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Staff Spotlight: Sketching Still a Significant Skill

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Kerry Reeds, NDC Director of Urban Design & Planning

As part of our #DiscoverNDC virtual open house, we’re exploring many aspects of the iterative community design process, one of which is visioning. The NDC has helped people imagine what is possible in their communities for decades.

Of the many ways to accomplish that, free-hand sketching is a time-tested technique that lets people get a sense of how potential projects would impact the site, and the larger neighborhood. NDC’s Director of Planning and Urban Design, Kerry Reeds, has used sketching as a way to bring ideas to life for longer than he’d care to admit. With experience comes expertise, and that’s something our clients and partners rely on.

The video below captures Kerry at work demonstrating his precise techniques that result in complex and beautiful site plans used as the basis for further digital refinement. We also sat down briefly with Kerry to talk about the role of free-hand sketching in urban design and planning projects.


Why is free-hand sketching such a critical skill? Is there a particular experience you had that ingrained the power of sketching into you?

Kerry: My most influential professional mentor told me 25 years ago that the person who controls the pen is the person who drives the meeting and overall design direction at its earliest and most critical stage.

What exactly do you think he meant by that?

Kerry: A fresh roll of tracing paper (white, not yellow thank you) and three pens (fat, medium and thin) enables freedom and speed that I doubt can be duplicated digitally. If a client is paying by the hour, they understandably demand quick alternatives in real time. It’s a fluid and dynamic process of listening, drawing, gauging a reaction, then drawing some more. Clients need the reassurance that their ideas are being heard and enjoy participating directly in the evolution of a project.

How does free-hand sketching assist in the visioning process? Does it have advantages over digital rendering that may take days or weeks to get back to clients or community members?

Kerry: Free-hand sketching means people won’t get attached to bad ideas because it doesn’t require intense resource investment. If an idea is rejected, wad it up, throw it across the room, and start over. Paper also enables you to pin things up immediately to discuss with your team and the client. No printer required. I understand that all projects are destined to evolve with the aid of a computer before a shovel hits the ground. For me, that part comes just a little later.

Is there a special feeling for you in working with ink that relates to the tangible nature of the pen and paper—compared to digital tools?

Kerry: I try to put away the pencils and get to the ink as quickly as possible. I feel a greater sense of commitment to my work, and it forces me to think several moves ahead. Besides, when I go home with ink all over my hands, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.


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