Why I Sketch Every Day
And why you should too
I sketch every day. It’s a habit I’m proud of. If I haven’t got some quality sketching time in by evening, I crave it, and I make it happen. And by “sketching time” I mean uninterrupted time to think clearly about a problem or opportunity and visualize solutions by hand. Learning to sketch in a meaningful way hasn’t come easily to me, but it’s been worth the effort many times over.
Before going back to school at age 33 I hardly sketched at all. I did plenty of motion graphic and interactive design, but that work started and ended on the computer; I rarely put pencil to paper. I went from never visualizing ideas by hand to not wanting to do my job, learn, or truly explore a problem without it.
In a nutshell, sketching helps me see, think, and communicate more clearly. It facilitates dialogue with myself, and others. It produces wonderful records of the conversations for later. It adds emotion and context to my memory and fuels my imagination. It has simultaneously slowed me down, and sped me up. It’s made me a better designer. It’s enriched my life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s slow down.
Slowing Down and Speeding Up
Speed and efficiency are top benefits of sketching. Ironically, sketching by hand encourages me to slow down — at least at first. When I have to draw each line and curve (and concentrate on making them correct) I am more careful and more aware of each mark and its relationship with other marks on the page. I feel acutely the frustration of a sloppy line, wonky shape, or less than legible text. I more fully consider the whole of the composition and the individual components. All of this takes time and thought. But beautifully, when I’m sketching, other thoughts fade away and I’m left with the subject matter, and my marks, and we “talk.” This focused, iterative conversation increases the quality and quantity of my ideas. And speed is relative. My slowest sketches are quicker than my fastest computer mockups.
A Better Designer
Developing my sketching and visual thinking skills has come intentionally, but gradually. Before I started practicing no one ever said, “you’re good at that.” I made a decision to use sketching to become a better designer. I needed a way to increase my understanding of complex subjects, create better solutions, and communicate more clearly. I don’t sketch because I call myself a designer, I call myself a designer because I learn, think, and envision ideas by hand every day — in short, because I sketch.
Here’s a simple example. Before I started sketching I had trouble efficiently communicating what was in my head, and how I had arrived at a specific design. Without the ability to quickly provide such context to my clients, my ideas weren’t received (or improved, or rejected) as easily as they could have been. Sketching has made visible my thought process and has opened it up to feedback instantaneously (at least from myself.) It has made me a much more effective communicator.
It’s Enriched My Life
Our thoughts are messy. Memories and ideas don’t live in our head in isolation — they are mixed and remixed with emotions, beliefs, and that song you can’t get out of your head. Getting (even some of) our thoughts out of our head and into a sketchbook lightens our mental load and helps us be creative. Not just because a sketch pulls an idea “out of the mess,” but because sampling or capturing that idea in a hand-made visual way engages more of our brain and our humanity. Sketching can capture invisible context and feelings. All of the sudden we can see and show others something that is concrete and meaningful (at least to us) yet extremely accessible and easy to change.
For instance, when I sketch, I generate more divergent alternatives. This is good. When I apply this type of generative sketching to subjects outside of my day job of interaction design, I’m always impressed with how I see life as having many more options. It’s encouraging!
If you already sketch, great. Keep it up and encourage others.
If you don’t sketch, give it a try. It’s fun! There are tons of resources to encourage you and get you started. You’ll be glad you did.
Follow my occasional thoughts on visual thinking and cinematic interaction @tchurch
P.S. Here are a few books by authors that have inspired my sketching practice. And yes, I recommend practicing every day in a way that helps you realize and evaluate your progress.
1. Drawing Ideas: A Hand-Drawn Approach for Better Design
2. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design
3. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
4. The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking
5. Rapid Viz: A New Method for the Rapid Visualization of Ideas
6. Drawing for Product Designers