We designers are like most creative people. The majority of our time is spent doing relatively routine work that’s intermittently punctuated with moments of great inspiration and vision. When a creative idea materializes, it must swiftly be expelled from our head and transferred to paper. Otherwise there’s no record of these brief thoughts and no way to share them. The best method to get it from brain to paper however, is still debated.
For millennia, the poor little pencil (or in antiquity, the stylus) has connected our minds to paper in a cognitive way nothing like that of a computer mouse to computer screen. Conditioning our hand to trace ideas visualized in our mind is considerably more difficult than learning to write. But when suitably done, it conveys so much more than words can ever achieve. And like many physical skills, it’s never really mastered, but must be practiced until the last stroke of our implement.
Pencils require no electricity, no boot-up time and have graced many a napkin with genius ideas. The computer and mouse, for better or worse, have occasionally allowed the mediocre to appear as talented, and the talented to appear as perfect. Much like auto-correct masks our inability to spell, the mouse and computer make our lines straight and uniform without regard to our intent. And as it happens, feeling and passion are removed leaving thin, crisp lines devoid of life. The unassuming mouse has short circuited the long practiced neural process of hand to paper and threatens to eliminate the personality only obtained by a sketch.
Today’s software is exceptionally powerful. One merely moves a cursor and clicks to produce spectacularly accurate two and three dimensional drawings and renderings. Photorealistic images can be created without camera or paint brush. Details can be modified in an instant and collaboration across continents or oceans is seamless. But to what extent does this level of perfection and precision detract from the creative process and true artistry of design? It might depend on the designer. Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry make a good living at exploiting computers to realize their contorted mathematical visions. But I would bet that both of their work days still start with a piece of paper and pencil.
I’m not immune from computer temptations myself. But I’ve learned to reserve my use to areas of design that are best served by automation, precision and repeatability. Although clients almost always enjoy receiving a hand drawn sketch made just for them, the contractor or fabricator appreciates the accuracy and clarity of a computer printout.
In my discussions with colleagues and students I find that those who resonate more with Facebook and Apple tend to desire the companionship of mouse and screen more than paper and pen. Younger design students and professionals have not only embraced technology but are using it almost to the exclusion of hand work. The result can sometimes be cold and anesthetized. But those who choose to sketch on paper can usually bring warmth and personality even with few and simple strokes. And even for those not blessed with natural artistic talent, a hand drawn attempt still shows passion. It’s the difference between a hand written thank you note and one emailed containing emoticons.