A question for architects: To sketch or CAD when desiging?

January 14, 2010 | 6 Comments

For all my online friends that are architects (or designers) ….I am curious as to how you design. (I have also posed this on flickr – click on the image to go there and see the comments.
A Question for Architects - To sketch or CAD?
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 worksurface 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.


  • 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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