#TTCTALKS WITH SIMEON SEIGEL: “Using a Pencil In a ‘Paperless’ Office”

Welcome to the third installment of our new series, #TTCTalks! We’re featuring blog posts written by our management team about patterns in the industry, their experiences in the field, and more. 

We are excited to share our third chat, written by The Turett Collaborative architect Simeon Seigel! He shares his thoughts on hand-drawing in the digital age, and we include some of his never-before-published hand-drawings at the bottom of the page! 

Scroll down to read his post, and stay tuned for more #TTCTalks coming throughout the year. 

Historically architecture has been a hugely “paper-driven” practice: every project requiring dozens of big sets of drawings with hundreds of sheets each, rolls of tracing paper at every desk, trash bins overflowing with crumpled sketches. 

In recent years, our studio, like so many homes and businesses, has looked for ways to minimize waste, and paper is a prime target.  Design software allows us to produce most technical documentation on-screen, and printers have allowed us to all-but abandon the use of large format plotting, favoring instead 11×17 “half-size” drawings. Working remotely has pushed us even closer to the idea of a “paperless” office: when drawings are routinely reviewed with clients and consultants on screen via zoom, and when so much sketching can happen virtually, and when even builders on job sites refer to digital tablets in lieu of physical paper, we’re left to wonder if we’ll ever use pencils again. 

For me it’s worth asking what might be lost in that transition from a creative and professional perspective, as well as from a personal one. 

Some designers insist that drawing by hand –with an actual pen, pencil or brush on physical paper– is the only way to use their full imagination, test ideas quickly, and free-associate most creatively and effectively, at least in the initial stages of a design challenge. The potential for “looseness” is a big advantage: no one mistakes a few pencil lines for a dimensionally accurate, technically resolved solution… while both designer and client can use a well-crafted, evocative sketch as a springboard for brainstorming. On the other hand, many designers brought up from infancy with visualization software, and trained on simulated 3d-modeling, see profound advantages in developing ideas on-screen: they see the computer as a complementary tool, amplifying their native skills and enabling them to seamlessly convert their imaginative ideas into images which clients and colleagues can then interact with, and which can very efficiently evolve into technical documentation, VR (“virtual reality”) walk-throughs, 3d printing… some things which are impossible to achieve with pencil-and-paper, and which incidentally leave much more time for multiple iterations, or for studying alternatives which would have been too costly to pursue or even technically impossible to illustrate or conceive if all initial studies were done with the unaided hand.

I’m on the cusp between these camps. I’m old enough to have spent my formative years drawing obsessively with pen and pencil, and only starting to draw on-screen in my junior year of college. But I’m young enough to have never produced a construction drawing (i.e., a technical document for bidding, filing, or building a project) without a computer. 

Our studio includes some designers who favor initial concept sketching on screen, in virtual 3d, and some who favor hand sketching. As a team I consider us much stronger for having that range of skills and techniques… but I’d consider it a loss if any of my colleagues were unable to use some hand techniques alongside some computer-aided techniques. As a firm that emphasizes collaboration it’s crucial to use whatever tool works best for a given context, project type, mix of people, or phase of the work. Some clients respond intuitively and enthusiastically to hand sketches, and are put-off by drawings which convey a premature finality… they want room to explore, so with them we draw like mad, going through rolls of trace and boxes of pencils. For me that’s a thrill, because I love to improvise and communicate in that format. The drawings allow for all parties to project imaginatively beyond what is on the page, and to delay (in the short run) committing one’s mind to the dimensional specifics. Others –both clients and designers–  lean more heavily on data and are most productive and engaged when they can understand and use drawings analytically. For them we may present ideas on screen, with hard-line images conveying a sense of precision and completeness. It’s thrilling in a different way, because we can play with light, shadow, texture, and dimension in virtual spaces very quickly. But most people, both professionals and clients, need and enjoy some of both. A big part of our job as designers is to read the room, understand the flow of information, and employ the right communication and exploratory tools at the right time. 

I will never stop using my pencil. I love to draw by hand, and I try to do it at every opportunity. But I’m not sentimental or dogmatic about it. I am sentimental about the collaborative, interactive aspect of design though, and that really only works when every tool of communication is on the table, and every party at the table has a chance to speak up. Using less paper doesn’t change that!

(Sketches of a residential project on the Upper West Side)
(Sketches of a townhouse project in Brooklyn)
(Sketches of a commercial and community space in the Bronx)
(Ink sketch of a Tribeca townhouse)