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The Importance of Hand Drawing in a Digital World - A Chat with AIA National President, Clark Manus, FAIA

A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to sit down with current AIA (American Institute of Architects) National President, Clark Manus, FAIA of Heller Manus Architects in San Francisco. Being at the helm of the AIA, the president has the over-arching view of our profession across the nation and in many sectors of the design profession and academia.
My goal for this interview was to get a national perspective and opinion on hand drawing and its place and role in the design studio. Being in my 15th year of professional practice, I have witnessed a paradigm shift of hand drawing to digital renderings. There is still lively and sometimes passionate debates about which is best, which is the future and which is on the way to obscurity. Previous interviews and blogs that I have been involved with explored how current design firms and practitioners utilize BOTH hand and digital, and finding a balance of use to manifest the best product possible.  
But before we launch into the interview, here is a little bit of information about Clark. Clark Manus is CEO of Heller Manus Architects based out of San Francisco. Clark's experience over the past 30 years encompasses a wide range of new and reconstruction projects including residential, commercial, civic, rehabilitation and adaptive re-use, performance facilities, retail and urban design plans in the San Francisco Bay Area and China. Clark is recognized for his expertise in complex urban, mixed-use buildings and master planning projects, especially in difficult approval environments.


Beyond the realm of his practice, Clark is a vocal activist for community design and advocacy issues affecting policies and planning that reinforce the urban fabric of the San Francisco Bay Area region that encourage the creation of livable communities. He has held leadership positions in key civic endeavors to broaden the dialogue of public interaction with the architectural community through the AIA. 

So on with the show...


What aspects of design and the design process do you feel are better captured by hand drawing?

Clark Manus: I strongly believe that hand drawing skills have the greatest impact and effect during the visionary and concept design phases of a project. The ability to draw with a client, having a design sketch capture the essence of a client’s vision through a series of gestural moves is a powerful form of design communication. By this I mean it is always a good idea to have the client feel engaged and feel they are part of the manifestation of an idea. Ownership can be a powerful thing. That’s not to say that you should never use digital drawings, but I have found some situations where a digital drawing can really backfire if it does not convey the initial design intent that the client envisioned. Many times I have heard of clients not favoring digital renderings during concept phases because they feel the design has already “gelled” and set into concrete. Hand drawing as a tool really captures the essence of an idea the best.

Brian Lin: I experienced a similar situation where my client insisted on digital renderings during the concept phase. We had a “finished” computer rendering which was just gorgeous, with all the bells and whistles that you expect from a 3-D Studio program. The community group however, was not favorable to the design. Someone even mentioned, “Why do you need our input? You have already designed the damn building!” So at the concept phase we had renderings that already committed the design to a specific façade material, massing, groundfloor articulation. It was not as collaborative as it could have been.

Clark Manus: Drawings to some degree become a political document that is used at city review and approval hearings. So you have to be mindful about what you show, how you show it, and how much information that you want to reveal at that moment in the process of the project.


How do your clients respond to digital versus hand drawn presentation work?

Clark Manus: I think clients feel that they are limited on how much input they can contribute once the design has been memorialized in a digital rendering. A lot of design practitioners have at their disposal a myriad of options to produce work, digitally and traditional. What I’m getting at is that hand graphics to digital product is really a continuum, a process of how a design manifests. Clients tend to respond more favorable to the softness and gestural quality of hand drawings which is not apparent in digital work. One architectural illustrator whom we enjoy working with is Pete Hassleman. Pete has a distinctive process in that he understands architectural form and entourage that adds vibrancy to buildings and space. His illustrations and sketches are lively, vibrant, and captures the essence of the project. In the initial design phases, we find that our clients like this process and feel more engaged.  


Being at the helm of the AIA, you probably have had numerous opportunities to witness or judge competition work nationally and internationally. What have you noticed about how a design was manifested digitally versus hand drawn work?

Clark Manus: Nowadays, competitions rarely are all hand drawn. If anything, there are some vignette sketches that are used to convey initial concepts that precede the overall design presentation. In his practice, Romaldo Giurgola of the architectural firm Mitchell Giurgola, uses hand drawing as an integral part of his design process. His drawings and thumbnail sketches are simple yet incredibly clear and bold so that he captures the pure spirit of a design idea. It is this level of clarity that every design needs in order to be noticed at a competition level and project scope level.


There are numerous computer programs that can take a CAD drawing or BIM model and turn it into a hand drawn-like effect. What is your opinion of the use of this tool during the design process?

Clark Manus: BIM and AutoCAD certainly have changed the way design professionals practice. We have a younger generation coming right out of school without any exposure whatsoever to hand drawing. These programs that emulate a hand-style effect misses an essential point: that and drawing is a process tool and not necessarily a means for producing a finished drawing. I think our young designers find, or are told, that digital drawing is sexy and flashy and hand drawing is an anachronistic tool that only design veterans use. The designers in my office do draw on technical drawings during reviews of construction drawings and while they review redlines. It’s an effective way to think and “talk” with a pen in real-time when communicating to their design teams. Alternatives and details are drawn directly on the drawings. The redlines become a record of design decisions that the team work through together. You may have noticed that my partner, Jeffery Heller, thinks with his hands and draws with a big fat sharpie pen. Jeffrey uses drawing as a “broad stroke” to clarify the design intent. On most of our projects, the clarity of a hand drawn diagram sets the direction of a project, and we usually go back to it many times to ensure that we stay the course even after we go digital.


Where do you see hand drawing in the design profession in the next 10-20 years?

Clark Manus: The design industry is established on the standards that it sets. Many years ago before the introduction of computers, all renderings were done by hand and that was the standard at the time. Now it’s computers, so firms and design professionals invest a lot of money on workstations, software, and training to use the software. However, I think throughout our conversation, we have discussed that hand drawing is a tool of process and used during the conceptual design phases to help manifest the strength of a design idea. Hand drawing will always have a place as a tool for the spectrum of designers, clients, the public and the policy worker to understand the big idea of a design project.

Concept for Mixed Use Development, Shanghai, China / Brian Lin

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Comment by Milo Olea on July 8, 2012 at 1:13pm

Exactly my sentiments!  It's good to learn that hand produced drawings are not extinct yet. Thank you for the great article.

Comment by Linda Potrafke on August 18, 2011 at 10:03am
Fabulous article!  I am an interior design student and found this to be very helpful.  Thanks.

BeLoose is a workshop where the experience will definitely change people's lives and increase their confidence beyond their expectation.

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