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Courses spotlight: Drawing on experience

Over the last year several large engineering offices have trained their staff to improve their drawing skills, both as a way to cultivate “conversational sketching” and as a way for engineers to bear down on details of the design process.

There are hundreds of freehand drawings made in engineering every day because the inherent flexibility of the sketch allows tolerance, revision, provisional solutions − in short, it is a form of visualization that is sympathetic to the way the mind works, and not consumed by the process of computerization.

“Drawing structures allows me to think through details with the pencil,” says BDP Director of Structural Engineering John Roycroft. “You are drawing, and you are building in your mind at the same time. You go through the whole construction with your pencil.”

“Drawing structures allows me to think through details with the pencil. You are drawing, and you are building in your mind at the same time. You go through the whole construction with your pencil.”

John Roycroft, BDP

There are many reasons why engineers maintain the practice of sketching.  Even in an age of computer dependency, freehand drawings have a unique role in communicating concepts at early stages in proposals. They are aids to explaining ideas quickly and clearly, and can be understood by clients and colleagues in multi-profession meetings.

In presentation sheets containing computer diagrams, renderings and sophisticated graphics, it is always the sketch which clients look at first − sketches demand to be looked at.

Engineers’ confidence in their drawing ability, however, tends to be eclipsed by the flair of architects, who are often their design partners. This is unsurprising, as engineers rarely have formal training in drawing.

This can be problematic when engineers seek collaborative relationships with architects – the difference in drawing skills makes the playing field uneven. Yet a timely diagram from the engineer could save an ocean of words and allow the architect to consider a preferred approach, without pressure and before other aspects of the designs have hardened.

An invaluable tool

Chris Wise of Expedition Engineering found that sketching was an invaluable tool in developing ideas for a project. “The Stockton bridge started as a series of 60 sketches sitting on the train back after seeing the site,” he says. “I use a process of reacting to the last thing I drew, but if I hadn’t drawn it I wouldn’t have anything to react to – so the sketches represent attempts to work through to some kind of answer.

“I can’t relate to a number that says it has to be 8m, or a level in space, but I can relate to a curve.”

Good drawing habits can be learnt – but bad experiences of drawing have to be overcome as part of this process. Yet it is possible to progress rapidly from a basic understanding of simple geometry to competent axonometrics, perspectives and sections.

“I can’t relate to a number that says it has to be 8m, or a level in space, but I can relate to a curve.”

Chris Wise, Expedition Engineering

Drawing a concept, a set of design proposals, a or ducting system forces the engineer to establish a point of view to reduce and simplify a complex of details down to the essence of a thing. This is a very potent and empowering skill to possess.

Drawing remains successful and popular because increasing numbers of people are disaffected by the number of hours they spend on the computer each day, which degrades the quality of daily work experience. Nurturing drawing skills is a sure way to provide balance and get groups to sketch as a means of exploring ideas. Sketching also promotes the development of engineers’ spatial intelligence through working with their hands.

Engineers are naturally curious people with low boredom thresholds. They can be taught to draw through a step by step process that is fast enough to avoid over-thinking, and slow enough to enjoy building skills that they can use over and over again after the course has finished.

Trevor Flynn is director of Drawing At Work. He teaches at the Architectural Association and in universities in London and New York State and is currently making a set of video podcasts. Drawing at Work provides freehand drawing courses for architectural and engineering practices.

Readers' comments (7)

  • I teach engineers to sketch.( Since my background is mechanical engineering, all the firms I have as clients are involved in mechanical or aerospace engineering. This article is the first reference I have come across that articulates sketching's importance in the civil/structural enterprise. Recognizing the value of sketching in the engineering design process deserves more discussion.

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  • I really love the idea of drawing at work, I was so inspired by the courses that I took with Trevor and the team over the last couple of years, that I continue to do so in my personal time. I would never be painting and drawing still otherwise. Thank you!

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  • I'm a structural engineer and took a Drawing at Work course with Trevor earlier this year. As Kate, I found the course inspiring; re-kindling an interest in drawing. The course not only enhanced my drawing skills and added another dimension to my work, it reminded me of how much more of the world you actually see when you try to draw it!

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  • George Baird, Associate Professor at the School of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington, published The Architectural Expression of Environmental Control Systems in 2001. The book describes 23 notable, environmentally friendly buildings from around the world. George Baird visited all the buildings and interviewed those involved with the aim of identifying common issues and trends. I was interviewed towards the end of his travels and, when asked how I best communicated design ideas and options, mentioned sketching. 'Funny that', he said, 'all the designers have said the same'.
    In his book he lists key issues as client support, local knowledge, a reluctance to preconceived ideas and the early involvement of the engineer.
    The importance of sketching?.....just too obvious.

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  • Similar to looking at composition of music for example, designers can learn a tremendous lot from composing a drawing and foremost, making a conscious decision which aspect of the "real object" to focus on and analyse. It is not always about the beauty of craftsmanship, a "fancy architectural" sketch line, but about the drawing process, that relates to what we do in our professions. This is relevant to both the engineer and the architect, so the difference in skill level can be bridged. Trevor Flynn guides us gently, exploring ideas, composition and drawing techniques. Loosen up and enjoy!
    (I'm an architect working for van Heyningen and Haward Architects).

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  • I'm an electrical engineer at Mott MacDonald (, working in the building services area and we just completed a series of 6 evening classes with Trevor. We had a mixed group of services, facades and structural engineers in our group. Personally, I got a great deal out of these classes as I have come from more of a computer imaging and CAD background for the sorts of images that I produce at work (lighting design visualisations, spatial coordination, equipment and services layouts, etc), however I have always wanted to get into sketching as a way of communicating ideas. What Trevor says about the relationship between engineers and architects rings true to me as it does often seem that architects produce fantastic hand sketches and drawings and engineers produce computer generated images! I think the course Trevor provided (and attending the "Sketchmob" sessions) has given me a lot more confidence in my drawing skills which I will definately continue with, both in and out of the workplace.

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  • As a draughtsman/cad technician of 36 years standing, contracting around many companies, I am constantly surprised at how many engineers do not naturally sketch things out when discussing designs. It is less unusual with senior engineers, and was, in my experience, at one time common to all. As a draughtsman I know that many problems and solutions do not manifest themselves until things are drawn, and crucially, the drawing process helps mentally to clarify matters for the sketcher and the viewer. The lack of sketching as a means of communication, may help to explain another matter, that these days many design engineers are not natural readers of drawings!

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