Why We Sketch

by Jared M. Spool

It seemed the conference room got brighter, as if, for the team staring at the whiteboard, light bulbs just went on. There was a collective sense of “Ohhh, I get it now.”

It was the culmination of a very confusing discussion, where everyone thought they knew what they were talking about, but, as it turns out, nobody was on the same page. In a moment of frustration,one junior team member—a designer—stepped up to the white board and declared, “This is what I think we’re talking about.”

Turns out the junior designer got it wrong. Yet his design spurred the idea’s progenitor to rush to the board, grab the pen, and quickly correct the mistakes.

That’s when the group sighed their collective “ohhh” and the room lit up. The shift had happened. Up until now, they were talking about WHAT they were trying to do. Now, they could talk about HOW they would do it.

The WHAT was now on the whiteboard—and in everybody’s head. For the first time, it was the same WHAT everywhere.

Sketching: Leveraging the Visual

Words are powerful, but sometimes they don’t cut it. We can try to describe what we’re imagining, but a diagram often gets us to a common ground quicker.

As our team has been studying the skills of great designers, we’ve seen sketching emerge as a theme. All of the best designers we’ve met sketch. They are comfortable picking up a pen or pencil and putting it to paper (or, in many cases, whiteboard).

We’ve been looking at how these designers make their sketches. The artistic quality of the drawings can vary—most are not particularly organized or neat. Their messiness reflects the speed at which they came into being. We’ve learned that the effectiveness of the communication that matters more than the neatness of the artwork. We noticed that sketching happens for different reasons, so we started to categorize them.

Sketching To Communicate An Idea

“Here’s what I’m trying to tell you…”

We have an idea. We need others to have that same idea. Sketching isa common way for us to express the idea to others.

The ideas embodied in the sketches range from the concrete to the abstract. They may represent a screen’s physical layout or an icon’s look. Alternatively, a sketch might communicate the ideas behind how a document might flow through an organization or the connections between a system’s modules.

The details we represent in the sketch are the details we want communicated. We intentionally leave out all the other details, to make our communication clear.

Bill Buxton, in his seminal book, Sketching User Experiences:Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, tells us the fidelity of the sketch should reflect the depth of our thinking. A rough idea deserves a rough-looking sketch, while a well-thought-through idea warrants finely drawn,detailed imagery.

Sketching To Record What We’re Seeing And Hearing

“This is what I want to remember…”

After the User Interface 14 Conference, we were blown away by Jason Robb’s sketchnotes of the sessions.

UI14 sketchnote

At the 2010 UX Australia, Rachel Hinman did a fabulous job capturing the key points of my keynote presentation.

Rachel Hinman sketchnote from UX Australia

Sketchnotes are not new—people have been taking notes with sketches for centuries. (Leonardo Di Vinci’s notebooks are filled with them.)

However, these sketches are different. They are less about communicating ideas to others as much as reinforcing the ideas we’re seeing and hearing.

Much like written notes, there’s a reinforcement that happens when we engage our hands to capture what we’re experiencing. The details we choose to capture—the imagery and significant quotes—help us internalize and retain the information. Often in sketchnotes, the note taker will create a visualization of something they’ve heard,reinforcing the imagery with their own sketch of the idea.

Sketching To Work Through Some Thinking

“What will this look like?…”

Another use of sketching is to work through an idea. Here, a designer uses the incompleteness of the sketch to identify holes and relationships.

A form of hunkering, the designer takes the nascent idea out of their head and puts it on paper, in an intentionally incomplete form. This can be either a solo or group activity.

As the sketch evolves, some of it becomes outdated. The progression of the elements reflects their work, showing the new pieces.

One technique we’ve seen uses a brainstorming framework tore-imagine the target idea in different forms. The designer redraws the idea using a series of constraints. For example, they might draw a screen for use on a desktop platform, then draw the same idea with the restrictions of a mobile application. By redrawing the idea,they learn what elements define the core idea and which are specific to constraints they’ve chosen to apply.

Sketching To Reflect What We’re Hearing

“This is what I think you’re telling me…”

Often we find ourselves on the receiving end of an idea, but we don’t know if we’ve received it the same way the sender intends.Showing the sender a sketch of what we’ve heard of their idea is a fabulous way to verify.

This has the side effect of helping the sender work through their idea, as they may be seeing it visually for the first time. You may have heard what they said, while at the same time, identifying gaps in the idea itself. The discussions and corrections that come about because of the sketch might not have emerged any other way.

Sketching To Document

“Here’s is what we’ve ended up with…”

Sometimes we create sketches to capture our results—a snapshot of our work to this date. We’ve completed all the thinking and we’re all on the same page. Now we just want a visual record of where we are.

When making this type of sketch, we must consider whether the future viewers participated in the discussions that got us to this point.If they didn’t, we have to make sure we’ve included the key points of that discussion in the work itself. In many cases, the thinking behind the diagram is as important as the diagram itself.

When we’re sketching for later, we change the way we sketch. We put more care into the labeling and the details. When we’re sketching only for what’s happening now, we don’t need those elements, since the discussion and evolution of the drawing enhances the imagery.However, when that discussion and drawing evolution is absent, the resulting sketch may need additional support to do its job.

Understanding The Reasons We Sketch

The dictionary defines sketch as “a simply or hastily executed drawing, especially a preliminary one, giving the essential features without the details.” A good sketch, even when done quickly, can bea powerful tool for the designer.

We’re fascinated with all the ways we can utilize a simple sketch. Knowing when sketching can help us out is a critical part of building out our design toolbox.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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