Menu Search
Jump to the content X X
Smashing Conf Barcelona 2016

We use ad-blockers as well, you know. We gotta keep those servers running though. Did you know that we publish useful books and run friendly conferences — crafted for pros like yourself? E.g. upcoming SmashingConf Barcelona, dedicated to smart front-end techniques and design patterns.

To Sketch or Not to Sketch – That is the Question

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!


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. Link

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. Link

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. Link


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. Link


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

SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

Hold on, Tiger! Thank you for reading the article. Did you know that we also publish printed books and run friendly conferences – crafted for pros like you? Like SmashingConf Barcelona, on October 25–26, with smart design patterns and front-end techniques.

↑ Back to top Tweet itShare on Facebook


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.

  1. 1

    Brilliant!! I loved the way in which you have customized this post :) The footnotes remind me of Colly’s Blog.

    I agree that sketching is an essential part of designing. In fact, it is the best way to quickly get ideas out of your head.

    • 2

      Thank you Adit. I’m glad you liked the post design. Yes, Colly’s site inspired me to create footnotes for this particular design. Anyway, thanks again!

  2. 3

    Matt Hernandez

    March 4, 2010 7:43 am

    This is a step too many designers either forget, or leave out on purpose. I have to admit I’m guilty some times too, but I can always tell my finished product ends up better when I sketch first. It allows you to think of things you otherwise wouldn’t when just sitting down in PS or AI and going.


    • 4

      Hey Matt! I agree, I used to leave it out on purpose as I didn’t really find it important until I realized I was wasting a lot of time just staring at a blank PS canvas, waiting for things to ideas to appear.

  3. 5

    Nice one Erik. The pencil – my favorite tool (and cheapest). I totally agree with you on sketching to find your way with a new brief. It’s both relaxing and productive – lets your mind explore, gives your eyes a rest from the screen (hey, don’t we all need that), and you’re not confined by what the software can do – think totally outside the square.

    Once you have the scribbled concept you’re going to knock it out much quicker, and it’s exciting to see a design transfer from paper to screen.

    • 6

      Hello Michael, you are definitely spot-on. I think what happens to a lot of people is they start on the computer, then they get nowhere so then they start to browse inspirational galleries, which I have nothing against, but I find that my best and unique ideas seem to always come when I’m sketching them out first.

      BTW, love your site, it even has a pencil on the homepage. :D

      • 7

        Hello Jad
        Firstly, thanks for the compliment on my site!

        Yes, couldn’t agree more – nothing worse than getting on that “I’ll browse some galleries for inspiration” merry-go-round. Best to understand your brief, let it brew in your mind, then get your own inspiration. Mine often comes from the most unlikely places, and unexpected times. Sketching helps loosen up the gray matter… and get those ideas out :)

  4. 8

    Awesome Article Erik, its right on target for me. Concise, clear, to the point and at the same time so informative. I dont know about other designers but as a management graduate who has never been to any design school and looking forward to start up with designing (logo and website) this articles means a lot. I really enjoyed reading it and at the same time it is great source of information. I would really look forward to post where you can really share the sketching process logo designing (recently done by Sneh, LBOI which was great).

    Thanks and Keep Posting.

  5. 9

    Nice article, well written and informative.
    My answer is: to sketch! I always have a sketchbook and a pen (black or blue) and I take them everywhere: yesterday I was waiting at the doctor’s and doodling all the time :-) Some good ideas come when you really don’t expect them (at least it happens this is how it happens to me).

  6. 10

    Great post, I actually just recently started using a sketch book after a few hours of staring at my screen

  7. 12

    To sketch! That is the answer. I think that every good design starts on the paper and the goes digital, I can’t imagine myself working just on the computer.

    • 13

      Hey Ilie, I’m glad to know that you sketch. Your Illustrator tutorials and characters are really awesome and I’m not shocked that you actually sketch them because it seems like something you would do.

  8. 14

    Hey Alan, I’m actually the same way as you are, but lately, I have really been trying to sketch out ideas first, and so far, with web design, it has really worked for the better.

  9. 15

    Hey Janko, hope you didn’t get confused too much. :)

    Anyway, ditto on what Erik said, I’m definitely going to invest in that book.

  10. 16

    You are absolutely correct.

    Sketching is a vital aspect of every design, its the first step in the design process and potentially one of the most important. It fleshes your ideas out and give you a quick visible reference to things that may or may not be working.

    Saying all that… I really need to sketch more. I constantly get into the habit of jumping onto my computer before doing any design work. Sometimes it works (depending on the project) but I find my ideas are always more thought out once its been sketched first.

    Thank you for this post, a fantastic read and something all designers should check out themselves (if not to remind them)!

  11. 18

    Nothing beats pen and paper when coming up with ideas. Some think that sketches have to be perfect or look pretty, but they must realize it’s all about brainstorming or having fun letting your imagination go.

    • 19

      Hey Noel, thanks for the comment. That definitely is a common misconception about sketching, and hopefully, this article has helped clear that up a bit.

      BTW. did you know that one of your favorite artists, James White, starts off by sketching as well? Pretty awesome huh? :)

  12. 20

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article. A designer that can draw is a very powerful asset to an agency and as a freelancer. I always begin my projects on a sheet of paper. Every website I do begins by sketching on sheets from the 960 grid system sketch page pdf.

    It is important to keep a sketchbook with you and draw everyday. The more you draw, the better you become. Drawing/sketching is 90% observation and 10% drawing.

    A sketchbook is a creative diary. Doodles that you do may inspire something greater in a logo, illustration or layout later on. Famous illustrators fill entire sketchbooks with one subject.

    Don’t trust your memory. Draw from source. Your memory is wrong.

    • 21

      Don’t trust your memory. Draw from source. Your memory is wrong.

      Excellent point you bring up Chris. Sketching can definitely help you remember ideas. I can remember thinking of an idea while I’m in Photoshop, telling myself that I’ll add it to my comp later, and then forgetting what the idea is and being really mad at myself. LOL! :D

  13. 22

    you were right ! at first , i never draw- i thought why wasting time in paper and bring it to pc. i was wrong. the sketch is good for bring ideas, now i always keep a notebook to scribble my ideas there and save it for future works. –
    thanks for sharing very important article – kudos

  14. 24

    Nothing beats pen and paper when coming up with ideas. Some think that sketches have to be perfect or look pretty, but they must realize it’s all about brainstorming or having fun letting your imagination go.

    (Yes, I copied nOeL’s post. Because he said exactly what I wanted to but did it more concise than I could.)

  15. 26

    Kristaps Lazda

    March 4, 2010 8:57 am

    Just starting my journey to becoming a web-designer and I am so thankful that I stumbled upon your site. Every post is great and so helpful. Officially – this is my favorite site now!

    I also found that sketching on paper helps me to get a feeling of how the end result will look like. Trying to keep piece of paper and a pencil always with me cause you never know when the design inspiration will strike you.

  16. 28

    I can’t… sketch. Haha. I know, there are so many designers that sketch, not only that, they love to tell the pros about sketching, but I just can’t!

    I’m not the kind of person that only knows draws sticks, actually, I draw long before I started to truly design things. But I can’t! At least on paper. It fells unconfortable.

    I always sketch a lot on pc, using my mechaninc arm – errr… tablet. It’s less messy sketch on computer for me, and, like illustrating, some times, I just can’t visualize what the hell I’m doing until I place it on screen. With details. And some effects. And colors. I just know the elements I’m going to use, where they’re going to be used, but I can’t see nothing in my mind, I need to “do” it. And it’s useful do it on the same media I’m going to use to work on project, so, I get a clear idea if it’s going to work.

  17. 30

    Yeah i fully agree.

    I have found that you can easily work out if an idea is going to work, especially specific components by just throwing them down onto paper. This has saved me hours by not designing something that’s not going to work with the overall project and then trying to force it to fit.

  18. 31

    Excellent. Not only do I completely agree with the approach to sketch before pushing pixels – I love the fact that this article is custom designed.

    Will we be seeing more blogazine style articles on DesignInformer in the future?

    • 32

      Hehe, thanks Jeremy. Glad you liked it. You know that your blogazine has been one of my inspirations right?

      Anyway, I’m definitely heading that direction. I think I’m going to be doing blogazine style posts twice a month. :)

      I really find it refreshing when I’m designing a unique post. Who knows, I might start a blogazine later on, but not about design though. Just about anything that I like.

  19. 33

    Not at all! Btw, I love the design :)

  20. 34

    This is an excellent post! I always sketch my ideas first…even though they may morph into a completely different design later :) BTW…The post layout rocks!

    • 35

      Hey, that’s exactly what usually happens to my designs as well, but it definitely helps to have a basis, a good skeleton of what you want your design to look like.


↑ Back to top