Drawing is thinking

People often assume drawing is the final step of an architect’s design process. We come up with an idea, draw up the plans and the building begins. In reality, the opposite is true. Drawing comes first. Like many creative professions, architects use drawing to think. By sketching our ideas out and getting those thoughts on paper in front of us, we can start to throw away the things that just don’t work and focus on those that have promise.

Drawing doesn’t simply record ideas, it inspires them and gives them form.

To juggle all the practical issues – building codes, movement and space needs, etc. – and imagine the potential of a space, you need to document your thoughts and assess them against one another.

A few months ago we worked on a Tier 2 Reality Check for some clients in Minneapolis. We measured the home and modeled it using CAD to create an accurate record of the existing dimensions. We were asked to fit in two bedrooms, two bathrooms and storage to the existing upper floor.


With projects like this, each architect may generate 4-8 sketches and only one or two are tightened up to the final sketch version. We sketch on trace paper and work at 1/8″ scale. We’re so familiar with the dimensions at that scale we only need to pick up our scale rulers to occasionally confirm we are on the mark. There are typically 15-20 pieces of trace on the table and we select the ideas we all think are the strongest and do one or two more traces to tighten things up.


For this specific project our sketches documented the ridges, valleys and slopes of the roof, as well as the ceiling heights we needed to consider, and helped us understand where someone could actually occupy the space. Because costs and time pressures don’t allow us to prototype the things we’re designing, we need to understand a small-scale representation. These sketches weren’t the design in and of themselves, they were the first layer on which the design rests.


We are typically having a conversation in our heads as we work through sketches, so it really is thinking. We use the latest software – SketchUp, Revit, AutoCAD and Photoshop – to try different ideas out. But this trace paper sketching is still step one in our design process.


Drawing allows us to very quickly record and share ideas. It’s a form of talking to, and amongst, ourselves. We could NOT have the conversation without drawing. It would stall out because there would be no feedback loop to respond to.

Drawing is the language architects use to communicate – with one another, and ourselves. Cheers, your friends at Shelter.

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