Michael Graves, Digital Visionary: What Digital Design Practice Can Learn From Drawing


About a week ago, Michael Graves’ article entitled “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing,” on the continued importance of drawing to architectural practice, was published in The New York Times. In the piece Graves laments the perceived death of drawing at the hands of “the computer.” He is willing to concede the utility of digital tools for the production of what he calls “definitive drawings”—final architectural documents for presentation or construction—but maintains that manual drawings remain the appropriate medium for the purposes of recording or generating ideas.

His position is a conservative one, but is common in the profession, especially among the generations of architects trained before computers largely replaced hand drawing in professional practice. On the other end of the spectrum is the position to which Graves is reacting: that manual drawing has been entirely replaced by digital tools as the medium for architectural conception, espoused by the likes of Patrik Schumacher and others in the digital avant-garde.

In practice, however, it is my experience that most young architects today take for granted that the process of design requires both sets of tools—that by far the most productive means of working involves cycling between digital and analog techniques of representation and conception. Indeed, this seemed to be the broad consensus of the Yale University symposium “Is Drawing Dead” this past February, featuring both Graves and Schumacher as participants. (Graves’ article appears to be a refinement of the talk he gave at the Yale symposium, with no noticeable adjustment to his position.) The firm of Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis gives a compelling example of this kind of hybrid process in their 2008 book “Opportunistic Architecture.”

A hybrid approach, utilizing both analog drawing and digital modeling and/or scripting, is to my mind the best of all possible worlds given the current state of technology. Schumacher and others who proclaim the death of drawing fail to give a convincing account of how digital tools can encompass the creative capacities Graves attributes to the hand drawing. On the other hand, the fatal flaw of Graves’ position is his insistence that the limitations he identifies are inherent limitations of the digital: that computers will never be appropriate tools for the kinds of “sketchy” processes he claims are best suited to hand drawing.

What if between these two extremes—drawing is dead, and long live drawing—we located a roadmap for future software development? What would it look like if a digital toolset fully encompassed all the capacities and possibilities of manual drawing that Graves identifies? Would these necessitate hardware or software changes, or merely changes in the way users operate the tools? Are such digital tools and processes already extant, or at least possible?

Although there are more, I read in Graves’ article four primary aspects of manual drawing that he (rightly) sees as lacking in contemporary digital process:

  • “The interaction of our minds, eyes, and hands” – the embodied physicality of drawing
  • The “Referential Sketch” – drawing to remember or to know what one observes
  • The “Preparatory Study” – Sketching and tracing to revise and refine designs in a non-linear process
  • Drawing to “Stimulate the imagination” – the drawing as conceptual apparatus

For each of these, we can refute Graves in two ways: first, by identifying ways that existing software might accommodate the same aims; and second, by speculating about future software-hardware-practice combinations that might do so better.

“The interaction of our minds, eyes, and hands”

Graves points out the obvious: that a mouse and keyboard lack the deep connection to our embodied intelligence that drawing with a pencil has. Read a bit generously, this critique brings to mind the observations of N. Katherine Hayles in “How We Became Posthuman” that discourses foregrounding information as ontologically primary tend to neglect the complexities of embodied being. Designers experienced in drawing need not think about every line or gesture made; there is a fluid, natural translation from observation to intention to notation.

Graves suggests that this kind of fluidity cannot happen on a digital platform. To him, certainly, manipulating a mouse or typing a command must feel like an unnatural barrier between conception and execution. However, this is far from the case for those who grew up attached to digital interfaces. That a keyboard is no barrier between intention and action should be obvious to anyone who has ever absentmindedly summoned Facebook or Twitter in a browser window without consciously deciding to do so. Having been a user of Adobe Photoshop since the age of 11, I have the physical gestures of keyboard commands deeply embedded in my reflexes. Indeed, when asked what the keyboard shortcut for a particular command is, I need to position my hands on a keyboard in order to summon the combination of keys. When I call up a command, my hands make the motion without thinking “command + shift + alt + e,” any more than Michael Graves thinks “place pencil on paper, move pencil, lift pencil” in the process of fluidly sketching. At the Yale conference, Greg Lynn described a similar embodied facility with the 3d animation software he uses, and noted that the way he operates the software even impacts the way he sketches, his hand drawings set up with digital operations in mind.

I believe that future interface paradigms are likely to increase the ease with which these kinds of reflexes develop, encouraging embodied, physical links between intention and action. The rapidly improving technologies for touch- and gesture-based interfaces promise to further improve the intuitive, natural character of digital drawing. Developers of design software should keep this in mind; command lines, keyboard shortcuts, mouse gestures, menus, and button panels have differing degrees of “readiness-to-hand.”

The “Referential Sketch”

Graves spent the majority of his Yale lecture showing images of his referential sketch images, made on site during his travels in Rome and elsewhere. It is a commonplace in the discipline of architecture that one of the primary means for students to learn about building is to draw precedents from images or from life. According to Graves, these drawings are “fragmentary and selective,” and capture ideas as much as impressions. “That visceral connection,” he insists, “that thought process, cannot be replicated by a computer.”

On the contrary, the act of transcribing a precedent in a digital medium can be a tremendously stimulating and idea-rich process, going well beyond the mere transcription of dimensions and geometry. Building a 3D model of an existing building—whether one decides to do it accurately or “sketchily”—requires the analysis of proportion and construction, and a considered selection of the important qualities of a building. Moreover, attempting to “sketch” a precedent, not as a static model but as a dynamic, procedural parametric system, requires a deep, highly subjective interpretation and analysis of the building: its hierarchies, relationships, forms, and the processes by which it may have been conceived. It is inherently more time-consuming, but I would argue that it constitutes a richer transcription of ideas than a notebook sketch.

The difficulty, of course, is portability. While some might be bold (or geeky) enough to try it, I find it hard to imagine anyone setting up camp outside the Pantheon with a laptop and mouse. When some descendent of the iPad weighs no more than a moleskine sketchpad, though, the idea is not so ridiculous. It is possible to conceive of an interface that would produce an augmented reality overlay, allowing a student to “sketch” in 3d space in real time, perhaps even aided by the real geometry before her.

The “Preparatory Study”

Graves identifies (or at least hints at) the way successive layers of trace paper, the typical tool for an architect to work through design problems, forces the constant reevaluation of design decisions, with each successive layer of trace pulling the lines below into a more resolved form. “Like the referential sketch,” he says, “it may not reflect a linear process. (I find computer-aided design much more linear.)” Some who work digitally may protest at this characterization of computer aided design as linear. Surely, every decision can be undone and remade, any vertex in a Rhino model can be repositioned, any surface or curve tweaked in an infinite number of ways. The trouble is that remaking decisions in any digital modeling platform requires a certain amount of extra effort. On a new sheet of trace, modifying the underlying line takes exactly as much time and energy as tracing it exactly as it was. This means that all changes and new intentions constantly have the opportunity to subtly alter the entire drawing.

Working digitally, one is discouraged from rebuilding the entire model from scratch unless absolutely necessary. This is especially true of parametric models, which have a tendency to accumulate features and processes as a model develops, but by virtue of their linked dependencies make it daunting to rethink entire processes. Parametric models build in flexibility in their selection of variables, but this variability is of a limited sort. The specific values – counts, dimensions, angles, fixed points and vectors can all be modified, but altering the way these variables are interpreted and translated into form requires a much greater investment of energy. This is precisely the digital linearity that Graves identifies.

A designer aware of these limitations may simply work through the pain, forcing a complete re-work of a form or parametric system from scratch several times in order to reap the benefits that this kind of process affords to design work. In the context of BIM, where fluidity from conception all the way to fabrication is held up as the Holy Grail, promising efficiency, speed, and lower costs, designers should remember the value of breaks in the process. Decoupling a model from its variables, breaking it out of its fixed dimensions and dependencies, may be antithetical to the efficiencies of BIM but may in fact be essential to the creative process of design.

While this in particular seems like the domain of practice rather than software, I can imagine a small 3d sketch program that at regular intervals locks the model away from the designer’s access, allowing it to be seen visually but not modified, copied, or snapped to. While this is likely impractical in real world problem-solving situations it would be interesting to test as a way to enforce the kind of deep non-linearity inherent to a stack of trace.

Drawing to “Stimulate the Imagination”

While Graves is a bit vague about precisely how manual drawing does this, I think he is extremely astute to identify it as a limitation in digital tools. One of the crucial aspects of manual drawing is its capacity for expression and continuous interpretation, reinterpretation, and misinterpretation. A drawing is always an abstraction; the space between that abstraction and a realized artifact or architecture is precisely the site where design thinking happens. In the article, Graves describes a small game during a boring Princeton faculty meeting, passing a drawing back and forth with a colleague. However, he omits an aspect of the anecdote that he provided in his Yale lecture—that there was a third participant (Tony Vidler) who joined in on the drawing game and drew a stair at entirely the “wrong” scale. I can’t count the number of times over my academic career when the most productive ideas around a project stemmed from a critic misreading a drawing as suggesting something entirely other than the student’s intention. Drawings, as approximate projections and views, imperfect notations of geometry, always contain the capacity to autonomously generate misreadings, “stimulating the imagination” in a way that transcends the mere transcription of ideas. The key quality that enables this is their inherent vagueness. Vagueness is not something computers do particularly well.

In my own practice the only remedy for this has been through “post-processing,” translating 3D models into 2D images to be further manipulated in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, for example. This frees a model from its dimensional notations in 3D space, allowing fuzzy, imperfect, imprecise, approximate manipulations to be made, which may not even logically resolve back into a 3D space.

Perhaps there might be a modeling interface that simply hides dimensional coordinate information from the user. Systems like Z-Brush for example seem to deemphasize the dimensional nature and precision of 3d in favor of a
“2.5D” approach which is a bit fuzzier, operating on the threshold between vector and raster manipulation techniques. While Z-Brush projects seem to take on qualities of literal fuzziness, or furriness, or lumpiness, while this need not necessarily be the case. Future design applications aiming at facilitating sketchiness would do well to build on the continual remapping from 3D to 2D to 3D, from vectors to pixels or voxels and back.


Much if not all of the intelligence of manual drawing methods could conceivably be meaningfully imported into digital practices. This however would not signify, as Graves worries, the “Death of Drawing”: it would simply mean that digital processes could rightly claim to be forms of drawing in the full sense that Graves intends. Designers taking advantage of digital tools are wise in the meantime to utilize hybrid processes in order to escape the limitations and tendencies of specific systems. Moreover, digital processes themselves might evolve to take on the fluidity, flexibility, and vagueness that manual drawing naturally offers. I don’t mean to suggest that we should actively try to eliminate drawing on paper in favor of digital substitutes; my goal is merely to offer possibilities for extending the capacities of digital design platforms as creative media. Increasingly, distinctions between the digital and the analog, the online and the offline, the virtual and reality are ceasing to be meaningful. Inevitably technology will continue to expand into more and more facets of the process of design. Software developers designing tools for architects—and architects developing software tools for themselves—should not let technology’s tendencies overwhelm the conditions under which creative thinking works best.

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4 Responses to “Michael Graves, Digital Visionary: What Digital Design Practice Can Learn From Drawing”

  1. Hey Andrew,

    Beautifully written! Quite a definite and well balanced statement on the issue …

    One meta-comment I would like to make is that I find it really funny (ironic?) that while the real trend-setters, like Schumacher and Graves, are trading punches, pushing relentlessly in complete different directions, it’s left to us lowlies to find the meaningful way out, because we can still afford a certain sincerity or balance. Discourse of any kind is productive, but I really believe that what is needed now in the holy realms of of architecture is not this dichotomous dialogue (fuck analog, go digital, or the reversed), but rather balanced views and opinions like what I found in your piece above.

    Another thing which I want to point out is that the fight between “digital” and “analog” drawing is actually a false one when it comes to architecture or design. In the end, I believe that reaching mastery in one implies already a sound knowledge of what you designed with that respective technique – and this “mastery” of the design domain is not specific (or should not be specific!) to any tool/technique. Both hand drawing and digital drawing encourage their respective bullshit speculations, and both facilitate other qualities in the respective designs/endeavors produced with their help. So even at an abstract, completely historical/societally-detached (that’s why I’m not talking about your technological arguments, which are perfectly true), level I find the nature of the debate promoted by Graves/Schumacher useless (even counter-productive actually). If you can design, you’ll do it properly regardless of tool (how many “can design”, that’s another question, i have doubts about myself as well – and here the importance of the “tool” in restricting mediocrity or enforcing a certain quality becomes critical).

    I’ll stop rambling now. Thanks for the interesting read!

  2. Thanks for sharing Andrew, this is a great piece.

  3. 3 Andrea Simitch

    Andrew! Stumbled across your blog while searching for images of the EatMe wall project that you et al did in Dana’s studio at Cornell a few years back. Val and I are trying to pull together this book on The Principles of Architectural Design and we’d love to use the project to illustrate how digital tools can facilitate adaptive fabrication models…..

    I’ve been mulling over this very subject that you write about: the combinatory representational…How, and when, the boundaries of representational tactics might be blurred. Very much look forward to where this might take you…

    Keep in touch okay?


  1. 1 Michael Graves and the different views « BIMing Argentina

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