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Is Drawing A Necessary Design Skill?

In a previous post, I presented ways to improve your drawing skills. Here, I state my case for why designers should be able to draw. It’s not that we all need to draw like Michelangelo or Drew Struzan, but even rudimentary drawing ability enhances one’s skill set in a variety of ways:

Drawing is an activity that increases our awareness of form and structure, line and shape, spatial relationships, color and texture – all of which are basic elements designers work with.

Drawing slows us down so that we take the time to observe, analyze and evaluate form and space.

Drawing develops “wrist” skills — control, pressure and agility. These translate directly to working with tablets and styluses.

Drawing is foundational for visual communication.


Drawing as an advantage

Drawing gives designers an advantage.
It’s easy to see the difference between a designer who draws from one who doesn’t. There’s a higher level of thinking that is apparent among those who draw: layouts look more thoughtful, there’s attention to shape and edge relationships and proportions… making things work together in the overall design. There’s a refinement to the finished design itself that is lacking when one does not draw, especially noticeable in logo design (I like what David Airey says about it here.) And even typography is accomplished with greater finesse, because the shapes of the letterforms and their relationships to each other are clearly understood as being visual forms with shape and space.

Saul Bass is probably best known for his title design and film graphics. In this clip by Archie Boston he shares how designers can get along without drawing skills, but they will be handicapped.

Drawing makes ideas visible. 
Ideas are intangible until you put them in a visual form of some sort. You can’t really work with or share ideas if they’re still in your head. Remember the adage: A picture is worth a thousand words? Ideas become something once you record them. As with writing something down, a peculiar thing happens when you draw something: you can see it and then run with it. An idea, drawn out, will prompt another and more after that. Then, if you share these visible ideas with others, they see them and generate more ideas. Inscribing the idea in a drawing is like planting a seed. It starts to grow and ultimately generates more seed.

Milton Glaser is a seasoned graphic designer, teacher and entrepreneur. Known for his Dylan poster, Mad Men titles and I Love New York icon, his work begins with drawing. He shares that drawing accuracy is the least important thing about drawing, but it’s the starting point for design and for creative expression.

Drawing is relaxing.
The sensory quality of drawing – paper, pencil or pen, tablet and stylus – is different from working with keyboard and mouse. It’s quiet and restful, and uses a different rhythm.

Drawing is a fundamental skill for the visual arts.
Design is a visual art. The better we draw, the better we design. If we can solve the problem with a pencil, we can certainly solve it with a computer.

Designers don’t need to be master draftsmen, renderers and illustrators, but they should be able to do rudimentary sketching. When one considers that drawing courses are part of the foundational curriculum at almost every design school, the reason should be obvious: drawing ability is essential to creating great work.


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Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.