Drawing: a visual language for Makers


by Erin Riley -

Drawing is like writing, using pictures instead of words.  It is a form of communication that can be useful, expressive, descriptive and observational.  It provides form to visual ideas.  Including drawing as part of the process of making things is fun and provides a good framework for understanding 2D and 3D design.  

Enclosed is a list of drawing approaches that are used most in the Engineering and Design lab.

Orthographic projection

Useful for understanding multiple 2D views of a 3D object.  Used in architecture and engineering. Critical information could include measurements. This type of drawing is an excellent exercise leading up to 3D modeling.  It provides a framework for students to understand how to work around a three dimensional object.

Isometric projection

Artificial 3D representation using x,y,z axis and 120 degree angles.  Great for communicating 3D ideas quickly and an excellent precursor to linear perspective.  MC Escher used it in optical illusions. Check out how it can depict impossible objects.

Building plans

Building plans can include all of the above.  Think lego instructions or ikea furniture.

Mind map

This is a great way to express ideas in graphical form.  

Arduino Mind Map

Descriptive drawing

This kind of drawing is very useful as a record of your observations.  Think Lewis and Clark journey log or Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. Annotate with notes for even more detail.  Great sketchbook or journal entry.


Drawings of systems using symbols.  Think subway map or circuit diagram.

The stuff to make drawings

A lot of the drawing that happens in the lab is preperatory work for 2D and 3D design for fabrication.  Precision matters here so students have access to good measuring and drafting tools.

  • Calipers
  • Tape measures
  • Different types of rulers (clear, cork bottom, various sizes)
  • T-squares
  • 45/90 and 30/60 Triangles
  • Compasses
  • Drawing paper
  • Different types of graph paper (cartesian, dot, isometric)
  • Graphite and colored pencils
  • Sharpies
  • Grey graphic pens
  • Brush markers
  • Industrial pencil sharpener

More thoughts on drawing....

A maker with a literacy with drawing can feel confident about representing their ideas visually.  Whether they are communicating an idea for self-expression or for a technical end, these drawing methods can work together and provide a powerful tool for bringing the ideas of one’s imagination into the world.  There are many more types of drawing than what I have listed here and ultimately we develop hybrid styles that best reflect what we are trying to communicate.  




Susanna Tesconi's picture

Really interesting Erin!

The post is very inspiring and shows how deep and complex drawing is. It is like a set of languages that can express ideas and describe the world (mental or physical) in many different ways, using a lot of different techniques.

Personally I have always been attracted by the intersection of old technology and visual art. I mean, by technological artifacts used in painting, like pre electrical projectors, mirrors, tools for creating proportions etc. It can be a  way to look at drawing from a different perspective.

During a training at fablab Asturias, 3 years ago, one of the teachers decided to build a DÜRER grid in order to use it with her students. Check it HERE

Erin Riley's picture


Thank you for the link.  A Durer grid is an amazing maker project...I need to do this! I think it would be fun for kids to look at devices and mathematical systems of the past that were used to aid representation and make connections to creative forms available today like CAD and computation art.

Serge's picture

Really nice Erin !

Very inspiring demonstration... thank you

Heather Pang's picture


I love the way you have called these out. One of the things I love about our fab lab is that the tables are white boards, so when I want to explain something to a group, or have them explain it to me, we just draw on the tables. But having examples and ideas for different kinds of drawing is really helpful for my own thinking.