Drawing will make you a better designer

Studio Function
Studio Function
Published in
7 min readMay 4, 2016


We like to think of design as a language. The ideas of vocabulary, grammar, tone, and pronunciation all have analogous visual counterparts. We find it’s a powerful metaphor to help new designers deepen their abilities in a meaningful way.

One of the most important skills to have when learning a new language (from our personal experience) is listening. The ability to listen is the gateway to advances in other fundamental areas. It lets the student pick up nuances of local dialects, notice more casual forms of grammar, and learn new words. Without the ability to listen, the student’s progress is slowed dramatically and they may never attain a fluent grasp of the language they are studying.

The parallel to listening in visual design is the act of seeing.

To be a competent visual designer a person must first develop articulate vision. Seeing in design is the gateway to all things that follow — how else can someone hope to create beautiful, meaningful things if they can’t spot those details in the first place?

The goal is to train yourself to notice and understand more of the world around you, then take that understanding and have it positively impact your abilities as a designer.

If you are new to design, or new to drawing — fear not! There are easy ways to get you off the ground and making good progress. Here are some introductory exercises you can try to build sketching (and seeing!) into your weekly routine:

#1 — Amiable Abstraction

Every kind of drawing is an abstraction to some degree. Even the most realistic pencil images aren’t an exact replication of the subject or original image. They use lines, points, and shading techniques to reproduce what we see with our eyes. The takeaway here is that every drawing is a departure from the real world, even the most realistic images.

Despite looking hyper realistic, these incredible images by Armin Mersmann are graphite representations of actual subjects.

Abstraction is important because it’s a key component of conceptual thinking. It teaches a designer to first understand which elements are essential to the object (or idea) and then experiment with how those elements can be represented and combined visually.

Illustrators like Sam Island have mastered the art of communicating with minimal amounts of visual data.

In design, abstraction is essential to finding simple, interesting representations of various concepts. This is a skill at the centre of icon design, logomark design, and for other challenges like the creation of infographics and supporting page visuals.

By practising abstraction, a designer learns to assess things in terms of core forms and characteristics. This allows them to create beautifully simple, potently obvious, or curiously coy images to represent different objects and ideas.


Pick an object — something that you know well, or something from your environment. Draw three versions of that object: one more realistic, one more abstracted, and one bare minimum. Once you’ve become more familiar with the shapes, try a quick icon version as well.

Use this exercise to test the limits of recognizability before the object becomes indecipherable. Experiment with how much visual data is required to communicate successfully.

#2 — Crafting Curves

If concept is one side of the design coin, execution is definitely the other. An idea can be powerful, but it needs quality execution to successfully connect with the viewer. When it comes to visual craft, curved lines are where a lot of designs absolutely shit the bed.

Curves are inherently tricky. They’re organic, fluid, and not easy to create manually. For generations, a huge variety of craftspeople (from wooden shoe makers, to architects) have spent their lives trying to master the curve.

For projects both great and small, a well-executed curve is destined to be pleasing. (Left: Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre / Right: Photo by Rene Mensen CC by 2.0)

The stakes are arguably less high in visual design (no one’s yet died from a crappy pen line, hopefully), yet 2D contours are still of major importance.

Curved lines dominate typography and lettering. Curves can create and define the quality of a logo. Curves add motion and warmth to visual design. If they are not executed properly, they quickly become eyesores.

Try to spot the awkward curved lines in the images above.
The old Bing logo had particularly horrible curves. Three problem area have been highlighted, but see if you can spot more. (Note that these blips may be the result of some unfortunate SVG autotrace? We can only hope.)

The trick to being able to create good curves is first being able to see when a curve is poor. Awkward humps, notches, and flat ridges are all the enemy of a quality arc.


The only way to get better at recognizing good curves is to practice drawing them. Letters are a great way to start with a pen or pencil. Pick some of your favourite swooping characters from a great typeface and render them in your sketchbook. Draw large to give your hand and eyes an advantage. Study the nature of your line and refine it by ‘sculpting’ with your drawing tool until the curve looks great!

You don’t need to nail the curve on your first try. Instead, try sculpting out the shape by slowly building the curve from the inside out.

When working with the pen tool, try tracing some of your favourite letters using the fewest anchor points possible.

Generally speaking, the fewer anchor points in a curve, the purer/smoother it will be!

#3 — Spatial Savviness

We’re all occasionally guilty of taking our 3-dimensional world for granted. It can be difficult to appreciate the beauty of perspective when it’s lunch time, or when your twitter is blowing up.

Space is beautiful, when you stop to consider it. Even the most benign rooms can bend away into the distance. Additional to this are the effects of light and shadow, and how they both contribute to a true sense of spatial orientation.

Christopher Miller (row 1) and Cenniveve (row 2) constantly display a great appreciation for exteriors and interiors.

By paying more attention to space, new designers can start building an appreciation for structure, alignment, scale, depth, and the behaviour of light. These characteristics each have an important role to play in the creation of successful, dynamic 2-dimensional layouts and images.


Take note when you enter a space that has some interesting quality. It could be the subway car stretching into infinity, a street scene, or maybe some ceiling detail in a waiting room. Loosely sketch that space, but don’t worry too much about details or fancy shading — just try to capture some of the critical lines and angles that represent your perspective.

Sketch IRL if you have time, or snap a quick pic and try to recreate the image later.

#4 — Intimate Imagination

We’re not talking about that kind of intimacy, so don’t get too excited… This point focuses on training the mind to imagine objects or picture them from various points of view. It’s about expanding your visual vocabulary and your ability to visualize.

All objects contain a certain amount of visual data. Learning to envision an object without seeing it will help any designer become better at visualizing layouts and other intangible concepts. Photo by Leta Sobierajski.

Once developed, this visualization skill can be positively applied to your layout design process, type selection/pairing process, and colour picking.


Ask yourself — what does a penguin look like? How about a kid riding a bike from a bird’s eye perspective? A ball glove? The last person you swiped right on tinder? Give it a think before you scurry off to look it up.

Try your best to draw the objects or scenes that you think of, then check later to see how accurate you were.

This is a fun (and sometimes embarrassing!) little exercise you can do almost anytime.

Drawing by hand might seem like a dated pastime, but really it’s a multifaceted workout routine for many of the skills required in visual design.

Make time for it every week and soon enough you’ll notice improvements in other aspects of your craft!



Studio Function
Studio Function

We’re a Toronto-based design studio focused on the propagation of meaningful solutions to communication design challenges.