The Power of Drawing in a Digital Age

The “Power of the Pen” is a phrase borrowed from an oral history interview with landscape architect Laurie Olin, FASLA, on drawing by The Cultural Landscape Foundation. In a session at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, it was used by Michael Batts, ASLA, of Stewart, Kona A. Gray, FASLA, of EDSA, and David Malda, ASLA, of GGN, to convey the importance of drawing as a means to bridge cultures, forge connections, and draw out ideas throughout the design process.

Malda focused on three ways that GGN uses drawing in their practice: “drawing out, drawing in, and drawing together.” He was quick to question landscape architects’ proclivity to create drawings at a resolution that exceed the resolution of information, noting “we are putting more information in than we actually have.”

In contrast to the ubiquitous Google Earth photos, which are commonly used to quickly understand a place, Malda highlighted a drawing by Keith McPeters of GGN that pulls out the topography and road infrastructure as a means to understand what is important to the place. “It is as much about what is not drawn as what is drawn.”

GGN.jpg
Rackspace Headquarters Concept Sketch / GGN

In a similar vein, Batts discussed integrating technology, namely tablets, into his drawing process as a way to quickly and iteratively test ideas over photographs taken on the device or downloaded from Google Earth.

The capabilities of drawing apps allowed him to subdue information and call forth and alter elements of the existing site with speed and ease. In many ways, the digital surface acts as a digital form of trace paper. He joked that this is the “Power of the Apple Pen.”

Stewart.jpg
Sketch done by Stewart Inc. / Stewart Inc.

All emphasized the variability of drawing styles and types. There is a place for exploratory or abstract drawings investigating materials, form, and ideas, as much as for representational and observational drawing. The trio emphasized that different types of drawings are necessary to think through different stages and processes during design development.

For Gray, drawing is a form of thinking. He realized early on in his life that “because I could draw, I could help solve problems.” Drawing is now a way of extracting an idea from his mind using the hand, a process that is instrumental to exploring thoughts quickly without being burdened by crafting the perfect drawing.

Drawing / Kona Gray

Malda noted that 40 quick sketches of different ideas can be produced in a fraction of the time it would take to produce a finished rendering.

Iterative drawing can also be taken into client meetings, a technique Olin highlights in the video interview, and all speakers highly encouraged during their talks. Gray and Batts emphasized the power of the pen to forge connections between clients, but also with people of different cultures.

Gray draws with clients in real-time, on-site if possible, allowing them to explore ideas together. This can help bring out local knowledge of the place. Real-time drawing in charette processes allow the community and the designers to inspire each other.

Batts echoed the power of drawing as inspiration through an anecdote about a trip to a small village in Mexico. Each evening they set up a craft table, which brought together villagers who didn’t have access to these materials, while Batts sketched the local landscape.

A local man named Joel was curious about Batts’ sketches, and finally asked, through a translator, if Batts could teach him to draw perspective, which was a new view of his familiar landscape. This moment reveals drawing’s potential: its ability to “transcend disciplines, language barriers, and cultures.”

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