Communication: Mastering graphic communication

Underscore your words with pictures that emphasize your point

November 30, 2001

How often have you given what you thought were perfectly clear verbal instructions only to find out later that the audience had a very different image in mind? These lapses in communication waste time, materials and, therefore, money. Profit targets are difficult enough to achieve without backsliding because of poor communication skills.

Graphic communication in construction is a learned skill that includes elements of illustration, mechanical drawing and architectural drawing. A few practical pointers can help sharpen your illustrating skills, and the more comfortable you are with your drawings, the more likely you’ll be to include them in your regular communications.

Simplicity in the graphic is important. A free-hand sketch often will suffice as a supporting document in a conversation with a client or subcontractor. More formal plans should be attached to any contract or approval-agency submission.

Each graphic should be to some scale, even if it’s not entirely precise, because proportions help clarify a drawing. Key dimensions should be included.




Defining the visual

Since 1932 the American Institute of Architects has produced the classic guide Architectural Graphic Standards, which is updated as necessary. This desk reference, now in its 10th edition, includes construction details and techniques, sectional and plan drawings, dimensions, and specification language that clearly describes a finished product. Design/build firms should own a copy of this 1,092-page book. Remodelers should know where to find one and review it as a resource. A companion CD-ROM is available.

To buy a copy of the book and the CD-ROM, Click Here. Or call the AIA’s Tampa Bay chapter at 813/229-3411.

The following are graphic communication assets to be mastered:





  • Plan view. This drawing is two-dimensional (length and width), viewed as if you were directly above the item looking down. It is particularly helpful for understanding relationships of rooms, relative sizing or location of components.





  • Elevation. Another two-dimensional view, this shows height and width as if you were standing in front of the item looking straight on at it. Elevations show location details and scale.





  • Sectional drawing. A "cutaway" plane through an item that exposes an internal view is particularly useful for trim profiles or to verify headroom at a stairway or under a sloping ceiling.





  • Isometric. Imagine holding an item at arm’s length. Now mentally turn it and look at it from another angle. Each view is an isometric view of the object. One-point perspective lets you draw objects from the front while giving them depth, creating an image that looks three-dimensional. Two-point perspective is a similar technique with similar results but looks at objects from an angle.





  • Mechanical layouts. Overlaid on a plan view or sectional drawing, these can provide multiple details for heat, electric, plumbing, sound systems, lighting or any other system that works within a space. They help ensure that a space has no conflicting uses.





  • Dimension lines. Each type of drawing should include the critical dimensions of important items. The starting and finishing points of the dimension should be noted. A 12-inch overhang might be misunderstood to be the rafter end, or the fascia distance from the frame or the finished siding. If a brick veneer is to be used, the finished overhang would differ in each interpretation.





  • Maps. How much money have you wasted through the years because an employee got lost on the way to pick up materials? Or because a delivery or trade contractor was delayed for the same reason? Prompt arrival of deliveries and trade contractors can become more likely if you fax a map to drivers before they head out. Another option is to e-mail them a link to, where they can get more details if they need them. A sketched site map of where you want a lumber drop or where cars should be parked simplifies site management.





  • Grade plan/site plan. A plan view of the site with elevations, swales, access paths, storage areas, drainage areas and utilities noted is useful for the excavator and landscaper. A grade plan can also help define expectations of your scope of work to the homeowner.





  • Exploded view. When the details count, an item can be "disassembled" pictorially. Each part is shown with lines describing how it fits into the rest of the assembly. This view is helpful for compound-trim details, kitchen components or layered installations that would otherwise crowd a drawing.

    A fun skills builder is to imagine what an item would look like before committing it to paper. What are the most important details?

    Understanding spatial relations is fundamental to construction trade contractors, and communicating that information is a core management skill. Master it well, and you’ve plugged another profit leak.

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