touch, and Da Vinci has also done design work related. Da Vinci is the first transportation designer. In 1905, an Italian scholar named Chichi Mora Calvi discovered that Leonardo’s car concept was similar to modern cars in terms of structure. In 1936, according to the records in Da Vinci’s notebook, he restored the model of the vehicle and compared it to "Leonardo’s Fiat". He has also designed many weapons, architectures and even helicopters.

4. Design Thinking

Leonardo da Vinci has a mindset of design thinking. For design thinking, designers will do profound research to really understand target users and target subjects. Da Vinci is the same. Besides make his hand dirty (bloody) to research about the human anatomy we mentioned above, for many other of his projects, he will also conduct deep research.

In order to draw a church related painting, he visited churches, observed people’s activities, and observed their facial expressions. For a designer, field visit, interview, observation, and sometimes even facial expression analysis, there are all very common design research methods. In order to design his helicopters, Da Vinci studied many birds, examined the anatomy of these birds and their wings. Through studying human body, Da Vinci also designed the first robot. Bionics is also a very important field that we often encourage design students to learn, to learn from nature, get inspired, and then design the mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms.

Design thinking process is a process of keep iterating and keep improving and upgrading. For most art work, when it is done, it is done; but for a product, it needs to keep iterating, learn from the market, and keep evolving. Da Vinci treated his work the same. Even after submitting his art work to the client, Leonardo da Vinci kept working on the Mona Lisa in secret for 10 years. That kind of mindset is a typical design thinking mindset. Even from his manuscript, we can also see such a mindset to keep learning, improving and evolving.

Empathizing is an important part of design thinking. Da Vinci has also done a lot of research to understand people’s experience. He tried to find out how people have feelings, and even marked on one of his skull studies, and marked the place where the a-m line intersects the c-b line is " The place where feelings meet". He called that as "common sense", which was also described by Aristotle. "Common sense" is a source of reason, thought, expression, and even oneself.

Such a bloody genius in the history of mankind, even though the public just know him as an artist, Leonardo da Vinci actually he is more of a designer than an artist. And he is a role model for design students and designers, that we need to master all fundamental skills, be able to visualize our ideas and vision; design our product/project around people, about people and for the people; through design thinking process to keep iterating and evolving our product, be passionate and curious, have enthusiasm in different disciplines and willing to learn different aspects of knowledge, hence come up with cross-discipline innovation.


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