Connect to Design Work at an Emotional Level in the Digital Production Age – Transitory Moments of Hand-drawn Sketches

By Peiwen Yu

Are hand-drawn sketches a lost art?  Hand drawing is still very much alive and kicking. It remains the most fluent and unhindered way to transmit what is in the designer’s imagination to the physical world. My starting point of developing any design idea has to be hand drawings. Drawing is a conversation between the mind and hand with an unreplaceable value in the creative process. Many designers I know, young and old alike, feel hand drawing to be absolutely necessary to the process of developing a design as well. 

example: urban design study for Nanjing AVIC New Town central park, shows new placemaking negotiating with old tree preservation on-site. One hour sketch, ink and color pencils on trace paper

We all know the majority of designers nowadays prefer computer rendering as the final most developed product of what a design looks like. Today architects typically use computer-aided design software like AutoCAD and Revit, a tool for “building information modeling.” Buildings are no longer just designed visually and spatially; they are “computed” via interconnected databases. Acknowledging the fact that computer technology transforms every aspect of how designers work with its tremendous ability to organize and present data, I couldn’t help but wonder what happens to the very beginning of our thought process of design – the art of hand-drawn sketches. They have been the undeniable source of inspiration for many renowned designs and built work.

Left: Pierres Vives Institutional Building, France. Sketch by Zaha Hadid
Right: Sketch by  Rem Koolhaas
Below: Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, France. Sketch by Frank Gehry


Landscape design drawings we do today can be divided into three types – “idea impression sketch”, “design study” and “definitive drawing”. With examples in this article, we will look into how hand-drawn sketches can play a vital role in the first two types of drawings, in capturing ideas and stimulating the imagination. There is a certain energy to hand drawings that bespeaks of that particular artist’s passion for their work. It appeals to us on an emotional level that doesn’t always translate digitally. They express the interaction of our minds, eyes, and hands. They allow us to share with others and quickly incorporate their opinion into a new sketch. They also allow us to prepare numerous versions of concept very fast, and then to decide which one to develop.  

” design study” sketch examples, each sketch is prepared within 30-minute or one hour, quickly capturing and tweaking ideas with linework, color, and notes

Hand-drawn sketches carry emotional level connection of designers and the things they’re trying to create – the spatial feeling, lighting, mood, visual effects and key characteristics of materials. I believe that designing always benefits from such a particular process of embedding humanistic sensations and emotions into the work before translating it into data through technology.  Such a thought process cannot be replicated by a computer and can be a crucial design step to make the physical environment we created interesting, alive, humane and relevant.

example shows how hand-drawn sketch study the design and guide computer graphics for final drawing preparation. Left: Beijing Hillside Residential Community garden courtyard, 30 minutes sketch, ink + pencil on trace paper. Right: computer graphics developed based on hand sketch.

In the following part, we will reveal some project-based case study, on how hand drawing sketches lead the design process at the initial idea development stage, and how computer-generated graphics elaborate the hand-drawn design, carry the spirit and energy into definitive drawings with photorealistic material quality.  

Case study #1 Shenzhen Bay Shekou Promenade (constructed in 2017)

Shekou Promenade project sketches study “re-imaged mountain” concept along Peninsula walk. The pathway runs between landforms, invigorating rich experience of park users through changing views while moving through space. The built image shows how the meandering walk and landform concept has been carried all the way to the implementation of actual spaces.

top: concept study sketch, 30 minutes, middle: plan sketch, 1 hour, 1:200 scale, bottom: colored rendering plan/computer graphics
Shekou Promenade built photo by David Lloyd

Waterfront terrace study sketch – incorporating nature-inspired planting and seating edge to an urban terrace location. Two alternative options are compared before produce Photoshop generated illustration.

option one, 30-minute sketch
option two, 30-minute sketch
Computer graphics illustrating the idea of terrace option one

Case study #2  Shanghai CRLand Suhe Bay Urban Park and Commercial Complex Design Competition

The hand sketch is a preparatory study, overlaid with a computer model of surrounding buildings, to elaborate on the concept of “Greenheart”.  Design scheme aims to create a central park in Shanghai’s Suhe River commercial corridor with every increasing high land development value. The design intended to strengthen the connectivity of this park with adjacent commercial/mixed-use development parcels and a reconstructed historical “Li fang” neighborhood, attracting people to the waterfront.

Greenheart scheme plan sketch overlaid with computer 3D model for an initial presentation/discussion with the client
2 hours plan sketch, 1:500 scale, ink + marker
Computer-generated 3D massing study model supporting the sketch study
Computer-generated 3D massing study model supporting the sketch study

Case study #3  Four Season Hotel in Luxor, Egypt

located on the Nile River, the hotel site affords great views of surrounding open value and fields. The Four Season hotel landscape design intended to create a distinct, canal story inspired place at the amenity deck, which ties the gardens, pools, outdoor dining terraces, and event spaces together. Hand-drawn sketches at the initial stage quickly generated multiple layout options for comparison and communication with the client. Once the direction is selected and developed with computer graphics, a series of quick vignettes are drawn by hand to study the detail and characters of the space, which turned out to be a key process before computer production of construction documentation.

the design took inspiration from the agrarian irrigation canal in Nile River valley, where the hotel site is located
hand-drawn study – three options of site plan organization ( 1 hour each drawing)
Selected sketch option developed by computer graphics
Hand-drawn study sketch of the shisha garden, cabana garden, and canal water features (15 minutes each drawing)
the final section developed by computer graphics showing the hotel amenity deck views towards Nile River

Case study #4  Guangzhou Yango City Commercial Development

Yango City office and mixed-use complex is located in an upcoming new urban district center south of Guangzhou, the megacity at Pearl River Delta. In front of the office towers and exhibition pavilion buildings, a public plaza space is environed to be an active landscape living room with urban greenway/forest and a light-programmed promenade space for both the office tenants and public. The design idea for landscape space is inspired by the boat racing festival and the water-based living tradition of this region, energizing the promenade space with distinct linear plaza paving pattern, boat inspired furniture, planters, and metal sculpture. With ample green space, shade, seating, and themed plaza space, the space intended to provide a fresh, yet memorable place-making experience for the new development to attract people and businesses into the new district.

left: initial sketch for the public space in front of office buildings. right: architecture proposal of the office tower complex and exhibition pavilion
concept imagery showing the impression of local water living tradition, boat racing festival, the sunlight, and boat inspired features
sketches of the promenade and landscape living room, incorporating a boat racing, water, and sunlight thematic impression into placemaking
computer-generated 3D masing model views showing how the boat racing concept is carried through into site furniture, paving and art elements

Case study #5  Zhangjiagang High Tech District Riverfront Landscape Design Competition

The landscape design for 146 ha riverfront open space at Zhangjiagang High Tech District is intended to create a network of destination parks and open spaces for this new city, in supporting the environmental enhancement and program needs of the innovation community. Initial hand-drawn sketches for the central lake area explored the concept of “incubation” for outdoor meeting rooms, waterfront promenade, and a series of sport/activity fields, all connected with a 700-meter long skywalk with elevated views and experience of the lake. Hand-drawn sketches here bring valuable input to form-making and creating well-scaled spaces, landforms, and connected pedestrian system. Computer-generated graphics further elaborate such formal and experiential energy in delivering definitive drawings.

concept imagery for an innovation park
initial and design study sketches of innovation park, 30 minutes each drawing


All hand-drawn sketches in this article by Peiwen Yu, unless otherwise noted.

Computer-generated graphics: courtesy Studio P+D and SWA Group, by following team members: Peiwen Yu, Kunkook Bae, Jing Zhang, Xin Sui, Shi Park.

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