Does Hand Drawing Still Matter for Designers?

I came along in one of the last pre-digital generations in architecture school. We were fortunate to have large swaths of curriculum devoted to figure drawing, perspective constructions, outdoor pencil drawings, pen and ink texture studies, and watercolor techniques. The career result was that development of design concepts and communication with coworkers about those ideas flowed easily in the office (not to mention on restaurant napkins!).

Then something happened along the way. Elementary school educators weren’t so sure children needed to learn to print or write in cursive. They had keyboards. And architecture schools converted valuable course time to support the ever increasing relevance of computers and drawing software to the profession. At many schools the pendulum swung too far.

Those of us in hiring and project management who value design contributions from all team members noticed that not only did young interns have a hard time writing notes on a sketch, the focus had shifted from design to our ever developing digital capabilities. Indeed, design is often dictated by the tools, rather than the other way around. Management played its part in the drama, desiring the increase in efficiency over artistic exploration and detail. But not all management, and not all team members. And not just architecture.

A fortunate finding of our fast paced, hyper-digital world is that collaborative creative thinking and communication is essential to innovation. Hand drawing facilitates that process, especially in conceptual stages and for many disciplines. Even the most technical of website and app designers utilize quick sketch bubble diagrams to map their sites. In response Georgia Tech is a school now rebuilding hand drawing skill development - on behalf of all students, undergraduate and graduate.

An example course created to strengthen these skills is a hand drawing course named “Drawing On Nature” from Tech’s new "Innovation and Design Collaborative". Students from various disciplines across campus learn the basics of observation, composition, gesture, and tone while being encouraged to explore the relationship between their field of study and their drawing endeavors. It is taught by an interdisciplinary team of lecturers and professors representing architecture, biology, and engineering and it is a runaway success with the student population. Lane Duncan of the College of Architecture has been at the forefront of course development and is excited about its reception.

Tech’s webpage on the course includes the example of Melissa Bergin, an undergraduate aerospace engineering student. Melissa focused her final project on a study of birds, especially the details of their wings. The act of closely observing and drawing the birds in motion enabled deeper grounding in aerospace engineering principles.

Other courses that have found their way back into Tech’s Architecture class catalog include an introduction to visual arts, aka “the Connell Workshop: Art of Drawing”, figure drawing, and an introductory course in the use of watercolors. Each helps to reintroduce the value of the abstract squiggle, the success of the subliminal, and the sheer fun of doodled ideas finding shape, form, and purpose.

Tech is certainly not alone in this renewed interest in hand drawing. Thoughtful people in many places realize something important had gone missing. Notre Dame is hosting a conference this coming September focused on “. . . exploring the role of hand drawing in architectural history, education, and practice.”.  And Harvard GSD’s course directory for this past Fall 2015 notes that “Architects who are fluent in various kinds of freehand drawing are able to generate, refine, and evaluate design ideas more effectively than architects who depend upon the computer for visualization.”

So “Yes!” This is not an either/or proposition relative to our digital tools. Hand drawing comes alongside, working compatibly with our technical selves - it is an idea whose time has come again.

                Find more on “Drawing On Nature” at Georgia Tech here . . .

Leslie Carruth
Leslie Carruth