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Perspective: Increase Clarity with Colored Technical Drawings

Traditionally, technical drawings that architects produce have been black-line based, with the only difference being the thickness and pattern of the lines. Drawing technology innovations, like many things in our industry, are slow to change. This includes the tools, and the techniques we use. Even in our digital age of BIM, many use this highly sophisticated platform as nothing more than an electronic drafting tool.

Today, fewer and fewer folks are using hard-copy drawings in the field. Most have adopted PDFs and tablet viewers instead, which offer many advantages over hard-copy drawings. The idea of continuing to use old drawing practices with new technology is, in a word, silly. Lucila Rosso, senior associate at Sasaki, agrees. “Welcome to the digital age!” she says, “We should be making the most out of technology, and not be held back by convention.”

At Sasaki, we have introduced color into our technical drawings to increase drawing and storytelling clarity. The results and feedback from our consulting and building partners has been overwhelmingly positive. Two areas where colors has had the most impact is with Exterior Envelope and Life Safety drawings.

Exterior Envelope

One area that could use increased clarity is with a project’s exterior envelope, particularly regarding how different membranes are used, and how they transition from one to another. Sasaki is adopting the practice of using contrasting colors to differentiate these elements. This has led to less confusion for staff, consultants, and builders when reading drawings—as well as an increase in clarity of material scope.

Kyle Richard, associate at Sasaki, and a beta-tester for the program, says that “using color to identify types of membranes helps us intuitively verify continuity and identify transition areas. Color is effective across multiple scales and is just as useful for wall sections as it is for details. Using color also conveys an additional layer of information to the designer that’s readily available to the eye without relying on notes or text.”

Life Safety Drawings

Life Safety drawings are another example of where color is helpful. Over the years, we have had requests from building inspectors to revise our black-and-white drawings with color to show rated partitions, or differentiate between uses. Based on this feedback, we developed processes that make this delivery method available to project teams.

Considering Color?

For Sasaki, proposing changes to time-tested drawing techniques was done only after careful consideration. For those who wish to try incorporating color into your technical drawings, we offer the following:

  1. Do not add color for color’s sake alone. Determine what condition you are trying to solve for. Considering color should be one option out of many potential solutions, but it should not be the default answer.
  2. Design how color would be used to help with technical drawing storytelling. Color can be used to codify information, or help with differentiation, for example:
    Codify Information: Using the same color, but with different hues (such as a family of blues) could be used to show how some elements are unique, but part of the same family.
    Differentiation: Use highly contrasting colors for maximum effect and clarity.
  3. Consider how colors interface with each other. If some colors will be in close proximity to each other, are the colors different enough? We don’t want to add confusion to our drawings with the use of color. Ensure that each color is clearly different from each other.  Even though computer screens can display over 16 million colors, there may only be 20 or so available for our use. To learn more about colors of maximum contrast, please click here and here.
  4. We can’t totally abandon black-and-white printing just yet. Colors should be of a density that clearly read on an electronic device, and will also print legibly in black-and-white.  As you are developing your pallet of colors, make black-and-white test prints to validate your selections. We found that a typical yellow performs very well on the screen, but does not print well, and had to use a much darker version.
  5. If you find that a drawing is so complicated that it can only be viewed in color, include a large font note which says as much—something as simple as “DRAWING TO BE READ IN COLOR.”

Over the years, the practice of technical drawings have advanced and been refined into a robust graphic language. However, this does not mean that standard practices are sacrosanct, and cannot be improved upon. It is our hope that the use of color becomes a widely adopted drafting practice.

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