To Sketch or Not to Sketch – That is the Question

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Close your eyes and picture this scenario. You have just landed a dream contract with a client and you are anxious to start working. You have already consulted with them regarding the subject matter (a logo, a website, a brochure, etc.) and you’ve written up a design brief. It’s time to let your creative juices flow. For goodness sake, this is why the client signed the contract and sent the check. Now, go ahead and "wow" them!

Lion

But wait! "Houston, we have a problem!" You have launched your design application (insert your app of choice) and nothing is happening. You have one hand on your mouse and another waiting for you to enter some key strokes to make the magic happen. But, guess what? Your mind is a void. And the harder you attempt to mine one nugget of creative gold, the more it would seem to elude you. And, before you know it, a couple of hours have passed and all you have to show for it is an open application with a saved file name.

Now, If you are one of those individuals who can sit at your desk, fire up an Adobe Creative Suite product and start working, I am both envious and am in awe of your aptitude. But, whenever I try this feat of dexterous skill, I end up gazing at my monitor telepathically willing something to happen. I simply think I am not wired for this type of production. As a designer, I cannot begin to conceive of a piece of work until I have spent some time sketching out ideas.

Don’t force creativity. Allow it to come to you.

I find that one of the benefits of sketching out my ideas is that I am not forcing my brain to come up with something tantalizing from the onset. I have always felt that designing is a process of trial and error. With a piece of paper and a pencil, I can, in a free form manner, just let the ideas come to me.

I will scribble them down. I will cross them out. I will scribble some more. I allow the process to organically ebb and flow and, at some point, I will stumble upon a concept that I would like to further investigate.

This relieves the undue pressure on myself "to produce" which will adversely affect the end product and also waste valuable time. Tara Roskell, a freelance designer, put it best on her post.

By spending a short time sketching you can save yourself hours on the computer. Not only will you save yourself hours, you may even afford yourself some peace of mind. Whenever that evil monster of ‘designer’s block’ creeps in, it inevitably leaves a path of destructive self doubt in its wake. I challenge you to start employing sketching as a part of your process and you will see a dramatic decrease in the amount of times you hit that virtual wall of nothingness.

Sketching can make you a more efficient designer.

By attempting to digitally design something before sketching, I am essentially forcing my hand. The computer only allows me the ability to work on one concept at a time (unless I miraculously grow three more sets of arms and hands). I find it to be more efficient to play around with ideas and solutions on paper first. This way I am avoiding the pitfalls of potentially losing focus or muddying the waters of a particular project. Since we have tasked ourselves with the duties of intelligently and shrewdly communicating a message through art, isn’t it a better idea to properly conceptualize that message before adding all of the pretty pixels?

Website Sketch

I would argue that this applies to whatever you are designing. If you are laying out a web page, aren’t you doing yourself a disservice by not sketching out the layout of the page first? Your first idea may actually be your weakest and if you have committed yourself to a digital version, you have just spent some time working on something that is not useful. The same holds true for print and logo work.

My talent for drawing is limited to stick figures.

Pixel8

I’ve seen this as a reason for skipping the sketching process lately and I am here to say that, if this applies to you, you may want to rethink this. The process is not intended for you to create a detailed sketch like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man every time you put pencil to paper. In fact, if you ever get the chance to view some of da Vinci’s other sketches, you will see they are dominated by endless explorations. That is what the process will help you do. Explore ideas, layouts and shapes before committing to any one motif. Don’t worry if you are not knocking yourself dead with your drawing skills. This is not a drawing contest. The sketches are for you only. Nothing more. Nothing less. So, whether you have taken art and anatomy classes or you can barely draw a perfect ellipse, it simply doesn’t matter. The goal is the exploration, not the journey.

Make it a part of your routine.

Sketches

Only out of habit will this be beneficial to you. I swear by my Moleskine notebook and various other sketch pads I have accumulated over the years. I keep one in a bag that I take with me wherever I go. There are also stacks of old ones that I like to thumb through from time to time to find unused ideas and inspiration.

Start with your next project. Before you go anywhere near your computer, sit down with a piece of paper and a writing utensil (preferably a pencil) and see what happens. Do it for as long as you feel comfortable, either in silence or with your favorite playlist blaring in the background. Take a break from it and come back to your sketches with fresh eyes. You may find a diamond in the rough you never knew existed.

The End

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Erik, a New York City native, is the co-owner and lead designer of we are pixel8, a boutique graphic design and marketing agency. Besides hand crafting visual goodies for his clients, he is a proud father, music addict and life long NY "Football" Giants fan. You can follow his shenanigans on Twitter or read more of his ramblings on his blog.

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  1. 1

    All my work starts out from sketches, I certainly wouldn’t rely on ever finding any quick sketch I make on my computer – a sketchbook is always at hand, on train, etc .. so much easier to start and ponder things than on a computer. All the end work though tends to be on the computer

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  2. 102

    Great article. I’ve recently started sketching my designs first mostly because, like you state, it’s often easier to get the creative juices going. It’s much easier to just doodle some designs and let your mind wander on a topic!

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  3. 203

    I love the way this blog post is uniquely laid out.

    Sketching is important, however brief it is. But I would say that coding / designing straight into html from the sketch is the next step. Skip the psd phase and start seeing the site as it will appear on the web to speed up the launch phase and make iterations easier for you and your clients.

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  4. 304

    Hello! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the superb work!

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  5. 405

    Great article. I, too, struggle with the “application open and file saved but nothing in it” issue sometimes. I’m learning to step back and just think and sketch more.

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  6. 506

    Eyal Marcos Levit

    March 29, 2011 4:01 am

    I have also sinned with not sketching on paper even though I knew it wasn’t the way to roll. Also been staring at the monitor for hours no kidding. Thank you for this amazing article, it kinda puts what I already knew in perspective and it motivated me to go on and start with the sketching. Thanks again! Beautiful article, love it.

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  7. 607

    This is something that most of the people like me ask themselves, I am certainly one who has asked this myself, thank you for sharing something that I can relate to.
    Gajan Dave

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  8. 708

    Hi Paula,Oh my goodness. I’ve msseid a month’s worth of your work in just two week’s time. These are just marvelous, as always. I’ll just comment on the one at hand. I love the way you did the cat sharpening his claws. I can feel his muscular strength. The flower is just beautiful. I’m intrigued by your mention of Paint. That blue is just stunning. I’ll have to ask a young person for a demonstration.You inspire me so much!

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  9. 809

    My work may or may not start from sketches all the time, but I do believe that great ideas start from sketches. Innovative typography usually starts from sketches. Thanks for the article. Good stuff.

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