Expressing yourself from the hand or the computer

For Design Quarterly magazine, early 2000s and though technology has rapidly progressed the debate about hand drawing and CAD technology still raises important design considerations

Expressing yourself from the hand or the computer

By Deborah Singerman

Drawing is as relevant a skill to the design industry as it has ever been, but it has changed, broadened and adapted to the influence of new technology. The huge impact of computer aided design (CAD) has not, however, led to the demise of hand drawing.

While some might warn this is not yet happening, people such as Richard Francis-Jones, Design Director of architecture firm, fjmt, see drawing “as a direct expression of our intuition”, and Michael Esson, Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales’ College of Fine Arts and Director of the International Drawing Research Institute, highlights the importance of “observational, thinking drawings that feed the visual library you draw upon as a designer”. Designers are still likely to opt for the drawing tool with which they feel most comfortable for expressing their imagination and talent.

“As designers we take pride in all forms of our drawings whether created directly on paper, enhanced and rendered using computer software, virtual real 3D surface model illustrations or detail engineering drawings extracted from a 3D CAD model,” says Brad Ryan, Executive Design Director of Design + Industry.

Taking the design process from concept through to technical and production stages, traditional and modern drawing techniques are widely regarded as complementing each other. “It is a collaborative development process”, Bang Design’s David Granger, a hand-drawer, says. “It’s horses for courses. CAD and hand drawing both have their pros and cons.”

Skill levels vary. Some designers are proficient at hand drawing and run a mile from computers. Others, usually those educated since the mid-1990s, are more attuned to CAD. Increasingly, being able to work in different drawing media will become “part of the portfolio of skills you need to be a designer”, says Mark Perry, Managing Director of interior designers, The Response Group.

Francis-Jones, who cannot imagine working without either hand drawing or 3D CAD, gives a typical breakdown of their relative strengths. “Hand drawing is fast, expressive, flexible and direct. 3D CAD modelling provides an almost infinite possibility of form study, generation and visualisation. We use both together from the earliest form studies through to fine detail studies during the shop drawing phase. CAD has not necessarily saved us time; it has allowed us to do more … particularly with complex geometries and surface manipulation.”

Todd Packer, Head Teacher of Interior Design and Interior Decoration at Enmore Design Centre, sees two functions for drawing in design: “sketching for visual thinking, and formal drawing and projection systems as a communication tool.” He is adamant that for these purposes drawing is a taught skill and not an “art”. Nevertheless, he is often astounded by students who link “CAD with other digital design tools to produce in virtual / or digital environments forms that are in fact un-buildable in reality, whether because of materials or current construction methods. At this level CAD becomes part of a creative process for pushing boundaries and exploring 3D notions at a cutting edge level that would not otherwise be possible.”

Many would describe this level of work as “art” – it certainly fits into industrial designer Adam Laws’ conclusion that the art of drawing is not being lost but “is just morphing to alternative mediums”.

Industrial design drawings, Laws believes, are best generated in the digital environment. Geyer Associate and National Design Leader, Simone Oliver, knows clients who are “completely enraptured by CAD 3D fly-throughs”. Angela Sampson, interior designer and a Partner at Woods Bagot, says computers help clients and designers resolve details, with 2D, especially rendering of hand-drawn sketches in Photoshop, most frequently used in their offices.

But when it comes to emphasising the human touch, the feel and emotion of a building, tactility or even indicator of type of material in which to build, everything points to the resilience of hand drawing. “It fosters a basic and accessible synergy between people and architecture, a reminder that great spaces and buildings are not rolled out by machines but by people”, Oliver says.

The Response Group has found that if a design is too refined at concept stages clients may view it as the final look, whereas a sketch keeps them more involved. “They’ve then got input into what the outcome could be,” says Senior Designer – Business Development, Jody Marshall.

Barrie Marshall of Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) also worries that computer-generated design concepts can give unwarranted confidence. “They can be made to look amazing but cannot be translated into reality quite so convincingly,” he says. The computer is too “definitive” for him. He much prefers hand drawing from early sketches, “illegible scribbles” which still need words for discussing ideas but might go on to “explain abstract concepts or spatial / form ideas which start to have more substance than words alone.”

From these, “evocative scribbles that can be connected to the final building” might emerge, before the more technical drawings, working out scale, relationships, planning issues and so on, to the “real drawings and sketches giving an expressive image of the way the architect wants the building to be seen / understood, with some sense of scale and architectural form. These drawings are not so much about how exactly the final building will be, but how the final building will feel. They convey intent or direction to the architect, the other architects working on the project, and the client who can more readily understand why the building as it develops is as it is.”

Undoubtedly, CAD has transformed drawings for contract administration and documentation, to such an extent that Marshall does not think “interior design on a commercial aspect would survive if it didn’t have the computer in the production side of things – documentation needs to be correct for legal avenues.”

Yet CAD’s presentation finesse and use of the same software can lead to a similar look and the danger of styling rather than innovation, says Esson. Some find the computer interface distancing, making drawing too analytical a task. Others, such as Design + Industry’s Ryan, think the “interface is instinctive, easy to use and not a barrier to the thought process.”

He also welcomes technology that “enables work to be shared, virtual real effects to be added and thankfully allows for mistakes to be easily corrected.” Australian Association of Architectural Illustrators (AAAi) President Glenys Foster agrees. “Working by remote has opened up the competitive illustration market interstate and internationally.”

She also values being able to scan and then alter or embellish hand drawings; to colour correct or enhance photographic images; and send electronic images to clients for approval, or to manufacturers for reproduction. (Marshall’s hand-written response from a London hotel room, later pdf’d by DCM’s London office and then emailed, is a vignette of this larger picture.) Meanwhile, another illustrator David Duloy of Haycraft Duloy, warns that while electronic communication is fast, pitfalls include “consultants hurling vast quantities of data at each other without signalling the relevant or changed bits”, doubts about the durability of storage mediums, and the need to keep upgrading “to continue seamless communications with others”.

With computer literacy seen as crucial for graduate employability, there are concerns that hand drawing skills are being undervalued but Esson has noticed that students, with their taken-for-granted computer skills, are now looking for novelty in traditional drawing. “We need a collective sense of balance,” says Francis-Jones.

“It is important not to be enamoured or beguiled with new technology and see it as an end in itself or the source of new creativity rather than its servant. Equally, it is important not to cling to comfortable methods out of a misplaced and conservative sense of loss, a nostalgia. The key is what we produce – the object of our design not the methods we use to get there.”