Pitch Your Schematic Design Ideas With Digital Sketches, NOT Digital Or Traditional Architectural Renderings

(Preface: The author wishes to acknowledge the critical contributions of designers Nora Kanter and Karen Foley to the conception and digital creation of the following images. The architect is not yet credited so as to protect the identity of the project and client.)

Presenting schematic architectural and interior design ideas to your client in the digital age can be challenging. The problem? The photo-literalism of digital images can, if presented too early, elicit an equally literal response in your client and put the need for an iterative design process at risk.


Like all technological advances, digital architectural rendering presents us with a double edged sword. On the one hand, digital software gives designers the unprecedented power to present schematic design ideas as photorealistic fait accompli. On the other hand, the apparent finality of photorealistic imagery can scare a client who was expecting to be more involved in the design process, or leave a client who likes what they see with the impression that the design is complete, and all that remains is to finish the CDs.

One of the more compelling reasons to use digital architectural sketches to present your schematic design ideas is that they begin as inexpensive line drawings of the building or room you see in your mind's eye, NOT laborious constructions built in 3-d CAD or rendering programs

Back in the day, architects and designers preferred to use hand sketches to present their schematic design ideas. Hand sketches had two advantages: they could connect the client to the iterative design process on an emotional level, and they could convey schematic design ideas in a stylistically noncommittal way. In short, presenting schematic design ideas in the form of traditional hand-made architectural sketches could help a designer avoid the issue of what the final design would “look like,” including the client in the design process while still giving the designer leeway and permission to develop the design in iterative phases.

The next step is to use Photoshop to "collage" in the proposed character of the design. Adding people is a must for communicating the scale of the room

By contrast, modern clients have grown up in a world where digital imagery is the norm and photorealistic rendering techniques pervade our lives. Hand drawn sketches can seem quaint in this world, better suited to depicting old-fashioned design than to representing a modern design aesthetic which has itself grown out of the digital age.

 And now the fun begins. The point of this schematic design meeting--and the following series of studies--is to try and get the client to sign off on the architect's idea for a massive "fish cloud" spiraling up through the space, stretching from the illuminated ornamental pool at the bottom of the space to the dramatic skylight at the top

Enter the digital architectural sketch. The digital architectural sketch literally combines the best of both worlds: the speed of traditional hand drawing with the modern aesthetic and flexibility of digital rendering. Digital sketches begin as quick hand sketches loosely depicting key views of a project, (a process which also helps with the delegation of pieces of a large project to a team of individual designers) but rather than adding shade, shadow and color to those sketches by hand, they are used as frameworks on to which fragments of digital photos are collaged, and digital graphic techniques (shadows, color gradients, etc) are added in Photoshop.

This second version of the cloud opens the door to the idea of the fish spreading out below the soffits, bridging the way to a second more organic version of the cloud seen in the final images below 

Although digital sketches often look as if they were rendered using 3-d software, the linework of the original sketches remains visible at all times. In the end, both the traces of the underlying hand sketch and the artifacts of the quick photoshop “collage” technique used help signal to the viewer that this image is only a snapshot of an ongoing design process and not to be considered final in itself.

 The architect also studied the idea of a mechanized dynamic "nebula" pulsating and rolling in the space

The series of images in this post was developed to study a schematic proposal for a 6-story high cloud of abstract cast glass “fish” (see, I wasn’t kidding). Look closely and see if you can determine which part of your response is due to the looseness and energy of the underlying hand sketch, and which to the digital effects made possible by the Photoshop collage technique.

In this digital architectural sketch, the nebula has extended down to the reflecting pool

 The last images in the series explore the idea of a more organic cloud

In this final view, "fish" have been added under the soffits to make the sculpture and its dramatic setting feel like more of a single organic statement

(Author James Akers is a registered architect and freelance traditional architectural renderer who collaborates with some of the world's most admired architects to create inspired architectural designs, house portraits and architectural renderings in all media, including watercolor, pen and ink, pencil, photoshop and computer.)