Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture

Contemporary Techniques and Tools for Digital Representation in Site Design
By Bradley Cantrell Wes Michaels

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-40397-6

Chapter One


Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture: Contemporary Techniques and Tools for Digital Representation in Site Design provides professionals and students with a clear guide to understanding the digital representation process for a variety of design drawings. Each chapter highlights a specific technique by examining its role in the digital media and landscape representation process through methods available in current software. This provides the reader with tangible tools to explore digital media in the creation of design drawings.

The professions of landscape architecture and urban planning have a strong tradition of representation that has evolved with the professions. During the last hundred years, this has been dominated by analog representation-primarily pencil (graphite), pen (ink), markers (pigment), and watercolor (pigment). The aforementioned analog representation techniques have focused on creating a variety of design drawings such as functional and operational diagrams, orthographic plans, section/elevations, isometrics, and perspective renderings.

The content in this book intends to bridge a fundamental gap between the analog and digital tools used to represent landscape architecture and urban planning projects. The gap has formed in representation methods with the introduction of digital tools that have been adopted despite a generation of designers who are versed in analog methods. Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture: Contemporary Techniques and Tools for Digital Representation in Site Design aims to fill this gap by pulling from the methods of analog representation and applying these concepts to digital media. Examining individual working methods and applying the content of this book to enhance the current design and representation processes are essential to this goal.

A misnomer that many designers intend to embrace when moving to digital representation methods is that the past can be left behind; nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge of analog representation plays a vital role in understanding the application of digital tools and techniques. Tools such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop are born directly from analog processes and tools defined by their physical counterparts. The Paint Bucket tool is used to pour paint into areas, and the PaintBrush tool applies paint to a virtual canvas. This language is intentional and builds on our current knowledge of illustration, avoiding the creation of a new digital tool that has no context in the physical world. It would be confusing and the learning curve would be that much steeper if the Photoshop Paint Brush tool was called the Pixel Application tool and the canvas was called the pixel grid.

The connections between analog and digital modes go beyond naming conventions into techniques and processes. Current digital rendering processes vary greatly between individuals and firms, as well as across a range of software. It is commonly said that there are an infinite variety of ways to accomplish the same task in image- or vector-editing software. The versatility of most software packages comes from the variety of tools and the options for combining those tools to complete a specific task. This versatility allows the software to be used across a variety of professions from photography to technical illustration. Because of the depth and versatility of the software, the learning curve is typically steep for new users. Similar to using a pencil and pen, there is no way to automatically generate a section, plan, or elevation. Instead, a combination of tools and methods come together through a proven process to generate the desired results. Digital media provides efficiencies in some areas but does not provide a short-cut to learning the fundamentals of drawing and illustration.

Understanding the fundamentals of drawing is essential, but it is not exclusive to either medium. The contemporary design world fully embraces both mediums as valid methods to represent projects and explore design ideas. It is possible to understand the fundamentals of composition, lineweight, texture, color, and/or atmosphere with a pencil or with Photoshop. The physical processes may be different, but conceptually the rules and ideas are similar.

Conceptually, each designer must embrace digital media as a tool with analytic, performative, and representational possibilities. Many designers view the computer as a rival that must be conquered in order to accomplish each task. It is important to reverse that role. In order to do this, the designer should have a general understanding of how a computer and operating system function. This environment of hardware and software is where most processes occur; therefore, taking the time to become familiar with your surroundings is very useful. Typically, this is a low priority for designers; we are not computer engineers and, therefore, we often overlook or even overcomplicate basic hardware and software functions.

Computing Basics

Understanding the basic components of computing and how they affect the design and representation process is necessary. The relationships between hardware and software and the operating system and applications are important to understand in order efficiently utilize the tools. Understanding this relationship demystifies computing processes that are not readily apparent to the end user. Typically, the hardware, operating system, and applications attempt to hide as much of the computing processes as possible from the end user, but there are times when it is necessary to know enough in order to troubleshoot simple problems.


Laptop and desktop computers typically have a motherboard, a processor, memory, a hard drive, a network connection (wired and/or wireless), and a graphics card. These components provide the necessary functions to do most of the tasks we consider necessary in contemporary computing. From this base, we can begin to add components such as a keyboard, mouse, and monitor in order to have a fully functioning machine. There is little difference between a desktop and laptop computer other than the fact that the keyboard, mouse, and monitor are integrated on a laptop. Because laptop components are usually much smaller and are custom built for each brand, upgrading them can be much more difficult than upgrading desktops. For example, processors are usually not upgradeable components in laptops because they may be soldered directly to the motherboard.


The main component of computers that we rarely discuss is the motherboard. The motherboard is the framework for the entire machine, but unless we are building the computer ourselves, it is not an extremely important consideration. The motherboard provides connections for the processor, memory, storage, graphics cards, and expansion slots, which would contain the graphics card and other components. Many motherboards will integrate graphics, network, and sound functionality directly into the motherboard. Integrated solutions often provide less functionality and performance; however, in the case of network and sound, this typically is not a problem for designers who rely on the computer to create visual products. At the time of this writing, integrated graphics cards should be avoided; they perform poorly when used for illustration and three-dimensional modeling, and they are not upgradeable when new graphics cards are introduced.


The processor or CPU (central processing unit) can be thought of as the brain of any computer. The CPU is attached to the motherboard in the CPU socket and is dependent on the chipset (technologies that constitute the motherboard). Because of the complexity of CPUs, there are very few manufacturers in the commercial computing market. Nearly all computer manufacturers (Dell, HP, Apple, etc.) use either Intel or AMD processors that use the x86 instruction set. Two important factors need to be addressed regarding the CPU: 32-bit and 64-bit addressing and processing speed. Most CPUs at this time are moving toward 64-bit addressing, which is very important for visual artists because it allows the computer to more efficiently execute instructions and address larger amounts of memory. In the past, 32-bit CPUs could only address less than 4GB of memory; however, with the introduction of 64-bit processors, it is theoretically possible to address 16.8 million terabytes of memory. In order to utilize a 64-bit processor, it must have an operating system and software that is coded to take advantage of the 64-bit instruction set.

The second important concept to understand is the speed of processor, which is typically measured in gigahertz. If everything else is equal with a computer, the faster the speed of the processor, the more instructions it can complete in a given time (milli-seconds). Many factors, such as memory and hard drive speed, can change this general rule. However, it can generally be assumed that the faster the processor, the faster the computer will complete operations. This affects us directly in the representation process as we apply procedures and effects that require the computer to do large calculations. An example would be the application of a filter in Photoshop; when the filter is applied, the computer must calculate the effect on the image, and a faster processor will typically take less time to accomplish this task.

It is also possible to use multiple processors in some desktop/workstation configurations in order to provide more processing power. In most instances, dual processors provide more efficiency in multitasking rather than doubling the processing power. In essence, this allows a filter to be calculated while switching to another program to accomplish a secondary task without as much of an overall slowdown in the computer. Most of the current processors also use multiple cores, dual cores, and quad cores, which can be thought of as multiple processors embedded within a single processor. This provides greater multitasking possibilities, and software is currently being written with multiple cores in mind in order to take advantage of these efficiencies.


To use another analogy, memory or RAM (random access memory) can be thought of as short-term memory. Information that is currently being accessed is stored in the computer's RAM, which allows the information to be accessed very quickly. The major benefits of RAM are its speed and the fact that data can retrieved from any location in the memory rather than being retrieved sequentially. This is why the term random access memory is used. RAM is a volatile storage medium, which means that when the power is turned off information is lost. If possible, it is desirable to load information into RAM and to complete all of the operations within the computer's RAM without having to offload data to the hard drive. Anytime the computer goes beyond the computer's current RAM, operations slow down as the hard drive is accessed to swap out information.

As mentioned previously, there are certain limitations in computer architecture where 32-bit systems and software can only access memory configurations that are less than 4GB. Currently, most hardware and software is moving toward 64-bit and can access much larger quantities of RAM. A desktop machine should have between 4GB and 8GB of RAM, while laptops typically max out at 4GB-although some workstation replacement laptops are moving to 8GB configurations. Typically, more RAM is better. If the computer, operating system, and software are all 64-bit compatible and if it is affordable, most systems will benefit from up to 8GB of RAM when working with large images or data sets.

Hard Drives

Another type of memory is the mass storage device, which is usually referred to as the hard drive. A hard drive provides a storage medium that is slower than RAM but capable of storing much larger amounts of information. The hard drive typically stores between 300 gigabytes to 1,000 gigabytes (a terabyte) of data with larger sizes on the horizon. The hard drive is a nonvolatile storage medium; therefore, when the power is turned off, the information is retained. This is why almost everything needed to make a computer function is stored on the hard drive, including the operating system, applications, and all of the user data such as documents, images, videos, and music.

Hard drives operate at different speeds that are measured in revolutions per minute (RPM), which are typically 5,400, 7,200, and 10,000RPM. A faster hard drive will optimize the system's bootup speed, allow applications to load faster, and speed up the opening of files. Currently, 10,000RPM hard drives are prohibitively expensive for very large drives and a common configuration is to use a 10,000RPM drive for the system, applications, and current projects, and another drive as a data archive. In many offices, this second drive is not a concern because most project data is stored on a centralized server; therefore, the bottleneck is often the speed of the network and the number of users accessing the data. The hard drive is often contained within the computer, but it is also possible to use external enclosures that contain a hard drive. This allows data to be more portable and not tied to a specific computer.

Graphics Cards

Graphics cards provide a secondary processor that specializes in two- and three-dimensional graphics calculations. Current versions of Photoshop take advantage of the graphics card to display images in both two and three dimensions. True three-dimensional applications depend on the video card to display three-dimensional data on the screen in real time. Graphics cards have three components to be concerned with: the speed of the GPU (graphical processing unit), compatibility with OpenGL or DirectX, and the amount of memory on the card.

Generally speaking, the faster the speed of the GPU, the more graphical operations the card can perform per second. This translates to faster panning and zooming in Photoshop, as well as smoother orbiting, panning, and zooming in Google SketchUp, 3ds Max, and Maya. Upgrading the graphics card is usually possible in most desktop computers; however, this typically is not possible in laptops.


Beyond using these basic components, there are many ways to extend the functions of a computer through peripheral devices that can be categorized as providing an input or output. The most important output peripheral is the computer monitor or display. Displays come in a range of sizes from 13" laptop screens to 30" high-resolution desktop monitors. Most monitors use LCD (liquid crystal display) technology with either fluorescent or LED (light emitting diode) backlighting, with LED backlighting consuming the least power and having more even brightness. There are other technologies for computer displays, but the LCD is by far the most common in both laptops and desktops.

The most important thing to consider for LCD monitors is their native resolution, which is the number of pixels that they can display both horizontally and vertically. Native resolution is the resolution at which the display is designed to function. It will typically be between 1024 768 and 2560 1600 pixels. This resolution is the actual number of pixels that are displayed across the surface of the monitor. Smaller monitors typically display fewer pixels, and larger monitors display more. When a designer is working with high-resolution images, it is useful to have larger monitors in order to see more of the image at its actual size at once. Larger high-resolution screens also make it more convenient to have multiple applications open at once because they will be able to fit on one screen. If the graphics card supports multiple monitors, it is possible in both Windows and OS X to use two or more monitors in order to span the desktop across the screens. This can be very useful and is often an affordable and more versatile solution to having one extremely large monitor.


Excerpted from Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture by Bradley Cantrell Wes Michaels Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Excerpted by permission.
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