Things I learned from drawing random people at Four Barrel

How 50+ sketches in two days made me look at design differently


I can’t draw.

And I’m far from what anyone, myself primarily, would consider an “artist”. You would think that as a designer, I’d have some sort of drawing ability, but that’s actually far from the case.

Lately I’ve been trying to turn that around. In an exercise championed by the awesome Kate Rutter, I’ve been trying to sketch as many things as I can over a 2 day period. This means people, places, objects, scenarios, ideas — all being crudely depicted on a 3x5 notecard.

In the last two days I’ve done 50+ sketches. My first few weren’t too impressive:

The one on the far left is supposed to be a bottle of Fireball. I get a lot of questions about that.

It definitely reeks of effort, of trying too hard. There’s a lot of hesitancy in my lines, an evident lack of confidence in my artistic ability. But as I began to think less about mechanics, it got easier:

By sketches #15 and on, I started to pick up on how to use differing line weights to convey texture and space. I also realized that I was terrible at recognizing spatial properties and depth, so I tried different ways of counteracting that.

After sitting at Four Barrel coffee for 45 minutes and trying to sketch people in the least creepy way possible, I eventually ran out of things to draw. There are only so many ways to sketch a coffee cup right?

This forced me to get creative — to notice things like decor and room flow and take in the details and nuances of things I normally overlook.

Lines started to flow naturally and I found myself becoming less robotic with my movements. By now, my focus switched from trying to depict something super accurately to getting the essence of what I was trying to sketch.

By sketches 40 and on, I noticed a huge change in not only how I was drawing, but processing things visually. Everything I saw started to break down into line and form. I started to filter what details could be ignored and what was essential in order to produce something recognizable.

So what does all this sketching have to do with user experience design?

Having to produce a large body of work over a short time forced me to optimize my time and resources. The beginning sketches probably took me 5–7 minutes each to produce because I wanted to draw everything accurately. But by the end, I was churning them out at a rate of 1 every 2 minutes; getting a sketch ideated and out the door was my main priority.

Even with my priorities shifting towards speed, the quality of sketches at the end of the 2 days was much better than when I first started out. I related it to the lean methodology of “quick and dirty”, in terms of getting something produced and improving upon that instead of spending a ton of time making something perfect.

But the biggest takeaway I’ve found from constant sketching is this:

Sketching is realizing how to take something complex and boil it down to its essence.

Whether it be the movement of a person, or the features of a product — the ability to get the essence of something and show it in a way that is authentic is totally applicable to UX. Improved observational skills go a long way in being able to discern the root causes of user issues, instead of wasting time on surface-level problems. And this leads to us solving for actual user needs, instead of our assumptions.

If you’re interested in the exercise, try it out sometime. Get some 3x5 cards, a few pens of varying thickness, and go out into the world. Try and do 100 sketches in 4 days. Observe people, look at corners of buildings, draw weird shit. Exhaust your creativity. And afterwards, let me know what you end up learning!

Originally published at www.allanb.io. I’m currently a UX designer at Tradecraft in SF, follow me on Twitter @allanzzz