Sketching in the digital design age.

28th March 2021
Andy Veall
Technical Director

Given the speed and immediacy of the digital world in which we operate, the way we design and engineer urban spaces is changing at a rapid pace. While digital tools are facilitating a new era of capabilities and efficiencies how can we can ensure that we do not lose the skill of freehand sketching and the benefits it can bring to any project? Andy Veall, Technical Director for WSP Middle East asks Raj Patel, Architecture Design Director, Principal for Gensler for his thoughts in this episode of the WSP Anticipate podcast.

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WSP Middle East · Sketching in the digital design age.

Not able to listen? Here’s an overview of the discussion:

Is the need for efficiency forcing early-career engineers and architects to change their mode of thinking? When thinking or designing has always been so reliant on sketching or drawing, are we at risk of hampering the creativity and solution-making required for success?

Andy and Raj discuss studies that have explored the benefits of honing the skills required for freehand sketching and share how simply drawing out a problem can be a vital addition to your arsenal of design as an engineer or architect. But do we actually witness sketching in practice today, or is it becoming a thing of the past?

I have found that by sketching or drawing out a problem you can diverge or reject ideas quickly and converge on to a solution.

Can we get people sketching again?
Whilst it’s clear that the global coronavirus pandemic has altered how we operate, it appears that remote working has helped to somewhat revive the need to sketch and ask someone “hey can you do a quick sketch and send it to me?” Sketching really is becoming more important as we adapt to working more remotely as it also helps to bridge the communication gap that exists when you take away the quick comments, hand gestures, and explanations that usually exist between groups of people. Interestingly technology is facilitating the need for quick sketches and line drawings with tablets and smartphones allowing us to share hand-drawn ideas quickly and efficiently and other tools allowing us to integrate these ideas quickly into designs.

What sketching does ultimately is reveals flaws yet people want to skip right to the answer rather than doodle and understand if a different approach could be better.

According to author Malcolm Gladwell, “it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills” Ruminating on this theory, it seems sensible that he suggested that committing time to master the skill of line drawing will help – not just with proficiency but perhaps more importantly – confidence.  “I think there is a fear when you open a sketchbook and it is completely blank, you become fearful that what you are going to draw might not be a good solution”. “It takes time and hours in training to become an expert but as you sketch more and more you reach a point where you can capture the imagination of clients and you are able to resolve issues by simply pulling out a piece of paper and drawing out a problem.”

Conversational Sketching
Ron Slade, Director of WSP in the UK, who has authored a book on Sketching for Architects and Engineers, uses the phrase ‘conversational sketching’ and expresses how the early project exchanges between an architect and an engineer can benefit from rough sketches and quick drawings, with project stakeholders feeling more confident to reject or tweak ideas, in pursuit of a better solution if they have merely taken a few moments to sketch.

“If someone turns up at a meeting and they have spent three weeks doing a render, you are going to be more reticent in being critical, whereas if someone shows you a quick sketch it is more democratic and can be critiqued more easily” It is clear that this conversational approach to early design is invaluable – the ability to discuss problems early on, run through various ideas at pace and really understand the agreed solutions can undoubtedly save time and money throughout the project lifecycle.

The way we work has changed due to technology however the use of sketching can’t be overlooked. Whilst technology can help us to produce models very early on in the project life cycle and can certainly speed up the process of design – can it sometimes be to detriment of collaboration, conversation, and ‘optioneering’? The exploration of solutions and consideration of options is far quicker with the use of sketching, particularly at the beginning of the concept stage but it’s important that we don’t overlook the benefits of ‘conversational sketching’ when the project reaches site where drawing out an idea can once again offer benefits in dealing with queries, unknown conditions, etc.

I have found that the engineers who can draw are much more efficient at solving problems on-site

To sketch or not to sketch?
For architects, it is standard practice that new graduates and early career professionals begin to build a portfolio that includes sketches and drawings, but is it the same in engineering? Or have we allowed ourselves to focus on technology too heavily?

It wouldn’t be typical for engineering firms to test the drawing skills of candidates, however, The Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) does still require individuals to showcase their ability to produce drawings by hand as part of their chartership exam – conversely, to become chartered with The American Institute of Architects (AIA) the exam is now completely based on technology.

The lack of continuity and decrease in the necessity to draw certainly appears to be suggesting that “The industry as a whole is telling young people that the art of sketching is no longer important” But is this solely because of technology? Young designers today tend to favour inspiration sites such a Pinterest where they can view crowd-sourced ideas and images rather than develop their own options using a sketchbook.

“Why do we look outside for external imagery to provide us with inspiration?” Does the availability of external inspiration and modeling tools leave young graduates questioning the need to sketch? Can we allow ourselves the time to hone our drawing skills when clients are expecting solutions at an ever-quickening pace?

“By not encouraging sketching we try to suggest that there is only one answer,” one way of approaching a project, which we all know, from experience, is not the case. The industry is beginning to feel the effects that increased deliverables and decreased schedules are having on our projects. More and more we are seeing the need for a ‘pre-concept design stage’ where we are making room for the thinking, ideation, and sketches that are essential to long-term success. In this context we take sketches and ideas and make them set deliverables, showcasing their importance and ensuring the time, resource, and investment that they require.

Productive relaxation
On a softer note, it is clear that sketching has many other benefits within the digital age. Not only can it aid with the computational design of places and buildings, but it can also divert our attention away from technology – offering us a way to take care of our mental health. In the current climate where work and home life is merging is it more important than ever that we find ways to switch off and relax – sketching can certainly offer a solution to this problem and in turn can help young engineers and architects to practice the skills that will ultimately help them to become more productive.

“i-sketch or i-phone? What are you going to do? Have a sketchbook and just keep it by your side. You might go a couple of weeks without doing anything but one day you’ll pick it up and get started”