Confessions of a Dinosaur

Perspective sketch by the author for a recent project
image: PRI

CAD is the worst thing to happen to the landscape architecture profession.

There, I said it.

I feel better already.

I’m sure there were some who said the same thing when tree stamps, Kroy machines, and the overlay method of drafting arrived on the scene.  Each has come and gone and the profession has survived.  CAD, however, is a little more insidious, because I believe it has not only changed how we represent our ideas, but how we think of them.

Paul Friedberg recently talked of his use of CAD as a design tool and how he has adapted and grown with the evolution of design tools.  I admire him for not only being one of the creative giants of the profession, but also proving that old dogs can learn new tricks.  I am an old dog who chooses not to learn new tricks.  I say this with the full realization that this makes me a dinosaur, but in my experience, even today, I get better reactions by clients and the public with free hand drawings than with CAD drawings.

I recently had a presentation with a client for a preliminary plan that we quickly drew and colored in a day.  He loved the concept and asked us to prepare a “marketing quality” plan.  Naturally, we went to CAD and Photoshop and produced the usual polished rendered plan, which we sent electronically.  His reaction included a word that looked like this: $%#*!  He said the plan looked flat and bland and not suitable to send to his investors.  So we piled on the textures, shadows, and colors.  Two days later, we sent it off and his reaction was, “This is almost as good as the free hand drawing, so I guess it will have to do”.  Faint praise for three times as many hours in production.

This made me pause and consider what CAD has done to us. Consider this:

CAD makes us slow:  Contrary to popular opinion, CAD use is not faster, but slower, than hand drawing.   Most would agree with this statement during the formative stages of design, when quick gestural lines can become magic.  CAD does not understand the gestural line.  It only allows the precisely considered line and it demands commitment of angle, length, and curve. In the formative stages of design, precision is not only unnecessary, but also destructive to the serendipity of the gesture.   Design is a search for the new within the existing and the quick gesture of one line that leads to another that leads to another, is at the heart of that process.  With a pen or pencil, a designer can consider, reject, and sort through dozens of ideas in minutes.  This gives him or her immediate feedback to refine the thoughts contained on the page. With CAD, the same process takes significantly longer.

CAD makes us blind:  CAD drawings are stunningly perfect looking, with precise line quality, crisp tones, and consistent symbols.  They are a thing of beauty and clarity when scrubbed. However, the way in which the files are assembled in layers, all magenta, blue, and yellow, blinds us to the content of the layers.  How many times has a plot emerged with 2” high letters that say “60’ R.O.W.” right in the middle of the plaza?   Because the designers must force themselves to work on one layer at a time, they lose the entirety of the drawing and its context.  They cannot see the forest for the trees, quite literally.  The amount of wasted plots is staggering as intelligent people are blind to the “hidden” layers, which are actually in plain sight.  I do ask folks to look at their work in black and white before plotting, so they become aware of these anomalies, and this self-checking does help,  but I do find myself saying, “Would you have drawn these lines, symbols, etc., if you were assembling the drawing from scratch? “  It is the way most drawings are loaded with multiple layers, that makes “de-layering” a painful part of the drawing process to get to the perfection of the CAD promise.

Free hand version of a recent project’s landscape plan
image: PRI

CAD makes us dull: CAD is a system of engineered choices created by engineers for the use of engineers.  Sorry if I offend engineers, but by its very structure, CAD has a limited menu of lines, hatches, letters, etc. which forces us to accept these limits.  Thus, the drawings that are produced have a predictable look and feel to them.  As technical drawings, the notion of consistency for quality control is a wonderful attribute, and is the best thing about CAD.  However, they make for flat and machined drawings. Landscape architecture is a profession that blends art and science and we are at our best when we can reflect artistic intent with reasoned engineering.    Our work should excite and inspire the public, and so we must continue to see ourselves as artist, with landscape as our canvas.  Too many times we have created drawings that actually deflate our artistic intent.  How many times have we been to a public meeting   in which the process is undermined, when the plans are criticized for being “cast in stone” simply because they are so precise?

CAD makes us inflexible:  Because CAD is so laborious, intelligent people become reticent to make sweeping changes to design.  It is a normal human reaction to resist such change, and therefore quite understandable.  However, our profession is all about the evolution of ideas, which encourages change.  We have all seen the looks on people’s faces when we ask them to redesign a significant part of a design.  One of the promises of CAD was easy revisions and it is marvelous tool for that because the revision looks as crisp as the original.  That said, actually getting all of those revisions done becomes a protracted negotiation among design team members.  How many times have we heard, “We will not change the design at all.  It’s already in CAD and we are not going backwards.“? That attitude is more pervasive than we would like to admit, and in this case, it is not CAD, but the designers that need to adapt.

CAD is a wonderful tool, but it has a pernicious power to transform us into machine operators rather than artists.  There is something powerful about the kinesthetic nature of drawing that is important to our creative process and we must figure out a way to preserve that as we move forward.  My hope is that we are in the beginning stages of the digital revolution and that we will look back on today’s technology and marvel at how quaint the software was back in early twenty-first century.

Until then, I am the dinosaur that awaits the asteroid headed my way as I cling to my pencils.   I know how this movie ends, but I have some small hope that a more intuitive digital tool comes along that will preserve the integrity of the hand, the eye, and the brain, working in harmony to produce works of astonishing beauty and stunning clarity.

by Dennis Carmichael, FASLA, LEED AP, Principal, ParkerRodriguez  Inc, in response to A Dinosaur in the Digital Age, posted to The Field on August 14, 2012

5 Responses to “Confessions of a Dinosaur”

  1. Michael Weir, PMP, MLA, Associate ASLA Says:

    Great post, Dennis! As a recent MLA graduate, it is incredibly valuable for me to hear this perspective on AutoCAD. My skills in that application are pretty good, but my hand drawing skills are not yet where I would like them to be. Your post has motivated me to practice more. Thanks!

    • Peter Savage, RLA, Brisbane, Australia Says:

      As an LA of dinosaur age and having started my working life in a world of pen, pencils, and charcoal sticks I totally agree with most of what Dennis has to say. CAD is a wonderful thing and the ability to do flythroughs and alter the viewing point at a moments notice is a great thing. However, I’ll bet that if you look closely at your clients, they’ll be much more involved and interact in a freehand drawing as you develop the early concepts. Somehow, it’s just more human than the precise CAD drawing and people feel that they can ne involved in a discussion rather than being presented to. Keep the keyboard and the mouse for the detailed design development. For those of us who don’t have the outstanding presentation skills of Dennis, keep it simple, but keep it freehand.

  2. Alexander M. Oross, ASLA Says:

    I have been ‘feeling’ this way for several years now…I am pretty proficient at CAD, after much practice and experience, but nothing compares to how design flows from the pencil and each drawing has a life of its own. True landscape architecture is evident in a hand rendered sketch. That seperates us from other design professionals in the way we are trained. Awesome post. What was ‘old’ should be new again…

  3. Shavawn Coleman, ASLA, LEED AP BD+C Says:

    As a recent graduate, thank you for putting things into perspective for me. In school, they teach a lot of CAD, but they sometimes forget the lost of art of hand drawings and renderings. Next time I am asked to design something, trace will come out vs. the computer!

  4. Ted Cleary, ASLA Says:

    I just discovered “The Field” and this article, so it’s possible nobody may see my comments, but I have to say how gratifying it is to read this. I absolutely agree on all the points Dennis makes so eloquently. Sometimes it takes an individual with the credibility of an ASLA president to speak truth against the elephant in the room everyone is afraid to admit to. Not only is it true how much, in the big picture, CAD’s taken away from efficiency (and don’t get me started on the laughable prediction that computers would “reduce paper”!), but he points out the many more-subtle and insidious nuances of designing with a digital rather than a visceral mindset. I may in fact ask him if I have permission to quote parts of it in my own blog writings or website.
    Having entered the profession when CAD was still pretty unsophisticated and slow, I really resented the many hours I had to devote to poring through thousand-page tutorial manuals….only to do it over again a year or two later with the latest & greatest new software or updated version. These were countless hours I could have instead devoted to learning how to become a better landscape architect, and a better conventional illustrator. I’ve had conversations with college friends, now principals of their own firms, who, when tasking junior employees with some conceptual design early-on, their instinct is to turn to their computer, and when instead are handed a roll of trace, freeze with paralysis. I find it a bit humorous to see how much effort is expended in creating CAD drawings with a ‘hand-rendered’ look with Squiggle-type add-ons.
    However, let’s face it, as far as CAD becoming an integral aspect of the design world, that ‘horse has already left the barn’; best we can do is struggle with what aspects of computer drafting best suit our particular situations. (For example, I’ll admit that SketchUp is a terrific tool for me, as far as both thinking through & testing design details, then turning into perspectives for clients and contractors to comprehend more easily. But I only use it in a ‘wire-frame’ kind of way to pencil-render over through a light table for a looser appearance, rather than the painstaking efforts to make it 100% computer-finished; sort of that “80/20” rule of effort.)
    As a sole-proprietor firm whose clients are overwhelmingly homeowners, I would’ve otherwise said it’s easy & more practical for me to shun CAD in favor of the ‘old-school’ warmth of conventional drafting…..but hearing this same preference voiced by Dennis Carmichael whose firm is just as focused on large institutional projects, I realize the mantra of CAD doesn’t have to be assumed as the be-all-and-end-all for ANY scale of project. To borrow from Charlton Heston, “they’ll have to pry my pencils and roll of trace from my cold, dead hands”. :) And I propose that not only will the conventional methods still hold their own — rather than be totally replaced by other ‘more friendly’ digital tools we start to see lately like tablet & stylus — but those old methods will be held in more & more reverence and awe as time goes on.


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