Journey of an Architect is a blog started by Tim Ung to document his journey to design 30 projects by the age of 30 (May 2020). His posts focus on his design process, thoughts, struggles, and successes throughout his journey.

Why sketching is a powerful tool for a design meeting

Why sketching is a powerful tool for a design meeting


When I was still an architecture student taking studio and design courses, I was always afraid of picking up a writing or cutting tool and translating the thoughts in my head onto paper or into a physical model. This freedom of expression was foreign to me because most of my time in K-12 was spent in classrooms where teachers provided problems and expected written solutions. So I spent most of my time in architecture school writing down my concept statement, ideas, and describing my project. Like many people who don’t believe they’re able to visually express their thoughts, I was envious of everyone else who was able to just pick up a tool and create.

Slowly, I began to realize that I was afraid to sketch because I thought every drawing had to become a beautiful work of art. I also found that many people are in the same line of thought. Have you ever tried asking someone to sketch what they’re describing and their automatic response is, “I can’t sketch” or “I suck at sketching”?

After realizing that this fear of mine was driven by self-doubt, I decided that I would pick up a pen and sketch anything I was describing in any design meeting so that I would overcome my fear and use it as my form of expression.

Fast forwarding to this present moment, I met with my two student groups to talk about project 3x30 One Seneca Tower, and project 4x30 Competition and began sketching as each group member described their ideas. From these two meetings, I found that sketching is a powerful tool for; developing a design as a team, allowing everyone to feel free to share their ideas, making abstract thoughts clear to the entire group, and most importantly, giving form to our words and thoughts.

Designs emerge from everyone’s ideas and input

As we met to discuss our designs for project 4x30 competition, we began by reviewing notes, sketches, and 3D models. One of the students had notes about what she was planning to design, the other had a 3D model in Rhino, and I had sketches and a rough draft Revit model. We went over the notes from the first student and didn’t discuss anything because we couldn’t envision what she was planning on designing in the existing buildings in the competition site. However, we came to an agreement on some of her thoughts on program locations throughout the existing buildings on the site.

Our discussion with the second student with the Rhino model was full of energy because he verbally described the work of an architect, Toyo Ito, and the way he used thin columns in the Sendai Medatheque project as well as Sou Fujimoto’s use of thin pipe columns in the NA House project and the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2013. After showing us his Rhino model and describing these precedents, we had an idea of the student’s design intention. This lead to an energetic design discussion about the design of a new building on the competition site and we began sketching multiple ideas.

As we talked through the emerging design of the new building, I continued translating our collaborative thoughts into multiple sketches on a piece of trace paper. Markers were passed around to each member and before we knew it, we had several pieces of trace paper with different sketches; each built off of the last. Like many group sketches, if you look at some of the sketches in the image below, they probably won’t make much sense!

By collaborating as a group and developing ideas both verbally and visually, a culmination of the best ideas will eventually emerge.

4x30 Competition Design Sketch

Rough sketches encourage group participation

Working with the 4x30 group, I found asking questions and sketching to be useful in starting design conversations with the students. After listening to each of them explain their design development and any issues, I asked questions relating to form, location, materiality, and structure. Each of these questions were open ended and the students were quickly developing new design ideas. As keywords and phrases emerged from this conversation, I quickly scribbled and put the related image from my mind onto the trace paper.

Once the first sketch was complete, the students stared with wide eyes and I asked more probing questions. As they began answering the question, I passed my blue sharpie to them and asked if they could sketch what they’re describing. Without hesitation, the student took the marker and immediately began sketching his idea on the trace paper. The marker passed around until we finally came up with several strong ideas.

Successful group participation requires open ended questions with the reassurance that there is no right or wrong and pass or fail. It’s about throwing ideas at the wall until the strongest ones eventually stick and sketching is a medium that allows each person to visually convey their ideas to the group.

Everyone leaves with a clear understanding of ideas and tasks

With my second group of students who are working on project 3x30 One Seneca Tower, we began our discussion with any issues they had with modeling the existing building in Revit and I’ll help them resolve any major issues. An interesting note about this initial discussion is that their Revit issues have generally been related to the construction methods and materiality of the building, which informed our design discussion.

At this meeting, we discussed an issue with modeling the exterior precast concrete cladding system on the columns and beams. The students were having an issue with creating the precast concrete beams with a chamfered edge that runs along the bottom of each window. At first, we had a conversation about creating a Revit profile for the beam so that we could match the existing conditions. However, we began talking about the idea of maintaining the exterior precast concrete cladding system and adding an angled brushed steel system along the perimeter of each window to increase the amount of natural light in the building.

This discussion led to the idea of having the brushed steel system run along the top edge of the window to reflect colors from the surrounding environment to people walking on the street or working in the adjacent buildings. As I spoke about this idea, I sketched elevations of a window to show the students what I was talking about. They had a good understanding of what I meant and agreed that the building would benefit from this design. As the discussion was nearing its end, I asked the students what should be our goal for the next meeting. Without hesitation, the students were ready to continue developing the existing Revit model of the building.

By sketching and getting our thoughts down on paper, everyone is able to understand the current status of the project and contribute to the completion of major project tasks.

Words and thoughts are given form

At this particular meeting with the 3x30 students, we discussed more ideas about the window frame modifications to the One Seneca Tower building and looked at a few precedent projects. Using the sketches from our previous discussion, the students quickly drafted a few options to explore and made several physical models of their ideas.

These physical models helped our discussions move from a general idea to a focused and design refinement conversation. They also continued modeling the existing 3x30 One Seneca Tower in Revit, which was nearly complete. We were able to pan around and speak about specific areas of the building in relation to our new design for the exterior window frame.

Sketches are a powerful tool in any design meeting because it allows everyone the freedom to share their ideas, add clarity to abstract thoughts, and most importantly, give form to our words and descriptions. In your next design meeting, bring your sketchbook and/or trace paper and a sharpie marker. As design ideas begin to emerge from different conversations, sketch down your interpretation of the ideas and share it with the team. Ask questions, sketch, share the marker, and have fun!

3x30 Physical Design Model

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