In a world where everything is high-tech, digital and automated, it is difficult to imagine where the art of hand drawing is still valuable in the architecture profession. While flipping through an architecture magazine, we will come across the “napkin” drawing, the inspiration for some starchitect’s latest design, but it is accompanied by full, digital renderings, pristine plans, and staged, finished photos. We also see hand drawings occasionally to promote an upcoming event or a contest - which serve to grab your attention when sorting through the endless monotony of your email inbox. But what value do they really serve, beyond the glitter and the glam? Have they been replaced by digital renderings? Do architects, in fact, still draw by hand?

Napkin Sketch of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA
 Image courtesy of Frank Gehry / LA Philharmonic
Napkin Sketch of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA Image courtesy of Frank Gehry / LA Philharmonic

Considering that I partly got into this field because I wanted to draw, I am happy to report that architects still draw by hand. Every day. Architects won’t draw the “pretty” pictures every single day, but they will mix it up, get their eyes off the screen, and put a pen to paper every day. Beyond simply drawing for nostalgia or just to ergonomically take break, there are several ways in which hand drawing has remained an integral part of the daily life of the architect.

Idea generation is one major source of hand drawing in the typical architecture office. Bum wad still litters the desks, floors, and is always running low. Pens, pencils, and markers of all sorts floating around the office. And regular design charrettes on a developing project is commonplace. Architects still use their ability to hand draw to get ideas out on paper. These ideas will often shift back and forth from paper to model in multiple iterations, using both the benefits of computer generation and quick hand sketching to develop ideas. In as much as digital means has grown, and the schematic capabilities of the programs continue to improve, the mixed media approach remains the preferred method of idea generation, and because of this, hand drawing thrives.

Minneapolis Architects

Analytical drawing is another form of hand drawing that is frequently done, and it is especially useful for the informal communications of ideas with clients, contractors, and others. When meeting with other people and discussing a project, it is often far quicker to sketch a thought or detail by hand to explain a concept or scenario on-the-spot than it would be to open a laptop and start a drafted drawing. That said, digital means may still mix into the physical act of drawing, by drawing on a PDF while conducting a Bluebeam session, using a stylus on an iPad in a face-to-face meeting, conducting a Skype video call with the camera on the sketch paper, or even scanning a drawing done on paper and emailing it to the participants of a conference call. The key is that hand drawing can often get ideas out more quickly than most digital means, the style of the drawing is more tangible for most people to understand, especially when you can directly point to various things just drawn, and most importantly, it can help the client or other meeting participants to feel involved with the project development. Hand drawing becomes the tangible bridge between a very finished-looking set of documents on the table or on the screen and the intangible design concepts of the project.

Redlines are the ultimate sort of hand drawing that is done almost daily by architects. After printing a set of drawings, the architect will take a moment, or an hour, to review them and note changes. The drawings are marked-up with red pen (or blue, or an array of highlighters) with corrections to text, alignment notations, a list of notes, and fully-drawn details that needed to be added to the drawing. Redlines are one more way that architects can think through a project and bring it to completion in the later stages of design development and construction documents.

Hand drawing remains a key part of the architectural process. Over time, some hand drawing tasks have been transferred to digital drafting software and the 3D digital modeling process, but hand drawing is still an essential tool, used side-by-side with the digital means we have today. While hand drawing, the architect thinks, so you’ll still see many architects with a gridded notepad or sketchbook in hand, and the typical page will contain a to-do list, analytical details or quick sketches to figure out a project detail, and usually a little whimsy.