The Messy Art Of UX Sketching

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I hear a lot of people talking about the importance of sketching when designing or problem-solving, yet it seems that very few people actually sketch. As a UX professional, I sketch every day. I often take over entire walls in our office and cover them with sketches, mapping out everything from context scenarios to wireframes to presentations.

My Desk1
My desk.

Although starting a prototype on a computer is sometimes easier, it’s not the best way to visually problem-solve. When you need to ideate website layouts or mobile applications or to storyboard workflows and context scenarios, sketching is much more efficient. It keeps you from getting caught up in the technology, and instead focuses you on the best possible solution, freeing you to take risks that you might not otherwise take.

Many articles discuss the power of sketching and why you should do it, but they don’t go into the how or the methods involved. Sketching seems straightforward, but there are certain ways to do it effectively. In this article, we’ll cover a collection of tools and techniques that I (and many other UX and design folks) use every day.

Sketching ≠ Drawing

Some of the most effective sketches I’ve seen are far from perfect drawings. Just like your thoughts and ideas, sketches are in a constant state of flux, evolving and morphing as you reach a potential solution. Don’t think that you have to be able to draw in order to sketch, although having some experience with it does help.

  • Sketching is an expression of thinking and problem-solving.
  • It’s a form of visual communication, and, as in all languages, some ways of communicating are clearer than others.
  • Sketching is a skill: the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

When evaluating your sketches, ask yourself, “How could I better communicate these thoughts?” Getting caught up in evaluating your drawing ability is easy, but try to separate the two. Look at your sketch as if it were a poster. What’s the first thing that’s read? Where is the detailed info? Remember, the eye is drawn to the area with the most detail and contrast.

Just as one’s ability to enunciate words affects how well others understand them, one’s ability to draw does have an impact on how communicative a sketch is. The good news is that drawing and sketching are skills, and the more you do them, the better you’ll get.

OK, let’s get started.

Work In Layers

Often when I’ve done a sketch, the result looks more like a collage than a sketch. Efficiency in sketching comes from working in layers.


Quick video showing how you can use layers to effectively build your sketches.

Technique

Start with a light-gray marker (20 to 30% gray), and progressively add layers of detail with darker markers and pens.

Why?

Starting with a light-gray marker makes this easy. It allows you to make mistakes and evaluate your ideas as you work through a problem. Draw a crooked line with the light marker? No big deal. The lines will barely be noticeable by the time you’re finished with the sketch.

As the pages fill up with ideas, go back in with a darker marker (60% gray) or pen, and layer in additional details for the parts you like. This is also a great way to make a particular sketch pop beside other sketches.

Sketching in layers also keeps you from getting caught up in details right away. It forces you to decide on the content and hierarchy of the view first. If you are sketching an interface that contains a list, but you don’t yet know what will go in the list, put in a few squiggles. Later, you can go back in and sketch a few options for each list item and append them to the page.

Caution

If you start drawing with a ballpoint pen and then go in later with a marker, the pen’s ink will likely smear from the alcohol in the marker.

As you get more confident in your sketching, you will become more comfortable and find that you don’t need to draw as many underlays. But I still find it useful because it allows you to experiment and evaluate ideas as you sketch.

Loosen Up

Technique

When sketching long lines, consider moving your arm and pen with your shoulder rather than from the elbow or wrist. Reserve drawing with your wrist for short quick lines and areas where you need more control.

Why?

This will allow you to draw longer, straighter lines. If you draw from the elbow, you’ll notice that the lines all have a slight curve to them. Placing two dots on the paper, one where you want the line to start and one where you want it to end, is sometimes helpful. Then, orient the paper, make a practice stroke or two, and then draw the line. If you look closely, you’ll see this in the video above.

A bonus to drawing from the shoulder is that much of the motion translates to drawing on a whiteboard; so, in time, your straight lines will be the envy of everyone in the room.

Play To Your Strengths

Technique

Rotate the page before drawing a line in order to draw multiple angles of lines more easily.

Why?

Very few people can draw lines in all directions equally well. Rotating the page allows you to draw a line in the range and direction that works best for you. Don’t try to draw a vertical line if you find it difficult; rotate the page 90 degrees, and draw a horizontal one instead. It’s super-simple but amazingly powerful.

Caution

This does not translate well to a whiteboard, so you’ll still need to learn to draw vertical lines.

Sketching Interactions

Technique

Start with a base sketch, and then use sticky notes to add tooltips, pop-overs, modal windows and other interactive elements.

Why?

Using sticky notes to define tooltips and other interactive elements lets you quickly define interactions and concepts without having to redraw the framework of the application. They are easy to move around and can be sketched on with the same markers and pens you are already using.

  • Define multiple interactions on one sketch, and then strategically remove pieces one at a time before scanning them in or copying the sketch.
  • Use different colors to represent different types of interaction.
  • Is one sticky note not big enough for your modal window? Add another right next to it.
  • Is one sticky note too big for your tooltip, user a ruler as a guide to quickly rip the note down to size.

Sticky Notes used on sketch as pop overs2
Explore a variety of interactions and ideas in a single sketch using sticky notes.

Photo copies of sticky notes on sketches as pop overs3
Upon photocopying various versions of a sketch, each with different sticky notes, you’ll end up with various distinct sketches.

Copying And Pasting For The Real World

At times, you may want to manually redraw a UI element multiple times in a sketch. This is not always a bad thing, because it gives you the opportunity to quickly iterate and forces you to reconsider your ideas. That being said, an all-in-one scanner or photocopier could dramatically increase your efficiency.

Technique

Use a photocopier to quickly create templates from existing sketches or to redraw an area of a sketch.

Why?

A photocopier is the old-school version of Control + C, Control + V. It makes the production of templates and underlays more efficient. It also boosts your confidence, because if you mess up (and you will mess up), you can easily fix it.

  • Does one part of your interface need to be consistently redrawn in multiple sketches? Run a few copies, and then sketch directly on the print-outs.
  • Did you mess up a part of the sketch? No problem. Cover up that portion of the sketch with a piece of paper or with correction fluid, run off a copy, and then start sketching directly on the print-out.
  • Are you working on a mobile project? Or do you want to make a series of sketches all of the same size? Create a layout and copy off a few rounds of underlays. Easier yet, print off underlays of devices or browsers; a good selection can be found in the article “Free Printable Sketching, Wireframing and Note-Taking PDF Templates4.”
  • Do you want to change the layout of a sidebar in your last five sketches? Sketch the new sidebar, run off a few copies, and then tape the new sidebars over the old ones. It’s that easy.
  • To use a sketch as an underlay of another similar one, adjust the density or darkness setting on your photocopier to run a copy of the sketch at 20% of it original value.

Another advantage to photocopies is that marker will not smear on a print-out the way a ballpoint pen does. So, whenever you have an area of a sketch to highlight or add color to, run a few copies first.

Caution

Paper cuts.

Sketching over a photo copy5
Sketching over a photocopy of the original to reevaluate the sidebar.

Final sketch over photo copy6
The final sketch. Notice how the sidebar and its detail are darker than the photocopy. This is intentional, because it allows you to explore ideas in the context of the overall design.

The Design Is In The Details

Use a ruler; specifically, a quilting ruler. Quilting rulers are translucent and are normally printed with a ⅛″ grid screen, letting you see the line you’re drawing relative to the rest of the sketch.

Technique

Use a ruler and a light-gray marker to draw an underlay for a detailed sketch.

Why?

This lets you quickly draw a series of lines that are offset a set distance from each other. This works great for elements such as lists items, charts, buttons and anything else that needs to be evenly spaced. It’s like an analog version of “smart guides.”

Using a quilting ruler to create offset lines7
Quickly creating evenly spaced lines with a quilting ruler and 30% gray marker.

Technique

After using a light-gray marker to lay out a sketch, use a ruler and ballpoint pen or black marker to finalize it.

Why?

When sketching in layers, you want the final design or layout to “pop.” A ruler enables you to be more precise in detailed areas and ensures that long edges are straight.

There is no shame in using a ruler. The key is knowing when to use it. Don’t start sketching with a ruler; rather, bring one in when you need the detail and precision. Remember, you’re sketching, not drawing.

Using a ruler to pop various lines on the sketch8
Using a ruler to make sections of a sketch drawn with a 70% gray marker pop.

Technique

Use a ruler to quickly rip paper or sticky notes by firmly holding the paper with one hand and ripping away the edge with the other hand.

Why?

It’s quicker then grabbing scissors; you already have the ruler with you; and you can take it through airport security.

After lightly sketching an interface with a light marker, finalize it or make one area pop by using a ruler to lay down darker lines.

Ripping a sticky note with a ruler.9
Ripping a sticky note with a ruler.

Tell The Whole Story

Technique

Draw the application in the context of where and how it being used, or frame it with the device it will be used on.

Why?

This forces you to think about the environment that the application will be used in, instills empathy for your users, and establishes understanding of the challenges unique to this application.

I get it. No one wants to sketch out a monitor every time they draw a wireframe. I’m not saying you have to, but a few sketches with context go a long way. Especially with mobile devices, the more context you add to a sketch, the better. Moreover, I always sketch the device for a mobile interface as an underlay, and I often try to sketch the UI at full scale. This forces you to deal with the constraints of the device and makes you aware of how the user may be holding the device.

Caution

Drawing the surrounding environment can be challenging and requires a higher level of sketching competency. Don’t let this intimidate you. If you’re not comfortable sketching the environment or you find it takes too long, use a picture as an underlay instead.

Various sketching of a mobile device in context of their enviroment10
Sketching ideas for a mobile application in the context of where it will be used.

Ditch The Sketchbook

Technique

Draw on 8.5 × 11″ copy paper.

Why?

Sketches are for sharing. You can easily hang 8.5 × 11″ sheets on a wall to share ideas with others or to see a project in its entirety. When you need to save a sketch or two, you can easily batch scan them into a computer without ripping them out of the sketchbook. Still not convinced? Copy paper is cheaper; it allows you to use sketches as underlays without photocopying; and you don’t have to choose between book-bound or spiral-bound.

A wall of sketches11
One of the many walls of sketches in our office.

What Are You Waiting For?

Sketching is not reserved for designers. Developers, project managers and business analysts can get in on the fun, too. It’s the best way for teams to quickly communicate, explore and share ideas across disciplines. Also, I’ve found that others are more receptive to give feedback and make suggestions when shown sketches than when shown print-outs or screenshots.

Remember, it’s about getting ideas out, reviewing those ideas and documenting them, not about creating a work of art. When evaluating your sketches, ask yourself, “How could I better communicate these thoughts?” Getting caught up in evaluating your drawing ability is easy, but try to separate the two, and know that the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

It’s worth repeating that sketching is the quickest way to explore and share thinking with others. It focuses you on discovering the best possible solution, without getting caught up in the technology.

Go for it! Don’t get caught up in the tools. Make a mess. And have fun!

Tools

Here are links to some of the tools described in this post.

All images by Michael Kleinpaste.

(al) (fi)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_1415.jpg
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_1392.jpg
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_1416.jpg
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/03/29/free-printable-sketching-wireframing-and-note-taking-pdf-templates/
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_1334.jpg
  6. 6 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_1365.jpg
  7. 7 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_1292.jpg
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_1356.jpg
  9. 9 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_13811.jpg
  10. 10 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_1434.jpg
  11. 11 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/DSC_0038.jpg
  12. 12 http://www.amazon.com/Collins-Quilt-Sew-Ruler-X18/dp/B001EJEAPW/
  13. 13 http://www.amazon.com/Cool-Grey-Prismacolor-12-set/dp/B0007YLFC6/

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Peiter Buick is Senior UX Specialist at Universal Mind. He is passionate about design’s ability to directly impact peoples lives. With a background in industrial design, he brings a unique perspective to the UX community. Connect with Peiter on twitter: @pbuick .

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  1. 1

    great article! thanks a lot

    0
  2. 52

    The video seems to be a lot more like technical drawings then sketching. I have found that sketching is a great way to quickly conceptualize concepts and ux patterns but as soon as you break out a ruler it becomes drafting not sketching.

    Once the overal pattern and elements have been sketched I have found it much easier and efficient to jump into digital media as it is much less permanent and easier to adjust then marker

    1
  3. 103

    A well planned and stuctured article, one of the best I’ve ever read! Also a great eyeopener and a good insight for the fledgling that I am. Thank you!

    -1
  4. 154

    Very well written. About time some one made an article like this. I always wonder how other designers sketch? The thought od drawing in layers has never occurred to me.

    Thanks for the article i’ve been looking for for ages. :)

    3
  5. 205

    Really a practical and fantastic article!

    1
  6. 256

    Fantastic article! And a big thumbs up to Smashing Magazine for including great content covering every aspect of design and development :)

    1
  7. 307

    Although I do agree that this is a great & well written article, I feel that too many people focus on how ‘pretty’ the mockups or wireframes are. I agree that too many people get easily caught up in the tech side of things, but it’s just the same with people getting caught up with the aesthetics instead of its effectiveness.

    7
  8. 358

    anybody trying to sketch with an iPad? pros? cons?

    1
  9. 409

    Thanks for this article, I really appreciated the practical techniques.

    Now that I sketch quite a bit I end up with pages and pages of paper. I’m often working on several projects at once so I need to keep my sketches handy. I also switch almost daily between working at my office and working at a client site.

    One thing I’ve started to wonder about is what ways others have found useful to organize their sketches. I like to have things loose (I don’t want a bound notebook) so that I can shuffle them around, group them into projects, and reorder them in general. Maybe just a low-tech binder with pockets is what I need, but I was wondering what others use to keep their sketches portable and organized.

    1
    • 460

      Paul,
      I keep an inexpensive flat bed scanner on my desk and scan most all sketches into Evernote. Then I can find and access them anytime (and from most anywhere).
      – Troy C

      0
  10. 511

    It amazes me that in this day and age people are promoting such old fashioned techniques. I mean talk about wasting time and trees!

    I think there are excellent tools available out there that make this whole process a lot quicker and less painful. I’m thinking specifically about wireframing tools such as OmniGraffle, which are also available on tablets making it super easy to drag and drop ready made elements on a screen. What’s the point in drawing browser screens and functional elements from scratch when these tools have ready made interface items you can just drag around a ready made template?

    Hmm I feel a blog post coming here…

    -7
    • 562

      I used to think like you. Having learnt everything off the internet, with no formal education.

      But damn, sketching is something different, ever since i started sketching with pencil my work has improved dramatically. Even though im totally crap at both drawing and sketching.

      1
  11. 613

    hi,many thanks for your article,it’s good to know how to do a good sketch at the beginning of project.

    1
  12. 664

    I use Balsamiq Mockups. It’s so easy to use that you can’t get caught up in the technology.

    0
  13. 715

    The video made this a killer post. Thanks.

    2
  14. 766

    I agree with some of the other posters. Very interesting article, sketching is very useful for SOME people and their personal workflow / idea formation.

    However – when you sit down and discuss with your colleagues or the client and they say “actually I think that bit should be more prominent”, and you have 5 page layouts that all feature that element… It really is easier to just edit it in Photoshop.

    I sketch a lot in my day to day and find doing little initial sketches for my own brains sake when I am planning a site is very useful. But when I am actually properly planning a UX then digital is much more practical.

    Having said that – for those who do want to sketch – this is still a useful article.

    -1
  15. 817

    Can’t see the mentioned video. Anywhere else I can spot it?

    3
  16. 868

    Hello, nice article, im just wondering, is there a way of getting the Prismacolor markers anywhere in Germany, or do i have to buy them from the U.S.?

    0
  17. 919

    I’m on the other side of the fence here, this article seems to be an in-depth tutorial on drawing. The tools and techniques that you use would take me twice as long as it does to quickly slap together some boxes (or even other shapes!) into illustrator then add shading, add text, copy past, re-arrange, delete, re-arrange again, copy paste, try a new layout, over and over until I’ve got exactly the same result; a number of scruffy looking alternatives, some discarded and some iterated towards a more final vision.

    It reminds me of when a teacher told me off for not using left-handed scissors when, as a left-hander, I’d learnt to use right-handed scissors perfectly with my right hand.

    Its not about the tools, its how well the process works and the end result.

    3
  18. 970

    Big ideas need big paper. Go 11″ x 17″ or go home.

    0
  19. 1021

    If you can”t draw then you might want to learn to. I wouldn’t hire a designer or anyone associated with a product’s design if they couldn’t draw. It’s basic communication technique in our industry.

    Most of the people who say they can’t draw just don’t like the pain of getting the hand and mind back in shape and operating in tandem.

    And how many of us hear this excuse, then days later we catch the excuse maker busting out these elaborate sketches on a white board to get their point across. MOST everyone can draw.

    And for the people against paper? You’re using more energy and resources storing your photos in the cloud and on some network than all the pulp you’ll use to paper prototype with in your lifetime.

    0
  20. 1072

    I see people advocating sketching on paper a lot, seemingly ignoring that you can “sketch” on the computer as well. Firing up photoshop doesn’t mean sitting there until you put together a design. You can do all your experimentation with photoshop or other dedicated wireframing tools. For a lot of people that’s just as quick if not quicker then grabbing, markers, paper, rulers etc and sketching away in real life.

    -1

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