Engineers Sketch by Andrew Scoones

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In an age when computerized drawing is so prevalent, why is the hand-drawn sketch still an important part of the engineer’s toolbox? Indeed why are there increasing numbers of young engineers looking to hone their skill through activities such as the Drawing Gymnasium for Engineers.


According to Trevor Flynn, Director of Drawing at Work, there are three main factors. The first is that drawing is both a tool of communication and a cognitive act; that is a form of mental exercise that promotes growth of understanding. It is not a passive, cosmetic “illustration”. The second is that this type of drawing is rooted in the kind of purposeful play, or “ingenuity”  (Latin root: ingenium - wit) that has defined the nature of engineering since before Leonardo. Third is that the industry as a whole has woken up to the risk that they are rapidly becoming de-skilled in this essential tool.


"That link back to the renaissance is quite explicit in the teaching of the Drawing Gymnasium where the understanding and practice of perspective became an essential part of how we explain how things work - in terms of shape, mass, process as well as aesthetics. It is only in recent times that the use of perspective has become part of the ‘art class’ teaching. And this can disadvantage the design engineer if they have been excluded from learning this skill as part of their education. In a collaborative process such as construction it is important for engineers – indeed all members of the team - to be able to express their ideas through sketches as part of the creative process. Otherwise key aspects of their skills can be obliterated by the inability to express ideas quickly and lucidly. This becomes even more important, for example, at site meetings when ‘quick and dirty’ sketches are need to explain how to solve specific problems; no time to get back to the office and do a CAD drawing."


However there is a growing tradition of engineering sketches which is being recognised as an important part of the culture of the profession. The published sketch books of Anthony Hunt provide a prime example: does his ability to sketch make possible his successful collaboration with the great architects of the day? How many of those ideas might have been lost if he had not been able to communicate them in a ‘visual and non-mathematical form’?


"There is an essential difference between formal and informal communications. There are key moments in thinking that must exist outside of the computerisation process, where sketching can elucidate a problem and induce a provisional ”solution” for further analysis and refinement. With even simple drawing skills the engineer can have the capacity to think things through with a pencil. With teaching focusing on proper skills they become confident enough to present sketches in reports and bids for work, and draw in front of architects and non – technical team members / clients. Engineers who draw, particularly with clients and others in the design team are empowered to affect outcomes and, critically, demonstrate to the client that they are being heard."


"At the same time the effective engineering sketch does not necessarily need to be an ‘artistic tour de force’. The most successful are those where the purpose and the method of presentation have been clearly thought through and have aligned to clarify an idea, a system, a detail or a process in a way that no other medium could do so succinctly. Often ‘less is more’ is a mantra that is worth retaining. These sketches are worthy of being retained both as part of the project documentation but also as part of a wider educational conversation within the engineering discipline."


What is noticeable is that more and more young engineers feel this is an activity in which they want to participate and want to be seen to do well. In the view of the former President of the IStrucE, Tim Ibell, “those who can sketch proficiently tend to become the natural leaders of our profession.”


Attendees at Engineering Sketches party, 2015. Photograph by James Boyer Smith