Fun with Graphics

Since falling in love with the potential of computers, my dream has been to meaningfully combine this power with a seductive sketching and discussion experience to produce useful interactive, three-dimensional visions while using the device as if it actually was pen and paper.

Drawing on the screen is not new. Precedents include Computervision and IBM’s Plasma Screen from the early ’80s. They both used a light pen to tediously place reference points. Their metaphor for expression remained “drawing”–flat orthographics, not integrated volumetric models. What touching the screen might mean to the process of design–massing control and three-dimensional navigation, for instance–wasn’t considered.

The imminent release of Microsoft’s Tablet PC promises to bring a more paper-and-book-like experience to computing, but there are two other products that indicate what this convergence of computer displays with sophisticated design communication tools might mean:

The Hardware

Wacom’s new Cintiq 18sx interactive pen display combines a pressure-sensitive tablet with an LCD monitor. One “draws” directly on its pressure- sensitive surface with a magnetic stylus to stroke brush-like effects onto graphic images. It is particularly good at placing graduated dodge-and-burn effects to dramatize rendered images.

This large display is a dense, substantial object that sits heavily in the lap or on its sophisticated tilting stand. It works just like you’d expect. Simple to install and calibrate, the screen is responsive to even quick stylus movements and stylus pressure sensitivity is subtle and wide-ranging.

Substantially larger than its little brother, the Cintiq 15x, this display offers a 287mm x 358mm surface with a resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels–enough, finally, to have reasonably-sized images while keeping some palettes open. It does require graphic power equal to a second monitor, but this and its USB power draw do not pose a challenge to a modern computer.

The Software

Particularly appropriate for either Cintiq model is @Last’s SketchUp, a fluid design and modelling software that does its utmost to turn architecture into a video game. While available only on the PC for its first three years, SketchUp 2.1 makes advances with many new features and is now also available for Macintosh OS X.

In SketchUp, an astoundingly simple set of tools create, stretch and edit planes in three-dimensional space to form objects. OpenGL graphics allow for instantaneous navigation–the model can be seen from any angle at any time, including section cuts (this is a new feature). The basic nature of fluid modelling elements within SketchUp induce modelling a building in moments by “sketching,” casually defining modelled form as you proceed. An adequate library of model components of windows and entourage support most decoration needs. A totally functional demo runs for eight hours and can be downloaded at, and superior quality streaming video tutorials on the site provide a good start to mastering the application.

How they Work Together

The Cintiq display used with SketchUp constitute the next best thing to “Tai Chi for Architects” because they make the image immediate and tactile. With simple stylus gestures, planes are defined, volumes created and the view is adapted. Where the display and software combination shine is in the fluidity with which models can be sketched and shown off–design development is very fast, with design options being effortlessly copied to hidden layers–as an on-the-fly record for later review as a slide show.

Unlike parametric or object-based modellers, SketchUp’s elements all remain elastic and infinitely editable within the limits of rational geometry. Cintiq’s stylus pushes and pulls against faces or edges to restructure form, like having infinite, elastic foam board. It is possible to enter numeric values for greater accuracy, but that is not as much fun.

Images made in this software remain cartoon-like, yet textures applied to surfaces are satisfying and not garish. Appropriate for schematic design, SketchUp shines in its ability to emulate the overshooting and jitter of the human hand and the sense of incompleteness that we all seek in a preliminary design. Total control over environment colour and material transparency encourage seductive tints and shading effects that will make even the hardest client swoon. Sun studies can also be performed with accuracy and replayed in sequence.

SketchUp’s tool palettes are numerous, but with the Cintiq as a drawing easel, your laptop screen can contain the palette clutter. SketchUp is not limited when used with tablet or mouse control; the Cintiq just makes it more entertaining.

User Comfort

Positioning the Cintiq correctly is critical for comfort and control. While the clever spring-loaded desk stand permits a range of tilt from nearly vertical to nearly horizontal, I was always reaching too far, holding my arm tense while making overly-precise strokes and tapping controls. A tablet in one position, having absolute locations for input, cannot respond to the relative adjustments that a mouse permits to prevent repetitive strain. Any tablet presents a challenge in managing the precision needed for controlling the computer through menu commands. Hitting the little square or scrolling a menu is not ideal work for a stylus.

The best way to use this device is in the lap, where it can be cradled like a sketchpad–a very heavy sketchpad, as the Cintiq 18sx weighs nearly four kilograms. While holding it in the lap is ergonomically best, I worried about relaxing and dropping the expensive loaner unit. If I owned one of these monsters, a compromise would be to mount the Cintiq on an old wheeled chair base heavily counterweighted to prevent tipping–an adaptable, easily-handled work surface.

Like when using a mouse, the most productive stance is to have one hand entering data with the stylus and the other on the keyboard quickly issuing modelling and navigational instructions. Work speed will decline if keyboard controls are ignored in favour of relying solely on graphic inputs by stylus and tool palettes. Keeping both hands busy optimizes workflow without breaking creative stride with the stylus.


I really like these new tools. The Cintiq will not speed-up conventional CAD (because of the need for much keyboard data entry), but it certainly makes the creation of architecture a delightful experience. Gestures, contextual menu choices and intuitive work sequences exploit the speed that interactive pen displays make possible with any dynamically-navigable application. The Cintiq provides the most fun that can be had with graphics.

As a former airbrush illustrator, I’ve sought ways to emulate that experience by digitally spraying across mask edges with colour that would subtly drift and feather. Cintiq’s predecessor, the versatile Intuos, was the first tablet to do this properly. This tablet becomes “invisible” in the lap after only a few minutes of use. The Cintiq, of equal subtlety, gives great additional satisfaction at touching the “paper” and making a colourful mark, but it is not that great a departure from that previous, less-expensive tablet experience.

In contrast, every architect should love SketchUp. Its intuitive and simple interface will delight designers lacking computer aptitude. While it doesn’t have CAD capabilities, it does produce mathematically accurate models with simplicity and beauty. SketchUp models can be exported to whatever application you might be using for rendering or documentation. Of particular relevance is the soon-to-be-complete Sketchup to ArchiCAD translator that will directly convert Sketchup surfaces into editable ArchiCAD elements. This will speed the creation of construction documents and detailed imaging within the more comprehensive ArchiCAD environment.

SketchUp’s quick electronic imagery forever eliminates the danger of a glass ring on a crumpled napkin being accidentally turned into an extra spira
l staircase to nowhere.

Dwight Atkinson, MAIBC teaches and writes about the challenges of digital representation while dabbling among computers. He reads e-mail sent to