A Pictures Worth.

The 21st Century may be remembered as the time when global connectivity became the norm bringing with it a tsunami of information. The internet provides access to a storehouse of seemingly unlimited content that only continues to grow with cellular and Wi-Fi networks extending connectivity almost everywhere. We are bombarded with daily email, text messages and many other forms of media. Smartphones track our moves and ping with notifications from apps clamoring for our attention. ABC's television program “2020” aired a segment highlighting how application developers create algorithms that send notifications and then measure how long before you access their app. That data in turn is used to fine tune their delivery with a goal of learning how to get your attention. We might also say we are being trained.

Noise can be useful in photography and creative works, however most of the design professionals documents benefit from clarity.

Noise can be useful in photography and creative works, however most of the design professionals documents benefit from clarity.

A concerted effort is required on our part to discern what is important and of value amidst the "noise" created by the sheer volume of information every day. Design professionals can become unwitting contributors by the ways we work and how we communicate to the users of our products - estimators, field superintendents, sub-contractors, clients, and code officials, to name a few.

On most days, I receive between 50 and 80 personal emails (not counting spam) of which easily 90% contain information on products or services I’m not interested in. One organization typically sends 3 versions of the same email on the same day, each formatted slightly differently. To get to the 5 or 6 email messages of interest, I must navigate all of them. It not only requires attention to ascertain each emails content, but further action must be taken to then delete the unwanted ones. This is not unlike how our documents (drawings or specifications) become encumbered with recurring graphics and text showing and saying the same thing repeatedly and in multiple places.

The last thirty years has seen design professionals increasingly occupied keeping up with and incorporating the newest technologies. Somewhere along the way we have forgotten the fundamentals of good visual communication and how information itself can be shared in order to be usefully and intuitively perceived by the ultimate document users. It is a little like "Where's Waldo" - where the users of our deliverables are trying to find what is important amidst the visual noise created by graphic density and superfluous information.


Working in Context is a term coined by Grant A. Simpson, FAIA. It is an approach utilized by our predecessors. Partly due to the expense of the drafting media of the day - sheets of linen, draftsman cleverly made drawings, organizing them in simple ways to convey the scope and complexity of a building.


In the example above from the 1920’s, the organization and co-location of related drawings nearly eliminates the need for a referencing system at all. Pilaster details are located below where they occur on the partial elevation. Section cuts using the letters - A, B, C and D denote locations with the applicable sections being placed to the right.

Working in Context recognizes that the organization and presentation of information is almost as important as the information itself. Combining drawing elements such as plans, sections and elevations together into meaningful groupings can graphically "tell the story" of a portion of the building or detailed assembly. Isolated drawings scattered over many sheets fragment related elements and require the document user to look multiple places and mentally construct a 3D picture to understand. Another benefit is to make drawings easier to review as mistakes in design and detailing tend to reveal themselves more readily when viewed in context together.

It is common for designers, when "selling" ideas to clients to utilize this approach and combine plans, sections, elevations and 3D views together. The relationships between drawings are easier to see and more intuitively reveal our concepts and ideas.

The Ikea Billy cabinet - www.ikea.com  How many of us could easily turn this Ikea graphic into multiple sheets of construction drawings?

The Ikea Billy cabinet - www.ikea.com

How many of us could easily turn this Ikea graphic into multiple sheets of construction drawings?

Product manufacturers often provide exploded view drawings or simple graphics to demonstrate visually how to assemble a bookshelf or bicycle as opposed to perusing multiple pages of step-by-step written instructions. In our flattening world, graphical instructions can transcend cultural and language barriers. We could say It is in the manufacturer's economic self-interest to help you understand how to assemble and use their product without needing to call their 800 number for assistance.


Architects and engineers have long understood the value of 3D drawings. Architectural education included courses teaching perspective drawing and the use of isometric or axonometric drawings. It was understood that the ability to show spatial relationships or complex intersections of materials and systems increased the likelihood the work will be understood and performed correctly. There is the saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words", it may also be of greater value than multiple 2D drawings.

Work by Greg La Vardera - www.lamidesign.com

Work by Greg La Vardera - www.lamidesign.com

Sophisticated software today offers 3D views as a byproduct of the modeling process. It is a means of communicating we would be wise to use more.


Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said: “Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first 4 sharpening the axe.”. Clearly Lincoln was thinking of more than firewood and we can make the observation that an investment in project planning can bring a reward of a better product along with time savings – often much more than we thought.


Some may ask how this “squares” with the National CAD Standard, suggesting it mandates the segregation of drawings by type - i.e., plans go here, sections go there, etc. As with most standards, professional judgement is required in the application. We can also take the view of Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies; who, when speaking of the Pirates Code, observed - "…the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.".

The NCS provides a very good approach for overall sheet layout and composition and helps standardize many common graphical components. However, if our goal is to meaningfully convey information to a variety of stakeholders, it is to our advantage to employ the NCS as cleverly as we can.


Working in Context and the use of 3D documentation as a methodology for sharing visual information are approaches we can use to enhance both the preparation of our documents and their understanding. Their use is limited only by our creativity and recognition of the need in this increasingly noisy world to communicate better and with increased clarity.