Design methodology

With materials in hand, you’re ready to put ideas to paper (or screen). The recommended design process normally follows five steps:

  1. Ideation
  2. Reference image
  3. Concept development
  4. Refinement
  5. Design detailing


Whether printed out or living digitally on your computer, spread out your inspiration images. Compartmentalize your ideal motorcycle into its various parts—headlights, cockpit, wheels, tank, and seat, —and iterate quick ideas for each.

In this first stage, you want to generate as many rough ideas as you can, as quickly as possible. Think of it as a first brainstorm. Your sketches don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) perfect, in fact mistakes are welcome. Don’t spend a long time making one large drawing here. The idea is to reach the corners of your creativity by scratching out concept after concept. There are no wrong or bad ideas, just get everything in your head onto paper.

Starting with the headlights, for example, you might draw one large bullet light, two side by side, a number plate and LED strip, and anything else that pops into your head. Fill the page with fast doodles of the bike’s nose, then move onto the next and the next, until you have a page of doodles for each part of the bike.

Reference image

Using the rough ideas above, it’s time to extract the ideas you want and put it all together into one cohesive design that will serve as the basis for every step going forward.

But rather than just throwing the ideas haphazardly together you’ll need a reference or template image of your donor bike to overlay your ideas on.

This reference image will be an outline or skeleton of your donor bike or a close looking inspiration image with all components that you are retaining drawn in, such as the frame, engine, wheels and suspension etc. Anything you don’t want from the donor bike/inspiration image won’t be drawn.

Don’t worry if you can’t draw—to be as accurate as possible, you can trace or import the inspiration image that best represents your vision or snap a picture of your donor bike and use that.

If you’re shooting pictures of your donor bike, there are a few guidelines to make life easier in the coming steps.

  • Park the bike in front of a monochrome background, like a hanging sheet or the siding of your house.
  • Prop the bike as close to upright as possible. If it’s equipped with a center stand, that’s great! If not, very carefully place a block of scrap wood under the side stand.
  • Your photo should be taken from directly side on at the midpoint of the bike. Being slightly offset to the front or rear will alter the perspective of the bike and make it hard to draw on new parts
  • If you’re not using the donor bikes tank, or seat or fairing etc, remove these so you have a clearer understanding of where the frame runs
  • Take the picture from as far as away practical and then zoom in to fill the bike in the shot to minimize any imperfections in your perspective, this helps remove the ‘fish eye’ lens effect 

If you don’t have, or aren't able, to take a picture of your donor bike, scour the web for existing images of your make and model. You will invariably come across the manufacturer’s publicity shots or images used on owner manuals (which, helpfully, are often shot on a white backgrounds). At worst you’ll find photos from other owners that you can use and even if they have a messy background, they are still useable.

If you’re making such drastic changes to your donor bike’s bodywork, essentially tossing all but the frame, it might make more sense to find a picture of just the frame and build your design around at instead. Even if the frame needs modifications, engine mounts and other important features can be highlighted.

Regardless, having a picture of your bike’s frame can be handy when creating your reference image to understand its entire shape when your donor bike/inspiration picture still has the tank etc on.

Next, strip your starting images back to bare bones and create the final reference image for your build.

  • If you’re drawing on physical paper, print your reference image of your donor bike or inspiration photos and have tracing paper in hand. 
  • If you’re drawing digitally, load your photos onto a drawing app where you can make as many digital layers as you like.

For the purpose of this book, the process will be described as if drawing digitally on a tablet. If you choose the analogue route, simply follow along using tracing paper to create physical layers in the same way we use digital layers.

  • Open your donor bike/inspiration image in a new document, turn its opacity down to 50 percent, then lock the layer so you can’t interfere with it while tracing. 
  • Trace the components or elements of your motorcycle that you are keeping using your chosen software’s drawing tools to create a skeleton outline of the bike. For example, use the circle tool to make short work of the wheels, the ruler tool for straight lines like the forks, spokes or the frame, and the freehand pen tool to sketch odd shapes—whatever you’re not keeping, don’t bother drawing.
  • As you trace, be sure to break up your skeleton into multiple layers so you have one for each major component of the bike, like the wheel, the frame, the motor, etc. This decreases collateral damage when you make a mistake. Don’t like what you drew? It’s confined to the layer you are working on while rest of the drawing remains safe, even if the lines appear to intersect on your canvas.
  • When you’re done, group all the separate layers into a single master layer that contains the entire reference image template of the bike. You should be left with a single layer line drawn reference image consisting of everything you’re keeping from your donor bike.

Concept development

Having sketched out a rough depiction of your bike, it's time to take your doodles from the conceptualization stage and develop them using on the reference image you just created.

Choose a few of your favorite doodles for each new part or element you’re changing. For example, if you brainstormed a high-slung exhaust for a scrambler concept, experiment with it. How does it look with slash-cut tips? A two-into-one megaphone muffler? You’re still not sketching the Mona Lisa of motorcycles but put a little more thought into the rough ideas you like.

Do this by drawing each idea over your reference image, whether a tank, exhaust, handlebar, or any other component. This reference image will help you with some fixed points and give each doodle idea you are exploring some structure, as the tank or wheel idea will now need to see if it works on the bike itself. This type of exploration should still be done relatively quickly using a freehand pen tool. Don’t get bogged down making sure lines are straight or using curve tools.

As you explore each idea, make a new layer for each item to separate it from the rest of the drawing and other ideas. To organize further, create folders for groups of layers and add all ideas for a specific component into one folder. For example, group all your tank concepts into a single folder.

While you are exploring ideas for some areas of the bike, you may already have a firm idea of parts you need to have on the bike, such as a cool tank or set of rims. If that is the case, now is a good time to obtain some images of those, import and add them to your reference image.


From here, bring one or two of your strongest ideas to an elevated polish. This is where you get critical, uncover potential problems, and work through some of the logistical puzzles of your design to see if it is practical to build. That high pipe idea from before may look killer, but does the frame have usable tabs to support it? If not, do you have metal-shaping and welding skills to fabricate some?

  • You should now have plenty of ideas for tanks, seats, exhaust and more sketched out in layers. Go through these ideas, see what works well with what and massage them into a cohesive design you love.
  • Whereas before you had focused on exploring individual ideas, this work is to refine those ideas further and assess them alongside other changes on the bike to consider the whole design. At this point, it’s OK if the shapes are still a little rough and the linework is sloppy. That can be cleaned up later. For now, focus on choosing and tweaking the ideas you’re the happiest with.
  • Explore your design app’s editing tools. Pick a design—like a fuel tank—to scale, rotate, or move around until it makes the most sense with your reference image work on the base layer. Does it look too big? Is it crooked? Does the frame nest properly underneath? Tinker around until you hit the best combination of logistical and aesthetic proportions and have settled on one idea/design for each element you are customizing
  • Duplicate the layers you plan to keep, merge them into one, and clean up the line work on the drawing. This could be using straight line and curve line tools to clarify the lines, deleting any double ups, drawing in major features on parts.
  • When you’re satisfied with the image, go through the design and assess it for practicality once more. Is this something that could really work, or have you drawn something that’s impossible?
    Whether it’s unrealistic exhaust routing or a seat pan that will bottom out on your rear tire with every bump in the road, now is the time to marry your artistic vision with sound engineering. This process is meant to help you get down ideas, troubleshoot them, and see if they’ll work before committing time, money and resources to dead-end ideas.

Design detailing

This phase is where you spend time creating a well-conceived drawing of the bike and flesh out every detail. You already have an idea of the logistics based on the refinement stage, so now you can add specifics for materials, dimensions, and even specific aftermarket parts you have in mind.

  • Take some time to work on color combinations for the bike to best complement and enhance the features and look you are after as this can hugely influence the final design.
  • You can go all out and add shading and highlights to your design to give it some depth and 3D feel
  • If you have specific part brands in mind, as mentioned before, you may be able to obtain photos from the web at the right perspective and resolution that you can add in as an image.

At the end of this you will have a final design that will guide all your decisions and steps going forward.

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