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

    A great article, sketching is a great idea to get your mind working, I also look at old design books, not to copy, but to get ideas and the mind working.

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  2. 52

    Very important points made. I always find that I am much more productive when I sketch my ideas first, then head to Photoshop later, when I have a working concept. Thanks for the post.

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  3. 103

    Sketching allows the creative process to get going. A computer only slows it down for certain brainstorming activities. In some cases, you see what you want right away – an inspiration – and you can sometimes do well going straight to Illustrator. Other times, you need to free associate with a pencil, which can’t be beat.

    I did a post on this, and posted the results for a logo design. I was all over the place in the early stages:

    http://bonfx.com/logo-design-process-revealed-in-23-steps/

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  4. 205

    Hi Erik,
    It’s a wonderful article, I am also not too good in sketching and never did before, but I will implement those ideas for my own in near future. You inspired me alot for sketching, just because of my weak sketching skills… but now onwards I will try my best and make my hands dirty with sketching…

    Can you suggest some basic tips / trics for beginners ? I will appreciate..

    Thanks alot for the wonderful article..

    Avn.Rocky

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    • 256

      Avn, I don’t know if there is any better advice than to put aside your own criticisms of your drawing skills and try it out for yourself. At the end of the day, it might not be for you, but you never know. You may find that you will discover something about yourself, as a designer, that you didn’t know before.
      .-= Erik Ford´s latest Blog Entry – 6 Free Seamless Paper Textures =-.

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      • 307

        Thanks Erik,

        I started sketching and I am really very happy to see the results. I am saving lot of time and getting better results too .. Thanks for the article :)

        you rock :)

        avn

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  5. 358

    “On hand on your mouse”? Well THERE’S your problem right there. Yes, I’m a design snob, but “desginers” who think they can work without a tablet are making life (and their design process) much harder than it needs to be. In my not so humble opinion.

    Seriously, if you want to be a proper designer with clients and money and a job and all that fun stuff, you NEED to get a drawing tablet. Because you don’t always have time to get out the paper sketchpage and box of HBs, a tablet will allow your artistic brain-to-hand connection come out naturally, and save you the effort of scanning and tracing afterwards.

    Again, this is just one guys opinion. But I doubt many other professionals out there would disagree.

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    • 409

      goob, you are the first person to bring up the topic of working from tablets in lieu of sketching and I would like to address that.

      A tablet is just not my thing. I’ve had one now for quite some time. I’ve used it once or twice and it is now collecting dust underneath my work station. But, this doesn’t mean that you cannot work through your idea process on a tablet. I tend to be an old school kind of guy and like the feeling of a pencil in my hand to work out ideas before I move into the digital arena.

      Now, considering that I own a design business “with clients and money and all that fun stuff”, I think it is safe to say that I am doing OK without using one. This is simply my process and in no means meant to be the final word on the subject. Thanks for sharing your opinion.
      .-= Erik Ford´s latest Blog Entry – 6 Free Seamless Paper Textures =-.

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      • 460

        Excellent article Erik,

        I really enjoyed and thought it was presented very nicely.

        I recently used a tablet myself however I definitely used the approach you have suggested in your article. There is nothing worse than sitting at the computer with block. I just can’t sit at the computer and work that way.

        Instead, I sketched my ideas on to A4 paper and when I was happy with what I had created, I simply scanned it into Photoshop.

        Using my tablet i was able to simply trace around my sketch using the pen tool. I found this process very fun.

        I really like your approach and I agree definitely.

        Thanks Erik

        Russ

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  6. 511

    As a design student , I find some of my professors rushing me for immediate digital results. I, However have become totally against that since about a year ago. I must say the pencil is quicker and mightier then the mouse will ever become

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  7. 562

    I sketch in Photoshop. Seriously.

    Sketching isn’t so much about the medium, rather it’s the portion of the design process where you’re exploring concepts, instead of polishing pixels.

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  8. 613

    This is great!
    I am a big advocate for sketching out concepts, logos, layouts etc. I am also a big fan of sketching in general. Sketching is something I enjoy and encourage people to do. It is pretty much the whole premise of my website, Twetches. I passed this around my job in an email so hopefully it catches on. Great Read!

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  9. 664

    I agree with you 100% on the need to sketch. Pencil to paper first, hand to mouse second. It’s the same trick I use with writing. Scribble first, type later.

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  10. 715

    I agree completely that starting a blank photoshop document is not the most ideal way to go. I find and teach that instead starting out with 10 – 20 design sketches will help get the creative thoughts going with out investing too much time in a layout or approach that is completely useless.

    I created the web designers sketchbook for this reason and use it daily in my firms design practices. http://www.webdesign-sketchbook.com , I find putting the design in context (browser) also helps me plan repeating / larger backgrounds, whitespace, etc…

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  11. 817

    Excellent post. Not only will scare away the infamous block. I come to realize that my productions as a designer are more profesionals and funtionals that the ones i make on the go for the lack of time.
    One of the best reads lately. Cheers

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    • 868

      Sketching is indeed the best way to capture creative energy. it is an important tool. It appears to me to be similar to mind mapping.

      Thanks Eric for the great post. Very concise and cool tips.

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  12. 919

    “Close your eyes and picture this scenario.”
    Haha, how could I if I’m try to read this…? I digest… =P

    Seriously, this is a classic case of web designer not gone to design school (including myself). Telling a traditional designer (graphic, industrial, interior, etc) that he/she should sketch is like telling someone that in order to write an essay in English, one must first practice their ABCs. It’s an extremely basic principle.

    If anything, this screams for the need for web designers to get out of their bubble and engage with other professionals. Find a print designer and become their best friend, enroll in an art class, …you get the picture.

    On a related note, checkout Bill Buxton’s “Sketching User Experiences”. It’s an excellent book for understanding how one can begin to solve problems by sketching.

    -isaacw

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  13. 1021

    Great article. I will admit I’m one of those people that is an amazing stick figure artist and I usually stay away from the pencil and paper, but you make a very viable argument and it would definitely increase me design flow and help me not to spend so much time in front of the computer making changes to find what works and what doesn’t instead I could come to the computer already having this knocked out before I start.

    Again amazing article it challenged me.

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  14. 1072

    Awesome article and I love that notebook template you used..very creative. Sketching was not one of my favorite things to do, but as my design teachers said…”your first idea is never your best” I grew to love going through the process especially when designing logos, I find that my mind has more ideas than I could ever imagine. :)

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  15. 1123

    Awesome post. As I get more into design, I find myself trying to go for the computer on the first shot. Most times I am unable to have that lead-off, digital home run, and I reluctantly resort back to the pencil, but after some luck, I always ask myself why I didn’t do it sooner. It helps so much. Anyway, great article content, beautiful layout, and Erik, awesome website!

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  16. 1225

    I love this. Love, love, love this. I have always felt inadequate because I can’t draw anything worth cow dung. I thought maybe I’d picked the wrong industry because of it. Thanks for this – it was just what I needed to read.

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  17. 1276

    Erik … what an enjoyable read! Awesome article :). When I started out, I was on the fence about sketching .. in a way I still am. But what I have realized is that for some insane reason, every single time I sketch, not only do I end up with more and better ideas, but the final design turns out nicer looking too. I believe if one has an epiphanic moment at the start of a project and can see the end result as clear as day, then sketching is just going to waste time. Otherwise, it is pretty much a must, not only for the project at hand, but also from a personal growth and development point of view :)
    .-= Sneh Roy´s latest Blog Entry – Project 365 Vector Characters – Hut For Day 59 =-.

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    • 1327

      Sneh,
      Thanks. You are completely right. If you have one of those moments, when you have an exact vision in your head, you may want to sit down and experiment with the concepts directly in an application of choice. Unfortunately, I rarely have one of the moments and have to fall back on my “safety” of sketching first. It’s definitely the way I am wired. :)
      .-= Erik Ford´s latest Blog Entry – TV Commercials… Can you Hear me Now? =-.

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  18. 1378

    This topic has been one of my bugbears for years. Being an old-school designer (graduated 1976), we had no other option but to sketch ideas first. One of my best ‘lessons’ came when I was showing a Creative Director my sketches on A4 sheets of paper. He laughed and said that I’m constraining my creative and thought processes to such a small area. From that day on, all my concept development was done on A1 Pads and it made a huge difference. Fast Forward to the Digital Age and I saw people designing everything on a 17″ Monitor. (24″ Monitors nowadays, but same diff). Can you imagine people brainstorming on A4 sheets instead of massive Whyteboards? The only time I would ever show my initial sketches to a client was the longevity of our association. New clients rarely comprehend, but long-term clients can understand thought processes. Finally, irrespective of your ‘drawing ability’, you cannot achieve the freedom and flow of pencil on a large ‘canvas’. That’s my two cents worth (when two cents was worth something). ;-)

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    • 1429

      I remember the old agency days too (fondly) – all that was plugged in was your desk lamp. :) We’ve come a long way. But I still feel that pencil/pen on paper is the most direct way kicking ideas around.
      Even a tablet just doesn’t quite cut it for those initial idea-creation in my book, although it’s a great tool.
      Unplugged is the way to go. And yeah, a large canvas is even better!

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  19. 1480

    When i’m on tight deadlines and I’m sure of the idea then I go straight to app. Sketching is just a way to quickly realize your ideas.

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  20. 1531

    Great article, thank you. I started designing before computers were part of a designer’s armoury, so sketching was a natural part of the process. Everything was more hands-on, tactile.

    Nowadays, although I use computers all day long for web/graphic design, I still scribble down initial thoughts. It’s a way to focus on the idea rather than the implementation. In fact, the sketch itself isn’t important – I often end up with results that are nothing like the original sketch.

    I also recommend other tactile methods, like using post-it notes to organise website content and structure, to help inspire and clarify ideas before hitting the keyboard.

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  21. 1582

    Wonderful article, I have this exact problem when it comes to designing on a computer, where I can’t think of anything to do, and sketching can really help.

    I like the layout of this article too, loving the notepad-esque style. ;)
    .-= Johnny´s latest Blog Entry – Apple Design: A History =-.

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  22. 1633

    Wonderful article. I think each of us has different way of designing things. Well personally, I do like to sketch first before engaging to the real action.

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  23. 1684

    Great article – insanely beautiful wesbite.

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  24. 1735

    Since I started sketching BEFORE starting up photoshop my life has changed so much for the better.

    I still shudder when I think of the designer block staring a blank PSD file for hours on end. Now I listen to music, watch TV, read a book and whenever I get an idea it goes on my trusty pad.

    Combine this with an in-depth set of questions to ask a client about their website (See my blog) and I never have problems anymore.

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  25. 1786

    I love the design of this post. Great work

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  26. 1837

    Althought I would say sketching is a must as it save time I got to admit sometimes just opening Photoshop and tinkering does do the trick :)

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  27. 1888

    I really enjoyed your article, Erik. Sketching has proven to be my best tool for idea generation and communication. Whether it’s getting an idea on paper before it fades away into the night, or explaining a concept to a client, sketching seems to be the best way to capture the essence of an idea. I believe in it so much that I’ve featured it prominently on my own site.

    Looking forward to reading more of your tweets and posts.

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  28. 1939

    I absolutely love this article. So much in fact, that I believe you should go into detail and make it a book. Personally I’d buy it. And I thank many others would support it as well. 5 out of 5 from me. -Ronald H. Thanks

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  29. 1990

    I couldn’t agree with you more about not forcing creativity. I used to have exact schedules for when I would work on certain things, until I started realizing I was not too proud of the work I was creating. I now, I don’t push it, but just let it come as it wants, and the byproduct is always better!
    .-= Casey´s latest Blog Entry – Acrylic Picture Frames =-.

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  30. 2041

    I haven’t tried sketching yet but it’s not a bad idea. Maybe it’s worth a shot on my next design.

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  31. 2092

    I will certainly use this method on my next project, thanks for this article!

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  32. 2143

    Very good article. Over the past few years I have really tried to sketch out every single design job, as simple as it may be. Even if you just sketch out the basic layout, it really does help to have something to go by. You can always change and tweak things as you go on, but having an initial concept on paper is definitely the way to go!
    .-= Ryan Cowles´s latest Blog Entry – Hikes, Photo’s, Interviews, Wordle.. Updates! =-.

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  33. 2194

    Sketch! Sketch! Sketch!
    This may sound retarded and old school, but it does make a big difference. The concept of a design should always be done with a pencil and a piece of paper. I end up spending less time on the computer.

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  34. 2245

    I love the look of your article…that being said – Yes, I do scribble and sketch sometimes. But not every project requires that type of development…don’t you agree? It works well for logos and maybe website layouts and brochure, but sometimes a “cigar is just a cigar.”

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  35. 2296

    Thanks for the Article, will use for our next project

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  36. 2347

    nice article… :D

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  37. 2398

    nice writeup, nothing new but true all the same…

    what I especially love is the styling of the article. it fits the subject and shows your creativity! and it’s always nice to see sketches by others :)

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  38. 2449
  39. 2500

    Sketch, sketch, sketch!!! I always make time for sketching first – otherwise I get all sorts of blocked.

    I kind of compare it to writing. It’s so much harder to write when someone tells you what you HAVE to write. It’s so much easier to just let the creativity flow how it wants – usually end up with a better product/design/write-up/whatever.

    Thanks for a great post!
    .-= Elizabeth ´s latest Blog Entry – Dust & Cigarette Smoke =-.

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  40. 2551

    Nice article. I started to sketch several times and left. Now I am really inspired. I should start sketching again. I am doing a 365 days project and most of the time I can’t get any idea to design. I think sketching will help me to overcome idea problem.

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  41. 2602

    I think a lot of people are different. Sketching can be a great idea, but with me sketching usually distracts me. I am pretty good at just opening Photoshop and creating (albeit often times I end up changing a lot of my design process as I go and ending up with something totally different).

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  42. 2653

    Very impressive article! I think I will immediately start to sketch for my next project. Thank you very much four your inspiration.

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  43. 2704

    Definitely to sketch! Saves time in daily workflow as well – I have a lot better feeling if I have sketched web design in my notebook, rather than just opening Photoshop and playing around..takes a lot more time.
    .-= Dainis Graveris´s latest Blog Entry – 1STWD March 2010 Features: Top Design Links And News =-.

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  44. 2755

    I love the article Eric! I am for
    sketching also, and you covered one very important part as well: sketching is only for you! It doesn’t matter how it looks, it is a refference of something in your head :)

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  45. 2806

    i just love the way you wrote that. makes me realise why i feel crap at designing at times. but i know deep down its then … so from now on, im taking your advice and keeping a notebook and pencil with me. thanks a million.. :)

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  46. 2857

    I’d like to see more of your sketches :) I don’t offer design services anymore, so I really don’t get to sketch anymore either (unless im working on my own project) but I love seeing the way other web designer’s draw out their sites and logos :D

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  47. 2908

    To generalise for a second, I think this is one of the biggest differences between self-taught and formally-educated designers. In university no matter how good your work is, without a thorough collection of sketchbooks to back it up you will fail.

    I’m not sure how I feel about this – in the past I have found sketching for its own end (i.e. to please a tutor) a barrier, because I come up with concepts quicker than I can visualise them on paper. On the other hand I think it is a necessary part of the creative process.

    Of course for a quick logo or flyer you don’t need multiple sketchbooks like you’d fill in a several months long project, but I don’t think you’re doing yourself justice by not sketching.

    I’m not suggesting those who don’t sketch don’t research or properly think out concepts, but to bring GTD in to it, by dumping those thoughts on paper you’re freeing your mind to think more clearly.

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  48. 2959

    When started to implement a new project before, I often analyzed its requirements and began to work with Photoshop, wasted time in editing minute details which unsuitable. Therefore, some projects are good, while some others are out of my expectation.

    Recently, I just have got used to sketch ideas on paper before start to work with Photoshop. At first, I could not adapt to this method. There were some difference between the sketch and lay-out on Photoshop. But I know that this method is quite good and essential in designing. I will try to be familiar with it and consider it as an indispensable step in designing.

    Thanks for your very useful post.

    PS: And would you mind if I post your article on my website as well as the backlink to your site.
    .-= greenapple88´s Latest Entry – 55 Inspiring Examples of Slideshows in Web Design =-.

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  49. 3010

    I guess it really is useful to sketch your ideas, because it really is helpful to map out everything that’s on you mind and its kinda hard to do that on the computer. Wish I could draw but I cant event sketch some basics but for people who can I guess it really is helpful for the whole design process. I think its kind of a must really. Thanks for this interesting article. Love the fact that the page design changed for this one.

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  50. 3061

    Very Great Article! Its really nice and direct to the point. I am looking for a complete article about what I wanted to share with my student, and yours is really great.
    I always tell my student not be mentally block by their fear, I know the most difficult part in sketching is the starting point. And I always tell them to “just let your imagination flow, and the hands will follow.” And now, I can see some students who really has a talent, and some who is still in the dark. It really challenge me to have students who can’t draw, and your article really helps me a lot. Keep posting!

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