Architects and designers today are at odds over the value of hand-made drawings versus computer-aided design that makes use of cutting edge software.

While great architects from Mies Van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright to Zaha Hadid rose to prominence in the days before computers became commonplace, only later incorporating them into their work, the new generation has been using computers since they started out and many would be hard-pressed to design without modern technology.

Computers are certainly transforming the ways in which architects work, and even think, from the moment they sketch their first impressions of an idea through to the creation of complex construction documents for contractors.

Modern design software is a very powerful tool and many magnificent modern buildings, skyscrapers and engineering pieces would not be possible without them. While computers break down some limits, it is important to use them only as a tool to complement and develop ideas rather than letting computers manipulate the way architects think and design.

Architectural drawing can transmit concepts better than words and the priorities of a company are evident just by looking at the quality of their drawings, from whether they use colours to the font styles they choose, the size of the images, what they want to show and what they do not based on how detailed their construction drawings are, and much more.

Computers have no personality of their own, so architects have to find the way to incorporate their personal style into drawings and designs instead of just using predetermined styles. When looking at hand-drawn construction drawings, it is easy to tell who has drawn which sheets and what details. It is important to achieve the same result with digital drawings by making custom graphic keys and personalizing settings.

“Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets. Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design,” American architect and designer Michael Graves, one of the principal figures in the postmodernist movement, wrote recently in the New York Times.

Hand-made drawings force architects and designers to use their brains, eyes and hands together in a way that improves their creativity much more than using a computer design software.

New York Guggenheim Museum

Handmade drawing of the New York Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In recent years, original architecture drawings have become as valuable as art in some cases. Like many other architects, Graves has held several exhibitions in galleries and museums. His drawings are part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, in New York.

He said, however, that drawings should not be just "a collector’s artifact or a pretty picture" and should maintain their real purpose as an important tool to study and develop an idea along the design process of each architecture project.

Farnsworth House

Handmade floor plan drawing of Farnsworth House by Mies Van der Rohe.

Every design process includes a first stage in which the idea is initially conceived - a first referential sketch, sometimes consisting of just a few lines, expressing a very strong idea. That stage may go missing if a computer is brought into the design process from the get-go.

According to the generation that learned to draw with a pencil, something is lost when new generations draw only on the computer. Moreover, most professionals would argue that hand drawing is a valuable skill every architect must have.

  • The numbers seem to support your assertion that “most professionals would argue that hand drawing is a valuable skill that all architects must have.” Mercedes. I disagree. It can be a valuable skill but skill with other forms can be likewise.

    Starting out under an architect who entered the industry in 1911 (maybe 1914) I was required to develop proficiency with pencil (hard then soft) before ink, earlier forms before Rotrings; in freehand drawing, perspective, use of charcoals and watercolours; with slide rules before calculators; in survey and recording etc. I am appreciative, the pretty drawings did manage to gain a few awards here and there , the freehand some teaching time.

    Sketches can quickly lead to a wholesome grasp of what you are dealing with 3-dimensionally. The sketching with some words can often get to the heart of the matter and achieve client understanding and acceptance within seconds or minutes. This is much faster than possible with any software but on the whole I am able to communicate much more quickly and effectively with computers.

  • I completely agree that physical sketching outweighs computer designs when it comes to an initial concept and while I am sometimes exhausted by the rapid change of technology, it’s a combination of old vs. new that usually delivers the best results.

  • amen…..

    Our young architects have lost the art of thinking…

  • Both should be used. It is a question of when. Sketching out ideas by hand on paper and tracing paper involves expressive markings which inspire the design process. This cannot be done on a computer. Presentation and production drawings can be done on the computer but it is a question of what style is significant for the client. These can be done by hand as well.

  • Well said gentlemen. Truth is that being able to draw by hand is now a dying art -which makes it all that more significant or precious in my mind. I think that as a finished presentation tool the computer is now the state of things. Many computer programs can fake the feel or be evocative of hand sketching so it’s still an option for architects and designers to give it that feel but fundamentally the days of hand drawn presentations will now go the way of the dodo. The up side of doing all this on the computer of course is that it allows the project to be represented more accurately (so it’s actually also a design tool) and it allows for quicker illustration, which now frees up more time to focus on being creative. It’s interesting that we humans react to drawings done by hand with such romanticism -but then it’s not called an ‘art’ for no reason. Bottom line, I don’t think anything will ever replace the concept napkin sketch but for the rest the computer will be increasing relied upon.

    • Kent, in the past the revelation that someone had design skills was through that person’s drawing ability. I am afraid that what you say is true, but as an ex-lecturer I have seen students presenting work using computer skills that HIDE their defects as thinking designers. There are ways to catch them out, but it is a frightening fact and one that will not do the profession of design any favours in the future.

  • Hi everyone I was so pleased to see this discussion .I have always done 3D hand drawings for client’s I’am blessed with this ability and I find that as I draw I’am in fact thinking through and mentally walking through the design . When I was young I was often told by other designer I should give CAD drawing but I found that my clients wanted the hand drawings when presented side by side every time the comment was looking at the hand drawing now I can see what it will look like . Even with the development of 3D color drawings the clients still went with my hand drawing’s And honestly for me it is faster to do a hand drawing to sit and drop and drag etc. Referring to single room elevation or furniture piece’s .And I feel as you hand draw you bring much more creative thought into the design . Having said this an entire home floor plan with elevation’s would be a hugh task and think the invent of computerized drawing’s a must from a time point of view .

  • Hand drawing is no longer a skill which an architect “Must have”, that is no longer true. The generation which used exclusively pencil and ink remember the limitations of the original CAD programs. You can’t do a 3D fly round or fly through with a hand drawn drawing. Whether hand drawn or computer generated the purpose is to convey information about the architectural content. There were many dinosaurs who punished students and juniors for working with CAD, especially in the 80’s and 90’s. Most of these thankfully have retired. Even the rendering of Falling Waters, may capture emotion, but is rather primitive. I was recently asked to draw by hand a 3D rendering of a complex building, by a nostalgic designer, generally that means selecting the most flattering view and hiding many flaws. More likely to produce a 3D model and sketch it by hand to produce the impression of a hand drawing.