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Why Learn Manual Drafting in 2023?

There is absolutely no reason to learn manual drafting for a job in architecture or interior design in 2023. Here’s why you should learn it anyway.

9 minute read

from above of ethnic scientist exploring details of aircraft using magnifier

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It wasn’t too long ago that it was possible to graduate from architecture or interior design school without learning a CAD (Computer Aided Design) program. As recently as the 2010s you could still find many design schools that didn’t teach the subject.

What were students and professionals using in the field instead, you might be wondering?

Well, good old fashioned, hand-drafted technical and construction drawings, of course!

Architecture and Interior Design Industries are Fully Digital in 2023

These days no university architectural or interior design university program skips out on teaching its students CAD. Computer drafting program like AutoCAD, AutoDesk Revit, 3DS Max, Chief Architect or even SketchUp are one hundred percent necessary.

So it goes without saying that there is absolutely no pressing reason to learn manual drafting for a job in the architecture or interior design field in 2023. The industry has fully transitioned over to using computer aided design in the workplace, and it’s been this way for more than a decade already.

Despite this, there are still some benefits that we can see to learning how to draft manually and by hand. As a designer who learned manual drafting (as well as CAD drafting), I have to admit that going through the process of learning manual drafting gave me a strong appreciation for the subject. As such, I would like to share a little about the virtues to learning traditional drafting as a foundation to computer drafting.

But first, let’s define “drafting”.

What is “Drafting” in Interior Design and Architecture?

Image credit: Wikipedia

Overview of Drafting

Architectural and design drafting (of which interior design is a sub-specialty) is the drawing up of two-dimensional plans for a design whose end user is construction professionals or sometimes professional fitters and furniture makers. These types of plans are frequently drawn by urban planners, engineers, architects, landscapers or interior designers.

Drafted plans may be created for entire buildings, for individual rooms and sometimes for furniture within the room. Separate plans are created for each plane of the design, including floors, walls (elevations) or ceilings, and also for building systems (like plumbing or HVAC) and lighting.

Drafting can be done by hand, or with the help of computer software. In either case, the plans must be accurate and drawn to scale.

Before starting on the drafting process the architectural designer usually conducts careful and thorough measuring of the building to ensure that all measurements are correct. This process is known as site survey. Measurements used in drafting must be accurate and drawn to scale from a variety of vantage points in order to properly convey the design so that it can be built.

Before we go into a little more detail about each method and their benefits let’s explore when and how CAD drafting using computers first became a “thing”.

The Short History of CAD Drafting

computer computer keyboard contemporary display
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Between Two Worlds

Like every other industry over the last 30 years, computers have had a slow but exponential rate of adoption in the field of architecture and interior design.

Computers were actually introduced to the interior design and architecture professions as far back as the 1980s. However, it would be a long time before the use of CAD software became standard practice.

It’s interesting to note that some early adopters were wise to see the benefits of design drafting technology and embraced it early.

Others, who had been working with physically drawn technical and construction drawings for decades, felt threatened by the new method and resisted it. Some simply couldn’t imagine a design world without hand-drafted design drawings.

What’s the Difference?

You might wonder what the biggest differences are between computer drafted plans and those created by hand. The greatest difference between manual drafting and CAD drafting lies in the time it takes to produce drawings, and also their reproductive quality.

A Note on Scale Drawing

“Scale” means that it is drawn to a precise measurement, which is either reduced or enlarged from its original size.

The proportions of the original and the scale “copy” should remain identical. The object is thus exactly 100 times bigger or smaller than its real world size.

As an example, at 1/100 scale, one meter (or 1000 millimeters) might be represented as 10 centimeters (100 millimeters).

A Closer Look at Manual Drafting

Here is an example of an early manual drawing I did in design school, using a manual drafting board with a T-square.

What Line Weights Mean in Manual Drafting

Lines “weights” are not arbitrary in design drawings, and this is especially true for those drafted by hand. Here’s how it works:

Fine Line Weights = Set Up and Details

Guide lines and measurement lines are drawn in a ‘thinner’ or ‘finer’ line weight when drafting manually.

In the example above I drew the first outlines of the drawing with a mechanical pencil (not seen in the final drawing), followed by a 0.1 technical pen.

Heavy = Major (Architectural) Features

As you might have guess, the heavier, more “dominant” lines in the drawing are very deliberate, as well.

They represent major architectural features (in this case both exterior ‘retaining’ walls and interior ‘partition’ walls). These were drawn over the finer line weight with a 0.5 pen to give them a visual hierarchy that professionals can easily distinguish.

The difference between line thickness is known “line weights“, and there are general rules that the drafts person must follow. Ideally, by looking at a manually drafted design drawing, you should be able to tell the most dominant features of the plan from the features of lesser architectural importance.

Besides the fine and heavy thicknesses I mentioned, there is also commonly a medium weight that is used. An average of three line weights is used in most manually drafted drawings.

Why Manual Drafting is Considered an Art Form

Image Credit: Arch daily

Reading the Lines

One of the most beautiful thing about construction drawings to me is that nothing is done arbitrarily. Every line and every notation means something.

Drafters who hone their craft long enough even go on to develop their own individually recognizable drafting style, which is something that that they take great pride in. My drafting tutor was strict, but he also emphasized the need to really learn to love the drafting process.

Good drafting he stressed, while technical, is also an art form in its own right.

Which Professions Use Manual CAD Drafting?

engineers looking at blueprint

As we mentioned earlier, manual drafting was once the standard in many industries besides interior design.

Manual drafting was used extensively in engineering trades. For example, pattern making for machine parts in industrial design and components of product design requires careful drafting technique.

Traditional drafting was also pre-dominently used by design engineers for building automobiles and airplanes, and by architects for planning buildings before CAD arrived.

Even fashion design uses a drafting process for creating sewing patterns.

Engineers still use drafting for systems and structures today, but these professions have also switched to computer aided design methods.

While it’s true that most industries have moved completely over to CAD, the benefits of manual technical drawing are still valid.

A Closer Look at CAD Drafting

Example of Drafting in SketchUp

The image above is one of the first CAD models I ever attempted using SketchUp Pro for an interior design school project, a ‘universal’ design-friendly kitchen.

The dashed lines you see are my set up lines, marking the heights and widths of the tiles in the kitchen and the positions of openings and built in fittings. These “set up” line can be toggled on or off.

The circle on the ground represents the average radius of a turn in a wheelchair.

Ready, Set, Draft

CAD is short for “computer-aided design”. Instead of starting from scratch every time as you would with a manually drafted drawing, the computer does a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

There’s no need for paper, a drafting board or a T-square. There’s not need for scale rules or different technical pen sizes. Simply type in the dimensions and the computer creates the lines for you. Drag, pull, snap and group. It’s all intuitive and immediate.

In a virtual design space everything is set up for you. You don’t need to set up your horizon line and vanishing points. When it comes time to convert your two dimensional drawing to 3D it’s a cinch. You can often extrude and pull planes into the third dimension while easily rotating viewing the scale model from any vantage point while you model to scale.

When you want to create a two dimensional plan of your model you simply view from above and export an orthographic plan view of your design.

You can create plans and elevations from any angle, and export them as perspective drawings or as plans. These are things that would have to be done in a series of separate drawings and using physical models when working manually.

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Manual vs. CAD Drafting: Is There Any Question Which is Better?

instruments prepared for measurements in house

After what you’ve just read to this point in the post I’m sure you’re wondering why anybody would need to learn manual drafting if it isn’t actually better. As I mentioned, manual drafting is really just a legacy design art form at this point.

In fact, the benefit I can see to learning manual drafting is not performance related. It’s not because manual drafting produces superior drawings, but rather because by learning how to draw manually, a designer gets a better foundation for CAD drafting that makes it worth it.

When updating and expanding this article I took the question to ChatGPT to find out what some of the broader benefits to learning manual drafting before CAD drafting might be:

Benefits of Learning Manual Drafting Methods Before CAD

Vonsassy: Are there any benefits to professional designers learning manual drafting methods prior to learning CAD drafting software?

ChatGPT: Learning manual drafting methods before diving into computer-aided design (CAD) software can have several benefits for professional designers, although it’s not always necessary in today’s digital design landscape. Here are some potential advantages:

  1. Fundamental Understanding: Manual drafting teaches fundamental design and drafting principles, such as line weights, scales, and orthographic projection. These principles are essential for creating accurate and aesthetically pleasing designs, regardless of whether they are created manually or digitally.
  2. Improved Drafting Skills: Manual drafting helps develop hand-eye coordination and precision, which can be valuable when transitioning to CAD software. It encourages attention to detail, which is crucial for creating well-crafted digital drawings.
  3. Problem-Solving Skills: Working with limited tools and materials in manual drafting can enhance problem-solving abilities. Designers learn to think creatively to achieve the desired results within the constraints of manual techniques.
  4. Appreciation for Craftsmanship: Learning manual drafting methods can instill an appreciation for the craftsmanship and tradition of design. This understanding can influence your approach to digital design, making you more mindful of the design process and aesthetics.
  5. Flexibility: In some cases, manual drafting may still be necessary or preferred. Having skills in both manual and CAD drafting methods allows designers to adapt to different project requirements and client preferences.
  6. Historical Perspective: Manual drafting has historical significance in the field of design and architecture. Learning it can provide a deeper understanding of the evolution of design practices and their impact on modern design.
  7. Building a Strong Foundation: Starting with manual drafting can be seen as building a strong foundation upon which to develop digital drafting skills. It ensures that designers have a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to more complex digital tools.

ChatGPT: That said, the necessity of learning manual drafting methods may vary depending on the specific design field and the technological advancements within it. In some industries, CAD software has become the primary tool, and designers may not encounter manual drafting regularly.

However, for fields like architecture and industrial design, where a combination of manual and digital skills is common, learning manual drafting can still be a valuable asset.

ChatGPT: Ultimately, the decision to learn manual drafting methods before CAD drafting software should be based on the individual designer’s goals, the requirements of their chosen field, and their personal preferences.

Some designers may choose to start directly with CAD software, while others may find value in beginning with manual drafting to gain a well-rounded skill set.

(End of transcript)

The Death of Design Drawing by Hand in Architecture

As a lover of architecture I read a fair bit on the subject, and I’ve noticed a lot of experts are becoming concerned that architecture graduates today don’t know how to draw any more.

Of course, they can produce perfectly accurate and even flawless design drawings using CAD. What has been lost, however, is that immediacy of being able to sketch out an idea, a rough perspective or a floor plan and visualize on the spot or ‘on the fly’.

Sadly, it seems students just aren’t using pencil and paper as much any more, and it feels as if something is being lost in the process.

Manual Drawing is More Visceral Than CAD Drafting

I think about manual drafting the way I think about sketching with pencil vs. sketching on an iPad using Procreate. You might be able to skip a grade and go straight to computer art, but if you don’t ever try your hand at the manual, visceral experience of working with real texture and put pen to paper, you might miss out on a formative experience.

My advice? If you take designing seriously and want to stand out from your peers, learn how to work between mediums, such as pen and paper, mouse and screen or pen and tablet.

How Switching Between Mediums Makes You Smarter

woman in red long sleeve writing on chalk board

Switching between methods works your brain harder and aids memory. When you go between designing methods you engage a learning process called “cross-learning”. Cross learning allows for bridging between concepts and even disciplines by the human brain and forms stronger synapses.

Like the baby that needs to learn to crawl before walking, doing at least one manual drafting project is a valuable experience for any draftsperson.

How CAD Saves Time

It has to be said that for creating iterations of designs, making changes to designs and quickly creating alternate views of designs, CAD comes out the clear winner. Being able to change material or color at the push of a button saves designers a lot of time at the drafting board. No contest.

My Experience Learning Manual Drafting

close up of a cable car
Photo by Karol D on Pexels.com

Manual Drafting

Before we wrap up I’d like to share a personal story about drafting. Of course, I can’t take all of the credit for learning manual drafting in the first place. It’s not like I was some kind of die hard old school design nut. It was actually a mandatory part of my design course.

Drafting was the third major subject for us, after material studies and the history of interior design. My school was so old school that CAD drawings only became required for projects in about 2016.

SketchUp Pro

At that point I was pretty glad that I taught myself how to use Sketchup, because other students had to take an extra-curricular CAD course at extra cost. Learning manual drafting was, along with the construction unit, the toughest part of my interior design course. I probably don’t have to tell you that at the end of the day, it was also easily the most gratifying of my academic accomplishments, because it truly challenged me.

How Drawing by Hand Makes You a Better Designer

A Personal Story

When I reached the end of my course and had to produce my final project, I found myself in a predicament. At this point in time, I was working a full time downtown from 8:30 to almost 18:00 every day and had a two hour commute each day to and from work on top of that.

The only time I had to work my exams was somehow using my cell phone for research on my commute, using pen and paper working out design problems during my lunch break, and then few hours in the evening at my PC.

Forced to Work Between Mediums Pays Off

At first I lamented and totally hated that I didn’t have my computer during my lunch break. The result was that I had to use grid paper, a straight ruler and triangular ruler to mimic a simple T-square.

It was my only option.

When I sent in my preliminary project, part of my finals, I received the go ahead from the faculty to proceed with the final.

They said that my hand written drawings and sketch book notes were some of the most thorough they had seen in the school’s history.

What I Learned About Using Manual and CAD Together

I had to laugh at myself and the apparent absurdity of the situation.

Necessity really is the ‘mother of invention’.

I solved a lot of problems going between paper and CAD, two dimensions and three. When I produced that final project, I really did feel that I knew the project inside and out, down to the last inch.

What’s more, I feel like I got the “full” design student experience.

How to Learn Manual Drafting

If you’re interested in architectural and interior design drafting, here are some resources for learning online.

Drafting Board

Drafting for Woodworkers, Woodworking University

CCAC Architecture & Drafting Professional Certificate



an architect making designs and layouts

I hope that if you’ve never considered drafting by hand that I’ve encouraged you to consider it.

My Advice? Begin with Manual and then Move into CAD

If you have been limited to only using the computer, try starting with pencil and paper in the earlier phases and then move to CAD as the project progresses.

If, on the other hand, you’ve never used CAD and are you’re worried about going from quick manual drawings to CAD, you’ll be happy to know if I did it, you can as well.

At the end of the day success with drafting comes down to learning new methods and software tools, but if you understand drafting with pen and paper, you will intuitively “get” much of the CAD as you go along.

I hope that you enjoy your journey as a designer, drafting by hand as well as with CAD! If you’re interested in what designers learn in school, check out the post below. Don’t forget to sign up or drop me a line at hello@designbaddie.com if you’d like to hear more from me.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

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