Drawing and Tech

Hi everyone! My name is Ben, I am a (very) recently registered architect. I can finally call myself an architect after years of study. And yet, after all that time, three universities, multiple jobs, and chats with other students from various places, I still feel there are some things (in this case, drawing and computers) that we just aren’t taught at architecture school. Sure, a few things finally got covered during my Part 3 course, but on average that’s usually 6 or 7 years after we first start our architectural journey.

Originally my intention was to write a book about some key things I (and others I’ve spoken to) didn’t get taught at university but wish we were. The book never happened since my Part 3 took priority. However, I reached out to Sana about discussing some key things lots of us seem to not be taught, or not taught in the amount of depth we would like, and provide some pointers (mostly involving other people better at these things than me) in the hopes of sparing some poor souls the same bafflement experienced by many of us.

The following topics were chosen based on my own experience as well as those of my colleagues and fellow students, since if there’s one thing we architects like to do, it seems to be to complain about our education! The first two cover two key skills for us architects: how to draw and how to use a computer to design.

Drawing Skills

I am fairly certain I am not alone in saying that despite studying architecture I am not particularly good at drawing. I can communicate a design concept with a very rough sketch, I can do a half decent diagram and maybe on a good day I can even parti with the best of them. In comparison, I know of other architects capable of putting together beautiful hand-drawn renderings. I had a friend in undergrad who could draw photorealistic portraits with ease, while I ultimately had to be happy with depicting humans as slightly tapering upside down exclamation marks.

When I began my studies, we were forbidden to use computers to produce our work for the entirety of 1st year. From conversations I have gathered this is not particularly unusual – it prevents us from becoming overly reliant on computers and encourages more relaxed, artistic expression. Sketching allows for ideas to flow naturally from brain to paper, without restricting them due to the constraints of a computer program.

While this seems reasonable, in my experience the architects who can create fantastic hand-drawn sketches are in the minority. Despite being forbidden, it seems in general, we are not taught to draw properly. I know that in some schools outside the UK students are still required to be able to create drawings that would not look out of place in Palladio’s 4 Books. Admittedly this rigid rote learning is rarely seen as the modern way, but there must be a middle ground. 

Many employers still request strong sketching skills from applicants, in fact :scale posted an article recently reflecting on its importance. Everyone clearly knows this, yet it is not taught in a structured manner in most (all?) schools. My drawing education at university consisted of a few sessions demonstrating how to convert an elevation into a 1-point perspective drawing, while I received no formal education in drawing prior to university, even in art class. To this end, I have over the years developed some tips to deal with my own shortcomings in this area, as well as some excellent resources that give far better advice than I am qualified to give. So, in no particular order:

Don’t worry about it. Despite my miniature tirade above and the inevitable envy of seeing a colleague drafting a beautiful perspective of a project, it’s not the end of the world if you can’t do it too. We architects wear far too many hats, it’s ok if one is a little wonky. As long as you can draw legibly and with confidence to communicate with colleagues and, importantly, clients, the quality of the drawing is not massively important. Everyone loves that Renzo Piano sketched the Shard on a napkin but ultimately that’s all it is – a sketch on a napkin to communicate an idea.

Practice. Like everything, drawing takes practice. More specifically, pick a type of drawing and practice it. The only times in my life I have seen a marked improvement in my drawing is when I chose a specific subject (in my case, people) and drew them repeatedly. I followed YouTube tutorials once a week but what matters is reducing things down to sensible sizes and focusing on honing that skill.

If you wish your ‘people’ looked more proportional, try practicing poses in quick succession (I found Quick Poses particularly useful for this). If you wish your perspective was better, draw a street over and over. If you feel you take too long on a diagram, try sitting in a cafe and drawing people as they walk past. Nothing prompts action like a limited window of time you have no control over!

Listen to the experts (I.e not me). The beautiful thing about the internet is how many people on it want to teach you things. There are many architects and architecture adjacent people with guides and tips on how to draw better, and if paper is more your thing, there are hundreds of books too!

Some of my personal favourites are the book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (the series of tips on overlapping lines, drawing them confidently without fuzzing, and basic shading technique, helped sharpen up my sketches immediately) and David Drazil’s website. He makes architectural drawings full time and his tips on composition, perspective types, and using construction lines to make sure your drawing looks just right are simple and effective.

Sketch Like an Architect

Using Digital Software

While drawing is a very useful tool for communicating, and there is an undeniable sense of achievement in creating a beautiful drawing, in practice these days most of our work is done on a PC. Some practices like the one I work in still have drawing boards, but they tend to be used for early concepts by directors, and by the time we young blood are in their place it is likely drawing boards will be firmly lodged in the past. Unfortunately, if drawing is ignored at university, proper use of computers is downright shunned. From what I’ve seen this seems to be improving, likely because students keep griping that nobody shows us how to use Revit and practices complain that we don’t know how to. 

However, since change in this profession seems to be very slow then all at once, it still seems necessary to cover this.

From my experience, keeping us away from computers in 1st year had the knock-on effect of making them seem magic once we were able to use them. In 2nd year most of my peers used computers for almost everything, despite not knowing the strengths of different programs. With the proliferation of 3D printers and the like in university fablabs, this has spread even to those of us who love making models. This means we often have to start learning multiple programs from scratch while also learning to design buildings.

It is also very easy to hamper our designs by insisting on working on them in a particular program because it’s what we know or we are determined to learn to use it. Something designed by hand will look very different to something designed entirely in Revit. Which leads me to my first point about computers:

Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to use it. Many of my peers chose not to use computers much, or even not at all, and chose to focus on hand drawing or models. This can really make your work stand out if everyone else is using CAD for everything. 

Chat with other students and share tips and knowledge about software. Over the course of my studies I was taught very useful things about Photoshop, Illustrator, and Rhino by other students, and I taught similar tips in return. Architecture is very competitive and it is easy to fall into the mentality of “everyone for themselves”, but in practice teamwork is very important – helping each other out at university (and with things like this blog) makes us all better. 

If your university does not teach you much about software, make full use of the internet. Lots of universities have subscriptions to online teaching resources like Lynda/LinkedIn Learning, which is full of excellent tutorials by experienced professionals. I learned to use Revit almost entirely from a Lynda tutorial. 

Finally, try to focus on a few programs at any given time. There are a plethora of programs architects use, and lots of job listings seem to expect us to know how to use every single one. In practice this is not feasible – each program does many things, often the same things in different ways. Learning how to use a program properly, effectively, and to its full potential can take a long time, especially with the more complex ones.

It can be tempting to try to use every program for one project, but this wastes precious time and energy on learning the program when you could be designing. There will always be more time to learn other software, and university is arguably the best time, but it is better to be particularly skilled at two or three than barely proficient at ten. 

Catch me next week for even more tips, can you guess what they will be?

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