THE (STILL RELEVANT) ROLE OF HAND DRAWING: How Moss Uses Drawings in Design & Architecture


Moss uses hand drawing in a variety of design stages: to explore concepts and ideas, illustrate mechanical relationships, communicate and (collaborate) with our clients; and on our blog to tell a better and more visually interesting story. In this post, we look into a brief history of drawing as a stage for fabrication, and how hand drawings and sketches play a role in our design process.


Before AutoCad and SketchUp, architects had to draw by hand like everyone else. Except their drawings had to be absolutely perfect or else a roof might fall on someone after being supported by only three columns instead of four. Whoops. The first known drawings are clocked in at 30,000 to 10,000 B.C.E., but drawings quickly evolved from a form of artistic expression to the foundation for other work, such as city planning, inventing, and of course, architecture. Precise drawings allowed for architects to be exact when constructing, visualizing, measuring, and making any necessary changes to their projects—all before taking them off the page where errors, mistakes and other setbacks could be costly, cumbersome or deadly, as aforementioned. It is much easier to draw a multi-story palace for the reigning king to make sure he has that extra bird sanctuary then to get halfway through construction, realize you made it two sizes two small, and get ready to join the witness protection program.

Enter AutoCAD (or Computer Aided Design), which began to make waves in the drafting world as early as the 1950s. This program allowed for the creation of detailed technical drawings on a computer, which as you can imagine was highly beneficial. Being able to easily collaborate on a file, whether across the room, or across the ocean, was a huge time saver. A standardized program between important parties comes in mighty handy when communicating with mechanical professionals, contractors and The City.

Which one gives the bigger picture better? Our rendering (right); or the autocad drawing (left) (Note the drawings are not of the same project, but you get the idea)

Architectural renderings, or conceptual illustrations that include design attributes, received the help of computer programs too. These visualizations of proposed projects often include important contextual information, such as people, trees, the street where the project will live, weather conditions, and shadows. These renderings can be complex enough to look like they belong in a sci-fi movie, or less layered and more reliant on personal flourishes such as line work and style. Renderings help communicate the final product to not only the team working on the project and the client, but to the general public and city as well.


While it can be uncommon these days to see hand drawn renderings, or even logos or spatial concepts, here at moss we enjoy creating several 3-D conceptual drawings, and multiple loose sketches for each project, even though we still use AutoCAD for our technical drawing sets. Not only do we use quick sketches to show placement and spacing, we do more detailed 3-D drawings to indicate perspective, material and a sense of space. To explain technical concepts, like energy flow throughout a multi-story building, or passive cooling to a client, we will sometimes quickly sketch it, which often does wonders for clarity and bypassing archi-speak. In addition, we often dress up our blog posts with some sketches, which are both a fun, creative exercise, and add some visual interest to our written entries.

Not to mention, sketching saves time and money. You can quickly sketch out seven different placements of shelving in the time it would take to produce seven diagrams on the computer.

Hand drawn images for our new project on Diversey, which will serve as our new office space and commercial leasable space. The drawings and rendering provide a visual for prospective tenants and our new neighbors so they can envision what the rehabbed building will look like.


There is no shortage of studies about how putting a pen to paper benefits our learning, processing and retention of ideas (not saying it is superior, but there’s a reason taking notes is so satisfying; it works!). Exploring ideas on paper allows us to quickly assess multiple options without judgment.  We’ve all been there: the dreaded blank page or blinking computer screen is so much pressure that we become creatively blocked. Each and every idea gets thrown in the digital trash. Or we spend so long on one idea that we feel overly attached to it because of all the time we’ve invested.

Removing the judgment, pressure, and investment of time and money can lead to new and innovative solutions and sophisticated understanding that we can easily sort through and find superior ideas, attachment-free. Drawing also activates the abstract thinking part of the brain, which speaks in different ways than the verbal and critical can. There is a reason sketchbooks have so many flimsy pages—they are there to use! Although at moss we sometimes use scratch computer paper.  Drawing also has a way of distilling complex information to just the essentials, helping ideas like pattern, composition and relationship—particularly with how it creates a sense of emotion in a space—emerge with just a few pen strokes.

“For me, sketching by hand with a pencil is a great way to quickly test ideas of how space is made and materials come together,” says our architect Drew Bayley. “The act of drawing allows my hand to do the thinking, allowing ideas in my head to escape into the tangible world, be reviewed, altered and revised in an iterative process. I find the eraser to be just as important as the graphite in a pencil.”

Case Study: From Mussel to Multi-function Outdoor Space

We proposed a new development scheme for the North Branch canal, Kayak River Park. The vibrant project includes floating islands with wild grass, places for people to swim alongside the river, and a viable habitat for attracting and coexisting with wildlife. We also added a concert venue. Our drawings served the project in several design development phases.

For one, we drew from the history and biology of the (now extinct) freshwater mussel for design inspiration—the mussels acted as water filters so we envisioned floating plant islands that would work in harmony with fish to filter the water similarly. Our curved units anchored to the wall in a design nod to our mussel pals. These sketches were quick and demonstrative.

Then we used more detailed sketches with overlaid textures to show an aerial view of the river, and the proposed use for the space, complete with swimmers for context.


“Clients respond well to sketches. While computer modeling and CAD drawings are great for precision, sketching can help loosen the reigns during schematic design,” says Chris Koster, one of our Designers. “Showing clients design ideas on the computer at such an early phase, can give the client the feeling that the project is set in stone and more difficult to change. Sketching gives a client the perception that design details are malleable and open to adjustments and suggestions.”

These drawings explore different ways to access storage, both high and low, as well as guardrail options for the second floor. These sketches are for a penthouse in the West Loop.

Right: The layered drawing conveys lighting, mechanical and structural elements working together. It is often difficult for a client to grasp these elements and this type of simple 3-D drawing helps them with visualization. Left: four different screen options for the Jordano Photography Studio Fence. Sketches quickly communicate multiple ideas to the client.

Case Study: Jordano Photography Studio

For our Jordano Photography Studio, we used simple, yet demonstrative, drawings with texture, scale and pattern to show our ideas for a corten steel fence. We played with different visual schemes easily with the help of our trusty microns, and were able to get our client involved without speaking the same software lingo.


“Sketching/drawing is a universal skill, and therefore can be inviting for clients to participate in while discussing initial ideas. Creativity wise, it is freeing and you’re not limited by how well you can operate a specific software,” says Lety Murray, another one of our Designers. “Finally, sketching, like writing, is a skill that can be improved the more you do it.”

Case Study: Clark Street Plaza

When the Park Lincoln Apartments on Clark by Reside needed an entrance canopy facelift, we gave them a redesign that would stand apart from the crowd (the crowd being concrete). We decided on adding an accent color to break up the dreary grey, and extended the canopy of the entrance to cover entrants and passersby from the elements. Check out our multiple perspective drawings, placement studies, and concept sketches below.

We meticulously designed the signage by hand, too! (hats off the Chris for that one.)


“I think sketching provides a better overview for the contractors building the project. The perspective/isometric view tells more of a story than a flat, 2-dimensional drawing,” says our Principal and founder Matt Nardella. “For instance at Campus Dogs, when we had a meeting with the General Contractor during construction we would usually discuss the details using the 3D sketch, rather than the interior elevations.”

Case Study: Campus Dogs & Deli

We had a triangular space on hand that our client wanted to transform into an artisan sandwich and hot dog shop with interior seating and ample sunlight. This called for our sketchbook to show them our ideas for material (see wood and stainless steel texture, above) and a 3-D drawing that would place them on the scene with our design solutions for maximizing space and sunlight. Read more about Campus Dogs & Deli here.

Case Study: Wild Blossom

Our meadery design for Wild Blossom was inspired by the honeycombs that bees tirelessly create. The hexagonal shape of the comb cells is repetitive throughout the design.

Above, our overview of the meadery. Next to it, we used a detailed sketch of a bee to explain his crucial role in mead production.

Top right, the counter has hexagonal cell cutouts near counter signage

Case Study: Adding Visual Interest to Our Blog

When it comes to our blog, we enjoy having fun with pens, pencils, watercolors and photoshop. The more different styles, the merrier. Not only do we enjoy adding visual interest and value to our text posts, it helps underscore points in ways that words sometimes can’t. Whether it’s describing different window types, illustrating a scientific concept (would you rather see the water cycle explained, or drawn?) or creating a sense of time and place for a historical piece, we can’t get enough of our hand drawn images.

And there you have it. A sample of the various ways we use good old fashioned ink and parchment (or felt and computer sheets, as it were) as part of our design process.