As an architect and educator, I love to study da Vinci’s Codex (“manuscript”), a series of portfolios of richly detailed drawings and writings. Historians estimate that some 30 of the Codex’s 90-odd portfolios survive in some form. Each sheet reveals a new set of incredibly intricate images depicting anatomical sections, mechanical devices, fortifications, buildings, and studies in mathematics and geometry. The Italian notes and texts were written backwards (right to left) so they could be read in a mirror.

Digitally leafing through the Codex portfolios invites surprise and wonder. da Vinci composed the panoply of drawings, diagrams and texts in a way uniquely related to what he was currently studying or proposing. It is a pregnant moment, where we see how da Vinci is thinking and gain valuable insight into how he was recording his thoughts in real time. His 4,500-plus pages of pen-work provide a rich repository of ideas, theories, and insights into one of the Renaissance’s most creative minds.

Today’s high-octane-driven innovation economy has renewed focus on “design thinking” and “sketching” as a tool to amp up our collective creative juices. Much has been written about these topics recently. (See:, as well as attached references)

While actually being Leonardo da Vinci is out of reach for us mere mortals, we can learn valuable lessons from da Vinci and other masters about sketching as a tool for generating and recording ideas. Here are some of the many things I noticed about his sketch books that I wanted to share with you, hoping they will prompt an ongoing conversation about the power of sketching and its applicability to our present times.


Sketching as Observation

Leonardo’s famous anatomical studies arose out his apprenticeship with Andrea Del Verrochio, where an understanding of the anatomy was critical in graphic representation of the body and its skeletal/muscular structure. What started as a means of understanding an existing craft (painting) later evolved into a form of research into new evolving fields (anatomy and the medical sciences). This demonstrated how sketching and drawing from life requires our full powers of observation, for it prompts us to see things in fresh ways, gain new insights, and hatch new ideas.




Lesson: When encountering a new problem, observe and document it with fresh eyes. Allow your next exploratory steps to be driven on the basis of your new observations. Scrutinize the world until it hurts and forces you to rethink your pre-conceptions about how it looks or works. You never know where this can take you.


Multi-textual Sketching: a Renaissance Hyperlink

Many of da Vinci’s sketches are layered with text, while his longer treatises (especially his astronomical studies) contain diagrams and rendered sketches. Columns and notations often run alongside the main narrative block of text as a kind-of Renaissance hyperlink: words, text, notes, diagrams, sections, and sketches are all utilized and combined. Where the limit of one mode of informational translation is defined, a complimentary one is added.




Lessons: Combine all modes of text and drawing in a sketch, moving from one mode to another as suits the task. Layer and link ideas, even if they are conceived in non-linear fashion.


Sketching as Search: Non-linear and Simultaneous Trajectories

Many of da Vinci’s sketchbook pages contain all types of drawings, many represented in diverse aspects of a particular study for a new invention or investigation. We see how he moves freely from one part of the page to another. Many pages have a non-hiearchical, non-linear quality to their organization, as if da Vinci is using the whole exercise as a search for a solution to a particular problem occupying his imagination. Other drawings are more ordered, as if he were recording problems he had already fully resolved. In both cases, each page’s composition comprises numerous fragmentary images and notations. This suggests a paradox between spontaneous invention and a logical, one-at-a-time drawing process. The proposed design or study can be understood in its entirety by reading all of its fragmentary representations.




Lesson: Draw anything that comes to your mind related to a specific (design) problem on the sheet. Don’t worry about its composition, only about what you are learning about the thing you are seeking to study and what it is revealing to you. Allow the whole to emerge from a description of its parts.


3D Sketching: Preference for Axonometric and Isometric Drawings

da Vinci’s sketches are laden with 3D representations, in which axonometric and isometric drawings often represent his designs, especially in his mechanical device concepts: every aspect of a machine and its wheels, levers, and other mechanisms are illustrated in great detail. Many machines are represented in ways that convey motion, well before the development of film. Curiously, his 3D sketches are often organized along a diagonal from the paper’s upper left to lower right corners. Perspectives are rarely used, primarily when he is doing studies for paintings which themselves have perspectival scenes.




Lesson: The world is more 3D and 4D than 2D. Find ways to use these modes of representation when designing solutions to real and conceptual problems. Break the limits of 2D thinking.


Multi-representational Sketching and Perceptual Simultaneity

Similarly, da Vinci is not afraid to mix text with drawings or mix all kinds of drawings with one another on one page. For instance, his detailed machine drawings contain very rudimentary diagrams of pulleys and other devices, concerned more about the utilitarian function of a machine’s physics than how the machine is crafted. (See:

Likewise, a 3D axon of an anatomical feature (like a womb) is cross-sectioned to reveal the baby inside. Sections are combined with axons, and axons with plans. Drawing is done so that the representational technique becomes a kind of invention as well.




Lesson: No single mode of representation can define all aspects of the physical world or its operative powers. Therefore, use whatever mode, to the level of detail required, to represent some aspect of the design problem at hand.


Scaling: Small to Large, Large to Small

Many of da Vinci’s sketches will show the same object at different scales, zooming in and out of the view to show more or less detail. So we ask: Which came first, the smaller or larger image? Case in point: his studies for his statue of Ludovico Sforza on a nobly rendered horse. Beside the larger rendering of the sculpture are smaller renditions from slightly different vantage points and stages of design development. Interestingly, da Vinci’s love of horses is revealed as the horse is boldly rendered, while its aristocratic rider is sketched in ghost-like traces, more of a prop for the horse than the other way around.




Lessons: Move in and out of different scales. Let yourself see the thing you are designing as part of something larger (context or system) or as something worthy of being understood in greater detail, so the details can inform the shape and quality of its larger context.


Embracing Mistakes and Incompleteness: The Half-Finished Drawing

da Vinci was famous for his many unfinished projects—and sketches. Some sketches are left incomplete, as if the idea was not worthy of further study or interfered with his pursuit of a new, more interesting idea. Others reflect his mastery of knowing exactly how much to represent with economy, without belaboring a drawing with unnecessary detail or attention. Other times we see scribbles that appear less complete or finished of what would expect of a grand master like da Vinci.




Lessons: Sketching provides a freer form of expression, where incompleteness and mistakes can be embraced. Freed of the burden to make things perfect, the mind can explore the outer edges of our imaginations and places this might take us without fear and restraint.


Today is Different – or Is it?

Yes, we live in a different world today, where we know so much more about the Earth and our observable world. Science and math have explained many fundamental mysteries about the physical qualities and dimensions of our existence. Machines and systems da Vinci only envisioned through his sketches and writings are now realized, as have those outside the limits of his earthly residence.

So, too, have the nature and powers of our representational tools changed. Charcoal sticks are replaced with the digital mouse and stylus. Computational representation tools are so powerful we sometimes trust the photo-realistic representation of space more than our own eyes.

Yet we remain faced with great opportunities to invent new things, spaces, places and ideas that are only in our imagination’s infancy. How, then, do we harness the power of these new tools and opportunities with the richness and immediacy so evident in da Vinci’s sketchbooks?

The problems we try to solve and the tools we use to solve them may change, but the underlying creative powers we harness and unleash are still available to us through the ages. Let sketching unleash your creativity.

Comments: 1 Comment

Charles Westbrook  /   December 3, 2016 at 2:33 pm Reply

the drawing above –
Lessons: Combine all modes of text and drawing in a sketch, moving from one mode to another as suits the task.

where dd his drawing come from
what notebook thank you