The Future of Technical Drawing

Why talk about technical drawing at all? Why think about its past, or reflect on its current state? Why try to envision its future? Or imagine it even has a future, when it’s typical these days it seems part of the standard discourse in some circles — to dismiss the future of technical drawing, to doubt it even has a future, any future whatsoever.

Typical discourse treats technical drawing either as obsolete, or otherwise as “finished”:

  1. Technical drawing is claimed by some to have been surpassed (by models), that it’s archaic, obsolete, that it should be abandoned, and forgotten except in museums.
  2. Alternatively, technical drawing is thought to have reached already its apex of expression, its form, already as good as it will ever get. That being the case, reflections on its potential to evolve are less than worthless. “Less than” because such reflections are inconceivable. They occur to no one. So, there’s nothing either to encourage or dismiss. No value to measure.

These, we’re told, are the available options for technical drawing: obsolescence or permanent stasis.

There are some exceptions though. Automation is seeing new life again. Here are a couple of examples: and BricsCAD BIM automated symbols, labels, styles, per drawing type. These are definitely worthwhile but they’re not changes in drawing’s form.

Let’s make a note here about the difficulty of talking about, and proposing, changes in drawing’s form. It takes some kind of madness to want to do that. It’s not for lack of potential for change. Whether anyone sees it or not, yet, there is tremendous potential, for innovating drawing’s form.

It’s like the potential energy built up by a lake behind a dam. The potential, the energy in the lake, comes precisely from digital modeling itself, the fact of it. Digital modeling — in its various forms, in the platforms supporting it, the hardware displaying it, the diversity of industries exploiting it, the profound insight/knowledge/skill/experience in so many domains (hint: don’t forget the film industry) — this is the fertile ground in which technical drawing can evolve.

The resistance, though, to innovation in technical drawing’s form, is mostly just inertial, habit, familiarity: things as they are, keep things as they are.

But there’s another barrier. Change is difficult, technically. Look at Ralph Grabowski’s latest piece, an eye opener as always: The difficulties, and the very long timelines involved in even partial solutions to shared problems, even on the modeling side of the equation where the resources (money) have been applied, tends to make problems look intractable, and evolution seem, well, …Darwinian (it takes millions of years).

Fear not

Personally, I first encountered these ideas — about the dismissal, and abandonment, of drawing — in 2003 while working in an architectural firm building BIMs and documenting them through construction drawings.

2003: “Drawing is obsolete, needs to be kicked down the back stair into the dustbin of history.”

2014: “oh well, maybe not; drawing can continue (in a side-car) as it is.”

When I heard that in 2003, I thought it was a remarkable idea. Remarkable in a negative way. It seemed to me like thinking gone off the rails. Because I knew models and I knew drawings. I knew the value of each. I’d spent a lot of time on both. And, I’d already begun recognizing something, that they’re functionally different things, with different but related, or inter-related, purposes.

It didn’t strike me as sensible to say that you could throw away half of the (model-drawing) equation, nor that you’d want to.

But I couldn’t articulate why I thought so at the time. And I was pretty busy getting work done, on those models and those drawings. It’s a full time job. So, I put it aside for a few years and forgot about it. Sort of. I mean, the guy who said that was really smart in fact (I just kept thinking about that historical trash can at the bottom of the stair jammed full of now-useless drawings). So, a bit of cognitive dissonance set in as I couldn’t reconcile that (extreme) idea with what I knew: the desirability of discarding drawing, in a fundamental way just makes no sense.

Years have gone by since and I’ve reflected on that. I summarize those reflections in this post.


Technical drawing is often referred to as documentation. The word is certainly accurate, but omits something. What’s missing is obscured in various ways. The hierarchy of employees in design firms puts some force on this. So does, on the other hand, enthusiasm for tech innovation!

A suppressive discourse emerges, it turns out, and a blind spot with regard both to the operative purpose of technical drawing, and its potential evolution.

I mention this simply because I think recognizing it helps solve it, or will help solve it.

Below, I outline my newest attempt at envisioning the future of technical drawing.

Let’s start with definition.

Technical drawing, from wikipedia:

Technical drawingdrafting or drawing, is the act and discipline of composing drawings that visually communicate how something functions or is constructed.

Technical drawing is essential for communicating ideas in industry and engineering. To make the drawings easier to understand, people use familiar symbolsperspectivesunits of measurementnotation systems, visual styles, and page layout. Together, such conventions constitute a visual language and help to ensure that the drawing is unambiguous and relatively easy to understand. Many of the symbols and principles of technical drawing are codified in an international standard called ISO 128.

The need for precise communication in the preparation of a functional document distinguishes technical drawing from the expressive drawing of the visual arts. Artistic drawings are subjectively interpreted; their meanings are multiply determined. Technical drawings are understood to have one intended meaning.[1]

drafter, draftsperson, or draughtsman is a person who makes a drawing (technical or expressive). A professional drafter who makes technical drawings is sometimes called a drafting technician.

It’s a good definition. But the purpose, yeah, the purpose, of technical drawing goes a layer deeper than that (no, not a “CAD Layer” deeper). Peel away some onion layers to get closer to the metaphorical core of things, closer to the nature of understanding, closer to the core of understanding anything.

What do I mean? Don’t cry. Hold on a second…

It’s axiomatic that there is a relationship between thinking and understanding. We can shortcut the philosophizing here about what thinking is, because no one knows what thinking is. But we do know, that from thinking comes understanding:

  1. from thinking: understanding
  2. from understanding: more thinking

Thinking produces understanding. One follows the other. And of course it’s cyclical. It’s chicken and egg. What matters is the cycle.

This gets to what’s missing from the word “documentation”. “Documentation” is an understatement. Technical drawing production on a project is the long term engagement of concentrated thought, in a cycle of thought > understanding > thought > understanding…, out of which arises things like: clarity, correctness, fitness, communication.

And so on. And, look, I know, technical drawing is not the only thread or path through thought and understanding. There are other threads.

I was once told that technical drawing is “a worm’s eye view” through a project. Yeah, that’s as derogatory as it sounds. Someone was overcome with zealotry, apparently. But yeah, there are computational design methods. There are algorithms authored, tested, their results evaluated, and so on. These are valuable methods. And one may say, yes, these are not “worm’s eye views” of projects. But come on, look, you can put your battle axe down.

Technical drawing is, also, at the core of interpretive function, cognitive function. And technical drawing is a path, through thought and understanding, that’s accessible to a wide range of people. A significantly wider range of people than those who can manipulate computational design algorithms?

Let’s sharpen the pencil.

“Documentation” is not secondary. And it doesn’t come after the fact. A designed thing (a bridge, a hospital, a house, a car, a railway) doesn’t come into being conceived in its entirety fully formed at birth in an instant. No. It’s a formative process. Technical drawing is an essential actor in that formative process. It’s not the only available technique for this, but it is among the most essential, and arguably: it’s the primary actor.


Our finger, then, points at the gist of the problem with industry discourse today: it ignores, suppresses, denigrates, and otherwise dismisses a full half of the observable dynamic at the functional core of thinking itself: Interplay. We don’t know what thinking is. Nobody does. But we do know that:

the basic observable dynamic of thinking is interplay, between:

wide and narrow

environment and focus

whole and part

everywhere and somewhere

the world and the act of attention

model and drawing

A thought experiment:

Ask yourself, can I understand anything, with half of any of these pairs removed? Can I understand the world, without exercising my faculties of attention? Can I understand any environment without my intentional act(s) of focus? Can I understand the wide without the narrow, the whole without the part?

Try these in reverse too. Can I understand any act of narrowing focus, outside of the context of the wider whole environment?

Throw away half of any of these pairs, and, there is no serious dispute: we quickly enter either the domain of abstract art, or a world of absurdity. Discard either half and ask: Can I understanding anything? Can I even think?

It’s “no”. Always. Even superficial understanding develops through this back and forth interplay between perception of the whole, and some kind of act, of detecting potential targets of focus, and then, exercising the sharpening act of narrowing focus on those targets.

This is interplay.

See here a couple of examples, that hold in the memory, of…

World << >> Focus INTERPLAY


A 35 second film clip by the film maker Jim Cummings powerfully illustrates world < > focus interplay. You recognize yourself in this clip, how YOU develop understanding, of the world, and the targets of your focus, each through the other, the world through focus, the object of your focus contextualized in the world. It’s interplay:

Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 5.52.04 PM
film clip posted on Linkedin by Jim Cummings: video link

Interplay is fundamental.

The pairs are in continuous interplay:

  • Wide / Narrow
  • Environment / Focus
  • Film Set / Attention-Focusing camera rig
  • Model / Drawing

Interplay generates understanding and is the basic observable dynamic of thinking.

Digital innovation investment in the AECO industry has for decades been weighted toward the wide, the whole, the expansive environment (the model), while the other half of the interplay tandem — technique of articulate narrowing focus (drawing) — stagnates.

The imbalance is counterproductive.

The purpose of digital media

The purpose of continued development of digital media is to assist with thinking. Let’s assert that.

The purpose of innovation in digital media is to make media a more energetic and able companion to thought and understanding. The goal of continued development is to expand and enhance media’s support for clear, coherent, timely, thought. Effective media helps the mind at work arrive on target, at cogent understanding.

There have been a number of significant wins over the last 20 years.

  1. Algorithmic model control systems are generative. Some call them definitive even of era (parametricism). Others tune them to building program fitting (TestFit).
  2. format standardization and open source development are reducing dependency on data silos. And they’re cultivating innovation in the wild
  3. AR is opening new access points for model experience and interpretation

Are these enhancing support for clear thinking, helping the mind at work arrive on target?

Yes! Though, like everything else in life, they’re sometimes accompanied by exaggerated rhetoric. Last year or so, regarding AR, people were going around saying: AR headsets bring “instantaneous understanding” to chaotic construction sites.

Um. Instantaneous understanding?

I mean, look, let’s not understate the complexity of developing adequate understanding of very complex things.

The Future of Technical Drawing: Evolution in Form

A look at drawing’s future, characteristics of drawing’s proposed new form of expression, in models:

  • drawing should be immersed in-situ at true orientation within modeled environments
  • drawing should exist also ex-situ, abstracted out of modeled environments
  • ex-situ and in-situ, drawing should easily, elegantly, flow from one to the other (ex, in), and back, looping on demand
  • in-situ, drawing should be persuasively interactive. Drawing should compel users to engage because they draw one into models by delivering insight and clarity with enough communicative power that work becomes fun, building understanding becomes something one does for the delight of doing so
  • drawing should fully exploit the tremendous available power of digital modeled environments
  • drawing should be visually clear and powerfully communicative
  • drawing should exploit film industry camera rigging: Scroll through those hundred camera rigging techniques. It’s a treasure trove. High time already that digital modelers in the AECO (Architecture, Engineering, Construction, Operations) industry make use of it, not on the periphery of practice but at the core.
  • drawings should define their range scope (scope box/volume) within a model
  • drawing should include a built-in camera rig viewing path. The drawing author selects from a library of predefined paths, or defines it directly. Subsequently, those viewing the drawing can view it along this viewing path. Like the play timeline on youtube videos, for example, the viewer can drag the viewing position forward or backward along the camera rig viewing path.
  • Along the camera rig path, various graphics controls are specified by the drawing author, including:
    • show/hide (filter) model graphics. The technical drawing author can specify the use of different graphics show/hide filters at different positions along the camera rig path
    • elements in motion – motion is optional and can be used for example to show complex model element assembly sequence or “exploded view” presentations. These can be displayed progressively, along the built in camera rig path
    • extra graphics like embellishing/completing lines and arcs, text notes, labels (oooh the continued need for automation of these….), dimensions, stylized symbolic textures/patterns are authored and can be made progressively visible along the camera rig path, their purpose to highlight and clarify what’s visible from the camera rig
    • a camera transformation from perspective to parallel projection, the latter (parallel) provided as preset path options to be applied where the camera rig approaches a viewing angle normal to the target plane of interest in the model, usually at or near the center of the TGN rig built-in camera path.
    • an I/O to and from other graphics apps and formats in common use including illustration, CAD, and other graphics formats. In this way, technical drawing in its new form retains a callback to legacy format and presentation. The old and the new inform each other and interact fluently.
  • drawings should be portable so that drawings authored in one modeled environment are portable and may be shared with others in other modeling apps and platforms, and expressed there with fidelity.

The Future of Drawing: TGN – a model INTERACTIONS format standard

Characteristics of drawing’s future, listed above, are specified in detail as a proposed new model INTERACTIONS format standard: TGN. Links to download the TGN developer specification are given below. The video shows some of the look and feel of this new form of technical drawing, TGN:

03 TGN: demonstration  (3:40)

2021 TGN rig demo

TGN Developer Specification DOWNLOAD

TGN developer specification download links:

TGN: a digital model INTERACTIONS format standard (Apple Book)

TGN: a digital model INTERACTIONS format standard (ePub)

TGN: a digital model INTERACTIONS format standard (iCloud)

There are important aspects of TGN missing from the demo video. The shortcomings of the demo are discussed in self-critique here:


The playlist includes other TGN videos (of me, basically) discussing TGN for developers (technical considerations), and value to users (typical workflows):

0 1 TGN: rigging for insight  (2:16)

02 TGN: what is TGN exactly?  (5:35)

03 TGN: demonstration  (3:40)

04 TGN: portability  (5:17)

05 TGN: industry value  (9:27)

The dev platform I mention in the videos is iTwins.js, but TGN can be developed on every platform where TGN is desired. The TGN demo shows a building model composed of several models obtained from different engineering disciplines (structural, architectural, civil/site, electrical, etc.). TGN is intended for development on all app platforms that support 3D modeling formats.

Not the first time

This is not the first time I proposed evolution in drawing’s form. The first time was back in 2006. I proposed automatic presentation of complete CAD drawings at true orientation within models. The idea floated by one day (I grabbed it), after years of building detailed digital building models myself, and, those same years (since 1998), driving construction drawing graphics from those models.

It took awhile, but I was eventually employed by Bentley Systems (some great luck) and led the team that designed, developed, and in 2012 first commercialized what came to be called “hypermodel” in Bentley’s MicroStation, which automatically presented all construction drawings in-situ within the models, like this:

2012 hypermodel, Microstation, automated drawing-model fusion

More examples of first generation drawing-model fusion: here 

Seven software companies since 2012, that I know of, are now doing automated drawing-model fusion (first generation), since 2012: Bentley, Graphisoft (in BIMx Docs, mobile), Dalux, Revizto, working together: Morpholio and Shapr3D, and now Tekla too.

TGN is for everyone, every platform

Now 10 years later, TGN is richer than hypermodel:

  • better expression, more engaging use of graphics potential
  • more compelling interactivity, better control, and more controls
  • clearer communicative impact
  • more authoring power and greater viewing comprehension
  • designed for cross platform portability

TGN promises improvement in technique for the close study of complex modeled environments.

As the TGN specification and proposed technical infrastructure is intentionally not confined to any single application or platform (a no silos approach), and instead is freely available for all to use, TGN has the potential to increase the utility of modeled environments of all kinds, and to spur new creative energy by amplifying the communicative power of digital modeled environments. This is what TGN is about.

The purpose of innovation in digital media is to make media a more energetic and able companion to thought and understanding. The goal of continued development is to expand and enhance media’s support for clear, coherent, timely, thought. Effective media helps the mind at work arrive on target, at cogent understanding.

I’m available to help

I’d like to help any (every) developer organization design their implementation of TGN to make best use of the capabilities of each modeling platform, and at the same time to plan for standardized cross-platform portability of TGN.

Message me on LinkedIn:

Or email:

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