Design like an Architect

“I haven’t ever – I mean EVER – personally met an architect who I thought was a good designer who didn’t sketch.” —some architect other than me

I seem to be reading and hearing a lot about how we just NEED to sketch. A little everyday. To think, to dream, to be architects. That everyday we need to pick up a pencil and be an architect to help us be better architects (no type-o in that sentence). That if you can’t draw by hand you can’t design. Or that you can design but you are lesser than those that can design by hand. Recently I had a friend tell me about a job interview. The position was essentially for a BIM Manager/production lead at a high design firm. In the interview the boss made the “if you can’t draw, you can’t design” statement. How sad. A mentality like that hinders the proper adoption and integration of BIM and other modern workflows and tools that might (will definitely) improve the quality of design and the value of the firm. But wait, it gets worse. I even had a comment (which I deleted) from a previous post that saw my interest in teaching a class that focuses on other methods of sketching (not even designing) as proof that I was a poorly educated, ignorant, and inexperienced fool who needed someone wiser to school him. What the fuck is wrong with us?

Someone needs to stand up to this close-minded, regressive ideological brainwashing. How about this: everyday we need to open a BIM program and design. Just five or ten minutes. It doesn’t matter what. You just need to practice. You need to stretch your mind. You need to think in new ways. And then after you get comfortable designing with BIM, find something else. Find something more powerful or less. But expand your design process and expand your toolbox. Try writing about your designs for five to ten minutes a day (more on that at the end). How about that? Design through words rather than sketches or 3D digital models. Or how about clay?

Stop being close minded. If architects are still beholden to one primary method for creativity, good luck staying relevant.

If however we are interested in other methods of design, about becoming more valuable, about taking some risks, we must experiment with some other ways of designing. And yes, if you aren’t proficient at sketching, you should probably add that to your to do list. But don’t for one second think it gets priority above other avenues of creativity just because Frank Lloyd Wright or your boss designed that way. Sorry I sound like a broken record about this, but this is my crusade and I’m still searching for the right answers to why this affects me so deeply. It’s a barrier to our relevance, but there is something more…

There is plenty of value in sketching and using a pencil/pen as part of the design process. But yet we need a decoupling. We need to get other tools on an equal footing with that classic method. One way to achieve this is to knock down the reigning champion; the other is to uplift the other solutions. The purpose of all my writing about digital vs analog methods has always been to uplift the other. But I don’t always succeed in being clear with my intentions and, as I’ve learned from my days of discussing ArchiCAD and Revit, it is easy to take cheap shots. But as I review old posts and comments I’m also struck by the fear and anger in some of our reactions. Architects turning their backs on traditional methods? NO!!!! Apostate!

I had a post I’ve been mulling over for a few months. Well I have hundreds of posts that fit that description, but one in particular has been ever present, always haunting me. It was entitled:

To become a better architect I refuse to sketch by hand

Now I try not to be sensational for the sake of spectacle, so there was deep truth to that blog post title. My assumption was that the conscious act of not doing something so assumed and taken for granted within our profession would teach me something about that skill, that mentality, and about why we work the way we do. All things that would raise my awareness and make me a better architect. So for the past few months I have been doing my damnedest to turn to other methods for problem solving—BIM, writing, using a apps on my ipad or phone, anything other than picking up a pen or pencil. Why? It goes back to that quote from the beginning of the post. I read that on a prominent architecture blog and I had only one thought in my head: CHALLENGE FUCKING ACCEPTED! Are statements like that legitimate because no one can, or because no one has really tried. I mean REALLY tried to develop a non-hand sketching based design process. I wanted to find out. To be a purist, I figured the answer was to not touch a pencil or pen at all. That way there would be no question. Because when does a couple of scratches on a scrap of paper turn into “oh see, you NEED to sketch” to design. There obviously is a Venn Diagram of Sketching, Not Sketching, and Tricky Gray Area which would undermine my arguments. So I strove for purity. And let me tell you, I mean PURITY. It was/is/continues to be not easy. Over correction is never simple.

I made this choice not because I think it’s a better route, but because I don’t know. And neither do you or anyone else. Maybe sketching and analog tools are holding us back, making us weak and dumb. Maybe they are the crutch I fear they are. But perhaps they aren’t. We have no knowledge. We have no tests. We have no data. All we can say is here’s historical proof that this method functions. Not that it is the best or even good enough. Just that it has been used for ever. Thus I decided to be a guinea pig in my own pseudo-scientific experiment (this isn’t the first one of these experiments I’ve run, but those stories are for another day).

How would not sketching change your perception and relationship with the problem at hand? How would you problem solve differently?

My work space right now is just my laptop on our dining room table, so really the only analog tools at my disposal are a pen in my pocket and some Post-it notes that my daughters haven’t completely destroyed. This meant doing everything in the computer wasn’t too hard. And all my clients and team members are hundreds or thousands of miles away. So the more that is digital, the better: a couple of lines in ArchiCAD are easier to share than ten layers of trace. And since we are so spread out and I have so many different types of work going on, having a digital trail of who said what and who modeled what and what things looked like at any point in the past is super useful.

Unfortunately the problem with aiming for purity is that it’s near impossible and foolish. After a couple days (or weeks, I can’t remember), I was working on a house design and while doing something—the dishes, driving to daycare, or maybe lying in bed—I came up with a solution to a planning problem. The closest tools at hand were a ballpoint pen and a Post-It note. I didn’t want to forget the idea so I made some scribbles.

The above genius idea sat next to my computer for a day or two until I got back to the project and worked out the idea in ArchiCAD. I think it ended up sort of working. Ever since this Post-It, a few others have crept into my workflow. Yesterday I scribbled the different layers of a wall assembly on another Post-It because I was in the middle of a Skype meeting and was sharing my screen; the wall assembly was tangential to the conversation so I wanted to hide my distracted thoughts from the team.

So have I failed? Have I proved that every architect (good or bad) needs to sketch? Is that garbage above sketching? Or is that just a graphic note? I don’t know. But I realize it doesn’t matter. Purity was the wrong goal. If I had to, I know I could burn all the pencils, cray-pas, and pens in my house (though my daughters would strangle me). I could design with only one set of tools. But that is dumb. The real goal is to understand the value of all the tools at hand and exploit them to their fullest. To do that, we need to devalue some and elevate others. I wish we could just uplift, but I don’t think we are there yet as a profession.

What I’ve learned from this purity exercise is this: I need pens and paper handy because sometimes it’s the fastest way to not lose an idea. It’s not about resolving the idea, but about documenting it in a manner than can be thought about later. Thought about with tools I find more appropriate for the task. For instance, the scribble above. The way to understand if it works is to add accuracy and context—two things that are (for me) much more effectively done digitally. I can’t stress enough here that the reason I grabbed the pen in this instance was about short-term speed and efficacy. I had a 3 second idea that needed 3 seconds of execution. The complexity of the idea matched the speed of the available tool. The doodle was a placeholder for future thought.

Hopefully from here I can shift the conversation to how all tools have value. But sadly I think it might mean some more clarification of the values and problems with old methods because I don’t yet think we as a profession understand when the speed of pencil to paper stops being of value (speed seems to be one of the major arguments for those methods). When does that speed breakdown, hinder thinking, or fail to keep up with the complexity of the task at hand? As in I have an idea, it’ll take 5 seconds to draw. Or I have an idea, it’ll take 15 minutes to draw. Somewhere between those two lengths of time is the cut off. Somewhere in there is the moment when you are wasting your time by holding on to old methods, propping them up as necessary for good architecting. But I don’t know where that is. I know it’s not five seconds. But where is it? I think that’s my next challenge.

Final Tangent

It’s time to end this post, but if you are curious about the connection to speed and thought, check out this awesome article about typing, writing by hand, information retention, and creativity. I want to write more about this later (well about the speed of design in general), but it’s worth sharing here. Spoiler alert: there is an inflection point where typing becomes much more creative than writing by hand. And a speed below which typing essentially makes you dumber.

Perhaps my crusade for the elevation of BIM comes from my experiences with writing. When I started blogging four years ago I was an average typist. I don’t know what my WPM was, but nothing to brag about, probably below the proposed magical 60 WPM requirement for creativity. I took the test in the article above and I am now somewhere between 80 and 100 WPM, depending on the trial run, and if I slowdown to attain perfection. I could never write by hand that fast. For me typing is a very creative process, partially thanks to speed (and years and years of practice). In the past four years I’ve experienced the transition with writing that I’m trying to push for in our industry. At some point we get fast enough that what we are doing becomes invisible. We must find that inflection point with BIM and other modern tools. We must gain speed and understanding so that we can free ourselves to higher levels of creativity. If it can happen with typing and creative writing, then it can happen with more graphic forms of creativity, right?

Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and the RSS feed. Are you interested in guest blogging on Shoegnome? Ideally I want to have 2 to 4 guest posts a month. E-mail me. If you are curious how in the world BIM could make you a better designer, read this article.

Bonus reading:


  1. Phil Allsopp June 26, 2014
  2. Tim Ball June 26, 2014
    • Jared Banks June 27, 2014
  3. Jason Smith June 27, 2014
    • Jared Banks June 27, 2014
      • Jason Smith July 12, 2014
      • Jared Banks July 14, 2014
  4. Douglas Cloutier June 27, 2014
    • Jared Banks June 27, 2014
  5. Neil Stroup (@nstroup) June 30, 2014
    • Jared Banks July 1, 2014
  6. Ben Frost June 30, 2014
    • Jared Banks July 1, 2014
  7. Mike Lacroix September 9, 2014

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