mind to hand to paper.

‘You Are What You Draw: A Manifesto’ is the first installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world. 


imagecredit: Roger Penwil

image credit: Roger Penwill

The art of drawing has largely been declared ‘dead’ by many of my elders, contemporaries, and piers within the broad profession of design. We all decry the flashy software used by our students and emerging professionals – fearing what we have yet to understand. Todays’ young designers have a connection from their brain to their computer. They are comfortable conceptualizing on their screens, working quickly – and as a result, are convinced that their first idea is their best [only] idea. They see drawing as an archaic practice – an exercise in futility, as opposed to a skill that is imperative to a successful design effort. For my students, drawing was a forced march that was ‘for their own good’ and something they ‘would thank me for later’. But, over the years, I’ve come to understand that preserving this lost art is all in the way we integrate it into their consciousness. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design”, says Michael Graves, an architect and partner at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. When we think about the hand to mind connection in this manner, drawing is given potentially immortal existence within the field of design. Drawing is a vehicle through which you explore the design process rather than the culmination of your work in a completed concept, and therefore can never truly be eliminated in the process of creation.

I am a landscape designer who cut her teeth on the cusp of paste-up lettering and AutoCAD. As a result, I understand the advantages of working on a computer as opposed to generating everything by hand. Changing plan elements in AutoCAD is a matter of several clicks. Changing hand drawn plans is a completely different ballgame. Changes could take hours or even require trashing your plan and starting over. In that regard, one can see the obvious benefits. Production is streamlined, business is made more efficient. In addition to operational benefits, computers also allow us to store massive amounts of information within our designs. A program like Revit, for example, keeps track of complex building systems. It calculates square footages, pressures for HVAC systems, and even stores an extensive library of materials. The amount of data we can store within plans is nothing short of astounding. Computers afford us flexibility and latitude that were otherwise not possible prior to their existence. These amazing machines can complete every part of the design process – from sketching preliminary ideas to the creation of large plan sets and renderings. However, despite all of the advanced technology, computers still lack the capability to facilitate the mind to hand connection.

So how do we present drawing in such a way that it’s an unavoidable, and dare I say, enjoyable exercise within the design process? Michael Graves offers further insight into how. He lumps drawing into three different categories: Referential Sketch, Prepatory Study, and Definitive Drawing. The final type – definitive, is the drawing in its final form. It is highly refined and is most often made on the computer, as are most polished graphics. But the other two types are essential to our conceptual design process in terms of hand to mind connection.

As their names might suggest, each of these drawing types has a specific purpose. The referential sketch is often completed in the very beginning. These drawings may be fragments of a broader idea. As Graves says, “it might not be a drawing that relates to a building or any time in history.” It doesn’t necessarily represent reality – such as loose bubble diagrams or form studies. It is a reminder of why you were fixated on that idea in the first place. That visceral connection between your hand and the memory of that idea cannot be replicated by a computer. It is the repetitive doodling of these fragments that evolves into the next phase of the process: prepatory study.

Prepatory study refers to that messy progression of scribble that eventually emerges as a design. For me, it’s layering translucent [trash] paper over and over again until I arrive at my solution. At times, I will pile up in excess of twenty pages of trash with scribbles, notes, doodles, you name it. Most designers will tell you this part, the build up to what we call the ‘schematic’ phase, is their favorite. It’s messy and a little furious at times. And it’s a process that cannot be replicated by designing on a computer. The wonderful thing about drawing in this prepatory stage is that amongst these layers of trash, you can see the evolution of your idea – what worked, what didn’t work. You can see different forms and how they interact with the layers of paper above and below. Although one can duplicate floor plans, create other options, within the digital interface of a computer, the process doesn’t compare to one where those changes can be seen on top of each other. Once more, the repetition reinforces that connection from mind to paper, which in turn, strengthens the idea.

Categorizing the types helps identify their place in the design process. But one last element that can help determine their effectiveness is drawing ability. It can be inferred that with the advent of the computer, drawing as a skill is not a necessary pre-requisite to become a designer. Being that most designers are not always trained to draw, it can be a daunting task. But, you don’t have to be good at drawing to indulge referential and prepatory drawing. These quick studies or concepts are simply to get the ideas out of your head and onto the paper. The goal is to create a visual record of your ideas to reference as you create the concept. Completing this process on a computer is often one-dimensional as it allows you to draw within perimeters or constraints. Your mouse only draws according to the commands it has available. Contrast this with your hand, where you can draw anything and abandon the limits of the paper. Often these stray marks or mistakes open unexpected possibilities for design solutions. Regardless of the skill as an artist, this process allows a designer to see their ideas in a way that cannot be realized on a screen.

 As a general rule, a designer should never pigeonhole themselves into one skill set. Designers must be well-versed in both worlds. Although drawing is a foundation for good design, computers often take those efforts to the next level – refining, quantifying, and polishing the final product. However, when we take the conceptual process out of the computer, and present it as an informal way to catalogue ideas, the two skill sets combine to create a more effective design concept. Because the truth is, anybody can learn to use a computer. However, the ability to visually communicate ideas through the hand to mind connection is what sets a thoughtful, profound designer from all of the rest.

One thought on “mind to hand to paper.

  1. Pingback: perspectives on drawing: Alvaro Siza Vieira | Adrienne Wright

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