Observational Sketching

The ability to observe and take in information is an important pre-requisite for designing a great product. Observation allows me to empathize with people and understand their world. It allows me to notice subtleties that might be easily missed. And it gives me the ability to understand a system and how the different parts relate to one another.

In order to hone the skill of observation, I challenged myself to do 100 sketches in 2 days. The idea was not to create beautiful art, but to strengthen my ability to observe the world around me. I got through 51 sketches. While it was humbling not to reach my goal of 100, I was able to glean some insights from the process. Here are some noticings and how they relate to my design process:

This was my first sketch, out on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. This sketch works because I focused on 1 thing: the Bay Bridge. The clouds, birds, and water were suggested and framed the bridge, but didn’t crowd it. This was a reminder to have 1 main focal point later in the process when I started to trying to cram everything into the sketch.

I never knew how many squares there were in a checkerboard! The practice of observational sketching forced me to slow down for a second and make this observation rather that race into the sketch.

Here is where I started trying to sketch everything in my view. With so much going on, the sketch is a mess, and you don’t know where to look.

Embarrassing as this sketch is, it represents the amount of information I’m able to capture from a truck during its time at a red light. That seemed like an interesting exercise, given that our attention is often so limited. A good question to ask as a designer is “if someone looks at this webpage I’m designing for 5 seconds or less, what will they notice?”

I remembered once again to slow down and pick just 1 focal point. Also, I really enjoyed showing the shadows and how they indicate a clear light source. Light and shadows is what allows this pair of shoes to feel grounded and not like they’re floating in space.

Drawing this mannequin dress form reminded me that our bodies (and really everything) can be broken down into a series of related shapes.

These were some of the people I drew during this exercise. I noticed how important posture is for communicating a mood. Shoulders can tell a whole story on their own.

This was my final sketch. By the time I got here, I was starting to look at everything as a series of lines and shapes. To start this sketch, I mapped out the largest portions and then drilled down into more detail from there. This top down approach approach allowed me to capture the whole of what I was looking at.

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