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Drawing: A leadership tool?

In September the New York Times Sunday Review’s Opinion Pages featured the article “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing” by Michael Graves, architect and professor emeritus at Princeton. And while what he wrote was informative, I believe there is more to be said about drawing, specifically, the role it plays in design leadership.

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In the age of digital, associating freehand drawing with architecture may seem outdated, but it remains an essential tool for leadership and the creative process. 

In September the New York Times Sunday Review’s Opinion Pages featured the article “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing” by Michael Graves, architect and professor emeritus at Princeton. And while what he wrote was informative, I believe there is more to be said about drawing, specifically, the role it plays in design leadership. As a design professional and a practitioner of the “lost art,” I hold freehand drawing as an integral part of my life. And because I am keenly aware that freehand drawing is widely regarded as “old school,” I saw Mr. Grave’s article as an invitation to share my thoughts about how I see drawing as much more than a design tool. I see drawing as an instrument for leadership.

Mr. Graves described in detail how drawing serves his thinking and contributes to his creative process. To not draw, or to be unable to draw, limits a designer’s creative powers and limits one’s performance. But the value of drawing accrues to more than the designer. Drawing is a leadership tool and, as such, serves the needs of the collective as well as the individual. At its core it has the ability to describe and inform. And the work of Mr. Graves is ample evidence of its ability to also inspire. But what is it about lines on paper or similar means of visual communication that enable us to lead, particularly in today’s high-paced, digitally-driven world?

The essential goal of design is to see change happen and move beyond the known. And change, lasting and meaningful change, is the yardstick by which leadership is gauged. So does this mean that if I design I lead? Of course it’s not that simple. Change in the real world will not occur unless I am able to convey the opportunities and possible benefits of the change that resonates with others. How I do that—and what happens next—determines if change comes. I’ve concluded that it is the premiere reason why leading designers draw. Drawing engages the mind, focuses the eyes and sets designers’ hands in motion in a uniquely integrated way, enabling them to not only contemplate what comes next but make change “understandable.” The lines I draw need to interact with the minds, eyes and hands of others.

Some may question the value of drawing with so much technology available to us. But technology is not the issue. Process and outcome, not means or product, is what determines how drawing enables us to meet the demands of leadership. To simplify the choices we make between pencil and paper, stylus and tablet, or mouse and monitor, I offer the following five key design leadership indicators to better gauge which tool will aid or assist leadership performance and help achieve the innovation that brings change.

  1. ENGAGEMENT. Do I have the information I need to fully understand the needs and issues of the situation at hand? Is the information complete and accurate? Will the vision I am searching for adequately reflect a comprehensive understanding of the existing social, economic and environmental conditions it is my goal to effect?
  2. CONNECTION. Have my means of engaging the situation enabled me to more fully relate to it? Have these means also enabled those who live, work and play there to become better connected to the place and to each other?
  3. DIALOGUE. Will these connections allow for full, open and meaningful discussion? How can these discussions provide a basis of shared understanding by which residents, clients, group members and others can sort priorities and choose from alternatives?
  4. DISCOVERY. Will dialogue lead to an improved understanding of “known” limits? How has the process made prevalent beliefs, attitudes and values more visible? Where are the gaps in the existing context that may enable “what’s next” to emerge?
  5. CHOICE. What are the options? How can we balance creativity with rational objectivity to produce solutions that are both the most advanced and the most acceptable?

In his New York Times column, Mr. Graves says that there is more to the value of drawing than a collection of pretty pictures. I fully agree. The true significance of what is lost if drawing is marginalized, however, is not merely the quality of design practice. It impacts design’s ability to lead not just change, but meaningful and transformative innovation. The tools and technology at our disposal are more varied and powerful than ever before. So the question is not pencil?, stylus? or mouse? The question is: How will I, as a designer, lead? What will I initiate today that will enable me to do something about tomorrow? Whatever it is, I suggest that drawing is a great place to begin.

Authored by Scott Collard

Drawing engages the mind, focuses the eyes and sets designers’ hands in motion in a uniquely integrated way. 

It impacts design’s ability to lead not just change, but meaningful and transformative innovation.

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