The prim is mightier than the pen: The emergence of living sketchbooks

I had a professor in architecture school who taught a ‘Drawing in Architecture’ class, and talked a lot about the importance of sketching.  The basis of his argument was that the process of sketching an architectural form results in the shortest possible conduit from what the eye sees, through the brain, into your hand, onto the paper and back.  The argument follows that this connection is especially important while designing, given that your ideas can be transferred directly to paper without any abstraction impeding its flow.

I’m sure this concept of hand/eye connection has been around for centuries, but it was an especially hot topic during my college years, which happened to land directly in the middle of the tension zone between hand-drafting and the newly emerging world of CAD.  When I was a freshman at SARUP, there were maybe 6 macs in a makeshift lab, used mainly by urban planning students who got to play ‘Sim City’ as part of their curriculum (slackers! ;-)).  By the time I graduated, there were three large dedicated computer labs with hundreds of computers (and 2 new plotters that only the PhD students could figure out how to use…).   I remember some pretty rowdy debates around this time, where professors and students alike battled over the merits of CAD drafting versus hand-drawing.

Here’s my point.  The debate settled around a middle ground; CAD was acceptable for generating final presentations, and for drafting blueprints, but should never be used for design.  The reason being, the interface was too much of an abstraction, and the hand/eye connection was too disjointed.  You had to build in abstract 2D views, and then change viewports, create a camera, and take a look at how that idea turned out.  CAD design resulted in an added barrier between your hand and your eye. For the most part, this hasn’t changed.  Even in professional design software, and even if you’re an expert user, it really isn’t as free-flowing as sketching.  Most architects I know still hand-sketch ideas first, then use computers for more refined design development, when dimensional accuracy becomes more important.  Those models then carry on into illustrations and blueprints.

I was chatting with KK Jewell (Kirsten Kiser) from, who recently opened a new gallery on Architect David Denton’s (DB Baily in SL) new ”Locus’ sim (more on DB’s project in a later post).  KK’s current exhibit, called ‘4 Architects, 4 Artistic Thoughts’ juxtaposes the process of real life conceptual design by Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava with the same design phase Second Life by myself and Scope Cleaver (though I have argued that I’m nowhere near qualified to hold such a place in the exhibit!).  You have to see the exhibit for yourself (here’s a SLurl), but what I find most interesting is the implied comparison of where and when technology fits into the design process in each camp.  Even though the built work of both Gehry and Calatrava require highly complex and cutting edge use of technology (Gehry even started a company toward this end, Gehry Technologies), they themselves prefer to work with hand-drawn sketches to start with.  A quotation in the gallery from Christopher Knight, an Art Critic for the Los Angeles Times reads:

“Drawing is the medium most capable of closely recording the evolution of artistic thought – from brain to hand to pencil to paper and back to brain.”

A familiar and appropriate quote in this context, I think.

The other element of sketching is the social side of it.  A popular technique in architecture schools is to have students sketch ideas, then have everyone lay their sketchbooks open on a table in the center of the studio.  Students then walk slowly around the table reviewing and critiquing each other’s sketches.  As such, even programs like SketchUp that might enable a more ‘sketch-like’ modeling interface can’t really duplicate this social element of hand-drawn sketching.  SketchUp is lonely.

I was recently chatting with my friend JudyArx Scribe, who teaches architecture at the University of Auckland.  She is just getting started with some very exciting new uses of Second Life in her curriculum, and part of the way she introduces Second Life to her students is by describing it as a ‘living sketchbook.’  As students are sketching ideas, they can all be immersed in the same virtual space and can easily see the progress of the entire class at a glance.  They can wander around the emerging prim-sketches, providing their feedback, and soliciting input from others.  Instead of walking desk to desk looking over the shoulder of students busily sketching on trace or in sketchbooks, the entire class is all working together inside the same place.  Not only can the course instructor see everyone’s progress developing in realtime, but in theory, any professor or visiting critic from anywhere in the world could log in at any time to review their progress.

Then there are prims.  I used to sketch everything with pen or pencil and paper, but I now find myself logging into Second Life or my new Visibuild sim when I’m trying to translate a design idea from my imagination into ‘reality’.. (you might say it isn’t real, but is a sketch any more real?)   I know there are some who would claim they can just as easily sketch in 3DS or CAD, but if you watch that process, and watch how they work, you will see that the extra step between your brain and the 3D ‘sketch’ remains evident.  Look up any YouTube tutorial and see the process experts use to model in any of these apps, and you’ll see what I mean.

Primitive modeling keeps you in 3D throughout the design process, showing the results of your actions in realtime as you draw.  There is no more of a disconnect between holding a button down on my mouse and stretching a prim than there is holding my pencil to a paper and dragging it across the surface.  But there is added value with prims.  I can much more easily test textures and colors, and copy an idea to test a new direction – similar to using layers of trace paper, but without having to re-draw everything each time you trace.  That’s just the beginning.

I also place a lot of credence in the benefits of using avatars.  Walking through a space with an avatar gets so much closer to the way we actually experience architecture in real life.  There is a kind of spontaneity and magic to the experience that static illustration just can’t replicate.  It has always seemed strange to me when architects describe how they think people will flow through their buildings, and how they believe the space will be experienced.  They employ all manner of flowery and descriptive language, but why not actually let people walk through the space, and test how well that carefully crafted architectural choreography of yours will actually work?  Nothing can beat the experience of guiding a group of brutally honest avatars through a design idea you just built, and hearing what they think.  You might even test new ideas on the fly.  This wall is too tall?  Let me shorten it..  there, much better.  This space is too big?  Let me make it smaller.. nope too small… ok how about now.  Perfect.  This is simply a better way to learn architecture, and test ideas than any other method available.

We all know how important it is for architects and professional designers to be able to import their professionally-built models, and I’m sincerely glad realxtend and Visibuild have taken that bull by the horns.  But there is still something incredibly rich and important about modeling with primitive objects that I hope we never lose.  Of course, I’ll never stop sketching by hand, but its more recreational now, and much more about the nostalgia of the technique than anything else.   If I’m serious about designing something, and sharing it with others, I would sooner rez a prim than pick up a pencil.  The benefits outweigh the limitations 10 to 1.

Is your sketchbook alive?


10 Comments so far
Leave a comment

It’s good to read an article about Second Life that does not deal with the ususal denegation based on ignorance. Thank you! I made just the same experiences, gaining an interest in architecture that I didn’t have before. I am a professional graphics designer, not an architect, but I enjoy building a lot. It helps me understand the three-dimensional world, on which the two-dimensional is based on. Also it simply gives me creative kicks.

Comment by Moni Duettmann

Is your sketchbook alive?

but does your sketchbook also have a TOS that may erase your sketches if deemed “wrong” by the service provider.

Does your sketchbook cost 1000 and 300 a month to upkeep per page:)

BTW– you might want to check “Can you sketch on a Computer” an articlei wrote for ID in 90 something.

But then tools were tools, and 3d software companies couldnt erase your work after the fact by your agreement.;)

Comment by cube

@cube Anyone who doesn’t like Second Life’s TOS can always use opensim, and you sure don’t need a whole virtual simulator to do sketch-work. A free sandbox or a small rental will work just as well.

Comment by keystonesl

Open sim is not “free” either. and its not an issue of “free”, its an issue of “ownership” and thus control of ones efforts.

Ive sketched in 3d online for a decade plus, the issue of ownership was never an issue untill the greed myth failure of services like SL and Lively- too bad for any sketches if “allowed” there;)… or the myriad of other “virtual worlds” that will fail as the vc money dries up in the next 8 months..

The balance of ownership that all creative buisnesses required for their clients or products created for sale has been systematically lost on a 20 year march.

as to sketching on a computer….

I asked the question in a article 15+ years ago to a profession truly getting the tools in mass for he first time. You seem to have after a few years of SL:)decided the answer is YES, sketching on a computer in 3d IS better 10 to 1.

15 years plus, i can suggest from my POV the benefits to the design profession as a buisness as well as a disipline are that its NOT.

True sketching for design has been best for thinking. when thinking is now reduced for “sharing” and “speed of edit” then all of what humans do/did best..THINK. is lost and we might as well not be human, but drafting machines or iphones chattering.

I offer these thoughts freely…lol for what its worth, which is now im told not much…

Comment by cube3

some more thoughts , this time by comp sci research geeks..:)

Comment by cube3

I have an opensim running on my own machine, where I can virtually sketch to my heart’s delight – for free, and as secure/private or as open/public as I want it to be. I’m not saying ‘free’ is the best way to use a virtual environment… I recommend renting some land (on Architecture Island of course! 😉 or buying a sim in opensim. My point is only that it certainly doesn’t have to cost $1000 month to buy and $300/month, as you described in your first comment.

I also own my content. I can export it from opensim, open it in 3DStudio, add some lights, e-mail it to someone, send it to a 3D printing service.. whatever I want. If I didn’t break the prim limits, I can even import it into Second Life. I own it.

Prims are great for ‘thinking’ too… ‘sharing’ and ‘speed of editing’ are just added bonus that make only add more value.

Comment by keystonesl

You dont control your contents value on architeture island, read the TOS of SL. It can be deleted overnight by Linden Labs with no reason given. And your renters only further distanced to their work product by you, the renter:)

This is a core issue greater than any “prim revolution” in my opinion to a larger profession of designers and builders.

When you flippantly say “Breaking prim limits”, you defy the balance of why one should sketch that has been altered by the economics of the media and those who control and own it.

I suggest any can read the links offered or find the suggested articles from the past as to the value or not of “prim” skectching as a design and as a business process. I recommend all interested ask questions, not just read answers.

The web today has too many answers.

Comment by cube3

Primitive modeling + virtual environment = great way to sketch.

Comment by keystonesl

I dedicated the prim an exhibition in the Shermerville Arts and Science Club, SASC. Please take a look!

Comment by Moni Duettmann

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