Red Bull Stratos Technical Project Director Art Thompson poses for a portrait in front of the mission's capsule at Hangar-7 in Salzburg, Austria.
© Joerg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool

Meet the aerospace wizard whose creative doodling launched Red Bull Stratos

Art Thompson was the technical director for the record-setting mission that took Felix Baumgartner to the edge of space. From the capsule to the recovery system, his designs all started with doodles.
By Trish Medalen
4 min readPublished on
Art Thompson is surrounded by the latest technology. The companies he founded, including Sage Cheshire Aerospace in Lancaster, California, are hives of design and fabrication innovation for the aviation industry and more. And he personally assembled and led the Red Bull Stratos team that enabled Felix Baumgartner to become the first human to break the speed of sound in freefall. Earlier in his career, Thompson also contributed to conceptualising the B-2 Stealth aircraft.
But whenever Thompson has a new idea, his go-to method for sketching out the concept isn’t a CAD program. It’s a doodle with pen and paper.
“Doodling stimulates your mind,” says the renowned engineer. “Even though we’re in the digital age, I keep a piece of paper and a pen by the bed, and when my mind starts reeling with ideas at 3 o’clock in the morning, I get up and write them down so I can put it back to rest.”
One night it might be a concept for a lounge chair that’s also an ergonomic environment. The next it’s ideas for a high-altitude rocket plane.
“Often it'll be a quick concept that's almost completely incoherent because I’m still half asleep, but it serves as a reminder to me of the functionality of what I want to design,” he explains.
Doodling stimulates your mind
Art Thompson
For Thompson, the benefits of doodling are multifold. “It opens up your mind to creative thinking that you may not be able to do sitting in front of a computer. A CAD program is very restraining, it’s going to confine you,” he acknowledges. “When you're free-thinking on a doodle, you’re not being cautious about screwing it up. You can just draw another one next to it, or grab a new piece of paper.”
When it comes to his favorite paper for doodling, Thompson says that he’s done some of his best doodling on napkins. In fact, he refers to just about any hand-drawn concept as a 'napkin sketch.'
“I’ve always called it the napkin sketch because usually it’s an idea that’s in your mind when you’re talking with colleagues over lunch or wherever, and there’s not always a piece of paper, but there’s always napkins around,” Thompson says with a smile.
A treasure trove of fascinating real-life stories, he goes on to describe how the B-2 Stealth was first conceptualised with napkin sketches by a then-colleague named Irv Waaland at aerospace company Northrop, which the team gradually developed into a successful pitch for the idea, including a tabletop model that Thompson created.
He also describes how the Red Bull Stratos trajectory and capsule were initially conceptualised with doodles on bar napkins. He’s still got an early sketch of the capsule done on a beverage doily – and keeps it framed in his home.
When it comes to how to get better at doodling designs, Thompson has some tips:
“First, just do more of it,” he recommends. “Also, keep your drawings larger rather than smaller. One mistake people make – and this is in illustration also – is they’ll have a big piece of paper, but they’ll draw something very small in the corner. Don’t be afraid to be bold about your ideas.”
And he doesn’t try to make it perfect from the get-go. “Often doodling is a very quick, general outline of what you're thinking. You’re trying to visualise really quickly what the general shape or concept is, and from that, you can go to another piece of paper – or even draw on top of the doodle you’ve got – to start refining it into a bit more formulated idea. And from there you can take your napkin sketch and think about it in 3D on the computer. That works for me,” he says.
Don’t be afraid to be bold about your ideas
Art Thompson
At this point in his career, Thompson’s doodles have contributed to everything from his aerospace concepts to city monuments and improved children’s teething toys. Lately he’s been helping companies brainstorm ideas for space planes and solutions for mapping the ocean floor. The busy Californian is also an avid artist who does life drawings, painting and sculpture – and his artwork, too, starts out as doodles.
“The napkin sketch – the doodle – is the spontaneous flash in your mind of, ‘I know how to solve that problem.’ And at the same time, it’s your notepad that you can reflect back on, or share with a design team, to think about what you want to create,” Thompson asserts. “It really is the lightbulb.”
You can explore the lightbulb creations of other innovative doodlers, including the latest submissions from your own region, in the global Red Bull Doodle Art competition.

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Red Bull Doodle Art

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