From Bowties to Brushstrokes: Traditional Tools for Contemporary Architects

In the days before computers (ancient history for young architects today) architects wore bowties to avoid smearing their drawings,  smoked pipes to keep drawings safe from falling ash and were exposed to potentially dangerous ammonia to make blueprints on a daily basis. Things have certainly changed in the architectural world. Software has brought about a revolution in the way architects draw and present their work. It has increased speed, precision and flexibility, rendering the bowtie an accessory of choice, not necessity.

A preliminary massing sketch of the DMSAS-design The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

A preliminary massing sketch (pencil) of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts provided a visual starting point as the design developed

While I have a deep attachment to the traditional drafting tools, I am also the first to admit that technological advances in the field (such as digital modeling, high-resolution scanners and Photoshop) have made my life as a designer much easier. That being said, the first conceptual “sketches” (from the Italian schizzo, meaning “splash”) are best produced using traditional tools. At this early design stage, the feel, proportions and character of a concept are much more important than fine detailing. Software will give you precision, but rarely emotion.

Alpharetta City Center

A conceptual design sketch of Alpharetta City Center utilizes a hatching technique that brings the scene to life and gives the viewer a sense of scale

From Fat to Thin! No, this is not the slogan for a TV diet program – it’s the strategy for developing a design through hand drawing. The entire design, beginning as a simple diagram, is drawn very quickly using “fat” lines (thick felt tip markers are ideal), then, as ideas develop, thinner lines add richness to the drawing. With the inclusion of shade, shadows and hatching, even at an early stage, a large elevation can be brought to life and made convincing before all design details are fully developed. Computer drawings, by contrast, can look empty and anemic in the conceptual design phase. Because of their precision, it is easy for designers to get lost in the undeveloped details, overlooking the big picture. Hand drawings at this stage are intended merely to evoke design intent and allow the design process to follow its natural, iterative course, whereby the first sketches become the DNA of design.


A watercolor rendering of Schermerhorn Symphony Center developed during the early stages of design

Traditional drawing tools also play an important role in the presentation of architectural designs in the form of more finished renderings and architectural illustrations. These drawings, often intended for clients, benefit from the same artistic “splash” as in-house conceptual sketches, in the truest sense of the term. Watercolor remains one of the best techniques to illustrate architecture, and it can be used at all phases. Here is where art and economics intersect. At the conceptual phase, watercolor and other rendering techniques can be used to seduce the client, donors and other project stakeholders, illustrate his/her vision and convince him/her to move forward with potential projects. Computer renderings can also be very effective in this role, but they are best when the design is almost totally complete. When used too early, they can give the impression that a design is fully developed long before it actually is.

To that effect, it is crucial to understand at what phase/moment it is best to use technology rather than traditional means of expression.

Left: A multimedia (marker and felt tip pen) sketch is created during the conceptual design phase. Right: A more detailed digital rendering is commissioned once the design complete

Left: A multimedia (marker and colored pencil) sketch was created during the conceptual design of 13th & U Right: A more detailed computer rendering was commissioned at the completion of Design Development


Even in this new digital age, where the necessity of bow ties and pipes in the drafting studio is a distant memory, it would be a mistake to discard the traditional tools and techniques of architectural drawing. We here at DMSAS embrace both the cursor and the hand throughout the design process, and are always exploring how the inventive and creative capabilities of each medium can be best implemented in our design process. These representational techniques are complementary, not contradictory, and combine for a richer and more effective design process.

The above post was authored by DMSAS Associate Jeffrey Loman, AIA. In addition to his role as a designer, Jeffrey also creates the in-house, handcrafted architectural drawings and water color vignettes for the firm. A graduate of Architecture School in Bordeaux, Jeffrey was awarded the Grand Prix d’Architecture de L’Academic des Beaux-Arts, formally referred to as the Grand Prix de Rome.

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