Trevor Flynn

“Drawing is an amazing proprioceptive exercise.”

Trevor Flynn is director of Drawing at Work and founder of Drawing Gym. He provides drawing courses, seminars and events for universities, museums, arts institutions and companies including architectural and engineering practices.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? When did you realise you could turn your passion for drawing into a business?

I have a BA in painting and an MA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths and exhibited as a practicing artist for over 20 years. Around the year 2000, I made some black and white ink wash drawings for a cookbook, designed by my wife, that became a big seller, and I was suddenly an illustrator. Publications like the Sunday Telegraph, Condé Nast Traveller, Elle magazine, Food Illustrated began to pay me to draw. My subjects were food, wine and travel, and I would be expected to draw anything from a goat to a giant squid; an endless supply of natural history and locations which suited me because I love making observational drawings. One milestone was spending an insane two weeks drawing the actors, director and crew on the set of the Notting Hill film, commissioned by Richard Curtis to illustrate the screenplay, in a book (for Comic Relief) about the making of the film.

I have taught in art schools since I was 25, and in my 30’s began teaching drawing based divergent thinking techniques in businesses, advertising and creative agencies. In 2005 I started working with architectural offices to help them keep their sketching fit for purpose.

We have cave paintings that are much older than the earliest form of writing in history. Children can paint before they can write. However, most people in our lives lose the ability to represent something by drawing. Why is that?

Everybody can draw until somebody tells them they can’t” is an astute observation of John Lennon.  We are happy to sketch unselfconsciously as a natural form of visual expression until we reach an age when we become conscious of our inability to make photographic likenesses of the world; around 8 years of age. This is the time we should be giving them the confidence to step away from the superficiality of outer appearances and give them immersive drawing experiences. By which I mean, get them diagramming the way a heart works, or the way a river meanders, or a slo-mo of a cheetah running, or how to build a bridge. Something that will feed their sense of wonder.

Drawing Gym session Buro Happold engineers Bath office

How does the digitization of the means of production affect the kinaesthetic skills of humankind?

Grayson Perry makes the point that when you draw you are less aware of the contact of your fingers around the pen, and more of the tip of the pen on the paper. The pen is a body extension and we attach ourselves emotionally to it. The link between emotion and cognition is essential for good design. As Don Norman states in The Design of Everyday Objects “cognition provides understanding, emotion provides value judgements”

Drawing is an amazing proprioceptive exercise. The hand of a person sketching, much like the hand of a person playing a cello uses close muscle control, memorised and habituated spatially. The emerging sketch acts as a symbol in a feedback loop. If it doesn’t look right, you know it isn’t right and your hand has failed to transmit the unconscious picture from your mind’s eye with sufficient accuracy.

Consider why designers sketch as a means of capturing ideas.  The soup of abstract ideas that form in early-stage design processes are experienced as a feeling of discomfort, known as cognitive load. Sketching helps you transfer these impulses from your subconscious to paper through your hand, in a process called Dual Coding, explained eloquently by Oliver Caviglioni in his book.

The fragmented pictures get deposited on paper and great precision is not required. These raw tools of perception have been at the root of our evolution since before we dwelled in caves.

Sketching has a very good chance of rising above the complete dependency we have on computers, but it must prove to be interoperable within rapidly changing digital platforms.

Exhibition 300 life drawings made by architects Foster & Partners

Can you tell a bit about your organisation and the services you provide?

Our team comprises our office manager, graphic designer, web designer, animation/filmmaker, one architectural and one engineering consultant, one super-skilled architectural illustrator and myself.

I design drawing experiences, and we all contribute variously to the production of educational material. The drawing experiences might be live events for 70+ people during Clerkenwell Design Week, or a Design Museum late night ‘take-over’ or they may be distance learning key sketching skills in preparation for the IStructE chartership exam. It’s fair to say part of my role is to remind people why they got involved in design in the first place by giving them the opportunity to re-connect with sketching.

Clerkenwell Design Week event Tarkett Desso

You are organising “Drawing Gym”freehand drawing classes for architects, engineers and designers at their own studios. Can you tell us its structure and what the attendees should expect from it?

The basic Drawing Gym course comprises 4×2 hour classes. When I design a course for an office I don’t rush in for a quick shout and leave, and I don’t want people to attend our courses as a box-ticking exercise. For firms to get value from our courses delegates must be able to apply their new or refreshed skills in their day-job from the first exercise they complete.

Drawing Gym for Architects

Other than freehand drawing you offer courses on some other topics such as colour perception, paper folding or life drawing. Can you explain these a bit?

Our first clients were architectural offices. I had been teaching life drawing most of my adult life and so it made sense to extend this fantastic learning experience to deliver it ad hoc in offices. Hence the company name Drawing At Work.

When word got around the architectural community that some offices were drawing live nude models, people were curious, and the business took off. At one time we were running three courses simultaneously at Richard Rogers. (RSH-P). Chris Wise heard about this on a visit to the Rogers office and requested a course for the recently formed Expedition Engineering. Hence my relationship with engineering firms began. Chris would later become Professor of Design at UCL, and he invited me to teach the Civil Environmental and Geographic Engineering undergraduates. He also helped secure the UCL Teaching Innovation Award to develop the UCL Drawing Gym website in 2015. My brief was to ‘take engineering sketching out of the dark ages and I wanted to capture the experience of live sketching in real-time but this would have made all the films massively long. Hence, we developed a stop motion technique whereby the user worked from a 3-minute film that they could stop and draw repeatedly for the duration of the 30-35-minutes exercise.

The Paperfold course was developed by Peter Ayres, formerly concept artist at Heatherwick, now joint Director of Beep Studio. His genius for explaining complicated things in simple ways and his recurrent fascination with folded paper forms came together when I asked him to design a course for architects and designers. I am blessed to have been able to work with super-talented and inspirational people, and Peter’s inextinguishable love of form is palpable when he teaches. He and I run the Drawing Gym for the Design Museum three times per year.

If writing helps us organize our thoughts, drawing should be doing the same. If that’s the case, do you think professions other than architects or designers who aren’t used to drawing may benefit from your classes? For instance, can you give the same Drawing Gym course to a law or accountancy firm?

I recently ran a short evening session for senior partners at Taylor Wessing (a law firm). My spur came from reading Daniel Levitin’s book The Organised Mind, which presents fascinating evidence from neuroscience about how spatial clues (e.g., a key hook to remind you where your keys are) can help us retrieve information from our long-term memory. Or our keys.

Lawyers have to learn and retrieve masses of information. Our class used sketch-noting techniques, developed initially with engineers for predicting construction sequences, to visualise (or rehearse) important future events for lawyers.

Drawing Gym for Architects

Compared to a photorealistic rendering of an architectural project, hand-drawn sketches eliminate a certain amount of information as an abstract version of reality. On the other hand, it leaves more room for the viewer to dream about and complete the missing parts.  If you were a client of an architect, would you prefer the project to be presented in a photorealistic rendering or a hand-drawn perspective?

An engineer at Ramboll once told me that they only stop sketching when the design jelly stops wobbling. Great description, because the early sketches in any design have a shelf-life of about a day… because some new idea or context will emerge to change the brief. They are provisional. You would be ill-advised to ask for a photorealistic image of something that has not been designed yet. And an architectural practice issuing a sexy marketing CGI have made a rod for their back if they were to design such a complex living organism as a building from the superficial outer appearance inwards.

How do you change the courses according to your client profile? What is the difference between a Drawing Gym provided for architects or engineers?

The underlying pedagogy of the Drawing Gym is rooted in the thorough understanding of 3 or 4 drawing systems that you can learn, then apply in a range of different work scenarios. The content is differentiated for architects, engineers, interior designers, landscape architects. Once you know, for example, how to make a reveal drawing of a detail (sometimes called a cutaway) you will see all kinds of ways to apply it in bridge design, product, transport engineering, facade design and so on.

The pandemic badly affected everyone’s life and many businesses as well. Considering the nature of your business that relies on personal interaction, how are you coping with it?

The pandemic has served to accelerate the adaptation of our content for distance and self-directed learning. Since designing the UCL Drawing Gym in 2015 we have continued to produce short films, exercise sheets and live class content so we were ahead of the curve when it became clear that personal interaction was going to be momentarily taken over by online learning

In April 2020 I developed a set of sketch-based activities in response to a request from a large architectural firm for a set of Zoom classes that would reduce feelings in the staff of isolation and remoteness that were a consequence of ‘never leaving work’ and never seeing colleagues. As I was feeling this as much as anybody it was cathartic for me to design challenges and new skills for drawing cohorts to amuse, entertain and support each other. We set about ‘atomising’ the learning experiences as 7-to-20-minute modular exercises. These short, immersive experiences of drawing lie at the heart of all our work as they can be configured for early morning, lunchtime, evening drawing broadcasts to fit people’s dense schedules.

How can one take one of your courses?

There are a few options, better to give some direct links to them.

*Trevor Flynn portrait by Jim Fenwick