top of page

Design Drawing Modes

“The necessity to sketch arises from the need to foresee the results of the synthesis or manipulation of objects without actually executing such operations” |Fish, Mind’s Eye|.


Perhaps the only thing that separates designers from non-designers in the use of drawing is their proficiency and use of all of these modes...and when to employ each for greatest effect.

The application of drawing takes many forms in the design disciplines, from purely gestural to the most precise and controlled drawings used for manufacturing and building purposes. Designers often shift between drawing modes at various points throughout the design process, as and when required by the demands of the problem that is being considered. What then are these modes? An extensive explanation comes from the following excerpt taken from the introduction to Erik Olofsson and Klara Sjölén’s Design Sketching, a book focused on drawing in design:

“In professional design practice, sketching has proven to have multitude of purposes [sic] which can be summarized under four headlines — investigation, exploration, explanation and persuasion:

Often, the investigative function of sketching is tightly connected to the early research phase of a design project. The designer is examining the problem space, and sketching helps analysing the context while the problem and its components are emerging. Explorative sketching is often used when proposals of design solutions are generated and evaluated. These sketches are produced in large numbers, are often very rough and do seldom make much sense for others than the people directly involved in the design process. Explanatory sketches have to communicate a clear message to others than the designer and the team, in contrast to the explorative sketches mentioned above. These sketches describe and illustrate proposed concepts in a neutral and straight-forward manner, and are often created in the later phases of a project, to get valuable feedback from users, clients and external experts. Persuasive sketches are the most artistically impressive type of images, often called renderings and takes [sic] much more time to finish than the other types. The main purpose with these drawings is to ‘sell’ the proposed design concept to influential stakeholders, such as CEOs or Design Managers” |Olofsson, 2005|.

Reflecting back on the results of the “Why Do We Draw?” survey reveals similarities between how non-designers and designers utilize drawing in their profession. These patterns become surprisingly clear as we compare the four “design” modes to the categories of responses:


Expression [Persuasion]: utilizing a more artistic set of elements, drawing allows us a means to “tap into” the emotional qualities of our audience in an attempt to shift their point of view to our own.


fig. 17. Expression [Persuasion] sketch. This sketch screams “fast” and “powerful”; the liberal use of red, the dynamic background element, and strong contrast all add to the experience of speed in this concept. (courtesy Dino Tsiopanos)

Comprehension [Investigation]: as a primary tool for understanding, drawing has the ability to help us make sense of complex issues and elements of problems, whether design-related or not.


fig. 18. Comprehension [Investigation] sketch. Before proposing new concepts for fire protection systems, these sketches were produced to fully understand the existing methods of communication between firefighters. (courtesy Chris Grill)

Documentation and Communication [Explanation]: drawing to document is about making a physical record of something experienced or thought which then in turn can be shared with others. With its ability to bridge language barriers, both ethnic and cultural, drawing therefore acts as the interface between one individual and another (or one profession and another).


fig. 19. Documentation/Communication [Explanation] sketch. Drawings can be used to communicate details and describe “how” something works or is to be used; often shared with others in place of verbal dialogue. (courtesy Chris Padilla)

Generation [Exploration]: rooted in the psychological benefits previously discussed, drawing is the product of — and fuel for — the development and refinement of new solutions to problems; it is a means to discovery, and the drawings produced become the roadmap to that discovery.


fig. 20. Generation [Exploration] sketch. By putting designs on paper, the designer is able to make modifications to the initial idea, creating a series of “iterations” until a concept with the desired qualities to solve the problem are discovered.

Perhaps the only thing that separates designers from non-designers in the use of drawing is their proficiency and use of all of these modes (see examples, fig. 10-13, on preceding pages), or perhaps it is a conscious awareness of these different modes and when to employ each for greatest effect. This ability to shift perspectives, to better understand the problem in its many forms and therefore provide a broad range of possible solution directions, refers us back to the findings of Frith, Law and Kozbelt that reveal the connection between visual tasks, bodily motion control, and the role of the prefrontal cortex in orchestrating the recombination of vastly dispersed pieces of information within the brain. The drawing efforts of non-design professions typically revolve around a single style or mode of drawing determined to be necessary for that discipline — recording the shape of bacteria under a microscope or representing the chemical bonds between elements in a molecule. The proficiency displayed by designers in utilizing many different modes of drawing can be a major source of intimidation for non-designers, and this effect can be traced even farther back to the effects of language and drawing skill progression during childhood. The effects of this non-engagement of drawing are not purely artistic however; by not engaging all of these modes of drawing (and the brain regions associated with each), non-design professions are limiting their abilities to explore novel solutions to problems. The next section proposes a way to reconcile these and other differences on the professional application of drawing in a way that invites those without a traditional design background to cross into and explore drawing with the purpose of engaging their visual and cognitive processes to maximize their work efforts.

bottom of page