“You’re a designer, you can draw, right?”
Only if you want sloppy uneven lines and disproportional surfaces. I can draw, but that doesn’t mean it looks good. I’ve never been a sketcher in my life. When I was five, I had one of those cute whiteboard easels for children, allowing my inner artist to freeflow with weird creativity drawings, but when I started using the white walls of the living room as a whiteboard, it was taken away and thrown in the back of a closet, forgotten with the collected dust.
In high school, I picked up my dad’s Nikon film camera and found it easier to “draw” pictures with (not counting the film process).
As years progressed and camera technology got better over time, my trade as a photographer shifted to an editorial photojournalist in college. As a photographer, my first instinct was to unzip my bag and pull out my DSLR or camera phone to capture the reality of what I found intriguing. In addition to studying graphic design, I thought drawing classes would’ve helped my ability to do illustrative design work, however I couldn’t find any value in doing realistic drawings of nude models with charcoal sticks.
Two weeks ago, I took on a challenge to step up my sketching A-game. For three days, I spent hours sketching minute details and sceneries of San Francisco day and night. My goal was to reach 100 sketches using 4x6 index cards. As I journey into furthering my UX skills, it‘s important as a designer and photographer to be able to document inspiration from our daily observations.
Observe yourself. Observe others. As the famous baseball player
Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Problem is,
you have to know how to watch.
— Don Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things” (2002)
4 Learnings I Drew From Sketching
With intentions to reach 100 sketches in 3 days, I rounded to 70 sketches total, but what I left with were parallels I found in my past photography and design experience. Sketching allowed explorations to unfold with emphasis on observational and problem solving skills. I’m hoping these connections will remind me to be keen and observant while moving forward to being a better designer.
What can I learn from sketching? Below are learnings I found. As a fellow creative, hopefully this inspires you to join the sketching movement.
1. Assess the big picture first
Which marker did I need to use and why? Depending on what I was sketching, I heavily used the 1 black thin pen as the primary. However, sometimes I started with the 40% grey marker for sketches with large shadowed spaces over the thin black pen. It proved not drawing the correct outline made the process quicker and the lines cleaner by drawing in the outlines of the object later. As I was sketching, I noticed after the 40th one, I knew when to grab the 40% grey marker over the black pen based on my scope of the overall scenario.
Before any problem, we always have to address the bigger picture first to figure out the best approach. Should I jump into Sketch or Photoshop? or do I try usability studies over user interviews? or is it taking the photo of the scene at a wide angle or zoomed in?
We each approach a problem differently. However, the more practice you’ve done, the quicker you can make the assessment. If you were new in a giant mountainous forest with multiple trails to choose from, you would be a lost squirrel. After you’ve been to that giant mountainous forest your 9th time, you would know which trails to take based on the elevation, difficulty of the hike, or distance. After deciding the trail, your next step would be to know how much X amount of water to take, with X shoes to wear, with X gear to carry.
2. Observations can lead to incredible discoveries and opportunities
My typical commute along Embarcadero is better than most people on work days. I can’t complain my 10 minute bike ride along blue bay waters is boring.
Surprisingly, I had never seen the sunrise along Embarcadero before. On my third day, I woke up early at 6 a.m. to sketch. I figured 40 mins of walking to work would end up being 1 hour if I stopped and sketched on the way. If I hadn’t stopped at some of the points on this route, I would’ve missed interesting findings. When I was sketching Oakland across the bay, I found a random sharpie drawing of a cartoon character on a pole. Sketched it, then got entranced by the sunrise for 20 minutes. My sketching commute ended up being 3 hours long.
Till this day, I still remember my first ever 7 a.m. sunrise commute with my newly five sketches in mind. The same route can still present a new perspective. You might consider your current direction mundane, but take a moment to hit pause and reflect. Serendipity could be around the corner.
3. Spending time with the subject makes an impact
When strolling one night in San Francisco, I noticed this guy with pink polka-dotted luggage and a black trash bag standing by a bank. In the same position for what felt more than 10 minutes while I was sketching him, he didn’t flinch once. If passing by him, you would’ve guessed he was drinking water or digging the trash can for scraps leftover. If you stepped to just the other side of him, you could’ve missed what he was really doing. Breathing into a portable oxygen bottle. At least, it’s what it look like.
If I hadn’t taken the time to sketch him, I would’ve missed this interesting discovery about a typical guy found on the streets of San Francisco. Like how I said earlier, observations can lead to discoveries, but spending a considerate amount of time with a subject can break down any assumptions and pull out a better story.
In photography, we’re accustomed to shooting first, editing later. Those in the documentary field spend anywhere from hours to years at a time with a subject. Building the rapport can strengthen the relationship and trust between you and the subject. Not saying for sketching you have to spend a lot of time, but your sketches will turn out better.
Someone recently asked me how TIME magazine photographers do what they do. How can they approach subjects so easily? It’s not easy. You’ve got to be honest and transparent about what you’re doing. Take advice from Deanne Fitmaurice, a Pultizer Prize-winning photojournalist, where she describes her bold moves and findings by observing baseball legend Barry Bonds with her camera.
4. Sketching is more memorable
People love sketches! It shows you took the 5–10 minutes to pay attention rather than taking seconds snapping a photo. With sketching, you’re more likely to prioritize which details you’re going to draw first right? Who stands out more and why? Below, I started with guy sitting in front of me and then moved to Jeff, the founder of Litterati, at the time. Later in the evening, I tweeted the photo of my sketch and was later featured on Litterati’s facebook.
Sketch more. Take photographs less.
Overall, there was a realization of remembering technology can make one miss the mix of nature’s finest and San Francisco’s cultural beauty. John Ruskin describes how if two people were to take the same lane, with one being a sketcher, you would get two completely depicted approaches. Of course, with the sketcher being the one with a more profound outlook.
But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness.
— John Ruskin
In only 3 days, I’m proud to say my sketching ability went from circle heads to real human shaped heads after the 20th sketch. There’s a lot more definition in my drawings and my hand no longer shakes at drawing straight lines.
Lastly, The parallels found in simple sketching are learnings I’ve taken as part of my journey as a creative designer. Not to say I will completely stop taking photographs. I will still take photographs ever so often and will sketch on daily breaks. When I get super committed and pro at sketching, I’ll join the global urban sketchers movement. Until then, there’s a few more sketches found in my blog.
So, next time you’re out in your city, take a walk, observe, and sketch.