As a kid, I spent hours drawing and sketching ideas that popped into my head. I used drawing as a primary language for capturing thoughts, exploring ideas, and then sharing those ideas.
When I suggest sketching as a visual thinking tool, I often I hear “I’m not an artist” or “I can’t draw.” While I understand the hesitation, I’m here to tell you that the artistic quality of your sketches is not the point. The real goal of sketching is functional. It’s about generating ideas, solving problems, and communicating ideas more effectively with others.
When you feel inadequate in your sketching, pause and reconsider your perspective. Don’t worry how well you draw. Instead, think of your sketching as visual thinking, which works regardless of your drawing quality. Ugly gets the job done just fine.
There is no shortage of software or hardware tools for producing amazing work. It seems that whatever you can imagine, software and hardware can make it happen.Adding sketching to the design process is a great way to amplify software and hardware tools. Sketching provides a unique space that can help you think differently, generate a variety of ideas quickly, explore alternatives with less risk, and encourage constructive discussions with colleagues and clients.
Let’s explore these three benefits of sketching in more detail.
A variety of ideas, quickly
Sketching is great for rapid idea generation. A pencil or a Sharpie and a piece of paper invite loose exploration. Remember to keep on generating ideas—you’ll want to push past that first bunch of surface ideas to get the deeper concepts out of your head.For quick idea generation, I like to read notes I wrote during the kickoff phase of a project, letting those words and thoughts rumble around my head until they lead me to new ideas. Once an idea comes to mind, I capture it on paper, add notes, and number each sketch as reference for later review The key to generating many ideas is to withhold judgment of them as good or bad until your sketching session is complete. First capture the ideas, letting them flow without worrying if they’re any good. Wait until you’re finished to judge and filter
Explore the alternatives
Sketching offers you the freedom to explore alternative ideas. Early in a project it’s important to see a variety of different ideas so you can choose the best option. Sketching works well for this, as you can explore those varied ideas quickly.When you’re sketching, your mind is free to play and explore other directions that surface. Sketches help filter out “rabbit hole” ideas—concepts that are impossible to produce or impractical to deliver on. Drawing out ideas works as an early detection system—revealing potential issues before significant time is invested.This is the time to ask “what if?” and explore the answers that pop into your head. Questions like “What if we could…” or “What if we were limited by…” can help break through the structures your mind forms around problems.
Foster better discussions
Sketches have an amazing ability to foster discussions about ideas. With colleagues and especially clients, I’ve found sketches give everyone involved the permission to consider, talk about, and challenge the ideas they represent. After all, it’s just a sketch.Because sketches are unfinished and loose, they invite commentary. There is a latitude inherent in a sketch that seems to magically open the door for others to offer ideas—often thoughts you couldn’t come up with from your singular perspective.When I’ve presented conceptual ideas in finished form, colleagues and clients often hesitate to be as honest as they are with sketches. There is something in tightly finished concept work that I think suggests significant effort was spent in production—leading colleagues and clients to hold back to avoid the additional work needed to make changes.
Getting comfortable with sketching in your process requires repetition. Practice makes all the difference. If sketching feels unnatural to you, practice it a little bit every day.Find opportunities to doodle in the margins or, if you have them, draw with your kids. The more you practice, the more confident you will become when deadlines roll around.
Carry a sketchbook
Here’s an idea to make practice happen: Carry a notebook and pen or pencil with you wherever you go. Check out the wide variety of Moleskines, Field Notes or Scout Books available and buy one. When you have downtime, take a few moments to sketch and loosen up or explore ideas you have about design challenges.The key here is to make sketching a routine, comfortable thing in your everyday life. You might be surprised at the ideas you’ll capture simply by carrying a sketchbook around.
Give sketching a test run
Give sketching a try for the idea generation and communication phases at the beginning of your next project. Remember, it’s not about the quality of the drawing, but about capturing and communicating ideas from one mind to another.Generate as many different ideas as you can. Explore crazy, way-out-there ideas and then see how your group or even your clients react. You might be surprised at the discussion that ensues.
Because I’ve integrated sketches deeply into my design practice, I use them for concepting and sharing with my clients as a rule. From logos and icons to websites, illustrations, and UI design, sketches done early in the process are a key component[..]