To sketch or use CAD when designing?

January 14, 2010 | 6 Comments

For all my online friends that are architects (or designers) ….I am curious as to how you design.

I find myself in a constant state of flux between the computer and the drawing board (believe it or not I still have a drawing board in my work space but never use the parallel rules – I just find the angled work surface better for my neck- plus I just like having a board next to me… A remnant of a former age when I started as an architect).

..but back to my question…

I find at the early stages of a design problem I keep asking myself should I be working this up on the computer when I am doing rough sketches but then when I try to design on the computer I find that I just sit there looking at the screen. For me design solutions so often come as soon as I print it out, rip some yellow trace and let my hand to its thing… I just don’t think as well looking at a computer screen. I think with a pen in my hand. Plus I much prefer scribbling than moving a mouse!

I would love hearing other peoples thoughts – methods of design. I end up using lots of paper : rough sketch – computer- printout – refinement on the drawing board – back to CAD – printout…. Etc.

I posed this question on Flickr and some of the responses were:


Ed Brodzinsky:.

no contest for me — it’s pencil in hand and a roll of yellow trace. . . . and a soft pencil (2B or softer), at least to start. . . . if it’s a complex design, I might add layers of pen or colored pencil. . . . this is as true for the trickiest tiny window detail as it is for a broad town planning conceptual layout. . . . perhaps it’s a generational thing, going back to training (arch’l school in the early 60s), but I really can’t think without a clutch pencil in my hand. . . .



I am a landscape architect that deals mostly with town planning and conceptual design. I am a younger generation LA (I am still in my 20s) and love working in the computer. That said, my design process looks very similar to Liz. I start by hand sketching ideas and concepts, plug them into the computer, print out, sketch on and so forth. I find that alot of new designers and design students rely way too much on the computer. This is sad to me and especially MC_BDS’s story about not allowing hand drawn documents. That is a huge mistake!!

I also use SketchUp, but only as a base for hand rendered final graphics. I find that most clients relate to the softness of a hand drawn image moreso than a cold, crisp digital graphic. I am not an employer, but I feel that most design firms would much rather have a student/new employee that could get design ideas on paper quickly (time is money) than a proficient CAD jockey.

I went to a workshop last year where an LA said that he gets the most respect from clients during the initial meetings when they tell him their ideas and he quickly scribbles a sketch on a napkin and the client can say….”that’s exactly what I am talking about!”

Honestly, in the long run, I don’t see the “hand to digital to hand” process changing anytime soon. Hopefully anyway!


Kate Powell:

Like Matthew, I was graduating just as AC Martin used the computer for working drawings the first time… and of course, they were skyscraper architects (and other than a few great buildings, rather ho-hum.) Ultimately the reliance on computers made me leave architecture, and I find, with few exceptions, that architecture has become more boring and mundane (with few exceptions) and I believe a lot of this is the reliance on computers has stopped the creative processes. There is an hand-to-eye-to-brain connection that I think is vital to great design, where the editor is sent packing and one doodles the building into existence. I designed buildings sitting in clients homes or offices and it was most satisfying to get the initial ideas and so forth down, or rethink a concept with a client. I think computers are wonderful inventions when you are working in a high-rise, for what is the purpose of redrawing floor after floor of often repetitive plans and details — BUT, and here is the big but, I find that computers have made most “architects” lazy. One of the last projects I did as an architect was in assisting a developer in working space use (interior) out of a historic armory building — what types of leased spaces and exiting would be needed, how to keep the building intact, etc. He had fired his last architect for whatever reason, and as I worked freehand with bumwad, I found a huge problem with the CAD drawings the man created: he added a whole front section to the building! If he had been walking the building as I had, sketching and seeing and thinking, rather than plopping walls and assuming the computer had the information, he would have seen it made no sense. Elevators don’t zig-zag one structural bay. Took me a half hour and I wasn’t looking for the mistake, but I began wondering why my sketches didn’t make sense with his numbers and drawings. Cost the developer a small fortune in income to lose a bay on one floor.

I can’t explain the reliance angle, but I know I am onto something. It is like when we are writing, and grammar checks show up or spellchecks show up, and insist you are wrong when guess what, you are correct! Some people stop thinking and just go along with grammar and spellchecks. Now it is a great device for dyslexic me, but it also makes you lazy-stupid; we lose something vital.

When I taught architectural design at UCLA I made students use pen, not pencil (no ability to erase and engage the editor) and told them that when I saw a pile of bumwad on the floor next to their desk then I’d know their creative juices were flowing. They just sketched ideas, no commitment to any one direction, exploring, and so the pen-hand-brain connection was formed. I think it is key.

Now let me go back and see if I made spelling errors….

Serena Bottini:

Hi Liz, this is really a good point.
I trained as an architect and got my degree in the eighties and of course all drawing was hand made.
Indeed with a lot of tracing paper, different size rapidograph pens and the faithful razor balde for erasing ! Then CAD arrived and it solved a lot of problems from a practical point of view. However I feel that I cannot start a project without a pencil and a piece of paper in front of me. Once my idea is clear I can use Autocad or even SketchUp but not before.
Also from a visual point of view even if some rendering are really amazing I think that nothing beats a good sketch ! In a sketch you can really feel and relate to the person who did it, while the same cannot be said for a cold computerized image.
Of course this is true on a small/medium size job, if you are urban planning it’s quite a different story …


  • Anthony Duce says:

    I always start with tracing paper overlays. I draw freehand over a scaled grid. I do this for initial design and the development of the plans as well as elevations, wall sections and the details for original ideas. Later in my career I did move to cad after the basic design and major details were figured out. By then though I was one of the owners and usually had less less experienced architects in the firm doing the cad work, sometime putting the design into cad while i continued to work on trace. Before retiring the Form Z and other BIN programs were being used by those who grew up with them. More and more of the design work was being started from scratch on the computer, by those who were comfortable. I still have to draw to see.

  • Janene says:

    I am a landscape designer and use tracing paper overlays too. The organic connection of mind, hand, pen and paper is important to my design process.

  • Rock Kyndl says:

    I am a design/build renovation contractor with a CAD program. Since its renovation I'm dealing with, I do a CAD drawing of the floorplan of the original structure; then I 'save as' and start moving and removing things in a free-form way, ending with several options none of which are ready for prime time.
    I will always use tissue for elevations 'cause-well-I'm not as confident on the computer dealing with roof angles, etc.
    I don't do plans all the time because once the homeowner and I have come to something we like, I go into the building phase.

    I have been a fan of your work!

  • Great question, Liz! I finished undergraduate architecture school (University of Notre Dame) just as computers were becoming available, so my training was almost entirely analog rather than digital. I practiced for several years and used digital tools almost exclusively during that time. For the past 10 years, I've been teaching architecture (Universities of Oregon and Idaho), including graphics courses (both analog and digital) and many design studios at every level. My research has been focused on design communication, and especially on the juncture between analog and digital methods for design. Based on all these experiences, I prefer a hybrid approach that uses the best tool for a particular set of tasks – sometimes sketching, sometimes digital modeling, sometimes physical modeling, etc. (I would argue that CAD might be best for drafting, but that drafting is not the same as designing!) Freehand sketching is the most direct way of getting ideas to paper – there is virtually no 'interface' (menus, commands, preferences regarding scale or view, etc.) to get in the way between idea and imagery. Combining analog and digital techniques offers the greatest flexibility, clarity, and opportunity for development … but most students are overdependent on digital tools – they feel safer or more professional or they feel self-conscious about their sketching skills, etc. So my emphasis as a teacher is on sketching, and the students in my courses who really embrace sketching ALWAYS thank me later.

  • I find the computer is terribly limiting in the first stages of the design process. This is even more the case with students who are just learning the programs and restricted by the tools. Rather than designing the spaces of their dreams they are forced to do only what they feel is possible in the program (i.e. straight lines, 90 degree angles).. I'm sure this can all change with experience…but for now it is easier for my students (and ME!) to get out the trash paper and go at it!

    Great question…I look forward to reading others thoughts!

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks everyone for the comments. I am glad we all agree!!!… I have some more ideas and will post soon

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