Go Back to the Sketchbook

The (Many) Reasons Why You Should Step Away from the Laptop

I begin every design with my sketchbook — or rather, the big pile of loose leaf, oversized sketch paper stacked under my desk. Or a whiteboard. Or a scrap sheet. And I feel very strongly about this. See, screens are good for many things, but they’re not great for concept iteration and early wireframing. As a UX design student developing my own process and toolkit, I’ve leaned into sketching — with pen and paper—early on in each new project. My experience has reinforced my hesitance to move to pixels too soon based on these 7 reasons:

1 — Sketching means less investment.

Ever hear of the sunk cost fallacy? Don’t trick yourself into loving something that sucks. Just because you spent an absurdly long time bumping pixels around doesn’t mean that the concept works. This is a big reason to stay on paper until the concepts are fairly formed. If you’re sketching at low fidelity, you can iterate through many versions much more quickly and evaluate them with less personal investment.

Bottom line: sketching on paper is more efficient than moving pixels around, especially early on when you’re not sure where you’re even going to land.

2 — Sketching means less limitation.

As soon as you’re inside [Insert Favorite Software Here], you’re limited. You’re limited to the tools that are available and the ones you’re familiar with. You’re limited by the shortcuts you remember (or don’t). You’re limited by the way the software was designed. You’re limited by your own skill at the software. But, if you stay on paper, you are only limited by your imagination — keep sketching until the limitations of the sketchbook are greater than the limitations of the screen.

Bottom line: Sketching on paper frees you to focus on design thinking rather than operating within the limitations of a tool’s capabilities.

3 — Sketching means less distraction.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be unplugged while you work? No slack notifications popping up on your screen. No easy access to scroll through Twitter. Take your sketchbook to a park bench, or an empty conference room, or the coffee shop around the corner. Put yourself in a space where you won’t be tempted to do anything but think.

Bottom line: We have far too few non-digital moments these days (especially at work). Part of your day could become an excuse to unplug, so why not put away the distraction of screens while you solve a gritty problem?

4 — Sketching means big-picture thinking.

As a detail-oriented person who can get very type-A on pixel alignment, I was surprised to find how much I enjoy the freedom to generalize detail when sketching. Because here’s the thing — design software invites a level of fidelity that is too high for early concept exploration. Sketching, on the other hand, easily accommodates any fidelity. In fact, sketching trains you to use an appropriate level of detail for the stage you’re in so you can stay dialed in to the problem at hand.

Bottom line: Sketching allows you to address concepts at an appropriate level of detail. Sketch broadly and loosely when exploring the big picture. Bring additional levels of fidelity in as your ideas become more focused.

5 — Sketching is faster.

It just is. If you don’t believe me, try drawing a box. Now open Sketch, select the rectangle tool, and make a box. Which box took longer?

Maybe you have all the time in the world, but here’s the thing: designing is thinking, and the faster you can keep up with your thoughts, the cleaner your design process will be. Staying on paper means you can scribble to keep up with your ideas and iterations. This is crucial.

Bottom line: Spending the time in design software is worth it at some point. Just don’t move away from paper until you’ve reached that point. You’ll just slow down your thinking needlessly.

6 — Sketching means more practice as a visual thinker.

Somewhere along the way, most of us got scared of drawing. “I’m not an artist,” we say. “I’m not good at sketching.” Well, here’s my soap box:

Sketching is not art, it is a form of thought. Avoiding sketching because you’re not an artist is like avoiding writing because you’re not a calligrapher — art is not the point. The point is that you’re exploring ideas using a fundamentally human process — your hand is making marks that document your thought process. It doesn’t have to look pretty. It doesn’t even have to be intelligible to any one else, the way your chicken scratch maybe isn’t legible. Your scribbling is a tool that helps you think, and for that, it is invaluable. No computer can replace that.

Bottom line: Reframe sketching as a physical manifestation of your thought process rather than an artistic endeavor. When you let go of pretty you can embrace useful.

7 — Sketching is fun!

So much of our world is digital now, but paper crafts are an escape from the screen. And as you develop your sketching habits, you’ll discover small joys (gray highlighters!) and big wins (I’m getting better!) that are oh-so-satisfying.

Bottom line: Play at work. Why not?

What other arguments have you found for the sketchbook over the screen? When do you know it’s time to bring a project into pixels? Let me know in the comments or over on Twitter.