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.


Further reading:


  1. says

    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. says

    Hi Nicole. You could draw that hand. I did – that’s my hand. I learned how to draw. That was a very quick sketch about 2 inches across done at lunch in the cafeteria. There are some simple principles you can learn to set you on that path, training your eye and pencil to connect. Often our left brain gets in the way. You see a hand, so you see a finger, and you draw a “hot dog” shape. That’s the left brain saying “I know what a finger looks like”. But you need to intervene! Get your right brain to say “let me draw that weird shape and not worry about what to call it.” Stop thinking, start drawing lights and darks and lines…and you have the sketch above.

    There is a simply amazing book that will change your life, in regards to art and drawing, if you spend even a little bit of time with it. It’s called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. The before and after gallery is simply a stunner. It’s almost impossible to believe people can go from being totally unable to draw a straight line to drawing a pretty competent portrait over the course of a few weeks. I’d strongly recommend it. A great follow up is “Drawing on the Artist Within”.

    It’s a blast to learn a new skill and gain proficiency at it. I’d get the book without delay and give it a spin! Lot’s of cheap used paperback copies too, since the book is at least 25 years old.

  3. Phyllis says

    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!!!


  4. says

    Phyllis: It’s easy to think I’m suggesting that drawing means drawing things like apples and flowers and doing some “classical”. I’m not saying that at all. Look at the example sketches. Anyone with a pencil could brainstorm much faster on paper than they could with the fastest mouse and vector setup you could invent. I could draw 3-5 thumbnails before you drew the first 2 or 3 boxes and got them in place.

    The thing about sketching, let’s call it that instead of drawing, is that it’s the fastest way to get something out of your head with the least “overhead”. You can explore freely instead of having to work in the preconceived and contrived notions of “box” and “circle” that you must necessarily start with if you are are starting with vectors.

    I can “sketch” a headline place holder with one quick scribble, whereas going digital you have to actually type something.

    Look at the sketches above and find the rudimentary LED light bulb. That was the original sketch among a few others not shown, that I then recreated in vector and refined through several more versions. I had about 10 other sketches for the logo concept. I couldn’t have come up with those ideas in vector because you can’t just outright draw what is seen in the final logo. Those vectors had to be assembled, as it were.

    Drawing does come more natural to some, but it is essentially a quantifiable, learnable skill.

    Do check out “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. You won’t be disappointed. You might even be blown away.

  5. Phyllis says

    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

  6. says

    This is a whole ‘nother topic, but you might google some design blogs about grid design. Just about any design that “has it right” has an implied grid. Instead of working ambiguously to arrive at a point where a design makes good sense, you start with a structure that leads most quickly to a “good sense” scenario. It’s in the same vein as sketching as precursor to design. Actually, for page layout, it’s step 2. Yes, it’s another topic indeed…

  7. Phyllis says

    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

  8. Phyllis says

    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

  9. says

    Here is the original version, which for a few bucks including shipping, is unbeatable:


    The new version, which I didn’t know about till just now, includes quite a bit of new substance. If you had the bucks, I’d spring for this one:


  10. says

    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!

  11. says

    @ Javier:

    Excellent article. I agree with all the points you make. I would add that not all the steps are always necessary as a rigid rule. Sometimes, for instance, you might be starting with a template that needs to be modified. In that case you might take a screen shot and start fiddling around cutting it up in Fireworks or Photoshop and comping the new look and feel. The important thing is that in that case, most of what you need to work out in black and white (basic structures and columns, etc.) is already all set.

    Also, since I’ve designed so many sites and layouts, I can see the exact structure in my mind I’m going to work with and can sometimes proceed right to Fireworks. But I can only do that when the problem at hand is 90% solvable by a solution I already worked through and implemented. Sometimes you just “now” exactly where to go.

    But for more strictly creative work, like logos, I never start in the computer. That’s just impossible. Some people use a Wacom tablet and bypass graphite. More power to them. But I would not trade my mechanical pencils and 70lb paper in my sketchbook for a plastic Wacom experience any day. Give me graphite dust, smudges, bleeds, etc. Anything analog to fill in the digital divide and I’ll take it.

    I think I’ll go shopping for vinyl records now… :)

  12. says

    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…

  13. says

    Hi Carolyn: That getting things down on paper, call it sketching or not, is really vital. It’s those that skip the paper and go right to the digital who think they are saving time. However, brainstorming with bezier curves or rudimentary shapes is just so left brain intensive, that they don’t realize their right brain just isn’t able to contribute like it should to the creative process.

    I got involved in design professionally just as Letraset and ruby lith and airbrushes were on their last leg, back in 92. Back in the mid eighties, I worked at an art store and Letraset sheets held such a mystique. It seemed like some alien, hi-tech thing, to burnish letter forms from those expensive acetate sheets. How quaint! Yes, I could go on, but I won’t. :)

  14. Kat says

    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)

  15. says

    Hi Kat: I have some artist friends that never sketch anything, but always start on a Wacom. That works, especially if you are doing illustration with the final medium being digital. Personally, I love to pick up a pencil any time I can. I simply love the paper and lead and the scratchiness, and even the smell of the wood pencil and kneaded eraser!

  16. Rita says

    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 :)

  17. says

    You can absolutely learn to draw, or rather, make huge improvements from “zero” to a decent competency very quickly. You only need ONE book: “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. Go to the bookstore or order a used copy sight-unseen. You’ll never look back. Let me know if you get the book!

  18. says

    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.

  19. says

    Hi Zunaid: Maybe this isn’t the best analogy, but my thought is that using a tablet is like learning to ride a motorcycle before learning to ride a bike. Yeah, you can do it and probably be fine, but there are many subtle nuances in the interaction between eye, pencil, and paper that can get lost in the mechanics of a tablet set up. I love tablets and am all for them, and you’ll do well with it, but I wouldn’t give up on paper and pencil too easily.

  20. says

    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.

  21. says

    Sarah: You need to explain the two and differentiate between what formal sketching and formal drawing are, and the semantic difference between the informal use of those terms for the sake of this argument, as it’s popularly discussed here and elsewhere. It could be much like the difference between a “font” and a “typeface” to real typographer, versus what “font” and “typeface” mean in more casual contexts to the average designer and client.

    Do designers need to be able to draw in the academic sense? Heaven’s no. Do they need to be able to sketch in the academic sense? No, but that’s not what the discussion is about. Drawing (or sketching) in regards to a process of correctly seeing spatial relationships is the issue.

    Flip open “Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain” and peruse the first 20 pages. That is the context of this discussion.

  22. rach says

    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.

  23. says

    Drawing from life is the best training for making the eye better at judging spatial relationships and at translating them to the hand. Since graphic design is all about spatial relationships and “seeing” white and negative space, rhythm, and overall composition, it makes sense that classical studio drawing classes are about the best foundational training you can get. Agreed!

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