Hand Sketching Is Experiencing a Resurgence. However, Analog and Digital Are Not Competing but Complementary Tools that Result in Richer Building Designs When Combined.

Sharpening Skills

Proponents of computer-aided design might suggest going back to doing things by hand is archaic and a waste of time, especially given how much efficiency technology affords. However, Gillette suggests there are some critical-thinking skills that are missed when architects completely let the computer take the wheel in design. “Too many young architecture students don’t have a lot of time in the field to effectively translate the 2D paper world to 3D real-life construction applications,” he says. “Just because you can draw something on paper doesn’t mean you can build it in real life. Sketching out details and working them out in your head is still a very effective problem-solving method.”

Furman notes some universities, like Ryerson, still have a philosophy
that values drawing and may evaluate an incoming student’s portfolio to determine whether or not he or she can express ideas by drafting because “we really hold [to the notion] that it’s still a fundamental kind of communication tool.” But not everyone agrees. Some schools and colleagues value sketching by hand but don’t believe it’s essential to one’s education.

Hutchinson argues skills like perspective drawing ultimately can help people become more effective at what they do. “I think architects in general would become better if they could utilize hand skills in association with CAD,” he says.

Gillette supports the thought and says drawing and building physical models are skills that are just as relevant and important today as ever. “Visualization and communicating what’s in your head to paper for your client or employee to understand is a key skill of a good architect,” he says. “If I can’t communicate something effectively to a client or a contractor, time and money is lost.”

Ironically, Furman says while many universities expect students coming
into design and architecture programs to have some knowledge of traditional skills, such as drafting, painting, sketching, measuring, etc., in their toolbox, “you have to do it on your own time. We don’t have time to teach you that stuff.”

The Right Tool for the Job

It’s easy to romanticize the idea of drawing and making models by hand or lamenting the death of traditional architectural practices over computerized approaches. But that misses the point.

No one is suggesting we ditch the computer altogether in favor of paper and pencil—or vice versa. The message is that technological drawing shouldn’t replace hand sketching completely; they aren’t necessarily competing but complementary tools at an architect’s disposal.

“Like any decent tool in a craft person’s toolbox, you use the right tool for that particular thing you’re trying to do at the moment,” Furman explains. Like a woodworker who might use a hammer and chisel for one task and a miter saw for another, each one serves a specific function in the process of creating the end-product.

Each tool is unique and requires different trains of thought, according to Gillette. “Hand drafting is different than CAD drafting, which is different from BIM design,” he says. Gillette notes, for the most part, hand drafting and CAD drafting are exercises in the 2D space while BIM takes it to another level and forces the user to design in 3D. “When you hand draft, you have to constantly think about line weight and how you convey depth, whereas CAD drawing starts to make a lot of that automatic. BIM design makes you consider all three dimensions—that window you just put in a wall has a height, a width and a thickness. If you alter one of those dimensions the information changes the entire database of information.”

Ultimately, the question isn’t whether architects should use one method over another to design buildings. “In the end, you have to use the right tool for job,” Gillette says. “There’s a time and place for each tool. BIM design, computer visualization, hand sketching—these are all tools. And the more tools you have at your disposal, the better designer you will be.”


Hand sketching and drafting doesn’t necessarily require paper anymore. Thanks to advancements in digital design tools and apps on the market, architects and designers can put pencil to screen to express their ideas by hand, blending the best of traditional and modern methods. Following are a few notable digital sketching and drafting tools design professionals have at their disposal (in no particular order):

1| ISKN’S SLATE AND RING For the purists who love to sketch with actual paper and pencil, iskn’s Slate and Ring transforms a user’s drawings with his or her favorite pen or pencil on paper to the computer screen.

2| APPLE PENCIL 2 WITH IPAD PRO Responsive and precise down to a single pixel, the Apple Pencil 2 can be used to sketch, jot down notes, paint a watercolor or design a building onsite.

3| AUTODESK’S AUTOCAD MOBILE AutoCAD mobile is a DWG viewing applica- tion with drawing and drafting tools that allow construction professionals to view, create, edit and export AutoCAD drawings on mobile devices.

4| PROCREATE With more than 130 handcrafted brush types, this application gives design professionals the power to create sketches, paintings and illustrations on the go.

5| MORPHOLIO TRACE PRO This drawing tool allows users to create sketches and drawings on top of PDFs, maps, photos, images, drawing sets, background templates and more with high resolution while using designer tools, brushes and pens.

6| PAPER BY WETRANSFER Paper’s tools make it easy to draw, outline, write, color, diagram, collage, cut and fill. Snap rough sketches into straight lines and crisp shapes or use one of the built-in templates.

7| CONCEPTS Concepts is a flexible space to think, plan and create. Sketch plans on the infinite canvas; write notes and doodle with tilt + pressure; draw storyboards; produce sketches and design plans; then share with friends, clients and other apps.

8| AUTODESK SKETCHBOOK From quick conceptual sketches to fully finished artwork, SketchBook maximizes the drawing space of every device. Pencils, inks, markers and more than 190 customizable brushes can incorporate textures and shape while a scan function utilizes the device’s camera to import line art on paper into digital format. This tool is free.

9| ADOBE ILLUSTRATOR DRAW Draw puts designer’s favorite vector drawing tools and features into a modern interface to turn any idea or inspiration into a finished design. Choose from five built-in vector brushes and never lose perspective thanks to built-in graph and perspective grids that allow users to sketch the 3D world in a 2D drawing.

10| Shapr3D Shapr3D is a professional, mobile CAD app on iPad made for Apple Pen- cil that offers a quick but precise way to create 3D models. It allows architects, engineers and industrial designers to turn their hand sketches into complex technical drawings that can be exported to desktop CAD programs.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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