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Design Tools: Sketching & Drawing

Welcome to the month of January. *update: and February. The theme of design tools has taken more than a single month to explore. This month’s theme is going talk about design tools that architects, designers and contractors use to capture client ideas, explore design options and finally share a vision with clients and makers to produce the design. This first post starts with the oldest but most nimble and reliable method - sketching / drawing.

Sketching, or more precisely drafting, was the only way to convey information related to construction and architecture for the majority of the history of the profession. It is only recently, from early 90’s onward that computers have had a significant impact on the act of design, as well as, the display of design information - be that renderings (pretty pictures that explore materials/form/etc.) or construction documents (instruction books on how to build the building).

Drafting, as a subset of an architect’s skill set, was (it’s almost never used anymore) the act of making a precise drawing(s) using rulers, pencils/pens, straight edges and triangles to literally draw representative parts of the building. Drafting required precision and working at a “scale”. Designers and architects had to choose a scale to draw buildings since you cannot literally draw a ten foot wall… the paper would be huge! The size of the whole building! In that case, designers work at a scale such as ¼” = 1’-0”. So that for each ¼” on a ruler it represents one foot in the real world (not paper drafting world). So a 10 foot long wall would be 2.5” on the paper. Beyond the scale issue that architects dealt with, they also had to be creative on how to convey the complexity of a building. They had to find ways to draw only ONE detail of a corner of a building and note (with words) that the rest of the corners looked just like that. Drawing all the details would take considerably more time, especially if they were repeating drawings. Likewise, the architect had to draw various scales of detail to convey a building - for example, they may draw the whole building outline or floor plan with less detail, so that one could understand how it was laid out, how spaces flow together, and show where specific details would be located. This plan drawing would call out areas for further detail, and those drawn on subsequent pages of the SET of drawings. This “set” of drawings is what most people think of when they picture an architect holding a roll of drawings. Before computers this entire set, from the title block, to all the lines, the marks, the hatches (tiny lines to fill in spaces) and the lettering, yes lettering, was done by hand… which employed hundreds of people at architecture firms - their only job to draw information to convey the design of a building.

While that is a very cursory summary of what drafting entailed, it covers the basics of what the majority how building information was conveyed prior to 1995(ish).

The next skill that existed for the entirety of the profession of architecture was sketching. While drafting was important it is less important today for this audience, the home DIY’er; and less important because it has been superseded by the computer. However, the skill of sketching, has not yet found a replacement in the computer. Many have tried, and there are some great tools that assist in sketching out there, but none have replaced the tactile and nimble nature of using a pencil, pen, or marker on a piece of paper. Sketching is so important because it does not require a huge learning curve - while there may be better “sketchers” than others, pretty much anyone can draw an idea quickly. Sketching really becomes powerful when used with a special paper called “trace”, or “onion skin”. This is like a tissue paper and allows a designer (like a cartoon artist) to draw an idea, layer a new sheet on top and still see through the paper to what is below. Through this layering method, one can update and refine an idea, as well as, leave information out of a new drawing but still reference it. An example of this would be existing walls for a basement remodel - I would draw where structure is, the exterior walls, maybe the staircase, but leave off old walls that I plan to demo. This way, my new design can be drawn with reference to the stuff I need to know - like stairs, and columns. One of the best websites that conveys these design methods of evolving an idea through sketching comes from Eric Reinholdt of 30x40 Design Workshop

If you are interested in how an architect works from idea / concept to construction drawings and finally to a build - these tutorials are great. An important (one of the most important parts of drafting by hand and computer, as well as sketching) is controlling line weights. Proper line weight control makes the difference between a muddled mess of lines and a drawing that can be “read” by other designers and contractors. For example, heavy thick lines are used to convey a cut through a solid object or the ground itself… a thin dashed line might convey that a structural beam is overhead, and not seen in the plan but important to convey… and there are also think lines that show cut through drywall or glass and even lines to object like the surface of a desk. Good line weights are like liquor - bad is really, really bad and everyone can see only lines (like cheap liquor all you taste is alcohol)… meaning is almost gone… good line-work falls away and meaning is clear (good liquor allows the drink to sing). Eric, also, has a great video on line weights on his site.

Beyond the formality of sketching floor plans, section drawings and details on a special paper; sketching can take the form of field sketches of buildings, street scenes, railings, doors, and everything you can imagine. Sketches can be bound in expensive Moleskine notebooks like Chris Cornelius (Studio Indigenous) or found literally on napkins. Sketches are amazing in that they are so versatile that in one instant they can be used to capture the experience of a Paris street scene, and in the next help a builder understand how to flash around a window at the construction site. It is the oldest tool, and yet remains one of the most critical to design.

My Sketching Tools:

My tools tend to be simple (many times what I can find nearby). Others, like Chris or Eric are specific and refined over the years. You can find Eric’s tools on his site:

Muji Sketch pad

Copic Multiliner in Gray - I like gray as a base to sketch initial lines, which as I refine them switch to black. (I dont use pencil since it smudges in a sketchbook)

Pilot Razor Point - I like these as a think black line, which I can overlay after the gray “sketchy” lines

Sharpie Ultra Fine Point - this gives me a bit thicker black line to convey line weights.

Faber-Castell PITT artist pen - warm grey in thin and thick - this helps add a touch of color or color in walls

Trace Paper 12” roll- this is critical to doing any overlay drawings

LOCATION: Greater Milwaukee


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