Craft & Design
The Importance of Sketching

Joel Miller of Massachusetts wrote in to share this great blog post on the importance of sketching up a design prior to booting up the computer.

I have been struggling with the design of an enclosure for my CNC mill that would allow me to use flood coolant and contain the mess of metal and plastic chips this machine can create. I had a rough idea in my head, and looked around at existing enclosures, so I immediately jumped into CAD to sort out the design. For days I iterated on-screen, unhappy with the results but trudging through each new concept until I hit a wall.

So last night as I sat on the couch I opened up my laptop to give it another go, only to find technical issues that kept me from launching my CAD software. Frustrated, I shut the laptop and pulled out my sketchbook. Within minutes I was teasing out the solutions that were so elusive on screen, and by the time I shut off the lights I had my design roughed out.

What do you think, readers? Do you prefer sketching your initial designs by hand or working on the computer?

74 thoughts on “The Importance of Sketching

    1. What you see up there is something you could learn to do: it has little with talent. These days, people only encourage those who show this inclination naturally :(

  1. I’ve done both, but usually start out with a sketch. Then I might transfer things into a CAD program (for it’s 3D capabilities and measurements). That can give me a better reference of how it will look in the real world, then I can make adjustments if needed. I’ve never drawn something that well. Nice isometric views.

  2. Both the beauty and curse of any CAD program is that it allows you to dive into to details to easily. I’ve found that any time I’ve hit a brick wall, it’s usually because I’ve tried resolving a detail in CAD that I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to on a hand sketch. And at that point it’s usually best to return to pen and paper…

  3. I like to sketch things out in my CAD program (I have AutoCAD at work.) I find it’s super easy to just start tossing lines out there – stretching or shrinking when it’s needed, copying, pasting, mirroring, etc. I occasionally sketch things on paper when I just want to bang out a 5-minute drawing to hand off to someone or when I’m just noodling around, but for me it’s analogous to the difference between writing things out by hand and using a word processor.

  4. A little of both works for me though I usually sketch in my head then grab Google Sketch Up , I guess the ability to quickly throw something up and then look at it in 3d on Sketch Up is a big plus. When I was using conventional cad programs I always used pencil and paper first ….

    1. Mike, have you figured out how to force 2D only in Sketchup? I tried it when it first became available and couldn’t force 2D on it then. I need to put furniture into a dimensioned room and do NOT want 3D. ??

      1. What do you mean by ‘force 2D only’? Do you only want lines and coplanar surfaces that are viewed from the top? You might try the Camera menu’s “parallel” option with top view. I’m ignorant, and so I may be proposing a solution to someone else’s problem.

      2. Hi yes … If you use the camera menu and select top view only draw whatever and just don’t bother extruding anything , there are a ton of tutorials and videos out there as well , sketch up is very easy to use and quite fast to learn , a whole lot of woodworkers are starting to use it for all sorts of projects..

    2. I also do this. I may make some very rough drawings on paper, but quickly go to SketchUp. I am very bad with paper, but it is sometimes the best way to work out a concept. Still, my job doesn’t involve any ‘real’ design work.

  5. This so true even when you are planning to write code. I sometimes use just a piece of paper and scribble out a program flowchart with annotations before starting to convert it into C code – It would take me hours or days using MS Visio and I would still be unhappy with the results, adjusting fonts, pulling lines and blocks to snap neatly in relation to each other. And one can get anal about the visual aesthetics to the point where the original purpose is almost forgotten. The same applies to Schematic design too.

  6. As long as it isn’t a dimensional squeeze, I like using grid paper and a pencil first to sketch. I’m still casting about as to a good CAD for casual designs. They seem to all try to be everything to everybody and turn out much too difficult IMHO. Pencil and paper are very easy to correct, and a pad always has another sheet. ;)

  7. The other thing I forgot to mention that is a big advantage of something like Sketch Up is the ability to easily share your drawing with either clients or collaborators. You can share your drawing in Google’s 3d warehouse and give other authors the ability to work on it kind of kewl for makers who like collaborate.

  8. I recently picked up a dry erase board so that I can draw out details, different views and work things out if need be. I find that using some form of sketched drawing helps in the design process. It allows you to move freely and draw whatever you want before you run into the constrains and steps needed to draft or model on a computer. You want a cube? easy, draw 9 lines. Oh you want a wire frame cube, draw 3 more lines.

    It can seem like an extra step, but if you knock out a quick sketch that helps in your own design process then its worth it. That extra step can be well worth the effort to avoid hitting a wall all together.

  9. You have damn right, drawing on Cad ( and all computers programs in general) is a shit because you are vinculated in Cad’s rules, so then your head is vinculated too, but on the white paper your hand could be directly connected to your brain and you are more free to find your way to represent what are you thinking about..Cad is not good for thinking, is good to project extremely precise, and make a 3d but personally i think that by hand is the perfect way to realize something, expecially designing.
    Nice project

  10. There’s a difference between sketching being important to YOUR workflow and sketching being important to everybody’s workflow. When Mr. Miller confuses the first for the second, he overreaches. Different people have different processes which work best for them. Whenever somebody says something like “I always teach my students the importance of sketching” I always hear the subtext “I always teach my student the importance of having the same methodology I do.” whereas the actual tricky business of becoming good at something is figuring out the way YOU work most productively. The longer you spend being limited by somebody else’s process the longer it will take you to discover your own. Maybe it will involve sketching, but maybe it won’t. Maybe you’re faster in CAD, maybe you’re faster with practical materials and you should break out the cardboard and tape. I’ve known people who can build three practical prototypes in the time it takes other folks to sketch their way to a solution. The important thing is that you find a process which is effective for you.

    1. Well said, that is exactly what i was thinking. The most effective design process is unique to the individual. People should try different methods, but don’t force anything on yourself just because someone else told you it was an important part of the process.

  11. What I’ve found works best for me is to ‘sketch’ a project in my mind, then describe it and what it does out loud to an imaginary person standing in front of me. (Privacy is a must, here.) As there will always be a discrepancy between what you visualize and what you say, and then between what you hear yourself saying and what you revisualize (because each action involves a different section of the brain), you can gain some important insights and even some unthought-of innovations. By ‘touring’ a design over and over until it stops changing, I can refine it to the point where I can just sit down at my computer and start hammering it out. Of course, seeing it on the screen involves yet another part of the brain, so tweaks are always made, but the majority of the design remains unchanged.

    (It’s also a good way to build your rep as an engineering genius. :grin: )

    1. I’m with you, Lux. I couldn’t find the definition for “vinculated” in Merriam-Webster dictionary site or my other word-friendly haunts. I finally found that it means “tied to”.
      One of those times when using simpler words would have saved a lot of effort, since it doesn’t appear in common dictionaries that I could find out about.


  12. When I took a drafting class for working on a drawing board, they insisted you sketch out the views you were going to make on graph paper so after a full day of making a 24″ x 36″ drawing at a certain scale you ended up with the last view not fitting at that scale, or at the last deciding you needed another view to show everything…

    I’ve since taken 3 college classes in Autocad and 1 in solid modeling and have worked in a machine shop environment for 30 years.

    I have been told that I am fast at drawing, and the way that I am fast is to first draw a sketch, then a clean-up sketch, then draw in CAD. First a quick hand sketch that gets scribbled on as design changes, and it might take several sheets of paper, then a clean-up sketch–the final sketch drawn nicely on a single sheet, approx to scale, with dimensions penciled in if they are known, etc.
    Finally, I go to CAD, and it is not part of the design process per say, but a checking of the design for bloopers (holes too close to an edge, etc). It is fast compared to designing and drawing it all in CAD because the design is mostly done, and I am transferring a drawing to CAD, and making it much more precise, and most of the drawing of features, and replacing/moving them is already worked out on the clean-up sketch.
    Yes I have worked only on CAD for big assemblies with over 100 parts, but the drawing of those parts is sketched as I go on scrap paper and is still faster than doing everything in CAD with no paper sketching at all.

    Design is a process that *could* include CAD for some types of parts, but doing design in cad with no paper sketching is the long way home.

  13. In schools, students should always be required to learn to sketch. Whether or not they decide to use it in their careers is secondary, the act of sketching is the full body and brain form of exercising the imagination.

  14. I like sketching things out first, and depending on what it is I’m doing, I may even skip doing it in CAD and go straight to construction.
    Sketching it helps me get all the details straight in my mind; CAD is great for getting exact measurements and scale drawings. Sometimes you don’t need those, though, and can jump over that step. What’s important is having the ability to properly judge when that’s the case.

  15. I can go either way but usually go straight to CAD. However, if inspiration strikes and I don’t have my computer handy, I use what I have – a tablecloth in a restaurant, a paper napkin, a scrap of cardboard, a foam cup … I started off board drafting before CAD existed so it isn’t a burden at all to do it by hand. The strange thing is that I am almost more organic when I design straight to CAD. Sketching looks cooler in the coffee shop though ;-)

  16. IMO, if you can’t sketch a deign by hand, using software is pointless. The program can’t do what you can’t do. All it’s really good for is the grunt work of design, the stuff you have to do _after_ you’ve designed the thing you want to make.

    1. That isn’t actually true. ‘Sketching’ is simply creating a quick, rough draft of how you currently view your project, and is separate from how you create it. Personally, I use both CAD and pencil; which I start with depends on where I am, what I’m already doing, and what type of project it is. (Most of mine are technical drawings/blueprints/etc., using a lot of lines/arcs/etc. depending on particular dimensions, and so start on the computer. If I was, for example, creating something more artistic, like modeling a dragon, I would start with pencil and paper.)

      1. Valid points, which I think reflect high levels of skill with CAD, and (more importantly IMO) well-developed habits of translation from concept to design. Certainly in both respects much better than mine. That is, you’ve learned CAD so well that it’s become your sketch pad. ;-)

        Let me rephrase my point from a different angle: I’ve noticed that people who don’t know how make a sketch of their design can’t use CAD. CAD is for constructing the drawing, but you need to know how to construct it in the first place. If you don’t know about and/or can’t visualise/sketch the traditional 3 orthogonal views (for example), you can’t use CAD to create them.

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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