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The Messy Art Of UX Sketching

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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

Why? Link

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 Link

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 Link

Technique Link

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? Link

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 Link

Technique Link

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

Why? Link

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 Link

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

Sketching Interactions Link

Technique Link

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

Why? Link

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 Link

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 Link

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

Why? Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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

Why? Link

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 Link

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

Why? Link

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 Link

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? Link

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 Link

Technique Link

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? Link

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 Link

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 Link

Technique Link

Draw on 8.5 × 11″ copy paper.

Why? Link

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? Link

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 Link

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

All images by Michael Kleinpaste.

(al) (fi)

Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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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 .

  1. 1

    Damn Interesting!

    I really like this sentence: “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.”

    • 2

      I am with you, Nick. When I saw that line, I got into the whole article. At this stage, creativity is item #1.

    • 3

      As unconventional art I find these sketches amazing. But as far as the productivity goes, I believe it will only suit people having above average interest and skills in paper drawing. Sadly, I don’t do well with pen&paper and here’s where computer sketching really saves me from embarrassing my self with my ugly pen&paper failures. :)

      One more thing: I sometimes resorted to pen&paper for doing simple sketches but I found out that graphic tablets really help saving a lot of paper. I’m unsure why you didn’t mentioned them…

      As far as I can tell, both paper and computer sketching require acquired skills. Each has stuff you have to learn before you can produce decent sketches. It’s a matter of inclination, education and choice.

      • 4

        I’m a seasoned sketcher, and I learned a ton from this article. Or rather, I was reminded of the basics I learned in design school over 20 years ago – what goes around, comes around, I guess! Really glad our school focused on the non-digital fundamentals (Macs were available, but not the focus).

        I am very curious to see whether sketching on an iPad would be of great benefit. It’s certainly faster for some things (mocking up type, for example) and makes digital sharing easier. Posting on the wall, though, is a nice thing we shouldn’t forget. It almost needs both.

        On an iPad, I’m playing with using Keynote to block out rough layouts (transparent objects get the ‘layering’ effect) and having multiple slides is a really effective way to visualize states/pages.

  2. 5

    Sketching is the best way to start ANY project that has to do with art, graphic design, UI design or Web design. I see kids jumping on the computer right away all the time and launching Photoshop. This is not the way to be creative. You need to work out problems first. Your end result may be beautiful either way, but if you don’t think about it for a while first, it might not be the best result for your client.

  3. 6

    Evan 'OldWorld' Skuthorpe

    December 13, 2011 8:27 am

    What Tim said…

  4. 7

    I agree with this 100%. there is also additional value added to be able to be ready to sketch ideas on a wipe-board in meetings with clients for explanations or at brain-storming sessions comfortably.
    Good UI/UX does not rely on the technology to be good. Sketching is a Great way to get a lot of ideas out before committing to pixels. Additionally, it’s a great way to cross both halves of the brain, allowing for Creative logic instead of just once or the other.

  5. 8

    Great article.
    Totally agree with what Tim said. Sketch (Look) before you leap.

  6. 9

    I’m gonna do this too!!!

    (just really poorly)


  7. 10

    I love to sketch and draw, but after years of producing UI/UX mockups I have to disagree that you should always start out with a hand-drawn sketch. Sometimes a mockup in illustrator/PS is faster and more effective. The ability to collaborate using software is faster, cleaner and more iterative than handing off photocopies, if you even have a photocopier.

    • 11

      I, too, am very comfortable with drawing/sketching but prefer something like Balsamiq Mockups for presenting UI and UX ideas to clients. While I start with thumbnail sketches on paper (which the client never sees) for brainstorming and vetting, I build up the ideas with software tools instead. Software gives me speed and options I just don’t have with pen/paper such as: copy and paste, undo, versioning, templates, easy color changes and size tweaking, remote collaboration, etc.

      The computer is just another artist’s tool, like pencil/paper. Having a large artist’s toolbox of traditional and software tools gives you more options and allows you to pick the right tool for the job.

  8. 12

    Great practical article !

  9. 13

    Carmelo Di Bella

    December 13, 2011 7:47 am

    This is the way i work all day everyday! I sketch! I wish everyone could read this article and learn from it!

  10. 14

    Great job Peiter!

  11. 15

    Always amazed to see people actually use that incredible imperial measurement system ^^

  12. 16

    Alright! I’m doin’ this!

  13. 17

    The book Paper Prototyping is related and embraces the low-inertia of sketching. I have found that a lightbox/table is a great thing to have around for iterative sketching of UI/UX for those times when a scene has reached its layered limit and I must either baseline what’s there to a new drawing to keep adding or, more often, where I must make a large change.

  14. 18

    Hear, hear. I used to start everything in Illustrator, now my desk is a sea of eraser shavings before committing to any UI solution. I also agree that the best sentence in the article is “…focuses you on the best possible solution, freeing you to take risks that you might not otherwise take.” It keeps you from being too married to something you’ve meticulously created in production software.

  15. 19

    I love this, I wish this would become agency norm. I couldn’t agree more with this article. Far to many people jump right into computers to concept.

  16. 20

    I’m all for markers and sketching on paper. But that’s GUI sketching (not interaction or UX sketching).

    (Remember to finish all sketches. Even if you realize that the plan is not going to work. Having more to present than just some words is important).

  17. 21

    This bit of advice gets trotted out and passed around quite a bit, granted maybe not as well written as this, but it’s still tired. If a person is a sketcher by nature and isn’t already doing these things this is fantastic advice. However, for those of us who don’t sketch using paper and pencil regularly anymore it isn’t particularly useful. That’s not to say that sketching can’t be a useful tool for designers, but it is not a tool that needs to be built with any specific other group of tools. Over the years I have accepted and ultimately rejected this premise multiple times, forcing myself to put pencil to paper only to end up frustrated and wondering why I wasted time to halfway draw something that I would only have to draw again digitally. The longer I’ve been in this business, and the more conferences I’ve attended, and the more top professionals that I’ve talked to, I’ve come to realize that only a small number work this way except when brainstorming with other designers or to demonstrate a concept to a client. Yet almost all say that they sketch their designs. The difference is that some actually do the sketch using tools as simple as their mind or a complicated as Photoshop. The idea is to come up with a solution to a problem, and then make that idea real. The tools and processes used can be different for everyone. If sketching out every piece of a UI allows you to create better products then that is exactly what you should do. However, if you’re a person like me who tends to draw the header, the side bar(s), content area(s), the footer, and maybe show where the logo will go before realizing that I need to see what the elements will really look like to create an effective design, then skip traditional sketching. Take a look at your own process, my guess is that you will see that you already sketch, just not the way that this post recommends.

    To the author of this post, I mean no disrespect. You provide some excellent advice, and I love the twist you’ve added by sharing various method. As an example of what you do, and how you do it, this is a fantastic post. My only issue with it is that it takes the position that what you do is what everyone should do. It certainly is not.

    • 22

      Isaac Weinhausen

      December 13, 2011 4:21 pm


      “Over the years I have accepted and ultimately rejected this premise multiple times, forcing myself to put pencil to paper only to end up frustrated and wondering why I wasted time to halfway draw something that I would only have to draw again digitally.”

      I understand your frustration if your ratio of sketches to digital mockups are close to 1:1. I would argue, however, that effective problem solving through sketching should result in sketches that vastly outnumber your mockups. Your ratio of sketches to mockups should reflect the relative complexity of the problem you’re trying to solve. Ask yourself, are there multiple ways to design a brochure-ware site? Yes. Are there multiple ways to design a web-app? You betch’ya, YES!

      There’s no way you can organize all of those alternative designs in your head, so get ’em out, onto a medium that will allow you to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, side by side, toe to toe. Weirdly enough, our human brains can work out a lot of stuff simply through the process of observation.

      Here’s where the beauty of sketches lie: They’re dirt cheap, easy to produce, and easy to trash. Have 20 different ways to design your web-app? Try capturing them in photoshop, illustrator, or even a wireframe tool like Balsamiq. You’ll drive yourself nuts! Even if you get through all 20 digital mockups, you’re gonna hate winnowing out the weak designs. It’s gonna hurt to throw out that 3 hour mock, or even 1 hour mock — we love our babies!

      In the end, the option of sketching, in a disciplined creative problem-solving process, is really about efficiency. If you haven’t already, checkout Bill Buxton’s “Sketching User Experiences”. He covers the subject really well, and from the perspective of other creative disciplines.


      • 23

        While well thought out, your response suffers from the same major flaw as the original post. You assume that what works best for you is what will work best for everyone. If I expected my team to work the same way I do it would require firing some of my best people. If the goal is to get from point A to point B then that is what I want my team focused on. Becoming dogmatic about the methods they use will only get in the way of them achieving that goal. Sharing those methods make us a stronger team, insisting on certain ones because they work for me would be counter-productive. No one that I work with, to the best of my knowledge, sketches their designs as a rule. That’s ok with me, they are very good at what they do. If anyone of them start, or a new person does, I won’t have a problem with it. If anyone starts saying their method is right and others are wrong, we’ve got a problem.

        • 24

          @joe : I would argue that the major point in this thread is the ability to quickly get out ideas, often in the company of other participants. I have been in many design workshops where doing things digitally in the ideation stage is just not doable. Also, the ability to stand at a whiteboard and generate ideas is a plus. I used to never sketch and am glad to have found that it’s incredibly powerful and useful in my day-to-day tasks.

          @Peiter : Great article – Thanks!

  18. 25

    Thanks for the link the the grey markers. Can you link to a smaller set of grey markers? And also to a small set of colored ones? Thanks!

  19. 26

    I like that you incorporated the physical with the mechanical. So many people today start out on a software product and don’t think that they have the wherewithal to get to a freeform sketch style.

    For those that say Photoshop, etc. is the right way and people should move along, perhaps you’re right in some circumstances and perhaps there needs to be and understanding and allowance of a different way. I know of many that get stuck with choosing the right font and don’t get to the overall UX. Stuck in the weeds because the software is in the way.

    Well done and thank you.

  20. 27

    The amazing video attached to the article – how long did this process of drawing actually take?


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