The Value of Hand Sketching in the World of Modern Architecture

“There is something in the physical connection between your brain, your hand and a pen that allows ideas to flow easily and flourish.” – Mike Bednar, SHP architect

Before computer-aided design (CAD) became ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s, there was the pencil (or pen, if you were feeling confident). The architects and designers of decades past largely relied on their artistic abilities to brainstorm and plan the built environment. Being able to sketch ideas by hand was an essential part of the process. These days, our architects and designers depend on technologies that can produce digital facsimiles of buildings and spaces in meticulous 3D detail. While architecture students are still taught the basics of drawing, more of their time is spent learning how to use CAD software to render ideas.

As with so many other industries, technology has revolutionized the way we work—but hand drawing is far from obsolete. In fact, sketching can play a major role throughout the creative, collaborative process of designing a space. Specifically, putting pen to paper can prompt valuable conversations and allow for more spontaneous, fast-paced ideation.

“There is something in the physical connection between your brain, your hand and a pen that allows ideas to flow easily and flourish,” notes Mike Bednar, a project architect based in SHP’s Columbus office. “You can get an idea on paper that is not figured out yet but has a certain spirit or essence. It also leaves space for unexpected ideas to slip into and through the cracks and loose lines.”

Interpretation & Imagination

The imaginative power of hand drawing played an important role in one of SHP’s recent master planning projects for Violet Township within the city of Pickerington, OH. Because master planning is an extensive process that involves navigating complex variables like existing and potential facilities, site limitations, community needs and restrictions from governing bodies, turning to hand sketching can often help facilitate speed. “During these types of projects, we’ll often use digital renderings, which can take a lot of time,” Mike says. But this project had a tighter timeline, and our team needed to brainstorm a large volume of ideas more quickly.

Instead of spending a lot of time on renderings, the SHP team opted for hand sketches that were not only faster, but looser and more conceptual. Whereas digital renderings tend to feel more concrete, “the sketches allowed for more interpretation and creativity—and that’s when things really started to ‘click’ for the client,” Mike recalls.

Incorporating hand-sketching into the master planning process proved to be a valuable experience for the client and the SHP team—in large part because the client became more engaged in ideation. “By showing clients sketches before full-fledged computer renderings, you invite them into the process,” says Mike. “Things are unfinished, and the tool used to create what they’re looking at is a pen—something the clients themselves have access to and can participate in, sometimes right there in the meeting!”

Combining Digital & Physical

There is additional merit in combining the digital and physical, adds interior designer Kinsey Kaufman. While hand-drawing and CAD technologies each have their distinct benefits, they can be especially powerful when used in tandem.

“Especially when talking through design problems with your project team, communicating can be so much easier and more quickly done by hand,” says Kinsey. “While I do largely focus on the technology-driven drawings and visuals throughout the design process, I have been known to ‘draw’ on a monitor a time or two—and while we laugh about it in the moment, that’s where the dialogue clicks and we make decisions on the fly.”

Art that Works

While we won’t be forgoing our beloved CAD technologies in favor of a fully manual approach to design, we still believe in the power of pencil and paper. As Mike puts it, “Technical computer drawings and semi-realistic renderings help us deliver a building, but hand sketching helps us give it soul.”

And aside from the utilitarian benefits that hand-drawing can provide, some of our archived sketches are true works of art. See below for a sampling of drawings from past SHP projects.