Design Tools: Sketching vs. Digital

Left: Michigan Avenue Streetscape: 20 Years of Magnificent Mile Blooms, 2016 Landmark Award / Right: The Digital & The Wild: Mitigating Wildfire Risk Through Landscape Adaptations, 2016 Student ASLA Honor Award, General Design Category image: Hoerr Schaudt / Jordan Duke, Student ASLA
Left: Michigan Avenue Streetscape: 20 Years of Magnificent Mile Blooms, 2016 Landmark Award / Right: The Digital & The Wild: Mitigating Wildfire Risk Through Landscape Adaptations, 2016 Student ASLA Honor Award, General Design Category
image: Hoerr Schaudt / Jordan Duke, Student ASLA

In addition to where landscape architects spend most of their time—in the office or out on site—the primary media used to create and carry out designs, perform research, and manage projects also vary from one practitioner to the next. In a 2014 survey of ASLA’s Professional Practice Networks (PPNs), members were asked how they prefer to work: on a computer or sketching ideas out by hand.

Overall, sketching proved to be the more popular choice: 46 percent of respondents love to sketch, 31 percent prefer to work on a computer, and 23 percent favor a “hybrid approach,” using the “computer for efficiency” and the “hand for creativity,” as one respondent put it. Several key themes highlighting the pros and cons of each emerged in respondents’ comments.

Computers for Ease and Efficiency

“Though I enjoy sketching, I find that the sooner I can get an idea into the computer, the more efficient the design process is.”

“Easy revision and iteration.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I love sketching, too, but when time is a factor it’s quicker to jump to the computer.”

“Just accustomed to it. I’ve learned to ‘draw’ in drafting programs, and I like being able to move and rotate things without erasing. I do love working by hand drawing, but I mostly enjoy that for illustrative graphics at the end of the design work.”

“Speed, aesthetics, and broader capacities.”

“I can try a great number of options quickly to get to the best design for the project.”

“Translates more readily into work product. Easier to manipulate. Better graphic quality.”

“Budget and time often limit how much hand sketching can be done.”

“It is faster, more accurate and editable. I have not done more than a handful of hand sketches professionally beyond the concept design phase.”

“I can’t draw! I wish I could but it’s a skill easily lost over the years unless practiced almost daily. It’s like a sport.”

“I’ve always said if I had to rely on my hand sketching skills, I’d be in a different profession. I just can’t seem to make my hand draw what my mind envisions. The computer allows for that precision that my hand doesn’t deliver.”

PHYTO-Industry: Reinvigorating the North Vancouver Waterfront through a phased remediation process, 2016 Student ASLA Honor Award, Analysis and Planning Category image: Shan Yang, Student ASLA
PHYTO-Industry: Reinvigorating the North Vancouver Waterfront through a phased remediation process, 2016 Student ASLA Honor Award, Analysis and Planning Category
image: Shan Yang, Student ASLA

The Limitations of Computers

“The computer separates you too much from the real world.”

“I don’t know how you can ‘design’ on a computer.”

“Working on the computer forces me to consider how to do something, like draw a line (click once, check snaps, click twice, type in dimensions, etc.), whereas sketching by hand I just do it.”

“Computers change so much by the time you get proficient with a program, it is obsolete. They are often more trouble than they are worth, but they are great for presentations.”

Sketching and Creativity

“Hand work is closer to my thought process.”

“I think better this way – I’m more easily able to respond to my train of thought.”

“Ideas come via hand sketching.”

“Freedom to think. Not bound by technology.”

“Working by hand is more organic and expressive of motion. Basic ideas can be captured more successfully through sketching. Refinement requires calculation and drafting.”

“That’s how I started and what feels right to me.”

“I can feel the space better with my hand.”

“Satisfying and mentally challenging and continually educational and enlightening.”

“Drawing by hand makes you think in 3 dimensions and one can change/switch ideas almost instantaneously.”

“It is easier for me to be creative when drawing by hand.”

“That’s the way I learned, and I have not found a computer program that is fluid enough for design work.”

“I find it very relaxing by allowing my mind to drift into the design and site.”

“The relationship to art and drawing is what attracted me to the profession.”

“Hand drawing is a lost art – it allows one to connect with a project/space in a different way – it’s more intimate.”

“More direct connection between mind/inspiration and art medium. Ideas can spill out almost before they happen in the mind. Feels more like art.”

Water Calculation and Poetic Interpretation, 2016 Professional ASLA Honor Award, Residential Design Category image: Arterra Landscape Architects
Water Calculation and Poetic Interpretation, 2016 Professional ASLA Honor Award, Residential Design Category
image: Arterra Landscape Architects

Sketching at the Speed of Thought

“It is faster and easier to generate multiple solutions in rough concept. Generally, I just use trace and sharpies to start.”

“Free-form, fast, effective, can be done anywhere.”

“The speed that you can convey ideas during a group design session.”

“It easier to quickly represent conceptual ideas by hand and it is easier to work at larger conceptual scales.”

“I can do it anywhere, at any time using only the sun, a pencil, and a scrap of paper.”

“Just a different feel, different sensitivity . . . and for me it’s faster. Computers have a long way to go in initiating ideas. They’re data collection machines . . . not creators.”

“It is faster for me and more facile to move from one scale to another…to see the bigger picture.”

“It’s quicker and allows more of a conceptual approach. Computer drawings are too perfect-looking and don’t leave enough room for on-site decision making.”

“I believe that the ideas flow more freely and you can communicate the ideas quicker and do not need to worry about a proper radius, etc., but more so about the design and function overall.”

“It is the most efficient use of my time, and my clients like the results.”

DBX Ranch: A Transformation Brings Forth a New Livable Landscape, 2016 Professional ASLA Award of Excellence, Residential Design Category image: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.
DBX Ranch: A Transformation Brings Forth a New Livable Landscape, 2016 Professional ASLA Award of Excellence, Residential Design Category
image: D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.

Sketching to Make Connections

“Drawing and re-drawing improve the quality of the design; I think the designer looks more closely at the proposed solution when working by hand.”

“I feel more connected to the design.”

“Doesn’t look so generic.”

“Clients can relate to hand drawing – it may be ‘old school’ but I feel that it draws out more connections with people than computer graphics – sure they look great but most of the time they don’t communicate as effectively as they should.”

“Hand drawing is a lost art – clients are still wowed by hand drawings. Computer ‘sketches’ look final and the client tends to panic, vs. hand drawings that look more sketchy, and therefore not final.”

“My strength is quickly generating and communicating ideas while meeting with clients or in the studio.”

“A sketch can be done on the spot and used as a focal point for discussion with stakeholders.”

In addition to clear-cut decisions on one medium over another, there were many responses that were more ambivalent, choosing both or neither. For those whose work focuses on analysis and planning, for example, writing is their main activity:

“Research is easy to start via computer, but often requires real world exploration – design can be started through a conversation, examining archetypes, sketching by hand, Venn diagrams by hand or on computer – I’m not tied to any particular mode of working.”

“I am mostly writing and doing analysis. I take lots notes and doodles by hand, but the work is primarily on a computer. I still do most of my serious reading from paper and would like to find a comfortable way to be more digital, but have not yet.”

“Most of my work involves writing and long-range planning.”

Many respondents gave answers indicative of how greatly the medium chosen depends on the stage in the design process or the project type, and a few also proposed critiques to the question itself. For example:

“Most of the work I do is not ‘sketching’ – it is managing projects. It is impossible to do that without a computer. This question is not really reflective of what a professional actually does. How many of us actually sketch on a regular basis?”

From Gold to Pearl: A Framework of Eco-friendly Industry Catalyzing River Revitalization, 2016 Student ASLA Honor Award, Analysis and Planning Category image: Lan Luo, Student Affiliate ASLA
From Gold to Pearl: A Framework of Eco-friendly Industry Catalyzing River Revitalization, 2016 Student ASLA Honor Award, Analysis and Planning Category
image: Lan Luo, Student Affiliate ASLA

The tools of the profession are constantly evolving, and perhaps one day the computer will come to dominate the practice of landscape architecture. But for now, many respondents emphasize the importance of using both computers and hand-sketching in the design process.

A Hybrid Approach to Design Visualization

“Why limit yourself?”

“Landscape architecture is too creative not to be done by hand…and is too technical not to be done with a computer.”

“Each is necessary for achieving one’s goals in the world of today where computers are necessary and sketching is a thing that is being lost but people admire those who can.”

“I sketch by hand, scan modify, print, sketch over, scan, etc. Use both constantly.”

“There is value to each method. This needs to be understood. However, I personally am addicted to that ‘undo’ button.”

“Hand drawing can be done anywhere and allows free flow of ideas, but the computer allows infinite variation to a drawn element.”

“I like the computer to create an accurate base, and the hand sketches to be free with design ideas and back to computer to make sure it all works!”

“Computers fill a need, yet clients like the hand work and flexibility of hand work on tracing paper and the uniqueness of final graphics for presentation in public.”

Computers or Hand Sketching? It Depends…

“Different media serve different design processes better.”

“Each tool has its purpose. I wouldn’t build a chair with only a table saw or a handsaw. You should use the best tool for the specific task.”

“It depends on the type of job, phase, and time allotted. Sometimes it is more efficient to design on computer, but not always.”

“Depending on the work or design that I’m considering, I am more skilled or more able to express my idea in a different medium.”

“Project dictates media.”

“Different design situations require different design processes.”

Sketch First

“I like to sketch ideas on trace then implement them on the computer so that I can follow through on the design scheme in greater detail.”

“Combination of sketching for concept and computer for final.”

“Initial ideas in sketch form and computer to resolve/refine and quantify.”

“I start with hand sketches but prefer to get everything on the computer as soon as possible. Hand sketches for schematics and quick conceptuals. On the computer for the ease of sharing files/information and coordinating.”

“Computers are great for refining ideas in later stages of design, but I prefer to work out my initial thoughts by hand.”

“You need to be versatile. The hand sketch is vital for designing and generating ideas, as well as presenting them for clients as you go along. The computer is for more detailed implementation of designs after further development.”

“Primary design work done by hand to get the creative juices flowing. Computers for documentation and 3D modeling.”

At the start of 2014, a questionnaire was sent out to members of ASLA’s Professional Practice Networks (PPNs). The theme: career paths in landscape architecture. As you can imagine, responses were varied, and included many insightful comments and suggestions. Synopses of the survey results were originally shared in LAND over the course of 2014, and we are now re-posting this information here on The Field. For the latest updates on the results of the annual PPN Survey, see LAND’s PPN News section.

2 thoughts on “Design Tools: Sketching vs. Digital

  1. Julia Lee February 20, 2017 / 5:29 am

    Considering what you are drawing, digital drawing can be a lot simpler and better. If you use Painter for example for drawing comics, it’s easier to sketch and import and then continue digitally everything, that is how I do it. Painter is a great software for digital drawing if anyone doesn’t know which one to choose, and you can get here http://www.painterartist.com/en/pages/coupons/ some great discounts for the software 🙂

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