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What’s in a sketch?  thumb

What’s in a sketch? 

Perspective sketch by Christina Gillespie

What’s in a sketch? 

“It’d be good to see more sketching…”

“Minimal sketching in this submission, it would be beneficial to show more…”

“For the next assignment, be sure to sketch more…”

If you’ve ever received feedback like this, you’re in good company. This is an aspect of the design process that a lot of design students struggle with embracing. 

But sketching is something that has a valuable place in spatial design. 

The Importance of Sketching in Spatial Design

Observing space and designs

Firstly, sketching offers us a quick means to document our observations of different spaces and designs. No, these don’t have to be hyper realistic perspective sketches that show every detail. Instead, these are sketches that can be done quickly to explore various aspects of a design that might be helpful for us to understand more deeply to apply to our own designs. 

A good sketch can quickly document the layout of a space, the construction of an object, the atmosphere of design, the light and shadow effects of series of windows, the traffic flow of a busy corridor, and more. 

Thinking through design

Of course, sketching can also help us explore spaces and designs that don’t exist yet. How do you think through the ideas that only exist in your head? 

Sketching is one of the most efficient and effective ways to ‘think on paper’. The sketches you make when observing existing spaces serve as very good practice when it comes to sketching ideas for spaces yet to exist. 

Sketching can help you answer questions about your design ideas when it comes to space. For example, imagine you’re designing a café. With a simple sketch you can answer questions like:

  • Would this area look better with a lower or higher ceiling? 
  • Would this wall work best with a horizontal or vertical texture? 
  • Would the layout work better in a grid of tables and chairs or two long lines? 
  • Would having the counter here or there create better traffic flow with the front door? 
  • Etc. 

You can’t know the answer to these questions just imagining in your mind. Instead a couple of quick sketches gives you something to compare with which you can then make decisions.

Communicating design ideas

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, sketching gives you an opportunity to communicate your design idea to others. Whether it’s to your tutor, your peers, your coworker, or your client, a good sketch can help explain your idea better than just words ever could. Of course, there are other techniques available to designers, but sometimes the quickest technique is putting pen (or pencil) to paper. 

The Sketching for Design Mindset

Because students can sometimes resist the idea of sketching when it comes to design (They’d much rather grab inspiration images instead – read here why that’s not always a great idea!), it’s important to put yourself in the right mindset to embrace sketching. 

Letting go of perfection 

First and foremost, let go of the idea that sketches need to be perfect. Design sketching is not intended to be perfect. Design sketches don’t require any natural talent, and ultimately, it’s about whether or not the idea or space is understood. 

Becoming open to experimentation

Sketching isn’t just pencils on paper. Be willing to experiment. You can experiment with types of pencils and types of paper, but you can also experiment with mixing different media and playing with different techniques. Building up a ‘suitcase’ of sketching techniques means you have options for maximum effectiveness when you need to sketch something out in the future. 


Like anything sketching takes practice. Carry around a sketchbook to start sketching spaces you see. Attend a drawing class just to get some practice. Work through exercises in books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Practising will build your confidence and build your skills.

Types of Sketches for Spatial Design

When it comes to the sketches you produce for spatial design, they often can fall into 3 basic categories.

Perspective Sketch by Tracy Walker

Perspective Sketching

Often, you’ll see perspective sketches, that is sketches that document three dimensions and follow (at least generally) the rules of perspective. This often means understanding the basics of perspective first then becoming a keen observer of space to see how real life can translate to the rules of perspective in a sketch. 

Design Drawing Sketches

You’ll also see a lot of design drawing sketches. This means a sketch version of a plan, a section, elevation, detail, isometric drawing, etc. Again, these sketches should follow (at least generally) the rules of design drawings, but they can be produced quickly and roughly, unlike a more formal technical drawing. 

Abstract Sketches

Of course, there are sketches that don’t have to follow any rules. Maybe it’s sketching a sound, sketching a feeling, etc. Again, sometimes putting just a pencil to paper to try and express these abstract ideas can give you ideas on various design elements and principles to incorporate into your own projects. 

Tools for Design Sketching

Pens / Pencils

Obviously having some sketching or drawing pencils is always helpful. I always recommend students work with HB or 2B pencils for design sketching. 2H or harder often makes the quickness and effectiveness of a sketch difficult to achieve. 

Of course, some people prefer to sketch with pen. When it comes to pens, my biggest recommendation is to make sure you work with different line weights. (Read here to see why.) Fineliner pens with varying thicknesses like .7mm, .5mm, and so on can help you sketch with greater variety and character. 

Watercolours / Markers / More…

Of course, just as above, it’s good to experiment, consider incorporating other media with your sketches. Watercolours, watercolour pencils, illustrator markers, pastels, and more can be a beneficial addition to increase the effectiveness of a sketch. You might also consider experimenting with digital sketching – but make sure you experiment with what digital brushes you use! 

Maybe your sketch needs to document light, colour, texture, etc. Experimenting with additional media can help you successfully communicate these aspects. 


Paper matters too. It’s definitely not the make or break of a great sketch. Whole competitions have been run for sketches that have been made on paper napkins. That said, paying attention to the effects various paper types have with various media can be helpful in making sure your sketch works as you anticipate. If you’re not paying attention, watercolour paper can dry out and pull too much pigment from an illustrator marker. Thin, smooth paper can allow pens to bleed through. Be mindful of the paper you choose and experiment. You’ll figure out what your favourite combinations are.  

The OCA Interior Design Department’s Sketching Space Online Exhibition 2023

Screenshot of home page of online exhibition, perspective sketch by Christina Gillespie and design drawing sketch of model by Tracy Walker.

About the Exhibition

Because sketches are so important, a few weeks ago we held our first Sketching Space Online Exhibition within the interior design department. Sketching continues to be something that is incredibly valuable within this discipline. We wanted to celebrate the sketches our students are producing in this online exhibition. The sketches shown represent well the imperfections and quickness of this technique while also showcasing their effectiveness. 

Click here to view the online exhibition. 

Featured students include Tracy Walker, Vanessa Brunotti, Leaona Underdown, Christina Gillespie, and Liron Moyal. 

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Posted by author: Audrey Bardwell
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2 thoughts on “What’s in a sketch? 

  • I think letting go of perfection is a big step for many people, since studying with the OCA I have learnt that it’s not about perfection but more about communicating my designs, it’s all a learning curve!

    • Absolutely! It can definitely be hard at first, but once you give yourself a break, you can focus on your own learning and the feedback process. If you’re trying to get it perfect on the first (or even second, third,…) try, you’re setting far too high of expectations for yourself. 🙂

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