Sketching and Design

Posted by Alex

Spencer Nugent posted an interesting article on the Levels of Sketching over on IDSketching (that’s his image above). I don’t know a lot about industrial design, or the complex role sketching appears to have in the field, but I was really interested to read a little more about it. What came to mind immediately was the sketching process we are constantly encouraged to go through at graphic design school. I am always terrified of this part and try my best to avoid it (which is impossible). Of course, though the role of the sketch is different in this case — as it serves as a rough internal mock up rather than a deliverable for a client — it’s importance remains of a high level (for a number of reasons, many of which Milton Glaser explains in this video that’s been floating around the last couple weeks).

The sketching process for the project I mentioned a while back has been pretty intense. Recently I’ve been working through countless concepts and designs, sketching my hands off. I was lucky to figure out my direction/concept early on, but it’s taken me forever to figure out the right way to render it. This has meant ENDLESS amounts of sketches and crappy little mock ups. I guess I lack the patience to sketch well, and my process book looks like I was drawing blindfolded, drunk, and with my off hand.

Seeing the way industrial designers sketch, I am truly envious. To be able to render something that detailed and precise, without a computer sometimes, I can’t imagine. Of course, I am reacting this way because I grew up designing with the computer. “Process” to me has always meant keyboard and mouse, not pencil and paper. I recognize this as a potential weakness in my workflow, and have been trying really hard to incorporate sketching into this project. Results have been here and there so far, and I wonder if I will ever be able to develop my sketching ability to where it’s consistently worthwhile.

I know David Airey for one is a big proponent of sketching, and has written many interesting articles on the subject. How do the rest of you feel about sketching when it comes to the graphic design process? When starting a project (especially a logo design for example), do you start with pencil or mouse (or the hybrid, Wacom Tablet)?

18 Comments Leave A Comment


Karl Peterson says:

October 22, 2009 at 5:41 pm

Since you’re process is rooted in the keyboard and mouse, maybe trying a tablet would be worthwhile. I’m not much a sketch artist either, but by using a tablet I can get ideas down fast and then correct them with the mouse. And those new Wacom multitouch tablets are pretty slick.


Flo says:

October 23, 2009 at 3:34 am

Maybe I’m a little arrogant when it comes to this topic, but my firm opinion is: you are not a designer if you don’t have some sketching and calligraphy skills. You might be a pixel pusher, but you are not a designer. You don’t have to be DaVinci, you don’t have to be Michaelangelo, but you should at the very least be able to lay out your shapes, designs and typography with a pencil. Imo it’s a real shame that we are entering an area where many “designers” can’t draw at all.


Lars Hedemann says:

October 23, 2009 at 7:00 am

I so bad want to get some good sketching skills for all the ideas floating around in my head. Beats firing up Illustrator/Indesign/Photoshop. Alas, my drawing/sketching and handwriting skills sucks so bad, since all my work and even writing is done on the computer/Iphone. Used to draw ok back in the day, but now my 7-year old daughter draws better than me lol.

I have been thinking to get some training very soon, and get going with my handwriting again, just to flex those muscle mechanincs, but I don’t know where to start. Anyone got a good idea on where to begin with that?

Greetings from Denmark, have a nice time in wonderful Norway.


Andrew S. says:

October 23, 2009 at 7:05 am

I don’t agree with Flo at all. For me, sometimes I sketch and sometimes I don’t. I think it’s silly to say you must. Establishing that as a rule just doesn’t make sense and can get in the way. I can sit and sketch for days on a project or I can have a great idea that I sit down and execute right away. Everyone is different and every project is different.


Dennis says:

October 23, 2009 at 8:08 am

Sketching is the only way my ideas begin. I spend the better part of the design process sketching ideas. I feel more comfortable sketching than putting it on the computer actually :)

Sketching is like riding a bike. You never lose it. You just need to get down and dirty by getting back into it. Within a week you should have your skills back. Start by drawing things that excite you or interest you. Otherwise it becomes boring. Sketching/drawing/design is all about freedom of expression. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Good luck!


NEOkeitaro says:

October 23, 2009 at 9:54 am

Alex, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to read that you can’t really sketch anything.

I forced myself to sketch some web design projects, or even illustrations, and more often than not the result was so awful it sometimes even made me abandon the project.

I come from a photography background, and I have to say: I just can’t draw. My fingers respond well on a guitar, but it won’t with a pencil :( Still, you’re the living proof that one can be a bad drawer, and yet an amazing designer. Thank you :)

Now, if only I could have your talent in design… But that’s a different issue, isn’t it? :D


Justin says:

October 23, 2009 at 9:57 am

For me, the “to sketch or not to sketch” question is pretty project-specific. I spend 85% of my time designing websites, and at this point I don’t find sketching particularly helpful. I tend to find the same thing to be true with other more layout-oriented projects, when the real problem is really more tied up in how to balance elements, present information effectively, and create a tight visual flow and mood than it is in solving a conceptual problem. However, when I’m working on a logo or general branding dilemma the computer tends to be a huge obstacle to coming up with a decent idea. The direct brain-hand path is short enough that when a spark of a good idea happens it doesn’t get lost and muddled before it’s recorded, which is really the key to a good logo anyway. I’ve wasted a lot of time on the computer trying to make something out of nothing.

That being said, I too disagree with the position that a designer who can’t draw is no designer at all. A designer is a problem solver, not a draftsman or calligrapher. The computer is a tool just like a pencil is, and to create these absolute ideological divisions between the “right” and “wrong” tools when it comes to an individual’s ability to solve problems contradicts the essence of what we do.

I think.


ryan says:

October 23, 2009 at 10:25 am

When I was working in San Francisco, my boss lamented the loss of sketching in favor of jumping into 3D very quickly. All the soul that the product may have had goes right out the window. And when it comes to something with complex surfacing (like a vehicle), thorough sketching is the only way to get it down.
Granted, I’m a lapsed car designer– and digital modeling was just barely part of our curriculum at school. But because of that (and because I just really enjoy it), whether I’m designing a product, an identity, an architectural interior, or laying out a poster, drawing’s always a part of the process.
Part of I know it makes me sound like a grumpy old man, but I really do lament the loss of artfulness. It seems like architects are the only ones who can get away with it anymore.


Scott Lowe says:

October 23, 2009 at 10:26 am

As an architect, sketching is a way to quickly put down ideas that can be hard-lined latter.

I sketch up conceptual ideas in a pocket size paper bound Moleskine notebook and do more technical and correction type work on trace paper directly over printed documents. I use a nice $2 or so Uniball type ballpoint pen. The major problem I have with sketching is losing scale.

Don’t worry about having your stuff look pretty, the point is to just get something down before you forget it, not to win a sketching contest. Use a medium that works best for you and if you get stuck, go to the art store and buy something completely different and draw something with that.

The key is to have your sketching medium be approachable to you and your brain.


Wilson says:

October 23, 2009 at 11:07 am

I’m a multimedia designer and part of my media is sketching from concepts to implementation in 3d, web or video. For animations sketching is a window to really narrow the shot you want to portray in a fashion that doesn’t involve time in creating shapes in illustrator or photoshop or a 3d modeling application.

The sketch / story board or sketch concept art for an element that can’t be photographed but needs modeling in 3D will at times need a front, side, top view. Obviously if you can sketch it you can just model directly on screen. Only problem unlike paper you can’t quickly erase and re-sketch shapes in 3d.

From a print standpoint sketching may not be need since a good grid may drive the design process faster. Stock or regular photos fill the gap if your expression is photography then the sketch is your photographer’s eye. Like Justin mentioned it is project specific, but I do share Flo’s arrogance.


Christopher Meeks says:

October 23, 2009 at 12:45 pm

What a great variety of responses so far!

I treat sketching like many do, as something I know I should do more of.

I’ve found that a sketch being successful depends on what kind of project you are working on. For something highly conceptual like a logo, it is a must. You are able to quickly try out things without getting too attached. A computer is so exact that we try to refine something visually before we’ve refined it conceptually.

With a sketchbook you concede that it won’t look perfect, so you can focus on the conceptual.

Now for projects that aren’t trying something particularly new, sketching can slow you down.

But by and large it is a fantastic process that has given me lots of success. You just don’t get as attached to bad ideas because there wasn’t much work that went into them.


Chris says:

October 23, 2009 at 12:59 pm

As an Industrial Designer by day I always begin a project with sketching, but the weird thing is that most of the time when I’m working on a graphic or web design (evening job) I skip that process. I usually end up wasting a lot of time in front of the monitor until I remember to get a pen or pencil out. I’m with the architect who said it doesn’t matter if your sketches are pretty, it’s just that you need to get a lot of crap out of your head quickly. Usually your first few ideas suck and it’s sometimes quicker to start by sketching. I tend to get too detailed too quickly when I start with the computer first.

Anyway I would encourage everyone to sketch and it doesn’t matter how much you suck at first because the more you do it the better you get. Trust me I had to work hard to get good at it. The best thing for me was to study the sketches that I wanted to replicate over and over and it just clicks eventually.


jonathan says:

October 23, 2009 at 3:10 pm

I’m a little late here and everything has probably been said, so I’ll keep things short –

I’m a believer in sketching. By no means am I skilled with pencils and pens, but I think its good to get your thoughts out on paper.

Being a designer isn’t about being an illustrator, its about communicating ideas. Your sketch of your idea doesn’t have to be amazing, it just has to get your idea across. If you don’t believe me, see Herb Lubalin. Proof that good ideas come from sketching. They ain’t pretty, but they work, and you move forward from there.

Plus, its awesome to browse thru your sketchbook years later and say, heyyy, that right there, that’s where it started.

Best of luck man!


toml says:

October 25, 2009 at 8:13 am

people get scared of putting a pencil to paper and think that a sketch means a fully rendered, intricate drawing. It definately does not.

I start most of my sketches/drawings by warming up on a spare piece of paper. Next time you start a sketch, just start to scribble*. Your hand and eye will register all the different marks you make and how you made so that when you begin you already know how hard or soft or what handstroke you need for each line.

The most important thing is to not expect every sketch you do to be amazing; a sketch is progressive and a drawing is final.

*Actually this is the same way I learnt photoshop by pressing every single key on the keyboard to find out what each hotkey did.


Paul Hess says:

October 26, 2009 at 7:13 am

I’m currently reading Bill Buxton’s book Sketching User Experiences. Although the book’s focus is on interactive systems, Buxton has an ability to discuss the topic from multiple perspectives. This includes helping management understand the importance of sketching and research during the early stages of the design process. I would recommend the book to anyone in the design field or those who oversee designers.


jheftmann says:

October 27, 2009 at 2:41 am

I’m with Flo on this one. I really couldn’t image doing any type-design or identity project without starting on paper first. Or wireframing. Or anything.

I can’t believe how many people go to art school specifically for design and come out with no practical skills. It’s a trade, not a Philosophy degree (I’m a designer with a Philosophy degree, for what that’s worth).

The point isn’t that the drawings are fantastic. It’s that you know how to draw a straight line, draw in perspective, do fills, &c and that it’s part of your process and your way of thinking. Basic hand-production techniques (including using an x-acto) should be a must, regardless of how computer-centric things are. I’m still shocked by that blog post on the intern who gets a job at none other than Pentagram who couldn’t do these things.

Also, I’d hesitate to say a Wacom is an in-between. Unless, perhaps, you have the Intuos with the ink pen.

Best part of this whole thing: drawing is fun! You’ll learn to enjoy it, and it can even be a great way to introduce new, unique, and personal elements into your work.