never stop sketching

I dealt with architects and sketching in a past blog post, but with teaching my current design studio this concept, my own recent flurry of sketching and my participation on a related LinkedIn discussion, we’re going to revisit this topic in a slightly different way. I believe hand sketching is intrinsic to an architect and cannot be replaced by digital tools.

My policy here is to encourage lively discussion and debate, but it’s a bit difficult to pit a few decades of computer use against millennia of history with humans marking their ideas on surfaces with their hands. Even if you limit the time period to architecture as a profession closer to our contemporary understanding, we still cannot compete against centuries of brilliant ideas conceived with a pencil or pen. Are ideas best captured if we reduce it to the primal activity of brain/eye – hand – surface? Does the advent of multiple digital tools automatically supersede an activity with such a rich history? It doesn’t even matter if one is “good” at sketching or drawing, it is just a tool to communicate and how well one can communicate is the real test. I posit this is not a qualitative argument between manual or digital drawing tools, but simply stating a premise that being an architect means sketching with one’s hand at some point.     


Sketching has many practical uses beyond just for the author’s own use, but whether or not one ever shares their sketches is somewhat irrelevant to the fundamental question of the importance of sketching. Some of you may prefer a digital world, but my intent is to share with non-architects that architecture is conceived with a sketch.

In my opinion (humble or not you decide) the hand drawn sketch is what makes us architects. It is how we think and it distinguishes us from others. It represents the purest form of an idea and it is also a quick and effective way to test or convey an idea. Other tools certainly make our job easy and more productive, but I believe as long as we are human and architects, we will sketch. To me it is as important as breathing.

This is not an attempt to put an absolute on anything here or be adverse to the future or newer ways of doing something, but something special and liberating occurs when someone takes a pencil/pen and makes a mark on some type of paper or surface to explore a thought or an idea. This is how an architect thinks. It can happen with your finger and an iPad, for some it can happen with a mouse, but the legacy has been with pencil/pen and paper. A series of sketches become a history of the process one takes to get from ideas to solutions.

In my almost ten years of teaching, I can say fairly confidently, that the students with the best sketchbooks almost always had the strongest work. Those that jumped onto the computer right away had a harder time developing thorough solutions and a harder time presenting clear ideas that others could follow. If I may further opine, rarely can one master drawing digitally before mastering it manually. We definitely believe where I teach that there is a direct correlation between thinking and drawing; that thinking is initiated with nothing more than a sketch (preferably by hand). In fact we often stress to our students that they need to use drawings not words to convey their ideas. The natural response is to talk too much and draw too little.

Let’s consider an analogue. Writers probably don’t write their manuscripts by hand, but I know many writers and journalists that keep a journal. The same goes for song writers and poets. They keep a journal or sketchbook to jot down thoughts, ideas or connections. They don’t produce the final work by hand any more than an architect produces final documents by hand. However, those root ideas, those initial thoughts are jotted down in their journal to capture the emotion of the moment.

Architecture is a process that occurs in cycles of thought, rethought, tests and iterations. With hand sketches and paper there is a visual history of the process. It creates a timeline. Even with saving multiple digital files, there is no easy way to track how one got from the sketch to the solution. There are no fingerprints left, no messy scraps of paper to pin up in sequence, no pencil lead or ink on your hands and certainly no memory of how ideas were judged.

Look, if sketching isn’t your thing, that’s fine with me, it’s not a panacea. However, I hope it is always important in the life of an architect regardless of how often, where, when and what. As long as I continue to teach whether at a university with students or to future employees in my own studio, I will teach that architects sketch.

concept sketch for 5th year thesis project

Sketches are images from the author’s sketchbooks.

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never stop sketching

21 thoughts on “never stop sketching

  1. Great post Lee. The value of sketching is one that is either undervalued or not valued at all by the younger architects under the mistaken assumption that technology can make one more creative. It can certainly help “finetuning” an initial concept but it can’t come up with the idea. You could give me the very best word procesing program in the world, with all the bells and whistles, and it’s not goiing to make me a J.K.Rowling. Like architects, her ideas come out of her head.


  2. Thus far, I have failed miserably in my new year’s resolution to sketch more. I did, however, buy a lovely sketchbook. I find that whatever medium puts me in “the zone” is what I use to think. Sometimes it just means going for a walk.

    1. I carry my sketchbook with me most places to capture inspiration when it comes. I’ve tried forcing it by going for a walk and all I’ve done is walked.

  3. Lee, I must admit, being a technology aficionado, I’ve often taken the other side – that hand drawing is sometimes overemphasized. Of course this may be a reaction to the school where I was trained where drawing is the foundation of the design education. In retrospect, I’m very glad I went a school that was so heavy on the sketching/hand-drawing aspect, because it has given me a unique skill in the marketplace, and the ability to, as you eloquently point out, express my ideas. So in short, I agree with you.
    On the other hand, I would add that this is not a skill that applies to all architects equally. So often the word “architect” is used as a blanket term to lump us all together, when in fact there are so many sub-disciplines within architecture that the word becomes useless to convey an idea of what we actually do. I know many architects that are paper-pushers/managers, drawing and design is not required. Others are consultants, product specifiers, construction managers, or plan-checkers. Of course, the ability to express an idea is important to all, but there are other ways to do this besides drawing. Thanks for the article.

    1. I’ve been in those positions where all I did was write letters and proposals, attend construction meetings, talk on the phone and write up minutes. That’s when things had to change. I do have an appreciation for all of those positions you mentioned and I think it’s what makes architecture so great as a profession since it can welcome so many different skills. But at the heart of it all, one of the most primitive aspects that make architects tick (in my mind) is how they communicate through a pencil.

  4. Roxanne Button AIA says:

    Thanks for the post and the great sketches, Lee. Sketching is barely a part of my job anymore. On those rare occasions where I have to draw something by hand, I find that I’m apologizing for my rusty drawing skills. I’m of the generation that learned to draft by hand first, and I miss it. There seems to be a more intuitive connection between my brain and my pencil, much more so than between my brain and my mouse.

    I will never forget a professor that I had when I did my undergrad degree (in geography, of all things) who encouraged us when we were out on a field course to sketch rather than take photos. His reasoning was that drawing something forces you to really look at it, to study it from different angles, and thus learn more about it – far more effective than snapping a photo and moving on quickly to the next photo-op. I still have that sketchbook, and I love it.

    In first year of arch school, we had mandatory creative drawing classes. We were encouraged to take elective courses at a nearby Art College. My master’s thesis was drawn by hand, in pencil, on watercolour paper. The students that I’ve mentored now produce almost everything digitally – those are the skills that employers are looking for. At my last office, my drafting table was taken away because “no one needs them anymore”, and at this job it serves mostly as a filing cabinet.

    I have a friend & mentor, a retired architect, who paints and sketches almost every day. She posts her work on FB, and it’s a daily reminder that I need to get my sketchbook out and draw something – anything – every single day. It’s a skill, like any other, that needs to practiced.


    1. We have similar backgrounds. I hope I made my point clear that I am distinguishing between sketching and drawings. We all use digital tools to draw, but I sketch constantly to explore ideas. I take those sketches and input them into the computer through 2D, 3D or BIM tools. I just think more clearly with a pencil.

      1. Roxanne Button AIA says:

        I agree with you – it’s an important part of the design process, in my opinion.

  5. Anthony says:

    As a person that is always seeking knowledge, about anything and everything that interests me, I am grateful for the insight that you have in your post. I had spent nearly two decades working in residential construction, doing everything from the foundation to the roof. In all of my years in construction, I had to work closely with a number of architects, and, I can honestly say that I had never seen one without some type of sketch pad. I now have an Associates’ in Drafting and Design. Although, architecture is my true passion, I was also trained in Mechanical and Civil Drafting. Unfortunately, sketching was not a part of the curriulum. However, I was often able to use the Cadd software more effectively by sketching out my ideas by hand, even though I am not very good at drawing by hand, but as you stated, you don’t have to be. When I find myself with pictures floating in my head, I like to grab some paper and, at the very least, do my best to sketch what I’m envisioning. You can always put the details and dimesioning in afterwards. Besides, its much faster to scribble some lines on paper, for a basic picture or idea, than it is to go to your computer, load your program, and start drawing. The time it takes for someone to get their visions started on a computer, they may have lost what it is that they were thinking of. Anyway, I enjoyed the article, and I agree that sketching, whether you’re good at it or not, is an imortant and necessary tool for any architect or designer.

  6. Ted Rusnak says:

    This Architect is grateful for your well considered words as regards my best friend, my No.2 pencil. You got me to thinking how many sketch books are tucked into the corners, drawers and cabinets in my office….I’m still counting, and finding, at 3 dozen large ones. They are filled with not only sketches of the possible but also the impossible. They contain project notes, field conditions, site considerations, even potential concerns of siting. Many sketches are the thoughts developed over a conference or dining room table with a client; adjusting and allowing the drawing to help a client see their vision as I understand it come to life in front of their eyes. (Best sales tool I have and, for me, the easiest to use). Good thoughts. Only the best. ciao.

    1. Thanks for your comments Ted. It’s obvious I believe sketching is important if only for the architect’s benefit. Just the other day I went through my sketchbooks from college. They’re a bit rough, but it’s a snapshot of my thinking over twenty years ago. I treasure all of them.

      1. Ted Rusnak says:

        Indeed, they are your treasures, as are mine. In a way they are also humbling. (I dated and named most of my project ideas so i can go back and see where I was and what I was thinking). I look forward to you future thoughts. ciao.

  7. Vigi says:

    Very genuine thoughts…..Very encouraging…..Will start doodling and sketching more than ever…..I can sketch by seeing something or some photo or picture…..but, sometimes, I struggle to bring about ideas on my own through sketching…..Does that mean I am not good at it? Can more practice help?…

    I recently pursued a specialist diploma course in architectural technology….. I am a person who believes that sketching and hand-drafting are the best means to bring about ideas…..I felt very disheartened that I was looked down, as I am not good in digital tools…..Other students who are experts in using software ridicule me as though CAD and Revit are the only means to design…..When I told one of them that I got a job as a Project Architect, she remarked that I am designated as an architect, at least…..

    Its quite disheartening at such times. My friends and family also suggest that I learn the latest software and upgrade myself…..I just ask them — AutoCAD was once a leader, people ran behind it…..Now, its Revit, everyone is running behind it…..Tomorrow, it could be something else……So, do u want me to keep learning and mastering every software that comes up?? Ideas are born in the mind…..not on computers….. Every software is short-lived….. I do not want to end up learning everything on earth…..

    Instead of mastering software, I would love to master my sketching skills, as sketches have a personal touch….sketches are signatures of the self…..

    Felt encouraged reading ur posts, will surely get back to pencil, paper & drawing board…..

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