Sketching for Civil and Structural Engineers

This paper was originally written for publication by Paul McCombie and Nick Winn. After wasting time with two academic journals, we made the decision that direct publication on a free-to-view web site is a much more effective way of making the findings available to all those who might be interested. We would encourage everyone else to do likewise! If you want to get really good at drawing, then the Drawing Gym is hard to beat (, but we think that most people can develop basic skills very quickly. The key thing is finding the confidence to use them.


Civil and structural engineers need to be able to sketch. The benefits of sketching can be seen throughout the design process, yet civil engineering graduates are ill-equipped and lacking in confidence to use it. We examine why this is the case and propose widely accessible measures to tackle the problems. Practitioners were consulted on a range of topics, including the purposes of sketching, before tuition methods were tested by undergraduate students in a series of group workshops. Very quick, collaborative sketching emerged as the most important because it supports immediate communication, but social aspects can be challenging. By combining practical exercises in basic sketching methods and techniques, such as line weights and perspective, with peer learning and assessment, the confidence and ability of undergraduate students improved. In particular, rapid sketching exercises promoted purpose (communication) over perfection, the unattainability of the latter being a common cause for low confidence.

1. Introduction

Civil and structural engineers conceive and develop ideas that are about things in three-dimensional space. Formal drawings and three-dimensional digital representations are used to communicate these ideas, but they are too slow and too detailed for the conception, development and discussion of ideas. Engineers need to work with each other, with other professionals, with clients, and with the ‘general public’, in conversations and discussions in which rapid sketches become an essential means of communication.

The sketch is a drawing done quickly, but in engineering it has come to mean any drawing which is not a formal technical drawing. A glance through books and web sites aimed at teaching engineers to ‘sketch’, and at ‘sketching’ competitions, shows attractive representations of three-dimensional objects using a range of techniques, often with colour. The drawings represented to both students and professionals as good sketches are close to skilful works of art, often produced slowly and laboriously. They are also usually the work of one individual, furthering the confusion between a ‘piece of work’ and a ‘work of art’.

In contrast, sketching as part of design is a group activity, with most members of a group contributing to a sketch which may include many overlays on tracing paper, with no record of who did what. A sketch as a part of a conversation may only make sense to those engaged in the conversation. Even an experienced designer might not deduce the process from the final result, for each individual only adds the marks and lines that are needed to support what they are saying. Those marks might only make sense in their original context.  The sketches left after a highly productive discussion often just look a mess, but they have done their job.

There is a common perception, certainly among structural engineers, that engineers are not as good at sketching as they should be; for example, “It’s very rare that you can find an engineer who can sketch. The people that are coming out of university having studied engineering don’t sketch.” (Chris Wise, Expedition Workshed, 2013). This has led to the promotion of ‘sketching’ competitions, in which carefully prepared drawings compete as if they were works of art.

The overall aim of this work was therefore to establish appropriate ways to teach sketching to engineers, whether in education or in practice. The objectives to meet this aim were:

  1. to determine what methods and resources might be used to develop the skills that are needed in industry;
  2. to consult with practicing engineers regarding the appropriateness of these resources, the perceived needs, and the obstacles preventing those needs from being met;
  3. to test and develop these ideas with undergraduate students.

2 Literature review

2.1 Hand vs computer

A first consideration for many is the relationship between manual and computerised processes. Goel (1995) showed that hand sketching is more effective than computer drawing in the early stages of design, as it is fluid and ambiguous, promoting thinking, whereas computer tools tended to force premature crystallisation of ideas. This is probably still true. Johnson et al (2008) reviewed the problem of providing sketch-based computing tools, as opposed to conventional tools which tend to treat design as a simple linear process. Even using ‘Sketchup’ tends to produce design fixation, a problem discussed by, among others, Robertson and Radcliffe (2009).

Won (2001) examined cognitive behaviours, concluding that computer sketchers spent much more time analysing details than hand sketchers; hand sketching is quicker and more productive for the bigger decisions. Trevor Flynn (n.d.a) has seen the negative impact that computer-dependency can have on engineers’ ability to visualise ideas – they do not perform well when technology is not available. Flynn seeks to reverse this through ‘Drawing at Work’ and the UCL Drawing Gym – though this does not explicitly cover quick sketching.

Figure 1. An example of how quick sketches can be used in the formation of ideas (after Wise, 2013).

2.2 Sketching as a tool for thinking/design development

Individual sketching aids thinking and problem solving (Suwa & Tversky, 1997; Ferguson, 1992). It is used as a tool to visualise mental ideas and then iterate them (Slade, p.14, 2016). Goel (1995) defines lateral transformations, involving a series of different yet related images, and vertical transformations, exploring one image in more detail. In hand sketching, lateral transformations dominate – lots of ideas are formed rapidly, and they converge on one well-considered concept. This is exemplified by Wise (2013) of Expedition; quick, rough (ambiguous) sketches such as those in Figure 1 test different structure types for the same project, then one is taken and explored in more detail. Arnheim (1969) writes of the power of sketching as a link to the subconscious mind, even when not representing something physical.

2.3 Sketching as a communication tool

Sketching is a means of communicating design ideas to others, whether clients, architects, colleagues, or other stakeholders (Ferguson, 1992) – it produces a physical thing for others to see (Hunt, 2003). A model would achieve the same, but not so easily or quickly. The roughest sketch can explain visual ideas much more quickly than words alone, but words and sketching combine in group discussions to produce “conversational drawing” (Slade, 2016). Sketching becomes a natural extension of spoken language, used without hesitation. Foster (1993) argues that sometimes the success of a project relies on this ability to sketch ad hoc, in front of others, giving the sketcher an authority within the design team (Scoones, n.d.). It instils confidence in the architect/client to see a civil engineer’s technical knowledge presented coherently and immediately; a civil engineer who can achieve this is presumed to have a depth of understanding of the problem, and of their proposed solution. This requires sound sketching ability, engineering competence, and social skills, acquired through substantial experience – implying that development of these skills should start early, at university.

Figure 2 Hand sketches can be drawn to scale for information or construction (Boote, 2012). (

2.4 Sketches as formal documents

Civil engineers often produce carefully drawn neat sketches such as that in Figure 2. Drawn to scale, they present clear information to architects or contractors for information and even construction (Ferguson, 1992), a midpoint between the rougher hand sketch and computer technical drawing. These are the type of sketches most often seen in sketching competitions, such as run by the Engineering Club and IStructE. This is the kind of sketching taught by Flynn and the UCL Drawing Gym, where clear communication is emphasised – immensely valuable, but this is drawing rather than sketching.

2.5 Sketching in engineering education

Danos, Barr, Gorska and Norman (2014) found that sketching skills are not usually covered in undergraduate engineering curricula across the world, leading to poor understanding and proficiency. Sorby and Baartmans (2000) introduced a successful course at Michigan Technological University, teaching spatial visualisation skills through lectures, practical sessions and paper/computer drawing tasks. Sketching has been part of design project work in many places, and various measures have been taken to support the development of the necessary skills in a formal way (this was the origin of the UCL Drawing Gym), but nothing has been found that addresses the specific skills of rapid sketching as communication for engineering designers.

2.5.1 Resources

Instead, students may access books and online information and tutorials in order to gain skill and confidence in sketching. A survey carried out for an undergraduate research project (Baker-Munton, 2017) suggests this is not happening, as a significant portion of civil engineering professionals (49% of 80) described themselves as “relatively”, “not very” or “not at all” confident. This could be due to lack of awareness of resources, lack of motivation or confidence to use them, or ineffectiveness of the resources.

There are very few civil engineering-specific books or websites that teach sketching: Slade’s “Sketching for engineers and architects” (2016), the online Drawing Gym from Flynn/University College London (UCLDG) (n.d.) and Expedition Workshed’s online “Toolbox” (2018). The Engineering Club ( may be used as continuing professional development. Articles from publications such as the IStructE’s “The Structural Engineer” provide a small amount of advice and inspiration. Leggitt’s (2013) online blog provides useful information on the use of colour, digital sketching and the ‘overlay and trace’ method.

All these resources present high quality work which supports aspiration, but beginners need to realise that this quality is not essential. Figure 3 shows a drawing from a photograph using soft pencil on tracing paper, as guided by Slade (2016); this was quite slow, aiming towards art. Image (c) is a useful image, but took less than five minutes.

Figure 3 Sketches after the manner of Slade (2016). A) Photograph. B) Soft pencil, slow. C) Marker pen, fast (photograph and sketches by one of the authors).

The concept of ‘learning to see’ is the basis of research by Edwards (2001), an art teacher. Much like Flynn, Edwards believes that anyone can learn to draw; the critical aspect is learning how to perceive things in a way that allows them to be translated to paper. Though not applied in a civil engineering context, it seems to be very effective. Many student examples in Edwards’s “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” (2001) demonstrate undeniable improvement in ability. Though this takes a few days tuition, the methods could be applied using a civil engineering context.

Leggitt’s (2013) online resources are clear, and make excellent use of step-by-step photographs in the sketch production stages. These come in blog form, so they are not organised as a course, but they stimulate investigation and consideration of the purposes of the sketches. Of particular interest is his work on the overlay and trace method. The major lines which give the image its dimensionality are traced, as shown in Figure 4; using an appropriate selection of images gives an understanding of perspective drawing. The initial image provides context, always needed for civil and structural engineering. The technique is easily extended to multiple tracings, on multiple overlays, as ideas are experimented with and developed, reflecting the way in which sketches are used in the design process.

Figure 4 An example of the ‘overlay and trace’ sequence (Leggitt, 2013: ).

All these resources have value, and the student may need to spend significant time using a range of them in order to gain a rounded education in sketching, but they need to know which skills they actually need.

Confidence is important – strong motivation can overcome lack of confidence. Motivation in education usually rests on assessment, but students are also influenced by their peers, and by prominent professional engineers. To see sketching in the context of design, rather than art, could boost confidence – but art-like sketching competitions can reinforce the idea individuals are either ‘artists’ or  ‘scientists’, and cannot be both. A wider cultural change may be needed to improve confidence.

2.5.2 Kinaesthetic learning

Sketching is a kinaesthetic activity; one learns through using the body to produce a tangible object or result, in this case a sketch. Kinaesthetic learning comprises physical engagement with the subject, giving a deeper understanding of the themes and processes at work, and allowing memories to be retained through association with space or place (Dowling, 2012). It has been employed in teaching from nursery to university, and found to be effective across a broad range of subjects (Dowling, 2012). Books, such as those already mentioned, teach sketching through transmission of information, largely via text. On the other hand, the methods employed by Flynn (n.d.b), McRobie (pers.comm., 5/12/2017), and Leggitt (2013) ask the student to become immersed in the activity, and do not ‘teach’ the underlying theories. Instead, these are learnt as the student sketches. Teaching sketching must be centred on kinaesthetic processes, so more innovative resources, like the UCL Drawing Gym, are more successful than books.

3 Consultation with industry

These ideas were tested in discussion with engineers in a structural engineering design practice.  As they use tools such as sketching every day, they are well placed to provide a considered view of how sketching may be good or bad, and the problems engineers may face. It was expected that there would be a variety of learning experiences reported.

3.1 Methodology

Seven professional structural engineers and technicians with a range of experience from graduate engineers to director took part in an hour long discussion to test the following hypotheses:

a) Civil engineers need a spectrum of sketching skills;

b) Practice is essential to gaining skill in sketching;

c) The only way to gain an understanding of the relationship between sketching style and context is through experience;

d) The requirement to sketch in front of others is significant in deterring engineers from sketching;

e) The Expedition Workshed video series is effective, in at least providing inspiration and motivation for sketching.

f) The UCL Drawing Gym is effective in teaching finer drawing, but not in teaching/promoting rougher sketching.

A set of questions was compiled based on these hypotheses, notes were taken during the discussion, and a complete audio recording made for use afterwards.

3.2 Findings

The most fundamental conclusion was that the purpose of a sketch is to communicate information clearly – the methods used are largely irrelevant. The drawings exhibited in sketching competitions meet this aim, but most sketching in practice is quick and messy – and often more effective because of its speed. Because only the smarter drawings are seen outside their working context, those without relevant experience (students and graduates) are led to believe that quick everyday sketches are not good enough. No matter what type/style of sketch is being produced, the act of sketching was said to be beneficial, because it promotes thinking and creativity. This is consistent with the observations of Flynn (n.d.b), Slade (2016) and Wise (2013). Sketching would ideally be learnt in the context of a real or realistic project, with a clear purpose and context. The engineers were emphatic that some sketching tuition at the beginning of a civil engineering career would be beneficial. The majority had experience in hand technical drawing, some from university, and regarded much of the learning as transferable to sketching; however, advances in digital design are making these formal skills redundant.

One way to remedy this could be through exercises like those the UCL Drawing Gym provides. Prior to the discussion, it was felt this resource was limited in its benefits, being focused only on neater sketching and often with the use of drawing aids. However, the engineers reiterated that the most important thing is to end up with a sketch that conveys something clearly; the methods and tools used do not matter, so rulers, set squares, CAD/photos and tracing paper, etc. as used by the UCLDG and Slade (2016), are all acceptable. Furthermore, the technical skills the UCLDG provides will benefit both technical sketching and quick sketching.

The engineers were clear that sketching in meetings is different to sketching alone and poses additional challenges, confidence being the first. Partly this was down to wanting to get things right, but comparison with the skills of architects was also a factor. However, there was an attitude of just getting on with it, as no-one had ever been criticised for a sketch that was not very good. Their comments indicated a confidence ‘hurdle’ to jump at some point in one’s career, beyond which one is more able to sketch freely. Can or should there be an intervention to help engineers over that hurdle? Relevant work has been done on mathematics anxiety, associated with fear of public embarrassment, leading to poor performance (Ashcraft, 2002; Quan-Lorey, 2017). It can lead to dislike of mathematics (Maloney et al., 2013), deterring students from practising and improving, resulting in still greater anxiety. Interventions, such as simply writing down feelings, reduce the symptoms and improve performance (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). This suggests that similar interventions (probably less obviously ‘therapy’) could help sketching confidence, even if the ‘sufferer’ is not fully aware of their resulting inhibitions.

The importance of ‘conversational drawing’ was emphasised, but recognised as a challenge. The physical and social nature of the skills and mindset required run counter to conventional ‘teaching, learning and assessment’ approaches in universities. The consultation has confirmed that civil engineers need a new form of guidance in sketching, as current teaching/learning practice is inadequate or non-existent.

4 Discussion: Proposed solutions to the issues

4.1 Deciding what technical skills are essential

The basic technical skills of formal drawing are easily taught: line weights, shading, pen types, perspective, and composition, among others. Perspective is of particular interest, as once understood it is an essential aid to representing three-dimensional objects, a fundamental goal of engineering sketching. Teaching drawing as art often includes life drawing, and this usually includes rapid sketching. McRobie, of Cambridge University Engineering Department, teaches life drawing, at least in part to broaden the students’ horizons, and it has been used by engineering practices from time to time. This addresses fundamental processes at work in sketching, since the human form is both familiar and yet complex and difficult to translate to paper. Edwards (2001) understands this and suggests that one must understand the subject without being distracted by what it ‘should’ look like, by concentrating on the basic lines and shapes it is made up of, rather than a complete object. She provides exercises such as drawing upside down and on a plastic window to overcome this. Although life drawing appears to have benefits for engineers, the level of expertise required to teach it well makes it impractical as a core element of teaching engineering sketching in a university department or in the workplace.

4.2 Establishing the best way to educate

An educational resource could be in the form of a book, a short guide, worksheets, online videos, tutorials, lectures or a mixture of these. Conversations so far with professionals and students suggests that a thick, text-heavy book, which one learns from in relative isolation, is off-putting. On the other hand, kinaesthetic, physical tuition is more engaging. A resource must be appealing to engineers and enjoyable, to motivate use and eventual self-learning. Existing resources contain useful content, in particular the UCL Drawing Gym worksheets and Leggitt’s (2013) ‘overlay and trace’ method; the former are concise and easy to follow. Using these materials could increase confidence, due to an increase in ability, or simply through a recognition of existing skills.

Leopold, Gorska and Sorby (2001) provide some insight into how a tutorial or lecture series might work in practice. By comparing their three spatial visualisation university units, they found that the specific content had little impact on the students’ gains in ability, whether focused on traditional technical drawing projection methods or hand sketching. However, the unit which focused on hand sketching was taught via practical tutorials in a shorter time than the other two units, which were lecture-dominated, yet gave similar gains in ability; this is consistent with Dowling’s (2012) findings on kinaesthetic learning. They also found that when students worked in smaller groups and spent more time practising (measured through homework submissions), they experienced greater gains in spatial visualisation ability. Learning in groups would begin to address the social challenges faced by engineers (Momentum, pers.comm., 7/12/17), when sketching in meetings. The requirement to submit work overcomes the problem of student self-motivation, but assessment in sketching could affect the personal and enjoyable aspects of sketching which give it an ‘extra-curricular’ feel, and provide a deeper motivation than is normal in assessment-centred education. On the other hand, not all students might find sketching enjoyable; the greater challenge is to help those who don’t, so some degree of compulsion is probably necessary.

Other than lectures and tutorials, observing and sketching real structures has been suggested as a useful way of improving sketching ability (Momentum, pers. comm., 7/12/17). Leopold, Gorska and Sorby (2001) also describe the benefit of working with ‘real-life’ drawings and pictorial sketching, which probably consolidates theoretical learning. It is much easier to start sketching objects from memory or imagination if one has looked carefully at a range of real structures.

4.3 Important considerations for a resource

Examples give students an idea of what to aim for, but the kind of example that can stand on its own could be misleading, given that sketches in practice are understood in their conversational context. Nevertheless, examples are needed to support the careful individual practice that develops the skills for group working. A resource or teaching method must appeal to engineers or students with a range of existing abilities and requirements. Accessibility, ease of use, visual and intellectual appeal, and relation to the real world are all important. Any resource must recognise that there are different ways to produce sketches, and to develop the skills. It is always tempting in an academic environment to present clearly-defined processes that just have to be ‘learned’ and ‘assessed’ (indeed, this is what weaker students want), rather than to do the true job of education, to lead out and develop abilities in a context where there is never just one right answer, or right way of doing things. A resource must help a student to explore a range of ways of working, and to experiment to develop their own ways.

4.4 What are the key criteria to be met?

The biggest problem for engineers is finding the confidence to sketch quickly in front of others. The production of neat sketches using aids is less critical, since these can be produced with more time and without the social pressure of meetings. One could even use a computer.

It is difficult to sketch quickly, so it makes sense to use a structured teaching approach. This could take the form of rapid sketching exercises, which would simulate the time pressure that comes with professional meetings. Rapid drawing or painting tasks are common in artistic instruction, particularly in life drawing. The time pressure forces the student to commit to their lines first or second time, as there is no chance to re-draw anything to ‘get it right’. If students could realise that the sketches they can produce in just a few minutes are effective at communicating an idea, their confidence may be improved. Furthermore, the time restriction acts as an “excuse” to produce a messier, less perfect sketch – anyone looking at their sketch knows they had little time to do it.

Crucially, engineering sketches don’t have to look good, or stylish, or arty; it may even be better if they are as plain and economical as possible. The sketch is explained as it is drawn, reducing the need for clarity or annotation. Therefore students and young engineers don’t need exceptional sketching skill; the skills they already have may go a long way to meeting their needs. The most important factor could be a lack of confidence.

4.5 Summary

Simple sketches are good sketches, so only the basic skills need to be taught – perspective sketching, and an appreciation of line weights. Observation of existing structures provides a mental ‘bank’ of precedent details, and the link to reality consolidates the theory. Hands-on tutorials in small groups are more effective than lectures, and the social demands of sketching with others would help prepare students for real meeting situations. Based on these conclusions, three hypotheses were presented for investigation:

1. Learning sketching theory and applying it to ‘real’ situations will consolidate the learning.

2. The theory is best learnt through structured, practical exercises as opposed to text-heavy books or websites.

3. Time-constrained sketching in a group setting will improve confidence.

5 Testing the hypotheses: A student focus group

A student focus group was used to investigate these hypotheses, run as six weekly workshops in February and March 2018. The workshops acted as a pilot learning programme, aiming to improve technical sketching abilities and confidence; ideas would be tested and developed, informed by feedback from the participants.

Six first year students out of a year of over 100 volunteered, three male and three female, motivated by a desire to gain in ability and confidence. A short questionnaire showed that the students had low confidence in sketching, surprisingly even if they had studied art at GCSE or A-Level. Art students at school have the time and opportunity to test and perfect ideas and methods to achieve good results – quite unlike rapid sketching in design discussions.

5.1 Control testing (week 1) and preparatory discussion

The group was asked to spend up to one hour producing sketches of furniture – firstly an object they could see (observational sketching), then imaginary variations of that object, all on one A3 sheet. A range of abilities and styles were shown (Figure 5), some were technically excellent. There was a mix of 2D, 3D and perspective sketching, in both pen and pencil. Given this evidence of good technical skills, significant improvements were not expected, and the first exercise would be an assessment of the learning resources, rather than a strict test of them.

Figure 5 Examples of the focus group’s control sketches

It was expected that the focus group would not be representative of the full cohort of students. To test this, 93 first year civil engineering undergraduates (including the focus group of six) were asked to produce sketches of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in 5 minutes. They were given example images to work from. The results were wide ranging in their technical competency, as shown by the examples in Figure 6, showing that many students do not have basic skills.

Figure 6 Examples of students’ 5-minute sketches of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and its components.

The focus group was very reluctant to pick out their own sketches and show them to the rest of the group, suggesting either modesty or lack of confidence. A fourth hypothesis was therefore devised: that reviewing the work of their peers would boost their confidence, by normalising the idea that sketches which look ‘bad’, messy or uncontrolled could still communicate an idea effectively. Many of the five-minute control sketches fell into this category.

The focus group was then asked a series of questions to gain insight into how they felt about their ability and confidence. The students were clear that they needed to gain technical skill and confidence. Two students sought a “toolbox” of skills; one wanted “to be able to work more closely” with architects and clients through his sketching, another to be able to use “sketching for communication”. On the surface, the students understood the purposes of sketching and the benefits it can bring. They felt their main weaknesses were slow speed and perfectionism.

The group had good ideas on how to improve their sketching; lots of practice, timed sketching and exploring different techniques were suggested. However, there was little immediate motivation to practice because sketching is not assessed at university. This confirms the finding of Leopold, Gorska and Sorby (2001), regarding the importance of assessment.

The students recognised some of the technical skills, such as line weights and three dimensional sketching, but did not mention speed, the ability to explain a sketch, or clarity and effectiveness versus visual appeal. They assumed that their own skills would compare poorly; confidence was the major barrier to sketching success for these students. The discussion was likely to have already reduced their anxieties about the subject, given the findings of Ramirez and Beilock (2011) regarding successful interventions for mathematics anxiety. By having such conversations, difficulties with sketching were brought into the open and thus ‘normalised’, as they realised that others have the same inhibitions.

5.2 Week 2 – skills

The main workshops were typically a mixture of practical tasks and discussions, with reflection enabling the program to develop as it went. The students were asked to learn about line weights and three-dimensional oblique sketching, three using a set of UCL Drawing Gym worksheets, the other three using resources they could find online or in two generic textbooks on drawing. Each group had the same amount of time.

It was immediately clear that the first group enjoyed using the UCL Drawing Gym worksheets. They concentrated well and did not stop sketching until the end of the session. When asked what their first impressions of the worksheets were, they described the repetitiveness and continuity as therapeutic. They appreciated the gradual steps in difficulty and understood the clear objectives.

The other group had to find their own resources, which proved challenging and demoralising, even though the sketching was enjoyable. It was “hit and miss” as to whether a website would be effective, and sometimes the objectives of exercises were unclear. It is easy to see that students would not try for long if they did not even know what they were aiming for without someone to tell them.

Even if the skills learnt from these different methods are comparable, it is clear that the research approach is less efficient and less enjoyable. The worksheets have the practical advantage of being entirely self-explanatory and self-directing; needing no tutor is a significant benefit. However, this resource is limited to technical skills tuition, which needs to be used with other exercises.

5.3 Week 3 – overlay and trace

The students were given an ‘overlay and trace’ exercise on sketching in perspective. This was conducted individually prior to the meeting, when the students discussed their work. They were asked to peer-review as far as possible, rather than seek feedback from the researcher. The students quickly picked up the idea behind the tracing exercise. Having been shown one example, they needed next to no guidance on how to find the critical lines to the vanishing points. Most of them then sketched their own shapes in perspective within the same image, from their minds’ eyes, using the vanishing points they created as guides – a critical aspect of sketching in a design conversation (Figure 7).

Figure 7 Some of the students’ traced sketches. Each started by finding the image’s vanishing point with a brightly-coloured pen to allow straightforward development of the image.

This immersive task was engaging and enjoyable for them, more so than the previous week’s exercises, which one student described as slightly “mind numbing”. The link to reality through the incorporation of photographs led straight to realistic three-dimensional representations. The historic techniques of oblique or isometric sketching, which used to be part of technical drawing, are no longer necessary; they were always unhelpful, because they looked distorted. The group’s confidence improved.

5.4 Week 4 – individual design

The students carried out simple design exercises which required them to apply the skills they had learned so far to realistic situations. They were asked to design outdoor benches, in 10 minutes, then bus shelters in 15 minutes, working individually. They were asked to explore a range of options; this lateral thinking encouraged them to keep the sketches flowing and interesting, to avoid becoming stuck.

The limited time forced the students to work faster and move quickly between ideas, resulting in a clear shift in attitude – they overcame perfectionism, producing simple sketches of almost the same quality as in the first exercise, but in a fraction of the time. They realised that these less-than-perfect, non-detailed sketches are okay, as hypothesised; they preferred their quick design sketches over their control sketches, as the short time ‘excused’ imperfect results. This was an even greater change in attitudes than predicted. The exercise boosted confidence, under realistic time pressures, and put them at ease with their more natural and fluent abilities. It also showed the value of even basic precedent images in design tasks, both as inspiration for ideas, and as a guide for shape and proportion.

5.5 Week 5/6 – group design

Figure 8 The students chose to sketch separately during the first group design exercise.The whole group came together to produce outline designs for a new covered marketplace in a city centre, in thirty minutes. Tracing paper and physical images of the site were provided, as well as precedent images.  However, the students worked individually, never on the same sheet, as shown in Figure 8 – they had no concept of how to use sketching collaboratively, despite their comments in the pre-study discussion. There was little discussion, apart from some comparing ideas. One student said he was “relieved” when told he would not be expected to always sketch something in perspective in meeting situations. This showed a lack of understanding of how quick communication sketching works in practice, which could have been contributing to low confidence and high expectations of themselves and their peers. They had been asked to briefly present their idea at the end of the task and their approach was to select one person’s sketch which they all liked (Figure 9).

Figure 9 The group’s final market cover design.

In discussion afterwards, the students focused on how the group aspect positively affected their generation of ideas.  When asked individually to explain the structure they were proposing everyone had a slightly different idea of what form it would take. For example, one student, when asked to explain her interpretation of the chosen design (which was not her own), was unable to describe it verbally; on prompting, she produced the sketch in Figure 10 in just a few seconds. Some of the group disagreed with her interpretation of the design

Figure 10 This basic 20 second sketch was ample for communicating one student’s ideas about the roof shape.

With some prompting from the interviewer, the group came to realise two things they could have done better, upon seeing this sketch:

1. They should have produced more than just one sketch of the idea in order to communicate its form clearly; and

2. Everyone should have used sketches to put across their thoughts throughout the exercise, as verbal descriptions alone were not clear enough for effective communication.

The contrast between these sketches showed the group that sketching, particularly in a group, is about more than just producing nice-looking 3D sketches; the basic 20 second sketch added significantly to the information communicated.

This group exercise required simultaneous sketching and explaining. It was clear that, whilst their sketches were technically good, they had no concept of how to use sketching collaboratively as a means of instant communication. Therefore, unlike in previous exercises which were largely self-explanatory, the students needed verbal feedback from the interviewer to realise their mistakes.

Given the mixed outcome of this first design task, a second group design task was undertaken the following week to observe any changes in the students’ approach. It asked the students to consider options for improving safety at a nearby road junction. The time limit was reduced to 20 minutes to stimulate faster sketching. Images and a map of the site were provided. The students utilised their sketching far more effectively than in the previous week. They all sketched on a single sheet at once, displaying their ideas for all to see. There was near constant discussion and sketching for the whole 20 minute session. They even used the single sheet more generally as a way to put context to their ideas, pointing and gesturing to areas they were talking about, in stark contrast to the previous design exercise. In the final few minutes of the task, the group were asked to produce a neat sketch of their proposal. Without having been told to, all five sketched together on a single A3 sheet, shown in Figure 11. This was efficient and worked well because everyone knew what the whole proposal consisted of, so they could sketch their part in full knowledge of its wider context.

Figure 11 The focus group’s final proposal for the junction, with changes in yellow and the anticipated route of pedestrians in blue.

The students showed here that they can work collaboratively through sketching. They learnt how to do this across just two very short design exercises; the first being a steep learning curve, while the second put that learning into practice and consolidated it. The students were proud to be able to present their design in a simple, clear way. They enjoyed sketching together and appreciated the benefits it brought. The specific task lent itself to this collaborative working, and it might have been slightly harder to achieve the same level of cooperation on a task like the market cover design – nonetheless, it made them aware of what can be achieved.

They said that had they known they would produce a neater final sketch at the end, they would have been more confident to sketch messily on the first sheet. They had little concept of trying and failing, crossing out, starting again etc. – they were a bit too precious with their sketches. In this task they were not allowed to use a rubber, to prevent them trying to achieve a perfect presentation.

5.6 Week 6 – Peer review

In the final workshop the students were shown their peers’ five-minute sketches, and they were discussed. They observed that there was a wide range of abilities, approaches and interpretations of the task. The group felt the bridge was represented to varying degrees of accuracy, but found it difficult to accept that a messy sketch can still effectively portray an idea. This was similar to their opinions of their own furniture sketches, but contrary to the findings from the individual design tasks, where the imaginary sketches could not be judged for accuracy because there was no ‘right’ answer. The attitude the students showed is not only unhelpful for their own self-esteem, but for that of others, too, if they cannot accept that sketches are never perfect. The group was then asked to compare their own five- minute sketches to the rest, in an attempt to make them think about their views. They understood that none of the sketching methods displayed were intrinsically “better” or “worse”, just different. They realised that their initial desire for a well-defined ‘toolbox’ of skills was not entirely appropriate: it does not matter that individuals have different styles, and strengths and weaknesses. Even so, the sketchers with less developed skills did not want to pick out their own work in front of the others.

Throughout the six week programme the students found it easy to praise their peers’ work, but said it was far harder to give constructive feedback. They explained this was because they didn’t feel they were good enough themselves to be criticising someone else’s work. Conversely, they welcomed constructive or even negative comments about their own work – they realised the inconsistency. They were probably also concerned not to sound too harsh, so hurting or offending, as found by Willey and Gardner (2010), but peer assessment is certainly beneficial. Peer review of the live process of combining discussion and sketching is more likely to focus on the positive; just looking at sketches afterwards gives only limited clues about what had happened, and might even mislead, for the ‘best’ sketches might come from individual students, who were not collaborating at all.

5.7 Closing comments

Discussions took place in every session, and had an important positive impact. Not only did this result in the personal growth of the students through peer-reviewing, but it made sketching ‘normal’, as the students talked openly about their feelings towards various aspects of sketching practice; at the start of the process, it had seemed a ‘taboo’ subject.

At the end of the final session, the group was asked what advice they would give to other students who were struggling with sketching, as they had been six weeks earlier: “It’s not about how nice it [the sketch] looks, it’s about how they can make it easier to show their ideas.”. This infers that the sketch has meaning only when it is shown to someone and discussed, debated and sketched over. “Nobody is judging you for the style of your sketching, as long as you can show an idea with it”. Thus everyone has their own unique sketching style, just like handwriting, and as the same hand-written words can look beautiful or untidy, so can sketches – yet still portray the same idea.

The group sessions increased the participants’ confidence, and perhaps their ability as well. They showed that both the UCL Drawing Gym and the overlay and trace method are enjoyable and engaging to use, particularly the latter. Giving priority to communication and clarity established the importance of quick, timed sketching exercises, and of collaborative sketching and learning. Students do not need extensive tuition in sketching, they need a small amount of instruction on some basic techniques, and a lot of exposure to sketching with others.

5 Proposals

The focus group of first year students was self-selected, rather than representative. They showed good existing ability, and were therefore not so much experimental subjects as co-investigators, applying their own knowledge, experience and insights to the testing and development of the research hypotheses. The result was a richer investigation than a simple experiment, and has led to the following ideas being developed on how sketching ability, and the confidence to use it, might be developed in an educational or work context.

Emphasis needs to be placed on speed, effectiveness, and lack of ownership. The last is key to efficient shared sketching. Sketching for engineering purposes needs to be taught in groups. A series of tasks beginning with geometrical shapes, then volumes, should be broken down into very short stages, taking only a few seconds each, the sketches being passed on after each stage so that everyone has contributed to each finished sketch. Pride in collective achievement then takes over from pride in or embarrassment about individual achievement. The requirement for speed becomes an excuse for imperfection, whilst the freedom associated with working quickly encourages the development of fluidity. Students should be encouraged to develop very simple ways of representing the human form in order to very quickly give a sense of scale to their sketches. Going from squares to cubes becomes an initial exploration of perspective, and together with representation of people, enables exploration of the effect of viewpoints. Students should be encouraged to use different means of forming lines – hard and soft pencils, thin and thick markers, in different colours. Experimentation with thicknesses of line and shading to emphasise depth should also be encouraged.

Initial learning about perspective can be developed using an ‘overlay and trace’ approach, involving identification of vanishing points. Images of buildings, structures, or anything else, may be used as a basis over which sketches may be traced. For engineering designers, these new sketches would most usefully be adaptations of or additions to what is shown in the photographs or drawings. Tracing is also the most efficient means of developing a facility for representing curved three-dimensional lines, and from then, volumes. These sketches are all based in the context of something that already exists.

At this stage the students may wish to do the traditional kind of sketching – to see if they can represent something real that is in front of them. Though this risks becoming art, rather than engineering sketching, the visual notebook is an important part of learning to observe, as well as refining and developing rapid sketching skill. The emphasis on speed must be maintained.

These proposals have been tested with a group of seventeen-year-old summer workshop students. After about twenty minutes the students were able to go outside and make sketches of their project site, and they went on to work together on large sheets, communicating their ideas to each other, and developing them together. A photograph of a group’s table the next day is shown in Figure 12. The students demonstrate an ability and confidence to carry out quick, rough sketches in a variety of styles as they discuss and develop their design ideas.

Figure 12 Work in progress by a group of seventeen year old summer school students.

6 Conclusion

Sketching can play an important part in all levels of civil engineering design. Not only is it a useful tool in thinking and visualisation, but more importantly it is a vehicle for the effective, immediate communication of ideas, which demands that sketches be fast, basic and clear. A consequence of this is that the sketches are rough, and may be ambiguous without verbal explanation. This is understood in good professional practice, but not by students. They require help in developing the necessary social and technical skills to become better at communicating through quick sketching. Confidence was the biggest barrier for both students and practitioners (particularly in meeting situations), even if they possessed sound technical skills. This can be attributed to how uncommon sketching is at university, and the lack of formal tuition. In addition to the confidence problem, most students require a formal approach to learning the fundamental sketching skills; worksheet methods (such as the UCL Drawing Gym) and immersive, enjoyable exercises like ‘overlay and trace’ are good starting points, but a basic foundation can be developed very quickly indeed. Confidence can be improved through rapid sketching exercises, which induce a design- and communication-focused attitude towards sketching. The collaborative aspect of sketching is critical to the learning methods, and to its employment in practice. Therefore peer-learning and peer evaluation must be central to the teaching of drawing skills. Small group work in a comfortable environment was found to improve confidence and self-belief as students experimented with new methods and approaches, with no threat of assessment-based ‘penalties’. Learning in this way prepared them for ‘real-life’ applications of their skills.


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6 thoughts on “Sketching for Civil and Structural Engineers

  1. Thanks for sharing this and perhaps put it up on Academia as well, which is my only current option to engage widely with academics. Standardised assessment is contrary to developing good creative and communication skills in young people. Discuss.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t use Academia myself, but if anyone would like to put up a link to this page that could be good. I agree about standardised assessment! So many students want it because it’s what they’re used to, but it is deadly.


  3. Well thank you Nick. This paper has had 278 views on here, which is probably about 270 more than it would have had in an academic journal, so hopefully it has helped people to think about the issue, whether or not they agree with us!


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