Alias SketchBook Pro

Sketching is one of the most unique and important aspects of architectural design. It marks the point at which an idea is externalized from the intangible visualizations of a single mind to a representation that can be shared with others. As such, architectural or design sketching is very different from other kinds of sketching. When the idea is first transferred to paper or hard-drive there is no model or landscape to base it on–the architectural sketch is a creature that until then has been completely internalized, and has never seen the light of day.

Yet architects tend to regard sketching as a ‘throw away’ activity in which endless sheets of yellow tracing paper are used, revised and discarded, and as architectural design becomes more and more computerized, sketching remains an enigmatic part of the process that simply doesn’t lend itself to being digital.

Alias SketchBook Pro is a great general purpose sketching tool but it is more difficult to say how well it fits into the particular workflows of architectural design. Alias is a venerable Canadian software company that recently celebrated its twentieth year in business–for a computer company this equates to approximately one million years in real time. Its 3D graphics software is a tool of choice for movies such as Jurassic Park, The Matrix and Lord of the Rings. Its forays into architecture, however, have not been as successful–an early modeling product called UpFront, for example, was released in the late eighties but soon disappeared from sight.

SketchBook addresses a different set of needs. As Colin Smith, the Product Marketing Manager for SketchBook, points out, “it wasn’t specifically created for architects, but instead was designed as a simple tool for digital sketching.” Digital sketching has changed dramatically in the last few years with the development of tablet PCs and this is the market that Sketchbook was designed to take advantage of. In fact, Alias has inked a global agreement with Acer (one of the leading manufacturers of tablet PCs) to bundle a 15-day trial version of its software on all Acer tablets. SketchBook will also work with conventional PCs but a pressure-sensitive Wacom tablet is highly recommended to make use of all its features.

The software itself has some very high quality sketching tools that have migrated from Alias’s more expensive professional packages and the results are impressive when combined with a pressure-sensitive tablet. It’s great to be able to control the width of the chisel brush by the slant of the pen or watch the highlighters bleed into one another like a real marker would do. It’s easy to create custom brushes and to select from millions of colours. Instead of innumerable pieces of trace, SketchBook creates digital layers (like a CAD program does) that can be turned on or off as required and for which the transparency can be adjusted. It really is a delight to use.

Part of this delight is the well-designed user interface. A small quarter circle located at the lower right or lower left of the tablet contains all of the drawing tools using what are called marking menus or radial menus. With marking menus, pushing on a graphic icon with the pen will display all of its options arranged in a circle around that icon. You simply drag or flick your pen in the direction of the option you want. This is a very quick and easy means of selection. As Smith explains, “drop down menus are not very effective–especially with pens.” All of the tools in the palette, from layers, to zoom, to undo, to creating a new file are arranged in this manner and the “push and flick” approach is a great boon to users.

But in addition to sketching, what would an architect use this software for? Marking up drawings and images is one particularly innovative use for this combination of software and hardware. Because the product accepts many different graphic formats (including TIF, BMP, JPG or PNG), “an architect,” as Smith describes it, “can take a digital photograph on site and annotate it on the fly in SketchBook.” Because of the built-in wireless capabilities of today’s tablets and the fact that SketchBook has an integrated e-mail function, the image can then be sent immediately to the client or contractor.

Alias SketchBook Pro is one of the best sketching packages in its price range (under $300 CDN) but its value to architects must be viewed in the context of the design process and compared to other comparable packages. The drawings created in SketchBook would be of little more use to a CAD program than a sketch created on paper. Yes, they could be imported as a layer and traced over but that generally is more work than starting from scratch. This is, of course, a problem with both paper and digital sketches–they simply don’t transfer well into the digital precision of computer-aided design.

A more contemporary approach to digital sketching is provided by tools such as SketchUp and Architectural Studio (see CA, March 2003) which combine both two-dimensional drawing tools (although not as good as SketchBook’s) with basic three-dimensional tools to extrude a sketch into the third dimension. The future of architectural sketching may well be in the ability to quickly and easily create and manipulate design elements in 3D. It must be pointed out, however, that these other products cost three to six times as much as SketchBook Pro and this product was not intended as competition for those other packages.

Sketchbook also needs to be assessed against more direct competitors such as Corel Painter 8 or Adobe Photoshop 7.0. For around $400 CDN, Painter provides a far more extensive set of drawing and painting tools than Sketchbook, while for $900 CDN, Photoshop remains the industry standard for image manipulation with similar drawing tools to those found in SketchBook. Yet both of these products have a much steeper learning curve than SketchBook and in truth most architects only use a fraction of the capabilities of these other packages.

Like many aspects of the architectural profession, sketching is in a state of evolution and at this point your decision to buy a product such as SketchBook Pro will depend on your existing investment in tablet PCs and on the role that sketching plays in your design process.

System Requirements

For the Tablet PC:

Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition

For the PC (recommended):

Operating System: Windows XP or Windows 2000 only

Processor: 800MHz Intel Pentium III processor

RAM: 256 MB memory

Display: 24-bit colour

Input: Pressure sensitive Wacom tablet and pen

Douglas MacLeod is a contributing editor for Canadian Architect. For additional information visit: Alias SketchBook Pro can be downloaded for approximately $239 CDN from the website, or a CD-ROM version is available for approximately $265 CDN.