Isometric drawing: a designer's guide

Isometric drawing, sometimes called isometric projection, is a type of 2D drawing used to draw 3D objects that is set out using 30-degree angles. It's also a type of axonometric drawing, meaning that the same scale is used for every axis, resulting in a non-distorted image. Since isometric grids are pretty easy to set up, once you understand the basics of isometric drawing, creating a freehand isometric sketch is relatively simple.

This post explains all you need to know about isometric drawing. You'll learn exactly what defines an isometric drawing, how it differs from one-point perspective, what to do to get started creating your own isometric projection, and even more. Elevate your art skills further by following the tutorials in our how to draw guide (which will teach you how to draw pretty much anything).

What is isometric drawing?

An isometric drawing is a 3D representation of an object, room, building or design on a 2D surface. One of the defining characteristics of an isometric drawing, compared to other types of 3D representation, is that the final image is not distorted and is always to scale. This is due to the fact that the foreshortening of the axes is equal. The word isometric comes from Greek to mean 'equal measure'. 

Isometric drawing: 30-degree angles

Isometric drawings are built around 30-degree angles (Image credit: Christophe Dang Ngoc Chan, Mike Horvath)

Isometric drawings are a good way to show measurements and how components fit together, and is used in technical drawing, often by engineers and architects. They differ from other types of axonometric drawing, including dimetric and trimetric projections, in which different scales are used for different axes to give a distorted final image.

In an isometric drawing, the object appears as if it is being viewed from above from one corner, with the axes set out from this corner point. Isometric drawings begin with one vertical line along which two points are defined. Any lines set out from these points should be constructed at an angle of 30 degrees.  

Isometric drawing vs one-point perspective

Both isometric drawings and one-point perspective drawings use geometry and mathematics to present 3D representations on 2D surfaces. One-point perspective drawings mimic the human eye, so objects appear smaller the further away they are from the viewer. In contrast, isometric drawings use parallel projection, which means objects remain at the same size, no matter how far away they are.

Isometric drawing: one-point perspective

One-point perspective mimics what the human eye perceives (Image credit: Oliver Harrison – CC BY 2.5)

Basically, isometric drawing doesn’t use perspective in its rendering (i.e. lines don’t converge as they move away from the viewer). Isometric drawings are more useful for functional drawings that are used to explain how something works, while one-point perspective drawings are typically used to give a more sensory idea of an object or space. 

The limitation of isometric drawings compared to 3D models is that you can't change your vantage point, you have to see the drawing from the top viewpoint.

How to draw an isometric cube

various shapes drawn using isometric drawing

3D shapes drawn with isometric drawing (Image credit: Cmglee)

The most common isometric drawing is that of a cube, and drawing a cube using isometric projection is very easy. You will need a piece of paper, ruler, pencil and protractor (or for the shortcut version, using gridded paper, jump to the next section).

Using the ruler, draw a vertical line on the page, and mark three equally spaced points along it. Draw a horizontal line through the lowest point, and using the protractor, mark out a 30 degree angle up from the line on either side. Draw a line back through the lowest point from the 30 degree angle on each side. 

Repeat this step through the middle point and the same through the top point, but with the top point, mark out the angle downwards. The lines from the second and third point will cross at a certain point, and from this intersection, draw a vertical line down towards the angled lines coming from the bottom point. You should be able to see the form of the cube where all of the lines intersect. 

Using an isometric grid

For all the cheats out there who don’t have the necessary tools (or inclination) to create an isometric projection, there is a foolproof way to bash out your axonometric drawing: simply use an isometric grid. The pattern can be downloaded online, and will save you lots of time and effort, or you can have a play with the grid using this isometric drawing tool.

Alternatively, learn how to set up your own grid in Illustrator or Photoshop by following the video tutorial below. 

Once your eyes become accustomed to the trickery of the triangular pattern, you will immediately notice how the isometric works. The super handy thing about the grid is that it already has all of the 30 degree angles set up for you. This tutorial walks you through how to draw a cube using an isometric grid. 

The benefits of isometric drawing

Isometric drawings are very useful for designers – particularly architects, industrial and interior designers and engineers, as they are ideal for visualising rooms, products, and infrastructure. They're a great way to quickly test out different design ideas. They also illustrate the 3D nature of an object, without being drawn in 3D software, and measurements can be made to scale along the principal axes.

There are a number of other situations in which isometric projection is useful. In wayfinding systems, for example in museums or galleries, isometric wall maps can show visitors where they are in the building, what is going on elsewhere, and how to get to get around. 

Some of the best infographics use isometric projection to enable them to show more information than would be possible in a 2D drawing. Some of the best logos also use this approach to create impact.

Representations of places, such as this one created by Jing Zhang, are just one use of isometric drawing techniques (Image credit: Jing Zhang)

Exploded isometric drawings are useful for revealing parts of a product that might be hidden or internal. They're used by architects, engineers and product designers the world over to better explain the intricacies of a design. To create an exploded isometric, you need to know the detailed inner workings of whatever you are drawing, so they're are usually used at the final design stage for presentations to clients. 

Isometric drawing examples

Click the icon in the top right to enlarge the image (Image credit: Mauco)

Illustrator and art director Mauco created this isometric map to represent the areas surrounding the SPECTRUM building in London. It shows just the main roads and landmarks to help people orientate themselves. 

Click the icon in the top right to enlarge the image (Image credit: Jing Zhang)

Jing Zhang is an illustrator working mainly with clients in the advertising industry. She's built a particular reputation for her detailed exploded isometric designs, including this creation for Slack. It's part of a series to accompany the brand's stories, focusing on elements such as a happy mobile workforce (above). 

Click the icon in the top right to enlarge the image (Image credit: Tim Peacock, The California Sunday Magazine)

This design was created for an article in the The California Sunday Magazine, entitled The Tech Revolt and exploring political activism in the tech industry. In it, illustrator Tim Peacock uses isometric projection as a way of revealing the inner workings of a Silicon Valley office block. 

Click the icon in the top right to enlarge the image (Image credit: MC Escher)

MC Escher was perhaps the king of using isometric projections in his artworks. His use of parallel geometries to depict mind-bending staircases that go nowhere will be familiar to most. In Cycle (1938), shown above, is it clear how isometric projection comes into his work, from the pattern on the ground to the use of cubes that turn into steps. 

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Sorcha O'Higgins is a collage artist and freelance writer. With a background in architecture and urban art, she works mostly with existing analogue material to create both abstract and figurative work. Her collages use bold colours, patterns and contrasting elements to create playful, direct and sometimes brazen images.
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