Website sketch (2013)

Get to sketching

Tips on sketching your way into an idea.

Sketching is something we are all capable of. If you’re skeptical or intimidated by taking up the pencil, here are a few tips on getting ideas out of your head and into your hands.


Build your own language

Throughout your sketches, settle on just two or three shapes to represent your ideas. I lean a lot on boxes to represent the images, text, and buttons that go on websites.

I sketch a lot of websites, so most of my experiments are a mix of images, text, and buttons. Whatever you’re working on, think of a way to visually reduce it to only 2 or 3 shapes or symbols that you use repeatedly. Ideally, these symbols are some type of box that you can adjust.

Less wrist, more elbow

Lots of people sketch using a zillion little lines until they have a prickly shape created. That’s a zillion decisions without a solid direction, and a zillion opportunities to get discouraged.

Instead, look where you want to go and make the mark in as few lines as possible. Keep a (mostly) still wrist, then use only your elbow and shoulder to draw. Who cares if shapes are crooked or misaligned. The more ambivalent you are about your marks, the quicker you will find them useful.

Avoid criticizing yourself

Ignore whatever internal voice tells you that your sketch “sucks” or that it’s “bad”. You are physically exploring a problem and that is all that matters. Ignore the criticism, especially from yourself.

Use huge paper

Personally, I love big sketch books, especially this beast from Moleskine. It doesn’t fit in any backpack known to humans. Out and about, I get a ton of comments about how huge it is. Typically I respond with something like, “I have a lot of bad ideas.”

I love my huge Moleskine sketchbook. At times, the big, blank pages can be intimidating. It’s important to stay honest in your sketches and not let the book define you.

Give yourself enough space to work through whatever it is you’re sketching. Maybe use all that extra room for notes or chop through a few “bad” ideas. Sometimes, interesting shit happens when you give your mind a chance to explore without doubt or judgement.

Start with a box

Don’t use the edges of your paper for the edges of an idea. Designate a separate space on the paper to sketch in. That will give you enough room to do multiple versions, or pepper in some questions or instructions to yourself.

Using boxes or other symbols to get shit out of your head is all you need to get a big benefit from sketching. Start slow and don’t be too hard on yourself.

Ignore whatever internal voice tells you that your sketch “sucks” or that it’s “bad”.

Avoid graph paper (optional)

I think graph paper is too rigid, unless you’re building something where you know the exact dimensions and need a sketch at scale. It’s a personal choice though. If it helps you to focus more on what you’re solving and less on the sketch itself, then I say go with graph paper.

Don’t overthink the book itself

A sketch I put together for a fake client invoice (there’s even a typo). It’s OK if sketches don’t reveal the entirety of your idea. As long as it’s enough to let your mind move on. In this instance, once I felt comfortable with the content I jumped into coding a swanky invoice template for clients.

Unless you’re a Pixar animator and can simultaneously create art while you doodle, try not to idealize or overthink the act of keeping sketches in a book. It can be fun to look back at old stuff and assign a lot of meaning to what you’re making. But… if you’re thinking about it the right way, you’ll eventually get used to moving past sketches you’re no longer tinkering with.

Getting started

The only thing you need to start is paper, pencil, and a problem to solve. Whatever you’re building, whether it’s a plan or a website, sketching is a super gratifying way to get your mind going. Good luck!