Should graphic designers know how to draw or not?

Is there a consensus on whether or not graphic designers should know how to draw? Should drawing and sketching be a part of the creative design process? And is the answer relative?

No, the answer is not relative. While drawing a still life and designing on a grid are different tasks, both are skills that rely on the ability to discern spatial relationships and piece together a composition using some form of mechanical skill. Software-based design is really only a digital approximation of its analog predecessor: pencil and paper.

The deception of digital tools

Digital tools do away with things like erasers and smudges, but they don’t give us more skill—and neither do they take any away. They are neutral. They reveal what fundamental spatial relationship skills we already have. If we can’t create a decent composition on paper, we aren’t magically going to be able to create one on the screen. But the ease with which we can iterate and tweak with software can very easily hide (gasp) the fact that we might just be wandering around without a digital clue.

Photoshop is not a pencil

But drawing is different. Drawing forces the motor skills to make real time, quasi-permanent decisions, while honing spacial discernment skills to be more accurate by practice. They psychological process of drawing is in a sense more like real-time performance. There is a sense of “now” that heightens the urgency to execute correctly, similar to what musicians experience when playing live. Digital tools erase the sense of urgency with a cognitively true, and yet subconsciously false, sense of unlimited freedom:

  • The true freedom digital tools offer is freedom from physical media that can wear out, show signs of effort, and that ungraciously reveal our struggle with them.
  • The false freedom digital tools offer is that while providing “unlimited undo’s” from our mistakes, they remove the sense of urgency from our mistakes that we most learn fundamental skills from! They can act as opiates on our design-fail sensors.

For instance, the fastest way to learn a piece of music is to play it live, not piece it together in a music composition application. Although you can do it that way, your depth of knowledge is limited by lack of live engagement if you only choose the safe, sterile, and antiseptic world of digital-only music composition and playback. We can’t lessen the need for physical contact with either musical instrument, or physical art media.

Artistic relatives

So what is the consensus? It depends who you ask. If you ask designers that can’t draw, the answer is no. And in a sense they’d be right if they have some measure of success. But if you ask designers who can and do draw, you’d find that the answer is yes, that designers should know how to draw and should practice routinely. In this day and age, who is right? For the camp that believes good enough is good enough, no drawing is necessary. For the camp that believes only the best is good enough, drawing is a means of attaining the best skills possible.

Do you have to draw to be a good designer or not?

At the same time, you really don’t have to draw well to be a decent designer. But knowing that great design skills are built on basic classical art skill sets should give us pause, if we don’t draw, to consider what we might be missing out on. Great design skills are based on timeless and quantifiable skill sets we can objectively learn and measure.

Hey, Michelangelo!

The bottom line is that good design skills are built on good drawing skills, whether one identifies them as such or not. Don’t confuse drawing as a designer with drawing as a fine artist—a mistake that is always close at hand when the topic comes up. It can be a canard and miss the point. We don’t need the Michelangelos of the world to set type. We can leave them to what they do best. You don’t need to be Michelangelo either, to whip up a decent web page design. But I would venture a guess that if you loosely transcribed a few Renaissance paintings in your notebook, and mapped out the grid, spatial relationships, and basic tone maps, you’d find yourself learning at the feet of a Master and be none the worse for it. I’d go so far as to say your next composition would be a bit on that “next level” so many of us talk about getting to.

A thumbnail sketch of better design skills

Do this: incorporate drawing into your next project. There is no right or wrong way, only effective and not-so-effective ways. Learn what works for you: sketches, thumbnails, whiteboards, napkins, legal pads, sketchbooks. Whatever you do, just draw, and you’ll be a better designer for it, guaranteed. And Michelangelo will no doubt smile on your efforts.

What is my favorite sketchbook? That's easy. It's always the Utrecht 7 x 10, 80lb, wire-bound sketchbook. I have used them for years. They are the right form factor for weight, size, and drawability, and the pages never bleed. Awesome.

A few more opinions

“The simple answer is “no”… you don’t need to be a fine artist to be a graphic designer.”

“Yes. I’d love to tell you that drawings skills are just a “plus” or that the age of pencils has passed. But, I can’t do it. I’m sure many of you could (and will) argue with me. Please do.”

“Yes, if they want to be good.”

“I do agree that Designers don’t HAVE to know how to draw, but I do think it would help them.”

“You can go into graphic design without be able to draw, but the graphic designers who can offer that skill set are much more successful in their careers and usually paid more.”

“A designer’s inability to draw may also unconsciously limit his ability to conceptualize.”

“What is pretty unbelievable is that I have seen famous designers (who shall remain nameless!) create terrible sketches but end up with great designs, and great sketchers that are hopeless designers.Therefore my answer to this question really is “Yes” and “No”.”

“A non artistic person can be taught to organise information in a logical and pleasing form but I don’t honestly think they can truly create a good design”

7 responses to “Should graphic designers know how to draw or not?”

  1. val_b

    I believe, the better you are at drawing, in a creative and conceptional way, the better your graphics will become. there’s no need to master drawing in a technical way, altough this would also be helpful. it also depends on the kind of graphic work, you’re doing; the more illustration-based it’s gonna be, the more drawing skills are necessary, thus, not having any drawing skills won’t hold you back from doing graphic designs, but will definitely constrain the bandwith of your services.

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  4. Tom Lien

    I totally agree. I’ve directed designers in all different stages of experience, and some who could draw, and ones that couldn’t. I’ve always received better concepts from the ones that have a solid fine art background. It’s not quite as necessary if you’re doing something like brochure design or advertising, but I think for things like logo design and package design, it’s really important to have that skill. You can see some sketches here on our website here which show how I’ve started projects from pencil and paper all the way to the grocery store aisles!

  5. lesley pritikin

    I am a partner and marketing director of one the most well-known digital and fine arts academies in Italy calle the Scuola Internazionale di Comics. This discussion is music to my ears. We are opening up a Chicago school in January, precisely because the Digital programs at many universities and animation schools have asked us to do workshops that help their “digitally oriented” students learn, but most importantly, appreciate drawing. Most of the students hate the rigors of learning these skills, but in the end, their work shines. Our European students who have no choice but to start with pencil in hand get jobs easily and their portfolios are gorgeous. People always want to buy our school yearbooks that publish 3rd year students’ works. Like all tedious, laborious efforts at perfecting a skill — it definitely pays off in the art world. Lesley Pritikin

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