Drawing in a digital world

Let’s talk about drawing. I had an inspiring chat recently with artist and teacher Jude Macklin, comparing and contrasting the way designers and artists draw. It made me realise that many of us in the design profession are now using a unique blend of traditional and digital drawing techniques, which would not have been available to us even a few years ago.

Like most designers, I draw daily. It’s my bread and butter, and yet clients I work with for the first time are sometimes surprised to find me using a pen and paper. I often hear ‘It’s all done on computers these days, isn’t it?’ the assumption being that drawing is an inefficient and old-fashioned skill, replaced by a software-driven alternative. In fact, drawing by hand is more vital than ever to the modern design professional, and has proven to be a very fast and powerful tool, both for problem solving and communication. We use computers as creative tools too, but in many situations it’s pen and paper, coupled with the designers’ skill, that still offers the most speed and flexibility.

My job is to create new ideas, but that’s not much use to anyone unless I can communicate to others what’s in my head. That’s where a quick doodle on a pad or sticky note really is worth a thousand words – because regardless of culture or language, we all ‘get’ a picture. In a few seconds, I can draw a rough and ready sketch that everyone in the room will understand. Being able to generate and visualise the idea is important, but for a designer, the real power of a sketch is its ability to communicate an idea and convey a vision that could be the turning point of a project.

Product designers are trained to draw in a very precise and accurate way. Clean lines, good perspective and tidy ellipses, so that we can communicate with clarity. This doesn’t mean that every doodle has to be a masterpiece though. There’s no such thing as a good or bad sketch, just one which is effective and appropriate to the moment. For example, if I draw a detailed, photo-realistic illustration of a new product idea, it may excite  and engage my audience, but  it can also seem very defined and unchangeable, which hinders the design process or could even mislead my audience by making an idea seem more finished than it actually is.

A quick, suggestive sketch however, still seems open to interpretation and allows a multitude of possibilities and discussions amongst the team. In the early stages of a project, I prefer to use quick sketches as they best represent how refined our ideas are and stimulate more discussion. As we develop our ideas, the drawings will also evolve in detail and definition.

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Many designers I know now use a combination of digital and traditional sketching to achieve the quickest and most flexible results, often hopping from sketchpad to computer and back again as the project requires. Whilst scanners and cameras allow you to digitise a paper drawing easily, it’s drawing directly into a computer – using a Wacom or Cintiq tablet – that offers the most flexible approach. These replace the mouse controller with a more intuitive pen and pad tool, and when combined with drawing software, allow a fluid and natural way to draw directly into a computer or tablet. Whilst some software can assist in places, for example straightening my lines if I ask it to, the core skills of the artist or designer are the same whether we’re drawing with ink or with pixels.

Emerging new products like the Wacom Inkling can now digitise your drawings in real-time as you sketch with pen and paper. Autodesk Sketchbook Designer, a software tool aimed specifically at designers and architects, allows you to sketch with a digital pen tool and then manipulate your drawing afterwards as a vector image, adjusting line weight and smoothing out and bumps or lopsided circles. It’s this intricate weaving of digital and analogue techniques that shows how much digital drawing has matured in the last few years, offering designers and artists new possibilities without losing the natural and fluid feeling that makes drawing so instinctive.

Critically, the digital tools aren’t forcing the artist to make overly clean and crisp images as they often did in the early days of the technology, but instead we can choose to draw instinctively using our own hands, and capture all the little quirks and flourishes that give drawings character and appeal. Only in the last few years has drawing digitally matured to a point where the tools can be forgotten about because the medium has become intuitive and familiar again.

If it feels so similar to pen and paper, why then do designers draw digitally? On a practical level, I now have more and more clients whom I deal with remotely, and so this necessitates that my project work is communicable over computer or video link, which means digitising drawings for presentation to clients. It also speeds up my working process at key stages of the project, for example allowing me to quickly modify an illustration’s shape and colours to show a client a series of variations on a design concept for discussion.

Most exciting though, is the way digital tools can enhance my drawings with interactivity. For example, I might sit with a client and sketch rough ideas on paper for a mobile phone’s on-screen interface. Afterwards, by digitising them I can now add interaction directly to the sketches, turning the once static doodles into an animated, interactive prototype which my client can use for themselves. This communicates my idea more effectively than any amount of hand waving or making swooshing noises ever would, and as mentioned before, the sketch-like appearance encourages suggestion and conversation.

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Whilst there are many digital artists such as Craig Mullins pushing the boundaries of this new medium, one of the most famous and vocal on the subject is David Hockney, who today draws almost exclusively with an iPhone and iPad. Like many designers, he finds the easy distribution and post-manipulation of his work an advantage, but he also talks about a fascination with the luminosity of a drawing as it’s portrayed on a screen, and experiments with drawings of gardens and sunsets that can literally glow through the medium of a touchscreen. Hockney has a history of experimentation with new media, having exhibited work in the past created using a photocopier and fax machine, but it is the iPad which resonates with him most as he says it feels most like using a sketchpad.

Drawings, Hockney believes, will always be with us but it is the means of making them which will change. Digital drawing tools have now matured to a point where we can now weave traditional and digital techniques together almost seamlessly as we see fit, offering an inspiring new world of possibilities. I can’t wait to see what we’ll be doing with these tools in a few year’s time.