on keeping a sketchbook
or, my brain on paper
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and about how to put this into words because I was never the writer in my family, that was always my sister. I want to talk about keeping a sketchbook. It’s one of the most consistent parts of my life and it’s made a huge impact on the way I think, the way I approach my life and work, and the way I store memories and ideas.
I never kept a diary, but my parents have boxes and boxes of drawings and paintings from my childhood, on everything from napkins and restaurant placemats to fine sketchbooks.
I’m writing this first draft in a moleskine notebook actually because I’m a perfectionist and I want to remove all opportunities to edit as I go.
Notebooks are about unfettered ideas and creativity. For me, a sketchbook is a place to be completely uncensored and unafraid. I can edit later. All the fine details come into place in the end, but they start here, on paper. Tangible, analog, manual, physical representations of my thoughts. Unrefined, unprocessed, pure.
I can cross things out, or glue on new sheets of paper to hide pieces I came to dislike, but I’d never arrive at something that works if I apply digital constraints at the beginning of a project.
I’m a formally trained graphic designer working at a 200 person tech startup. You might wonder how I ended up here if I’m a paper person. Startup mentality is about pushing the limits of creativity, and for me, sketchbooks are exactly where that starts.
My dad used to read us his childhood diaries as bedtime stories, but I never learned to keep a words diary. However, I have no shortage of memories and experiences captured on paper. Most of my work is in storage, but I kept 15-20 of my more recent notebooks in my apartment as a reminder for what I can achieve. Every designer has moments of inspiration and moments of mental block. It comes with the profession, and it takes experience to learn to work around the off days.
The same way my kindergarten teacher said there are no mistakes in art, one of my coworkers says there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm. She’s right. When I open some of my old moleskines, I laugh at how bad some of those logo sketches are, or how I could have thought that concept would work, or whatever. When I’m brainstorming for a project, whether it’s developing an identity, designing a book, or working on something for a new product at work, I always start on paper. You can’t pick out the good ideas if you didn’t think up enough ideas to work with.
Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign are some of my favorite tools, but they can’t teach you to think. Designers who start on computers can restrict their initial exploration and creativity. I’m not saying you can’t learn to be an experienced, amazing designer and jump right in, I just feel there are a lot of trade schools that teach you to be good at a program but they don’t encourage critical thinking or strong content behind the design.
I’m getting off topic. The point I want to make is, it is extraordinarily important to keep a sketchbook. I have notes from class lectures (below) from design history to HTML/CSS (which I learned in Spanish, by the way). I got to visually express my interest in design, composition, and hand-drawn typography as I took notes.
I have sketches of some Italian guy playing an accordion with pigeons in a plaza in Rome. I have sketches of my fellow passengers on a ferry in Istanbul. I have carefully crafted drawings of the view of the plaza where my favorite cafe stands in Barcelona. I didn’t draw the super nice grandpa waiter, or my cafe con leche, or the bull dog at the next table, but I didn’t need to. By taking the time to physically mark that moment or hour of my life on paper, I took the time to physically imprint all of my observatory senses in my memory forever.
I could tell you he always combed his hair to the left side, or how he changed the shape of his mustache about two months after I started eating there regularly, when the warm weather came back. I could tell you about the English and French bull dogs play fighting over a crushed water bottle. I can tell you about that graffiti face on the closed metal grate of the bookstore on the other side of the plaza, even though I couldn’t capture the fluidity of his teeth with my 02 Micron pen.
I have these memories and ideas forever. They aren’t all words, but they’re mine, from bad ideas to moments of genius, from a sketch of my coffee to a six hour, detailed account of the Barceloneta harbor and all the sail boats. I have these, and they are unedited instances of my brain and its best and worst times. It’s shaped the way I am as a designer and a person.
Do yourself a favor today, put down your iPhone, get off your Mac, and go pick up your moleskine and microns and draw some ideas. Even if it’s just for two minutes. There’s something about tactile interaction that unleashes a different kind of creativity, and it’s one of the reasons I’m able to innovate so freely, or accept myself when I’m having an off day.
I used to draw a lot more than I do now, and I miss it, so I’m going to take my own advice for once, and close this lined moleskine in which I’m writing, and pick up my other one, with the blank pages. Maybe I’ll draw a new composition for my portfolio site, which I’ve been meaning to redesign.
I’ve scanned some of my notebooks, if you want to take a look, they’re here.