The Computer vs The Hand In Architectural Drawing: ArchDaily Readers Respond

The Computer vs The Hand In Architectural Drawing: ArchDaily Readers Respond

In the architecture world, there are a handful of persistent debates that arise time and time again: the challenges of being a woman in the field of architecture is one of them, for example; the problems of a culture of long hours and hard work is another. But one of the most enduring arguments in architecture - especially in the academic sphere - is the battle between hand drawing and computer aided design. Both schools have their famous proponents: Michael Graves, for example, was known as a huge talent with a pencil and paper, and came to the defense of drawing in articles for the New York Times, among others. Patrik Schumacher, on the other hand, is famous for his commitment to the capabilities of the computer.

To advance this heated conversation, two weeks ago we reached out to our readers to provide their thoughts on this topic in an attempt to get a broad cross-section of opinions from architects from all walks of life. Read some of the best responses after the break.

One of the most surprising things we discovered in reading our readers' comments was that, despite the often heated nature of this discussion there was a surprising level of agreement among our readers. Almost all seemed to believe that CAD and hand drawing could perfectly coexist, as most seemed to feel that sketching was an ideal tool for forming ideas and design software was more suited to the precision and clarity that is required at the later stages of the project. It is worth noting, however, that almost nobody who expressed this opinion addressed the topic of hand-drawn technical drawings - which perhaps leads us to infer that when it comes to technical drawings, the computer has well and truly won.

But of course the role of drawing in formulating ideas is not the only topic to debate. When it comes to the finer points, here is what our readers had to say.

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Michael Graves was a staunch defender of the importance of drawing. Here, his design for Denver Library. Image Courtesy of Michael Graves & Associates, photo: Ken Ek

The debate of "hand drawing vs computers" is misleading; in fact both computer software and hand drawing techniques should be considered as large collections of distinct tools:

I'm surprised that after all these years that hand-drawing vs computer is still being discussed. Not because I'm for one and against the other, but that by now we should all know that the computer is not just one monolithic tool that does one thing, but a platform on which a diverse inventory of tools are available. Drawing with Processing is almost more different from drawing with CAD than it is from sketching on a moleskin. In fact, one could argue similarly that different methods of hand-drawings could be considered distinct tools as well - one would smear pastel or splash watercolor on a sketchbook to capture an incipient thought, but it is inconceivable to do the same on a set of construction drawings.

One should choose the right tool for the right tasks. It is silly to use Bently AecoSim to capture an idea floating in the air, as it is silly to technical-draft a typical bracket detail for an exhaust air duct on a set of construction drawings. It's circumstantial. To frame the question as hand-drawing vs computer as if it is one tool against the other and not, say, the pros and cons of the use of millions of tools available, is wrong to start with. [Ck]

Even in the most computer-focused areas of architecture, sketches can be a useful starting point for ideas:

I'm the founder and creative director of a CGI company specialized in architecture visualization, and in every project we're involved in we always start by hand drawing sketches.


Because that's the early stage and we're developing alternatives with our clients to explore which one works best. And doing it by sketches we're quickly creating different alternatives and identifying the best ones, saving effort, time and costs for us, but principally to our customers. [Paulo Armi]

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Chris Wilkinson of Wilkinson Eyre is another architect to have publicly defended the importance of sketching. Here, his drawing for Article 25's 10x10 charity auction. Image © Chris Wilkinson Courtesy of Article 25

The importance of drawing in education is different to the importance of drawing in practice:

I think that drawing in an educational setting serves a different purpose than drawing in a working office. To me, the previous is about learning to see. First year students specifically, tend to "see" a building very simply; however, once they have to reproduce what they see by hand, they start to understand the intricacies a building and its parts. They see the depth of a three-wythe masonry wall, the "lines" of the window frame, or a soldier-course reveal that provides depth and shadow. Sketching and drawing in the first year (along with building physical models) provide so many "ah-ha" moments, that it should be mandatory.

For me, sketching in the office is used when I run into the limitations of the software (or my perceived limitations of it). I get out the trace when I need to "let a line go for walk." Sketching allows me to quickly rethink things, just to see if it is worth doing in the computer. [MarkM]

Sketching allows you to take control of your design in a way that computer programs don't...:

I find that hand drawing is a reliable complimentary tool to my digital modelling. With all the things that computers can do now, it is easy to get caught up with the ability of whatever tools you are now using. For example, as a student I used to get crazy with double curvature surfaces when I used Rhino, and I get quite boxy when I use Archicad or Revit. At the end of the day, I learned to rely on my own hand drawn sketches first to convey to myself what my idea really is. That way I know when I make the design in the digital tools, that the idea was my own. Also, this allows me to utilize other digital tools better to suit my need. In retrospect, hand sketching helped me control my digital tools (instead of it controlling me). [amanda]

...But many computer programs created for use by architects seem poorly designed to offer control, especially when compared to software designed for artists:

As an architect and illustrator of comic strips I've notice something: drawing software like Photoshop, Painter, SAI were made and improved to give to the user the sensation of drawing on paper, with real brushes. Those software packages offer more freedom, and with the creation of graphics tablets like the Wacom Cintiq the user gains in precision. In architecture it's the total opposite: software is hard to use, and it's up to the architect to fit his work to the machine. [nes]

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Many believe that the way certain software works can restrict the architect's thinking and alter the resulting design. Sketching is often seen as an antidote to this problem. Image Courtesy of Daniel Gillen

Being able to draw also provides practical advantages that can help you every day:

Hand drawings charm the clients, especially if they watch you drawing. [Flavia Quintanilha, via Facebook]

You can hand draw on the bus, in the bathroom, in a park having a picnic. Ideas come out of the head easier by hand drawing. [Pablo Ña Nanjarí López, via Facebook]

Computers open opportunities for talented designers who are unfortunately not also talented artists:

While I totally understand the importance of hand drawing, what happens to those who can't draw? Lots of students quit architecture because they can't draw well. One can't judge someone's ability to design based on their sketching/drawing skills. The pressure of learning drawings is no different to learning science and mathematics in school. I do agree that the design process should start with hand drawings but it doesn't mean that you have to produce presentation drawings by hand. Computer programs helps people like me to express their creativity. People who can sketch should sketch and are sketching but one can't be better than others. [vikram]

What happens when you don't find a balance?

To varying extents, then, everyone seemed to believe that both methods played an important role in the production of architecture, and that the difficult part is finding the right balance between the two. But what happens when you don't find this balance?

For our final comment, we will leave you with an astonishing cautionary tale of what can happen when you put too much emphasis on one technique while neglecting others:

I graduated from my masters in 2008, having completed every single project and assignment over 5 years by hand. At the time, the head of my school told me I was the first person at that university ever to do so. I’m not sure exactly when it was that I decided to do it this way. I had a drawing board at home and used to burn the midnight oil engrossed in what it could create.There is such intimacy you get with the hand drawing – every line though out and considered, every pencil mark carefully gone over with ink, such care taken in the creation of this art for fear of any blemish or another better idea and having to start again. It forces you to think in the third dimension, to consider each and every detail above, beside and below every line, to wander in your mind around your own ideas rather than watching them appear in front of you with a few clicks.

People would often wonder why I didn’t use CAD. I knew how to but I never did. There is such a romantic human quality in a hand drawing that you just don’t get otherwise. It draws you into its existential conceptualization and surrounds you in its environmental condition. And people would warm to it. I would watch as people would stand in front of my drawings and linger. I knew it wasn’t because of the quality of my designs but in how they were presented. People admired it because they just didn’t see it any more. People would be amazed at the process of what it took just to get these ideas onto paper in the form they were in. It was humbling.

However, there was always this sense of loss and regret. This knowing that I wasn’t doing myself any favours by turning my back completely on a technology that is an absolute necessity in a technological world. My methods were old school. My methods were prehistoric, archaic, even delusional. My methods would never get me anywhere. To a fellow student there was an affiliation, but not once you’re done and you’ve got to go out and sell yourself as a trembling graduate and tell the world you’ve never used the one tool they require.

And then you have this moment of fear. The fear that now you’re actually no good. The fear that after 5 years you’re no good. And since I had this moment, my entire 5 years of hand drawings have sat rolled up in a corner and I’ve never even applied for a job in the profession. [Tenzin Twenties]

About this author
Cite: Rory Stott. "The Computer vs The Hand In Architectural Drawing: ArchDaily Readers Respond" 05 May 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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