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From The Field: Confessions of a Dinosaur

A recent post from the Digital Technology PPN, A Dinosaur in the Digital Age, which featured highlights from an interview with Paul M. Friedberg, FASLA, struck a nerve with some readers-- especially Dennis Carmichael, FASLA. Take a few minutes to read Dennis’ response, Confessions of a Dinosaur.

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CAD is the worst thing to happen to the landscape architecture profession.

There, I said it.

I feel better already.

I’m sure there were some who said the same thing when tree stamps, Kroy machines, and the overlay method of drafting arrived on the scene. Each has come and gone, and the profession has survived. CAD, however, is a little more insidious, because I believe it has not only changed how we represent our ideas, but how we think of them.

Paul Friedberg recently wrote of his use of CAD as a design tool and how he has adapted and grown with the evolution of design tools. I admire him for not only being one of the creative giants of the profession, but also proving that old dogs can learn new tricks. I am an old dog who chooses not to learn new tricks. I say this with the full realization that this makes me a dinosaur, but in my experience, even today, I get better reactions by clients and the public with free-hand drawings than with CAD drawings.

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I recently had a presentation with a client for a preliminary plan that we quickly drew and colored in a day. He loved the concept and asked us to prepare a “marketing quality” plan. Naturally, we went to CAD and Photoshop and produced the usual polished rendered plan, which we sent electronically. His reaction included a word that looked like this: $%#*! He said the plan looked flat and bland and not suitable to send to his investors. So we piled on the textures, shadows, and colors. Two days later, we sent it off and his reaction was, “This is almost as good as the free hand drawing, so I guess it will have to do.” Faint praise for three times as many hours in production.

This made me pause and consider what CAD has done to us. Consider...

CAD makes us slow: Contrary to popular opinion, CAD use is not faster, but slower, than hand drawing. Most would agree with this statement during the formative stages of design, when quick gestural lines can become magic. CAD does not understand the gestural line. It only allows the precisely considered line, and it demands commitment of angle, length, and curve. In the formative stages of design, precision is not only unnecessary, but also destructive to the serendipity of the gesture. Design is a search for the new within the existing, and the quick gesture of one line that leads to another that leads to another is at the heart of that process. With a pen or pencil, a designer can consider, reject, and sort through dozens of ideas in minutes. This gives him or her immediate feedback to refine the thoughts contained on the page. With CAD, the same process takes significantly longer.

CAD makes us blind: CAD drawings are stunningly perfect looking, with precise line quality, crisp tones, and consistent symbols. They are a thing of beauty and clarity when scrubbed. However, the way in which the files are assembled in layers, all magenta, blue, and yellow, blinds us to the content of the layers. How many times has a plot emerged with 2” high letters that say “60’ R.O.W.” right in the middle of the plaza? Because the designers must force themselves to work on one layer at a time, they lose the entirety of the drawing and its context. They cannot see the forest for the trees, quite literally. The amount of wasted plots is staggering as intelligent people are blind to the “hidden” layers, which are actually in plain sight. I do ask folks to look at their work in black and white before plotting, so they become aware of these anomalies, and this self-checking does help, but I do find myself saying, “Would you have drawn these lines, symbols, etc., if you were assembling the drawing from scratch?”  It is the way most drawings are loaded with multiple layers that makes “de-layering” a painful part of the drawing process to get to the perfection of the CAD promise.

CAD makes us dull: CAD is a system of engineered choices created by engineers for the use of engineers. Sorry if I offend engineers, but by its very structure, CAD has a limited menu of lines, hatches, letters, etc. which forces us to accept these limits. Thus, the drawings that are produced have a predictable look and feel to them. As technical drawings, the notion of consistency for quality control is a wonderful attribute and is the best thing about CAD. However, they make for flat and machined drawings. Landscape architecture is a profession that blends art and science, and we are at our best when we can reflect artistic intent with reasoned engineering. Our work should excite and inspire the public, and so we must continue to see ourselves as artists, with landscape as our canvas. Too many times we have created drawings that actually deflate our artistic intent. How many times have we been to a public meeting in which the process is undermined, when the plans are criticized for being “cast in stone” simply because they are so precise?

CAD makes us inflexible: Because CAD is so laborious, intelligent people become reticent to make sweeping changes to design. It is a normal human reaction to resist such change, and therefore quite understandable. However, our profession is all about the evolution of ideas, which encourages change. We have all seen the looks on people’s faces when we ask them to redesign a significant part of a design. One of the promises of CAD was easy revisions, and it is marvelous tool for that because the revision looks as crisp as the original. That said, actually getting all of those revisions done becomes a protracted negotiation among design team members. How many times have we heard, “We will not change the design at all. It’s already in CAD, and we are not going backwards”? That attitude is more pervasive than we would like to admit, and in this case, it is not CAD, but the designers that need to adapt.

CAD is a wonderful tool, but it has a pernicious power to transform us into machine operators rather than artists. There is something powerful about the kinesthetic nature of drawing that is important to our creative process, and we must figure out a way to preserve that as we move forward. My hope is that we are in the beginning stages of the digital revolution and that we will look back on today’s technology and marvel at how quaint the software was back in early twenty-first century.

Until then, I am the dinosaur that awaits the asteroid headed my way as I cling to my pencils. I know how this movie ends, but I have some small hope that a more intuitive digital tool will come along that will preserve the integrity of the hand, the eye, and the brain, working in harmony to produce works of astonishing beauty and stunning clarity.

by Dennis Carmichael, FASLA, LEED AP, principal, ParkerRodriguez INC.

Comments October 31, 2012 6:27 PM
I fully agree with your concerns for simple renderings and evoking emotion through art. I think there is much to be offered from CAD as it relates to the next level of technology. I am a firm believer in accuracy when depicting a concept, and that accuracy should be viewed from all angles. I think 3D is the way to go even if it is using CAD and SketchUp to setup a perspective hand rendering. My favorite methods are to do layouts in CAD and visualize in Visual Nature Studio. There are no other programs capable of accurate artistic display, well until E-on Software releases its next generation of Vue software for designers. CAD maybe the worst thing to happen to landscape architecture, but that is only because we are using it improperly. When taught as a single step towards and end goal it can help us to realize our visions. I am also biased since I just presented on this topic in Phoenix. See the products I'm talking about at November 14, 2012 11:32 PM
One of the problems with CAD (before my retirement) was the propensity of designers to skip the step of developing the design on paper before going to CAD. It was sort of like painting oneself into a corner. The first task should have been to "find the controls", i.e., what physical aspects of the site and adjacent areas cannot be changed and thus would affect the site design and engineering. November 15, 2012 9:14 AM
Thank you! I graduated from an LA program about two years ago and I remember when we switched from hand drafting to CAD and the soulless next two and a half years followed. Perhaps it is my own personal bias coming from an artistic background but I loved sketching and the craftsmanship that went into hand drafting. My OCD appreciates the precision of CAD and ability to get dimensions on the fly but on the other hand there is something about it that takes the personal aspect and joy out of drafting. April 16, 2015 3:40 PM
Mr. Carmichael , Don't feel so alone as you are not one in this regard . As a practicing hand-drawing artist , I share your profound dismay towards this erosion of instinctive process in the course of creative design_ANY field of design . Employing a machine in the thought process creates a DISCONNECT towards a design idea quite unlike when using a pencil which directly translates every nuance straight onto the surface of paper to magically depict what was conceived directly from the brain . I am convinced that this contraption was invented by someone who had great difficulty in making beautiful hand-drawn illustrations as every typical CAD operator draws like a pre-schooler . One could only marvel at excellently-drawn works of art from the cave-dwellers of Lascaux , towards the Renaissance Period artworks , Japanese prints , paintings of the Old Masters/Impressionists , Architects Wagner/ FrankLloydWright/PaulRudolph/HelmutJacoby/ChristopherGrubb's sumptuous artistic renderings , to prove that hand-drawing is SUPERIOR to the machine . To say nothing of the artisanal details of Michelangelo's sculptures and al fresco paintings , the NotreDame's stained-glass panels , Gaudi's divinely-inspired LaSagradaFamilia church ...LouisSullivan's architectural decorations , even . No computer-drawn artworks are ever displayed at the Louvre . Cheers ! June 1, 2015 4:07 PM
A Great Article!
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