I want to take a moment to have a deeper, more reflective conversation about the role that sketching plays in my professional work, and how it has evolved it over time. A lot of sketching advice tends to be too general (“You should sketch!”), too superficial (“You need to buy these pens!”), or too self-congratulatory (“Look at the sketches I made!”) to be useful for those of us who have already incorporated sketching into our everyday design practice. For me, sketching tends to be a surprisingly philosophical endeavor, and I’m curious to hear how other designers think about their own sketching.
Of explorations and free associations. One mind’s descent.
A few years ago my approach to sketching coalesced around a technique that helps me explore a problem space by using a combination of words and sketches to flesh out my understanding of potential ideas, concepts or solutions. It’s sketchnoting, in the purest sense of the term, but instead of sketching notes from a talk or presentation, I’m capturing ideas as they spill out of my head. It’s like attending my own personal TED conference, but there’s only one speaker, and he’s kind of nuts, and he just chained the doors shut and now there’s a fire and we’re never going to get out of here alive.
The sketching is highly generative, best done in a focused session under the influence of caffeine and noise-canceling headphones. My brain has a tendency to free associate and sometimes these sessions spiral out of control, but they are useful activities to conduct at the beginning of a project, as I begin identifying (and blowing past) the tacit boundaries of a space.
As it turns out, this technique is a great personal activity that gives me a huge jumpstart when it comes to exploration. The act of externalizing an idea, whether I’m writing it down or sketching it out, frees up valuable mental space that can be occupied by the next idea; the next free association. Indeed, as design is more an act of choosing from alternatives than it is an act of spontaneous genius, I find that the more options (especially outlandish ones) my brain can get out in front of itself, the better.
This is something that’s better shown than described. Here’s a video from a project at Adaptive Path that I worked on a few years ago, where I talk about my process for coming up with the in-game experience for a mobile learning application:
Outside In: A case study in explorination through sketchination.
During my graduate program I pursued a project that looked into how one can bring a sense of the outdoors into an indoor space. Through sketching I started by exploring the miscellaneous techniques people use to stay connected with the world around them:
I then sketched potential concepts that would address this challenge, ranging from digital windows to Lifescapes albums, Harry Potter enchanted ceilings to office squirrels, real-time snow globes to chainsaws:
Some of my explorations were light on sketching, but heavy on notes. Again, my goal is to externalize ideas in whatever form my brain deems necessary, be it visual or written:
As I honed in on trying to represent the outdoors in the workplace, I explored the various artifacts of that environment as opportunities for intervention:
And as I studied light as a medium for design, I brainstormed various ways to prototype in it:
On the topics of color and reflection (a type of color).
Color plays a huge role when I sketch like this, and while the aesthetic results can be delightful, I have discovered there are deeper implications in how the act of coloring changes how I think about my sketches.
When I’m laying down ink (typically with a Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine, not that I’m particular or anything) my brain is in a purely generative mode, and my hand is simply doing everything it can to keep up with the stream of consciousness. In a productive session I will typically fill a few pages of my sketchbook with ink (a steady supply of 9″ x 12″ spiral-bound Strathmore drawing pads keep me well-fed and hydrated) before actually switching over to colored pencils.
Laying down ink is a generative act, but going back over my work and coloring it in allows me an opportunity to reflect on the ideas I’ve already created. As I choose colors and fill in shapes I begin thinking more deeply about my concepts; their volume, the materials they’re comprised of, how they could be improved, etc. Laying in color, then, triggers ideas that drive the next round of inking, which I in turn color, triggering more ideas.
Physically going over my sketches in color and reembodying their forms forces me to engage with them, consider the connections between them, at a depth that is impossible to achieve by simply looking them over.
Getting out of my head.
At Adaptive Path we work on small, tightly collaborative teams of 3-5 designers. A common activity in our project work involves concept generation, where all the designers of the team come together and sketch potential approaches to the product or service we’re designing. In response to a prompt each designer sketches as many ideas as possible, fueling inspiration within the team by sharing out concepts as we go along. In a typical project we often come up with hundreds of concepts, which we then cluster, prioritize and re-concept as we hone in on the best solution to carry forward.
I quickly found that I needed to adapt my sketching style to work more effectively within these fast-paced group contexts. My inking/coloring, generating/reflecting cycle is extremely effective at facilitating an internal conversation (or a reflective conversation between me and my sketching materials, if you want to get all Donald Schön and reflective practice about it) but it doesn’t produce outputs that play well with others. While noisy pages and colorful sketches may attract comments on Flickr and retweets on Twitter, it’s a radically different context when I need to quickly connect with clients and teammates whose work depends on me being able to clearly articulate my ideas. In this case, my sketches need to be as much a communication tool as they are a generation tool.
The CMYK sea change.
And so, over the last few months I’ve worked to adapt my sketching technique to better fit the contexts in which I’m sketching. Since most of my work is super-duper top secret, here are some example sketches depicting concepts around… bees. Because really, bees are pretty darn amazing, and I don’t think they’re the target of nearly enough design work.
While I still use my sketchbook for meeting notes, personal reflections and other creative endeavors, I now favor half-sheets of copy paper for project work. I’ve ditched the pens and colored pencils for sharpies and highlighters, and have limited my color palette to blue, pink, yellow and black (or CMYK, as I prefer to call it). I’m now conducting my work with materials that are readily available, and I can quickly produce concepts that are readily disposable.
Clear. Bold. Atomic. Disposable.
Each concept is described by a sketch, a short description, and a name. Over time I’ve established my own color-coding system to lend a kind of visual hierarchy to these elements. Since I’m not barfing everything onto the page at once, as I do with my personal sketching explorations, each concept takes a bit more planning as to how I want to communicate it. That said, if I’ve spent more than a few minutes on a sketch, I’ve probably spent too long on it. Best crumple it up and start over.
Working in sharpie keeps me from getting too absorbed into the details, and the limited color palette keeps me focused on highlighting key areas, not producing works of art. Each concept is clear, bold, and can generally be recognized from across the project room.
Since a concept sketch is, essentially, the atomic unit of design, and this approach produces only one concept per half-sheet of paper, it makes them pretty easy for other people to grok at the atomic level. Plus, armed with a roll of drafting dots it’s easy to post concepts on the wall and begin clustering them… combining them into little design molecules, if you will.
Finally, when it comes time to package our work, the half-sheets feed nicely into a document scanner. Or a shredder. Depending on the filing system we’ve chosen.
This has been my personal journey in sketching, shifting from a highly personal, highly specialized technique that helps my mind break open and explore new ideas, to a technique that is more adapted for collaboration on a small design team. That said, concept generation is just one small part of the design process that can benefit from a thoughtful approach to sketching. And sketching on paper is just one form of sketching.
To that end, I’d be curious to know in comments how you have evolved your own sketching practice over time, or how you find yourself adapting it to be more effective in different contexts.
Thanks, and happy sketching!