Architects swap precision for pencil-powered pondering

The zebras were good: four legs, lots of stripes, their long ears and bottlebrush manes would fit right in on the savanna. The soft-boiled eggs looked delicious, the handbags and airplanes all had a certain style. But what really stood out were the houses: all sorts of houses from grand to simple, spacious to miniscule—some so tiny, in fact, their occupants’ arms and legs burst through the windows like Alice in Wonderland—all so finely imagined you could get a sense of what it might feel like to step inside.

On a sunny day in mid-July, Scriberia Academy was drawing with the talented team at Bennetts Associates Architects as part of their summer professional development day. The theme of the event was “design concepts,” and since Scriberia are pros at making clear, communicable visuals out of the most intangible, borderless, cloudy ideas, Bennetts invited us to deliver a session on the kind of visual problem-solving we do. A session I like to call, “Thinking With a Pencil”.

When you’re trying to unpick a huge, knotty problem, a pencil and a paper are the best tools. But thanks to design software, Pinterest and drawing packages, it’s incredibly simple and fast to build a solution on an iPad that looks slick and professional from the very first stroke.

But therein lies a problem: slick and professional can also make the problem appear “solved” when it is anything but. A sketch allows you to try out ideas, erase, and try again, while the whole thing still looks like you’re working on it. Every time you re-draw it the whole process becomes more and more refined. It’s not about doodling; it’s about reclaiming the power of the pencil and developing the streamlined thinking processes of cartoonists to realize an idea with instant impact.

Putting form to an idea can feel like being in free-fall — without boundaries it can be tough to make the first move. We introduced the idea of building a personalized visual vocabulary, allowing the illustration to inhabit its own world, and the importance of a sense of humour - because Scriberia loves being playful with serious ideas.

During the workshop austere geometry and precise architect’s corners gave way to wiggly birds, jazz-hands representations of the Queen, a menacing nail file and a fluffy sheep with googly eyes. The wild variety of pictures yielded a series of stories waiting to be unfolded and examined at length. It didn’t matter that the pictures weren’t all beautiful, but what they shared was the basic ability to make a thought visible, to tell a story, invite us to explore further.

So we drew as much as we were able: we drew in sketchbooks, on Post-it notes, we drew with Sharpies and ordinary pencils—anything to get the ideas out of our heads and on to paper. A couple of Scriberia scribes were on hand to offer suggestions and give advice — turn the image this way, lengthen that line, change your point of view — and as the afternoon drew to a close the ideas came into sharper focus. In the hours of thinking with our pencils, over the hundreds of drawings and concepts explored, one theme remained constant: the special alchemy of pen and paper to transform an idea into a plan and then, who knows? Maybe even into a building. 

Photographs by Morley von Sternberg