Why graphic designers should learn to draw

Drawing is the foundational skill of all graphic design. Learning to solve design problems with a pencil is the training we need to be able solve problems most effectively with the digital approximation tools of in the palettes of our favorite design applications. But some designers get by without drawing.

Graphic designers can get by without drawing

But only just so.

I don’t necessarily mean that classical still life drawing is somehow indispensible to being a good designer, but drawing by hand is nontheless critical at some level, especially during the initial stages of a design. Brainstorming with a pencil is simply impossible to improve on. Many designers get by without drawing, but it’s to their detriment, whether they know it or not. All the great design schools and great graphic artists would concur. Those that don’t concur, well, they probably have a lesser degree of greatness.

But, even though I’m quite convinced to be a great designer you must draw, you still don’t have to draw to be a good designer. In fact, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do! But, the benefits of drawing as a habit in any form at all are just too clear, history would show. I’m sure there are some exceptions to the rule out there, but they would be anomalies: curiosities to be considered but not emulated.

Digital tools are approximations, not replacements

All the digital tools we use as designers are imitations of the real deal. Hence the “pen” and “pencil” tools, “erasers” and “brushes”. The marketing campaigns of the greatest design applications are almost always “looks more natural” or something along those lines. The latest release of Photoshop CS5 is really highlighting just how “more natural” the new brush tools work. These digital tools approximate their analog parents. In some ways, they are better, as is the case with “undo”. But the Holy Grail of all design applications is really being as close to analog as possible, while sneaking in some digital goodness.

So, if you are working only and ever in the digital approximations (the toolbars of your various apps) you are missing out the very thing they are trying to approach. Again, you can get by as a designer without drawing. The shear ease of some aspects of design software make hitting the bullseye of competent design pretty easy, whether one is cognizant of it or not. That is beside the point. Rulers, grids, undo, color palette applications, templates: it’s much easier today than 20 years ago to pull off being a “designer”. Adobe gets singular credit for that! But it’s a bit like feeling around in the dark and figuring out that the thing in the room is an elephant, instead of simply turning on the light and seeing it all at once. You can get there the hard way, but, that is the hard way!

Don’t just “play it by ear”

Being a designer who never draws is a bit like being the musician who never learns a scale and simply plays by ear. That musician might be able to eke out some great tunes, maybe make some great recordings, but in the end, they will never escape the limits of their self-imposed exile from even greater achievements.

For instance, great color palettes can simply be copied. But there is math and hard science behind color theory that one can learn. Great layouts can be copied too. But again, there is demonstrable math and theory as to why a great layout is truly great. Drawing, along with study of things like composition and typography, all work in concert to make us designers even better designers than we would be without them.

Drawing is fundamental to getting the best results with the least effort

I must repeat though. You don’t need to draw to be a good designer. You don’t need to do anything any “expert” might suggest. It’s simply too easy these days to create competent work, and even make a living, without a lot of what designers from a generation ago struggled to achieve. I personally have found this troublesome, as someone that now finds competition where there was none before.

For example, order some Letraset transfer letters. Google that if you don’t know what it is. Open the package and grab a sheet and try to “wing it” as you set type. Right. I thought so. You’d better sketch that first! Letraset gets really expensive really fast. Yes, sharpen a few good old No.2’s and grab some scrap paper and have at it until you are sure each .10 letter you scratch out and burnish is in the right place in all respects.

Learn to solve problems like a Master by drawing

All the elements of design are rooted in drawing, as is painting. Drawing is the fundamental skill of visual artists of any stripe. The better we draw, the better we paint, and the better we design, because drawing contains all the problems and pitfalls we must overcome as designers. If we never fully deal with the problems with a pencil, we never fully solve our graphic design issues with much cruder tools.

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.

Further reading:

29 responses to “Why graphic designers should learn to draw”

  1. Nicole Bauer

    I’m a graphic designer who can draw a bit. :) I could never draw a hand like in your example above, but I’m good enough to sketch before I get to execute my vision on the computer. However I’d like to get better in drawing, do you have any useful links for me?

  2. Phyllis

    Hi Douglas,

    Well, you know some of my thoughts on this from my previous post. And I’m not really disagreeing with you — I’d like to learn to draw! — but I do have a slightly different perspective on some of the things that you say. So I’ll throw some of my thoughts out there, for whatever they’re worth.

    “Being a designer who never draws is a bit like being the musician who never learns a scale and simply plays by ear.”

    You know, I look at it from a completely opposite perspective! In my mind, drawing is like playing by ear, whereas learning all the software is equivalent to learning the scales and reading music. It may just be the perspective of a commercial artist — things drawn by hand aren’t useful to me until they can be translated to a digital format. But I’m sure that’s a brainstorming technique that would work for some.

    It may also just be my own personal experiences. And speaking of music, years ago I was a musician. I could play really well, but I couldn’t play by ear! Somehow that seems similar to the way I can’t draw by hand but I can design digitally. I study things like composition and color theory to improve my work. I don’t know if drawing is something I could learn as it seems more like a natural affinity. I hope to try it eventually though.

    “Drawing is fundamental to getting the best results with the least effort” — I don’t understand that. If you draw by hand, you’ll have to then recreate your work on a computer. So you have to do everything twice. It may be a great and helpful thing to do, but I don’t imagine it would ever be the “least effort.”

    Okay those are my thoughts. I hope you will take them in the spirit I intend — I’m not anti-drawing — I would certainly like to learn. I’m not optimistic I’d have a lot of success with that though. It seems like it’s just a natural ability for some.

    Thanks for your interesting posts!!!


  3. Design Informer

    Hey Douglas, thanks for recommending those books. I’ve been meaning to improve my drawing as well and I’ll try to get those books. :)

  4. Phyllis

    Thanks Douglas,

    I will check out the book you mention!!!

    I get what you’re saying about sketching vs. drawing. That makes more sense to me. I’m not totally sure I could make much use of rough sketches. The weirdo way that I work is this: I start with a blank screen and just add on the elements that I need (logos, text, photos) any old place. Then I move them around until I start to like what I see. Or if nothing conjures an idea, I draw a grid and start aligning different ways with the grid. But I guess I start with a full visual. I’m not sure I can imagine from a sketch. That may be me though. And I move stuff over and over. If sketches were to match my process, I’d need hundreds of them!

    I probably don’t work or think the same way as most artists. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t drawn to the field until I stumbled into it. I love it though. :-) I often feel like I’m not creative enough, but I’ve been tremendously helped by the classes I’ve been taking (lots of stuff on how to come up with visual ideas, etc.). I’ll check out some drawing stuff when I get caught up!

    Thanks, Phyllis

  5. Phyllis

    Yes! I use grid design. I use it throughout the magazines I work on, but I don’t always start with it on a flyer or poster or something random where I’m not totally sure what’s wanted. Those I find it more helpful to just start playing around. But I’m in agreement on the grid. Started using them after reading Before & After magazine a lot and then when I finally got to formal design classes, I started studying them. But sometimes I have posters and things to design where it’s easier to just play around to get inspired.

    Thanks, Phyllis

  6. Phyllis

    Any chance you’d post an Amazon link to that book? There seem to be several different versions — which one do you have? Thanks, Phyllis

  7. Phyllis


  8. Nicole Bauer

    Thanks, Douglas! That sounds really interesting! I’ll definitely check that out!

  9. Javier Cantero

    Hi Douglas,

    18 years ago when I studied Graphic Design we HAD TO KNOW HOW TO DRAW in fact many of the courses were focused on the freehand drawing: human figure, sketching, etc. and maybe a PageMaker course : )

    Computer use was almost nil and depended on our ability to turn those sketches and drawings in a dummy for our customer using more traditional means such as paste up, drawing and so on.

    Don´t get me wrong the revolution in computers and desktop publishing has been wonderful, as designers we can do things now that 20 years ago we had not even thought of. The computers and design software are tools that have enabled us to grow as professionals.

    Nevertheless the best designs I’ve done always start with a clear outline, and a certain time spent on developing the best graphics solution, variations in paper that let me interact with my client to get the central message of his product or service.

    I writed an article some time ago about sketching, I would love if you could check it:

    The way we work in my agency is always brainstorming with paper and sketching, a lot of them : )

    Great Article!

  10. Carolyn King

    Love the article – so true. I draw, but not very well – you should see my notebook, full of scribbled thoughts. For me it’s the process of getting things down on paper that matters more than the actual sketch. I have the visual imprint in my mind, so when I go onto the computer I know what shape the layout/logo/etc is probably going to take.

    I remember painstakingly applying Letraset too – that was in the days when designers had to understand about typography – kerning, leading, legibility – a skill that quite a few web designers don’t seem to be aware of. But that’s a whole other topic…

  11. Brett Widmann

    Very interesting and soooo true! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Kat

    Actually, you don’t have to do everything twice. People think you have to scan things or something to edit drawings on the computer. No, you just get a graphics tablet which allows you to draw straight to the computer.

    You will get used to the tablet soon enough. There’s also Wacom cintiques that allow you to draw directly on it’s screen, but I just have a really small bamboo graphics tablet. Drawing on my tablet is like drawing with a pencil on paper now. I prefer digitally drawing because you don’t have to waste as many materials, and I prefer working with color. Sometimes I do prefer just laying back and drawing with a pencil though. It’s also easier to effectively blend with pencils, although some people even consider that a shortcut when drawing traditionally. (for example, a lot of people say not to use a tortillion and rely more on manually applying the different values to create a realistic gradient)

  13. Rita

    Hello, i’m a senior high school student and i’m thinking about signing into the Graphic Design major in college but the problem is i don’t draw, i don’t know how to be honest . That’s my problem and i need your help to know if i can get involved into this major or not :)

  14. Dmitry Nikolaev

    Thank you for reference of two great books on drawing. Put them into reading list: http://apprium.ru/books-that-seems-very-promising/

  15. Zunaid

    I liked the post and i completely agree. I am designer but i wish to be brilliant in my drawing skill. I believe in that way i can bring more brilliance in my design. Anyways i do have a question. I am not at drawing. But i do have the decent skills to do rough sketches for my design. I wanted to practice drawing. But instead of pencil and paper i was wondering what if i practice using a pen tablet? is this a good idea? Can it help or hamper instead or just it doesnt matter.

  16. Zunaid

    Thank you so much for feedback. I asked because i wanted to become a game designer. I mean i am versatile designer at the moment but my main focus is game. The problem is i am also studying electrical engineering so i get so little time to practice designing. I thought tablet would help my skill as while i design i can doodle in the wacom during break which i dont usually like to do with pencil. I mean shifting for pc to pen paper and again coming back. But i do sketch in paper and pen. So il do both just il use the tablet more.

  17. sarah

    You need to learn the difference between drawing and sketching

  18. rach

    I am a graphic designer that can draw extremely well, and I know from experience, this helps me land great freelance and jobs in general. I highly recommend graphic designers to learn to better their drawing skills because it helps set you above the rest. If you are able, take studio drawing classes. Not one pone, but multiple. Learning to draw from life can enhance your skills greatly, and believe me, everyone can draw if they try.

    Loved the article. You make great points which I always stressed to my designer friends.

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