Designing using Software or Paper? Which is better?

As an educator, and especially since I work in the digital field, I am constantly asked this question: is it a good idea to design directly in a software (whether AutoCAD, Revit, 3D Max, Archicad, or any other) or should that be avoided and instead design on paper? This is certainly a great discussion topic and unfortunately one with no definitive answer to it. Still, there are certain things to consider when making this decision.

First of all, designing in the computer (using any software*) is definitely faster, since you have tools like copy-paste, zooming-in/out, saving as or using real measurements, which help to keep things cleaner and to make the process a lot faster. Also, the computer software might offer some form exploration tools that can help us to visualize things that otherwise would be difficult to imagine, as well as the option of keeping everything within the same software so we can seamlessly transition to the next stages of the project (the documentation stage for example). Using the computer, we can reuse objects, we can connect with other programs to enhance the design, we can check for potential 3D issues or even generate iterations of the projects in seconds, which helps a lot when trying to perfect our designs.

*Learn more about the different design software programs and which one would work best for you in this post: Which is the Best Software for Architectural Projects

Designing Using Software or Paper - Floor Plan

All of these are great reasons to use the computer to design our projects, but architects/designers as well as design studio instructors have big concerns about this method of designing projects since it might not be as straight forward as it seems. First off, in order for everything said above about the computer to be true, the computer user needs to be an expert in the use of the software. If the user is a novice or has little experience, his/her design will be limited to the number of tools he/she knows how to use in the software. Even some experienced users might have a hard time trying to create the form that they envisioned, which can lead to a “lesser” design. The whole purpose of using a software program is to use it to represent our design ideas and/or to enhance them, not to limit them based on the knowledge we have of it.

Second, a lot of people argue that the connection hand-pencil is way more natural than the connection hand-mouse, and the former can lead to more creative and natural design than the latter. By using pencil and paper, we can let loose our imaginations without any restrictions and focus on what really matters in the project, but using pencil and paper also has some implicit premises. Using pencil and paper means that we know how to sketch properly and that we know of scale, proportion, lineweights, design concepts, etc. It means that we can transfer our ideas into a series of lines that can be perfectly understood by both, the client and by whoever ends up documenting the project.

While designing with paper seems to make more sense because of the outlined reasons, it requires time and practice to master this technique, but also, learning a software program requires time and practice to master, so what is the best way to design? The question is still open and it depends on each person’s skills.

The one important thing to remember when designing is that our design idea should not be compromised at all. As long as we are able to represent our true idea, whether using a computer or using pencil and paper, either way to get there is a good way. We have to analyze our strengths and skills and use them to our advantage while continuing to learn about both: computer programs and hand sketching. In the end, mastering these two methods only opens up a door to even more creative, complex, natural and impressive designs that will certainly help us to stand out from the crowd.