Sketching in the Digital Age: More Relevant than Ever?

  • 09 Jul 2013
  • by
  • Articles Editor's Choice
Courtesy of Arup Connect

Our friends at Arup Connect spoke with Matt Williams, a leader of the façade engineering group in Arup’s Americas region and one serious sketcher, about the role of in the digital age. The following interview, originally titled “To Sketch or Not to Sketch,” discusses how sketching enables communication and how our over-reliance on technology isn’t really as efficient as we may think. 

One of the things we’ve been trying to develop in the façades group is people who can relate to the architect, developing and responding to the key architectural requirements. Having come from an architectural background myself, historically there seems to be a bit of a conflict, if that’s the right word, between architects and engineers. There shouldn’t be, though. Everyone wants the same thing at the end of the day: a successful project.

Read the rest of the interview, after the break…

Courtesy of Arup Connect

Having architects on the façades team helps to break down some of those barriers. When I originally joined Arup in London, maybe 30% of the people in the façades group were architects. In the US, our group is now approximately 50% architects who specialize in the building skin. This creates an integrated multidisciplinary practice in its own right, alongside building envelope physicists, structural engineers, and industry specialists.

We’ve been trying to develop that link between the engineering and the architecture, so we sketch in meetings to get a better sense of what the architect wants. If you go to the meeting and just nod and say, “Yes, yes, I understand,” I think some architects feel that you’re just becoming a draftsman for them, but obviously with more technical rigor. When you sketch in meetings, you’re actively providing feedback on the ideas presented and helping to develop new ones. We can optioneer a lot more quickly by drawing during meetings because we can put different solutions on the table. And if you’ve got other people in the meeting that don’t understand technical 2D or 3D drawings and models, sketches are a good way of communicating.

Also, Arup is a global community, so I’ve been fortunate to work on projects everywhere from Israel to China to Russia. You can communicate with sketches even if you can’t speak the same language.

Courtesy of Arup Connect

How has the rise of BIM affected this?

BIM is hugely important to the work that Arup does, and to the construction industry in general, particularly in relation to documentation and delivery. However, I think there’s sometimes an overreliance on CAD and 3D, particularly in the early phases of projects. Because of the BIM expectation, people seem to jump into computer modeling really, really quickly. If you jump into the CAD and the BIM too early and then have to go back and make lots of changes, that’s really time-consuming and doesn’t necessarily help you understand how things go together.

I think we should look at our early-phase input to become more efficient and leaner in the way that we deliver our work. I still think there’s a place for drawing, it’s just a matter of understanding how far you can take it. In a previous life I managed to get away without doing CAD details, producing bid documents by hand. That’s probably changed. Now we probably take it up to 50% DD, maybe 100% DD if the architect is happy. With CDs we’re probably moving things into CAD, and possibly three-dimensional modeling as well.

It’s very difficult to incorporate the level of detail that you can see in these sketches into a 3D model, for example. models cannot handle that amount of information. They break down into sort of blocks. You either end up with a model that is 500MB and very slow or with just a series of blocks.

We never put that level of detail into a model anyway. We are fortunate in that a lot of the industry still delivers fabrication drawings in two dimensions. I think with structural engineering, and with the mechanical guys particularly, the expectation level for people nowadays is all about BIM and 3D and clash detection and all those things.

Courtesy of Arup Connect

So even if Revit could handle that level of detail, you still feel that it would just be faster to communicate through hand drawings?

Particularly in the early stages it’s faster.

There are currently very few contractors or specialist façade fabricators that are set up in Revit or any of these other 3D models. You will find that the general contractors will be very BIM savvy, but even they don’t expect a huge amount of the façades to be modeled. They may ask for portions of the façade to be modeled, key interface details or areas of complex geometry. We often do performance mock-ups which are maybe 30 feet wide and two stories tall; they may ask for that to be done in three dimensions so they can plug it into their model. That will probably be it.

We still need and have all of the CAD modeling and analytical skills to respond to project requirements, but the ability to sketch and draw details quickly to convey an idea or resolve a complex problem still has an important role to play in the way we develop our façade designs.

Courtesy of Arup Connect

It seems like an interesting historical moment where the trend is to go toward BIM for a variety of reasons, some of which are very good and practical, but some that are maybe more about jumping on a bandwagon. The industry seems to be a bit in flux in terms of what methods are most appropriate.

It is. I worked with Zaha Hadid’s office in London – everything in the office is done in three dimensions. The expectation is that all deliverables on their projects would be issued to them in CAD. They don’t need to be in 3D, but they all need to be in AutoCAD. So we would send our hand drawings to our Australian office in Sydney, Australia would CAD them up overnight, and then we would issue these to Zaha Hadid’s office.

When I moved out here and started working with Frank Gehry’s office, I assumed that they would be all about 3D. But once I started working with them I realized that they like to do everything with physical models, and everything had to be drawn by hand. We weren’t really CADing anything up for that project until our hand drawings had been signed off by the partner in charge. It was interesting that their process is actually much more similar to the process I’ve been talking about, where there’s a line in the sand. You can still be designing and optioneering, but there’s an obvious point where it then becomes a very three-dimensional element. That’s the way Gehry’s work is made. I can’t guess how many physical models are in their office. They were keen for us to maintain that hand-drawn process, and for me that was very refreshing and inspiring.

This article comes courtesy of Arup Connect, the online magazine of Arup in the Americas, each week exploring the people and ideas shaping the built environment throughout North and South America.

Cite: Arup Connect. "Sketching in the Digital Age: More Relevant than Ever?" 09 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 26 May 2015. <>
  • Alex

    See the “Is Drawing Dead? Symposium” put on by Yale last Spring on YouTube for a supplement to this article, or Massimo Scolari’s article in Log 26—Representations. It seems that there is an anxiety over new forms of representation and formats of distribution for architectural production that is causing somewhat of a backlash, leaving some architects to yearn for a false nostalgia of a simpler time of making a drawing or a sketch into a building.

    We all sketch. That will never go away. Sketching exists to clarify and also to disentangle representation from reality. It’s the “parti”—the ambiguous nature of wandering lines leads the mind to think of a drawing much more like a diagram, or a representation of multiple possibilities. Because of the imprecise nature of certain digital modeling tools and packages, sketches are often used to restrain unruly meshes into nominal architectural codes and conventions. Instead, I think we need to challenge the computer’s abilities to represent what is only possible with sketching as an aesthetic/kinesthetic act, which this article clearly does not make a stance on.

    No architect grew up dreaming of glazing details. Sketching is how we communicate our most fervid aspirations for designing and building the world. It saddens me when somebody calls a demotic (popular) relevance for a hieroglyphic (sacred) method of making. I guess that’s what happens when you let an engineer write for an architecture website.

  • Maverick Lariosa

    I still do a lot of sketching like these. Especially when I am in a hurry and lots of times when I am on site.It is still very relevant.

  • Tom Leytham

    This looks like drafting to me -where’s the sketch?

    • Sam

      Drafting implies the use of a ruler. This is obviously done free-hand.

      • Chris

        Perhaps, but the fact that no “ruler” is involved does not make these “sketches”, rather they are “drawings”. Sketch implies a looseness that suggests the conception of an idea, or an attempt to capture an idea on paper. “Sketches” are typically left brain creations that don’t strive to tell the complete story as these drawings do. Although there may not be any perfectly straight lines, these drawings are obviously the product of carefully analysis and study. That, in my opinion makes them drawings not sketches….from the right side of the brain!

  • tim house

    Hand sketches are particularly for defining scope, co-ordinating constructions and understanding junctions – especially in unfamiliar or specialist work. They are easy to develop on site or in meetings or groups. I was interested in Arups approach

  • Wyn Vogel

    Sketching comes in all shapes and sizes!! It is a bit like a thumb print as we all sketch and scratch our marks in different ways – the computer cannot emulate this!! Cheers!!

  • Michael Sackey

    Sketching in the digital age: maybe not more relevant, but still as relevant as ever in the early stages of commercial interiors projects. Sketching at meetings with a client always adds ‘value’ to what we do as designers.

  • Ayo Loui

    As an architecture student and a trainee in a design office my experiences have taught me that at the beginning of any design, that is the concept stage, ideas are worked through more thoroughly, quicker and more effectively by hand. There is a natural “freeness” not just physical but also mental that comes with putting pen or pencil to paper to sketch. That “freeness” I believe is needed especially at the start of any project to allow the myriad of possibilities our imagination is capable of conducting to come through to find the best design solutions.

  • Mike Greville

    More than 20 years ago (!) – though it’s something I still think about – the head of computing at Arup Associates pointed in a seminar to something lost in the change to CAD (all the drawing boards were already gone, but this still was several years before say, Fosters, started using PCs). In the ‘old days’, he said, on a big long project there was always a point when parts of the project would be redrawn (when the physical material was too messy or damaged), and sometimes several times. Starting again from a blank sheet each time, even the boring parts, like cores and services, which hadn’t been affected by brief changes/redesigns etc, would be improved and refined. Like that old comment that there are no good writers, just some writers who make the effort to rewrite, edit and refine in a relentless slog, this was a way that buildings became refined – and AA then had an almost unmatched ability to get the servicing to vanish away in a way rarely seen today (except perhaps in high-end fashion stores). Not surprisingly, the teams were self-contained and multi-disciplinary; there were no external consultants. Such back-and-forth mediation between drawings and the author both embeds experience into the design, and feeds experience back to the author. It could fancifully be compared to architecture itself, as it mediates between the world and us people in it. So the concern then with CAD was that that boring part would never again be reviewed during the process of the project – drawn once and forever (and today pasted onto the next project). In principle, you might say, the same could happen with CAD drawings today, which may be true if you have experience of the process. But there does seems to be a philosophical problem with CAD today, with BIM in particular: the oft-repeated mantra, do it once, get it right. An additional (perhaps deadly) problem is that (a) it tends to be the less experienced who are doing the one-time input (b) it tends to be the more experienced who can no longer easily see and review what that was. It’s a recipe, and will clash detection catch this?