Does the tried and true art of sketching have staying power among new technologies?

View a gallery of sketches from Fisher Marantz Stone

» Few would deny that technology is a beautiful thing. Among architecture and design professionals, who are increasingly reliant on computers to explore and depict the intricacy of their work, that fact is well established. This being an issue dedicated to innovation and the future, it may seem a digression to celebrate the art of hand rendering when there is so much exciting technology to consider. Many would argue, however, that the relevance of drawing skills to successful design is timeless, and that the ongoing subordination of pencil and paper to fancy computer software is a tragedy in the making.

'Sketching is really missing in lighting design education and practice,' says Larry French, a principal of San Francisco-based lighting design firm Auerbach Glasow. 'It's a dying art.' He is not alone in his lament. Jonathan Speirs, whose U.K. firm Speirs and Major Associates produces hand-drawn renderings that could easily appear in a fine art gallery, agrees: 'Architecture students are thrown into computer programs, because to be employable today, you need to know CAD. They are spending less time on freehand drawing, and more time on the computer, which in my opinion, is to the detriment of the students.' While Speirs willingly admits his shortage of CAD skills may influence this bias, he still maintains 'a sketch is a fantastically good way to communicate an idea.'

Indeed, argue both French and Speirs, what hand-drawing skills provide the designer is the practical ability to express a concept-quickly, fluidly, with an architect or a perspective client, in the middle of a meeting, or anywhere else for that matter. 'If you have to say 'Hold that thought, I'll be back in a day,' and rush back to your office to work something up, the moment is lost,' says Speirs, who also feels that the ability to communicate ideas this way 'helps you, as the lighting designer, fit into the camp of the architect.'

The importance of the sketch goes beyond its usefulness in the meeting room: the act of putting pencil to paper, for many architects and designers, facilitates the creative process and distillation of ideas, which can be thwarted in the hyperrealism and rigid methods imposed by the computer. Derek Porter, who is both a practicing lighting designer and director of the lighting MFA program at New York City's Parsons the New School for Design, sees sketching as a good exercise toward a better visual understanding of the world. 'I believe there is a cognitive connection between eye and hand relationship and coordination, and seeing and understanding form, shape, subtlety of surface, and so on,' says Porter, who was trained in the fine arts.

Like French and Speirs, Porter has observed an evolutionary move away from sketching in design education; however, a coexistence of computer and hand is recognized in the programming at Parsons, with hand drawing emphasized in the first year. 'Just as we try to balance professional practice and theory, we also try to balance hand drawing and technology,' explains Porter. 'We're always looking at these dualities and how they play into one another.' With many architectural and design programs having moved away from drawing technique instruction, the future of hand rendering in design school may be about teaching future practitioners where, when, and how to use this skill as a complement to the computer technology that has transformed the drawing delivery process.

For Speirs, the importance of sketching is trumped by another critical skill designers must possess-the ability to imagine. 'Before you put pen to paper, you need to know what you are drawing,' says Speirs. 'You have to visualize it in your mind.' No matter how advanced technology interfaces become, the ability to conceptualize, envision, and create still remains the domain of the designer and the distinguishing feature that will always make the touch of the human hand necessary in the design process. emilie sommerhoff