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Drawing Should Still Matter to Architects and Designers

Earlier this week the New York Times had an important op-ed piece by Perri Klass with implications, I think, for architects and designers. Entitled “Why Handwriting is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age,” Dr. Klass made a compelling argument that writing by hand—far from being unnecessary in our increasingly digital age—is a crucial development tool for young minds.


Klass cited a study by Dr. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, who believes that “handwriting, forming letters by hand, engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.” According to Berninger, the key to learning to write well might start by learning to physically form letters. It starts, in other words, with the hand.


This piece reminded me of a number of conversations I’ve had over the years with (usually older) architects and designers, who would often complain: “Nobody draws anymore!” By nobody, of course, they meant no one who went to design school after the introduction of the computer. Both Milton Glaser and the late Michael Graves, two designers who could draw like fiends, used to insist that their hands were hardwired to their brains. As a result, they drew to think, to ideate, to problem solve. For them, and countless others brought up on the primacy of the hand, Klass’s essay could just as easily have been retitled, “Why Drawing is Still Essential to Designers in the CAD Age.”


But the truth is, younger architects and designers continue to draw. I know this because I will occasionally ask them, quite randomly, “Do you still draw?” and their slightly taken back response (it’s like I’ve asked them if they still bathe) suggests some intimacy with drawing. And I can also attest that most casual meetings with them will invariably involve a point being illustrated in real time with pen and napkin. Lunch, at a restaurant with paper tablecloths, tends to produce at least one sketched floor plan.


What I don’t think post-computer designers do, as Graves and Glaser and others did, is draw continually through the process. It was never their primary problem solving tool. They’re less likely to have a long series of process drawings, and instead might have a few, maybe as few as even one or two, signpost drawings that mark creative progress.


It’s hard to know how this streamlined, less hand-inspired process changes the final product (it’s certainly a lot faster, and we’re twenty years into it anyway) but surely it must. It’s also impossible to know exactly what we’ve lost in the transition from hand to mouse. But it feels like something essential, something almost primal, is slipping away. The hand-head connection is a neural path literally as old as the human body. “For typically developing young children,” Klass writes, “typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation.” Which makes me wonder: do today’s designers, especially the ones who jump (too) quickly into Sketchup, create the same brain activation? As someone who can’t draw a lick, I certainly hope so.


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