JDC Spring-2000 v2 - DCA 2000 Keynote: Where We Have Been The Recent History of Design Communication

Issue 2
Spring 2000

Editor's Note: This was a keynote presentation at the Design Communication Association Conference held January 6-8, 2000 at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

DCA 2000 Keynote:  Where We Have Been

The Recent History of Design Communication

by William Kirby Lockard

It's a pleasure to be the first keynote speaker at this 10th anniversary conference of the Design Communication Association. Not long after Bill Stamm came up with the conference organizing theme - of using Y2K as a good place from which to look back over where we have been in the history of design communications, take stock of where we are today, and then look forward to where we may be going in the future - he asked me if I would say something about where we've been. The upside of my speaking was that it would be cheap, since I'm already here and there's no air fare expense to the conference, but the downside, to my way of thinking, is that I am also probably the oldest DCA member Bill could find to speak about the past.

My credentials for making these remarks are: I began teaching at the University of Arizona in 1960; I began working in an architect's office here in Tucson in 1954; and I began my architectural education in 1948 at the University of Illinois, over 50 years ago.  I thought I might have time to do enough research to talk about the deep history of design communications, but soon decided that I should just stick to the 50 years I know about from personal experience. I do think someone in the DCA, ought to research the history of design communications. It would probably have to be pieced together from the accounts of historians writing, primarily, about other subjects, but it would be interesting to know how past designers communicated to others and to themselves. We know in some cases how the design for ancient buildings was communicated to the various people who built the buildings, but as far as I know we have little or no knowledge of how the designs were communicated to clients for approval or what self-communications the ancient environmental designers might have made for themselves, to study the design of those environments.

We  know that originally the education or training for any environmental designer was integral with the practice of building or making the environment. Whatever drawing or model-building there was, was entirely integrated with the process of constructing the building or environment. Young people who wanted to design and build buildings apprenticed to architects or master builders and learned everything they needed to know, including drawing, on the job. There wasn't a separate school for designers and so there were no separate courses in design communication.

It was only with the separation of education from the traditional apprenticeship that the drawing or modeling which represented the imaginary projects were the final products and, in that role, probably became much more important than they had been when they simply served the designing/building process directly. This history reminds us that one of the ways we get in trouble in teaching design communications is when we let what we are teaching get too separated from what is actually being done in design practice.

I began my architectural education during one of those periods when the design communication techniques taught in school were at one of their most extreme sepa-rations from what was actually being done in practice.
Illinois was still under the Beaux Arts system and I was in the last four-year class. The next year Illinois adopted a five-year curriculum and dropped their long association with the old Beaux Arts system. One of the pieces of equipment I had to purchase as a freshman was a very expensive red sable watercolor brush for running ink washes, and one of the first projects I had to do in freshman design was what was called an " analytique". I brought mine with me this morning. It was a composition of classical architectural elements rendered in layer upon layer of ink washes. We were supposed to grind the sticks of India ink into a powder and mix up a big jar of what was to be the lightest tone in the composition. This was called the " mother" wash, beating Saddam Hussein to that sexist expression, " the mother of all washes." We were supposed to run this wash all over the stretched Watman's paper, except for the areas that were to be left white, and we were then supposed to add layer upon layer of that same light wash until we built up the tones to the value of the darkest areas, requiring maybe 20 or 25 coats. Needless to say most of us were soon juicing our mother wash with Higgins India ink right out of the bottle so we could get darker quicker.

But those of my classmates who had worked in architects' offices were ridiculing the whole exercise as being a silly waste of time. They knew that real architects weren't using ink washes to present their work, and hadn't since the advent of black-line and sepia prints made by the diazo process we stole from the Germans after World War II.

It's now hard to imagine that before WWII there was no way to make prints and retain the original drawing or reduce or enlarge drawings except by the time-consuming and expensive negative/positive process of photostats. And even then the slick finish of the finished photostat couldn't be colored in any satisfactory way. There have been many other changes in the fifty years I've been involved in design communication. First, I will talk about the changes in the technology of design communications, then the changes in teaching design communications and a few attitudes and myths about learning that seem to have changed very little, and then I'll give you just a very brief history of this organization.


The first huge technological jump was the diazo process, which quickly replaced the old pre-WWII blueprints. The new blackline or sepia prints could be colored with Prismacolor pencils or the new felt tip markers and had the immense advantage of allowing you to retain the original drawing for other uses or subsequent modifications. We eagerly tried all sorts of variations with the new process in which underexposed prints offered beautiful, even tones which could be cut up and reassembled or used to make middletone renderings. You could even run stacks of various tracing paper masks through a diazo printer to make a composition of different tones. The pinnacle of diazo printing was the light-sensitive coatings on mylar which allowed very slick renderings with the coloring applied to the matte-finish back.

Next came Xerography, white-out and glue sticks, which allowed opaque pasted-up collages to be run through big rotary photocopiers and come out as facsimile originals on tracing paper, never betraying the fact that they were a glued-together pastiche of clip art. These facsimile originals were still open to all the variations that had been developed for the diazo print technology.

Another parallel development in design communication, and one of the reasons drawing seemed less important for awhile, has been the coincidence of an architectural style and a model-making technique. The neo-Corbusian, Richard Meier style of architecture was able to be modeled satisfactorily, even by first-year architecture students, with white Strathmore board or even better, white museum board. The resulting models and photographs of them, were so much like the buildings they represented that they made drawings, especially exterior perspectives, seem superfluous. This led a generation of architects to assume they didn't need to learn how to draw, as long as they designed in that style.

The most recent and by far the most profound change in the last 20 years has been the development of computer graphics and although it is too soon to make any final assessments of the computer's impact, they are here to stay and they bring with them some amazing capabilities, as well as some seductive pitfalls. The one great technological leap that is seldom mentioned is the invention of inexpensive tracing paper. The ability to overlay a design and see both the last iteration simultaneously and its potential improvement is remarkable and under-appreciated. Wouldn't you like to be able to put down a tracing paper overlay over last Wednesday, or maybe the whole month of November and make some improvements?

The Teaching of Design Communications

The history of drawing in design education has been plagued by certain attitudes and myths about drawing ability and its value. Perhaps the most pernicious myth is that drawing is a skill that has no intellectual content and is distinctly below the realms of intellect and theory. I believe this is nothing more than an architectural version of the social class system which we inherited from England, where the distance your birth separated you from actual work, even relatively clean hand work like drawing, was a measure of your social level. This is why John Ruskin was unsuccessful in instituting a school of architecture at Oxford, but was forced to found Oxford Polytechnic at a suitable physical distance, and a supposedly infinitely greater intellectual distance, from the higher halls of learning. To go even further back, it is like the advice Phillip of Macedon is supposed to have given his son, Alexander, that it was not necessary for him to actually learn music or the arts, since his proper princely role was to become a connoisseur of such activities, so that his court might select the best of them. Alexander didn't follow that advice in leading his armies, where he was one of the last of the conquerors to actually physically lead his troops in battle.

This prejudice is also similar to the academic class system which separates and denigrates the teaching of skills compared to the supposedly loftier teaching of theory, and is perpetuated by some of our fellow teachers and administrators who believe that drawing is a secondary individual skill and that the teaching of it has no place, or at best a very low place, in a university curriculum. It is always curious to me, over the years I've observed these matters, that the strength with which those negative opinions about the value of the teaching and learning of drawing are held is almost always inversely proportional to the holder's own personal drawing ability. It is almost always a self-justifying opinion, as are the class prejudices which are its roots.

A similar myth, which still plagues drawing, is that the ability to draw is either a providential gift or a genetic accident: a talent. In the fifty years I have known and observed students and fellow teachers who draw well I have found that drawing ability is the product of years of very hard work, and that if it is in any sense a gift, it is always the gift of caring parents, siblings, friends, or teachers. To adopt the talent myth is to take away the credit that intelligent, diligent students deserve for learning to draw, and that good teachers deserve for helping them. The talent myth has been the excuse for lazy learning and inept teaching, and for the professional design schools not taking the responsibility for teaching drawing.

A designer certainly needs other skills besides drawing. There is a legend that Giotto was once being interviewed for a design commission and for his presentation he simply rose from his seat, laid down a blank piece of paper on the table the interviewers were gathered around and, freehand, drew a perfect circle on the paper and left the room. The legend doesn't tell us whether he got the job or not and, thankfully, designers are chosen for much more than their drawing ability today. At the other end of the scale, Phillip Johnson is alleged to have gotten through Harvard's Graduate School of Design without making any of his own presentation drawings, by hiring draftsmen to draw up his designs.

When I began to teach, one of the courses I was given was the second-year drawing course. The only books available were by Ted Kautzky for pencil drawing, Arthur Guptill for pen and ink, and Albert Halse for a collection of rather formal presentation techniques. Kautzky and Guptill were artists, not designers, and Halse taught a rendering course at Columbia and as far as I know never practiced architecture. There were no books about the quick, rough conceptual sketches and diagrams that designers use in the process of designing anything, no theories about drawing's relationship to the design process, and no explanations of the diazo printing process technique being used in architects' offices.

So I responded to that lack by writing a book of my own to use in class, which became Drawing as a Means to Architecture, first published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1968. The first copies of the homemade book were 11" x 17" and my dad, a banker who knew nothing about publishing, took one look at it and pronounced that bookstores wouldn't be interested because it wouldn't fit on their shelves. Jean Koefoed, Reinhold's editor agreed. When he called me to say he wanted to publish the book I'd sent him, the first thing he insisted on was that I reduce the size to 8 1/2" x 11". I agreed, but foolishly insisted on redrawing all the drawings so they would appear at the same size as they were drawn, which took over a year.

I happened to be in the right place at the right time and Drawing as a Means to Architecture had a role in stimulating the appearance of the many excellent books that are now available to those who try to teach design students how to draw. The books of Tim White, Paul Laseau, Steve Oles, Mike Doyle, Frank Ching, and Kevin Forseth, all practicing designers, are infinitely better than Kautzky and Guptill.  The scholarly, theoretical literature of design communications surpasses that of any other category of the professional design curriculum, and makes it so much easier to teach and learn how to communicate design ideas than when I began to teach. It is much easier to learn to draw today because of the contributions of these teachers, and more of a shame when design students come to believe that drawing isn't important or isn't worth their while to learn.
What I feel bad about is that now there are fewer design schools who teach drawing than when I began teaching. Too many of our fellow educators ask beginning design students to present their ideas in a form of communication they have never been taught, and the humiliation they suffer in trying to communicate their ideas with their awkward drawings is unnecessary and inhumane. The teachers who evaluate their work cannot not see their clumsy communications or not be influenced by them, and the perception of their assumed lack of talent is as vicious as any other form of discrimination. This is especially regrettable because of all the skills a good designer needs, drawing is the most learnable.

Modern design education was heavily influenced by Walter Gropius's Bauhaus and that influence was not particularly favorable to drawing, perhaps because Gropius and the design teachers he assembled were not great delineators and relied more on model-building. Gropius's reign at Harvard led a definite shift away from drawing toward modelmaking, especially because the simplified rectilinear forms of modern buildings could be so effectively modeled.

The next great influence that worked against drawing came from the British methodologists, led by Christopher Jones who, in his book Design Methods , specifically denigrated what he called " design by drawing." The various apologists for not drawing, however, were also influenced by broader trends in our society, and in design education.

Historically, elementary and secondary education valued handskills as an integral part of education and spent time teaching penmanship, drawing, woodworking, and sewing. This attitude in the schools was solidly reinforced in the home, where skills like quilting and carpentry were valued for their necessity and their pleasure. This meant that design education could get away with merely selecting and encouraging students who could already draw, because such a society produced plenty of people with a " talent" for drawing. Professional design schools often delegated drawing instruction to the engineering or art faculties, or, when this support wasn't available, assigned it to the most junior faculty, who abandoned the courses the moment a newer faculty member appeared.

Both home life and education have changed profoundly in the last 50 years. The handskills that once were a distinguishing characteristic are today simply curious or perhaps even embarrassing. Time-consuming handwork has been in a steady decline, along with the value and dignity of all physical labor. To spend long periods of time alone making anything by hand, particularly if the skill itself takes a long time to master, is generally considered to be eccentric and certainly is not associated with satisfaction and pleasure as it once was.

Our schools also seem to have lost the will or the patience to teach abilities like handwriting - or even grammar or spelling for that matter - which require repetitive correction on an individual basis. It is much easier to show films or discuss ideas verbally than to take great stacks of papers home for correction. With all these changes, it is hardly surprising that so few students nowadays seem to have the "gift" of drawing.

Concurrently, the last 30 years have seen a steady devaluation of drawing in the professional design schools. There are a number of reasons for this, all of them understandable, and some justifiable. There was the realization that the traditional emphasis on drawing ability was unfair to students who happened to have little previous drawing experience. Instead of trying to equalize these individual differences by taking on the responsibility for teaching everyone to draw, however, the equalization was attempted through the promotion of other forms of communication: verbal descriptions, analytical diagrams, and models. These changes were rationalized by claims that drawings are misleading and generally less dependable than models or even analytical diagrams.

Drawing was also denigrated because it was associated with the academic formalism of the Ecole de Beaux Arts, and the overemphasis on elaborate presentation drawings was taken to be symptomatic of an overemphasis on formal visual qualities which were seen as cosmetic and superficial. In its most extreme form,  this new view of architecture held that beautiful drawings were the first clue to design decadence, and the ability to make beautiful drawings and especially to enjoy their making was to be avoided and denied.

The design methodologists found it easy to build on this devaluation of drawing and the misunderstanding of drawing's relationship to the design process. Most methodologists assume that drawing is or should be simply the neutral printing out of decisions already made in the clear light of logical " problem solving." They generally mistrust drawing as some sort of irrational ritual, preferring various quantitative analytical models, and their influence has contributed to the general devaluation of design drawing.

Underlying all these reasons for drawing's deemphasis is the persistent attempt to turn environmental design into a science. Scientism would replace the cultural certainty of tradition or the academic certainty of a particular style with the scientific certainty of methodówhat Colin Rowe has called " physics envy." And this latest search for certainty is just as futile as the others. It has affected drawing by assuming that, like science, we need a series of meta-languages representing certain unseen but ever present and all important environmental qualities. Just like the neutrinos of subatomic physicists and the black holes of astronomers, scientism insists that there are unseen environmental problems that we must identify, analyze, represent, and solve. We thus get matrices, graphs, decision trees, interaction nets, endless box-and-arrow diagrams, and other pseudoscientific notations that supposedly represent critical, but invisible, characteristics of an environment or the design process. The analysis these various graphic tools allow is certainly beneficial, but it cannot replace the synthesis represented in traditional design drawings. What the proponents of the various problem-solving languages seem to forget is that, unlike the explorations of science beyond the macro- and micro-scales of human vision, environmental design exists at human scale. Environmental qualities must be directly perceivable by human beings, and we have had the graphic means to represent such environmental qualities for a long time.

A more recent challenge to the value of learning to draw is the computer. In spite of the persistent claims of computer advocates and the obvious benefits of computer graphics, however, it is increasingly clear that the computer is only another tool, albeit a very sophisticated one. It helps us make uncreative, automatic, and repetitive graphic images for communicating and constructing a design once that design has been determined. Computers show little or no sign of being much help in making the personal conceptual drawings that explore, synthesize, and lead a designer to commit to a particular design.

The speed with which all these changes in the teaching of drawing occurred is perhaps unique to American academia. Bright young students who never learned to draw could, witin a year or two, have earned a master's degree and be telling a whole classroom full of slightly younger students that they really didn't need to learn to draw because drawings are essentially misleading and, when absolutely necessary, can be produced by underlings or machines. These young teachers never need to actually say anything about the value of learning to draw because their lack of respect for the ability is apparent in their design teaching and, as far as they know is correct, since they may never have experienced the  necessity of drawing in practice. Meanwhile, back at the office, the typical architect, landscape architect, or interior designer keeps wondering why recent graduates cannot draw and are not even convinced they need to learn.

Drawing teachers have tried to resist the devaluing of learning and teaching drawing by recently insisting on a semantic upgrading of what they do from teaching drawing to teaching " design communications," very much like changing " janitor" to " custodian" or " maintenance engineer." Calling what we teach " design communications" is actually an excellent, broadening change, but we have yet to take the change or what we can do within it, seriously.

We must recognize that practicing designers spend much more time communicating verbally than graphically and that only a fool would ever let the drawings " speak for themselves." We must help our students learn to be verbally clear and convincing in explaining their designs, and eloquent in describing the design's environmental qualities. We must teach our students that leaving every client with a clear, convincing rationale for the design of the environment they were commissioned to design is part of a designer's professional responsibility.

We must also research client communications, beginning with questioning our traditional ways of communicating. We should ask ourselves when a client tries her best to communicate her wishes by bringing us clippings and pictures of environments she admires, why we respond with orthographic plans, sections, and elevations, which is a completely different language. We should develop techniques for communicating with clients in whatever language they best understand, not always insisting that they learn ours. We should ask ourselves who we really make our most beautiful, formal drawings for - our clients or other architects - and do they communicate the real qualities and experience of the building to the client?

We should insist that the philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his ideas about how to achieve clear communication and what he calls " communicative rationality" has a lot more to teach us than Jacques Derrida and his ideas about deconstruction. If we take the responsibility we have claimed seriously, we can extend the drawing ability we have traditionally taught to combine creatively with all the other communication skills, and in the process contribute a great deal more than we have so far imagined.

The History of The Design Communication Association

I'd like to conclude with a brief history of the Design Communication Association as I've experienced it. The roots of an association of drawing teachers, for me, go back to the time Tim White joined our faculty. I had just published Drawing as a Means to Architecture and he soon published his Graphic Vocabulary for Pen and Ink Drawing. Soon afterward Bill Stamm joined our faculty and the three of us team-taught the second-year graphics course. I found the teaching and the conversations we had about teaching and learning drawing to be stimulating and rewarding. One summer Tim and I offered a design graphics workshop, which we continued for 10 years or so, occasionally with Bill's help, even after Tim moved to Florida A&M. Old friends like Maelee Thompson, Anne Taylor, and Leighton Liu date from that time. It also became apparent that we shared a common interest in design communications with teachers of landscape architecture and interior design, who began to show up at our workshops. About the same time, I got to know Paul Laseau and Steve Oles when they called about their negotiations with Van Nostrand Reinhold for the publication of their books. Paul called first and later when Steve called he allowed as how I was probably putting too much of a western spin on my pronunciation of Paul's beautiful French surname, which I was calling,"Lasso." Soon after that I met Mike Doyle at the University of Colorado in Boulder when Bob Utzinger invited me up there to talk about drawing. Mike was teaching their drawing courses and working on the beautiful book that became Color Drawing.

Then, just a couple of years later, maybe in 1983, Tim McGinty at Arizona State convened a workshop for his students that brought together Tim and me, Paul, Bob Greenstreet from Milwaukee, Jim Donnette from Washington, and Tom Laging from Nebraska, and we spent some time talking about common interests and the need for communication among ourselves. Meanwhile, my wife Peggy and I, following Tim's example, had begun self-publishing my books and in the process of marketing them, had collected a mailing list of graphics teachers in all the schools of architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design, including community colleges; and it occurred to me that we could use that mailing list to determine if other teachers would be interested in supporting a journal.

Paul Laseau and I recruited an editorial board and, in 1984, after a preliminary mailing of a roughed-out newsletter got a very good response, we published the initial issue of REPRESENTATION: the Journal of Graphic Education and a couple of JGE newsletters. Most of the editorial board became stalwart members of the DCA: Jim Donnette, Kevin Forseth, Joan McLain-Kark, Tim McGinty, Steve Oles, Sarah Recken, and Tim White. Paul edited, designed and pasted up the journal, and I did the newsletter and managed the printing and mailing. We produced three or four very respectable issues of the journal, ending with the Summer 1986 issue, without any outside help except the typesetting contributed by Ball State, the editorial boards' and others articles, Paul's and my time, and some out-of-pocket expenses contributed by Pepper Publishing.  It was fun and we had plenty of interest and dues-paying members. We just didn't have the time, the organization, or the institutional support to continue.

Having the nagging sense that an organization of design drawing teachers was still a good idea, I decided to see if our faculty at Arizona would be interested in hosting a conference to explore the possibility of founding a Design Communication Association. With the strong support of Chuck Albanese and the late Doug Macneil, as well as adjunct faculty Carl Rald, Warren Hampton, and Rocky Brittain, our faculty agreed to host a conference, and Dean Bob Hershberger gave us a commitment of part-time secretarial help.

The initial conference held in Tucson in January of 1989 was a great success. The assembled group of interdisciplinary teachers decided to form an association, publish a newsletter and a journal, and lobby their schools to become institutional members. Since then we have held conferences at Arizona in '90, '94, '96. '98. and '2000, at Texas A&M in '91,  at Auburn in '93 and in 2002 at Clemson. The association's conferences have provided the opportunity for young teachers to present papers and meet senior faculty from other schools who can serve as peer reviewers in the promotion and tenure process. Several new books have grown out of the opportunity to meet publishers at the conferences and the speakers, papers, and conver-sations at the conferences have been a source of stimulation and inspiration. The association has come a long way, but we are just beginning to see the  potential  for what we can do together.

After centuries of being considered an essential skill for environmental designers, drawing has, in the past 50 years, been strongly challenged in the several ways I spoke of earlier. These challenges have resulted in a diminishing and weakening of drawing courses in our curricula.  Despite the devalua-tion of drawing by many design educators, most environmental design-ers continue us-ing drawing as the best representational tool available to designers, much like the ability to play a piano serves composers. In spite of the illusions of some design educators and their graduates, practicing designers still draw by hand and want the graduates they hire to be able to draw by hand. Most of them consider CAD skills essential, but only in addition to basic traditional drawing ability, not as its replacement.

Being able to draw the environment you are designing so that it is believable to you and to your clients, and so that you can imagine it built and being used by people, is fundamental in visualizing any design's success. Unless we can accept and believe our own representations of the environment, we can never be sure about the success of our proposed designs.

Just as the ability to correctly anticipate and visualize critical human situations is a source of great personal confidence, the ability to make drawings that you can accept as reliable predictors of the qualities of any environment you are designing is one of the surest foundations of conceptual confidence for a designer. Accurately anticipating a future for which you are professionally responsible is the primary purpose of design drawing. We must rededicate ourselves to the serious teaching of drawing in the early years of design education because drawing remains the best way to visualize what we are designing, and because drawing is more learnable today than it has ever been.

I am thankful to have been able to spend most of my life helping design students learn to draw, and I am especially thankful for having been able to know so many teachers like yourselves who are committed to the same values I believe in. We need to continue to stand up for the value and importance of design communication and take the responsibility for broadening the understanding our new name implies.