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Hand Sketches – Things You Didn’t Know Your Doodles Could Accomplish

Is sketching by hand more than a nostalgic activity? How is paper any different from a screen, especially when hardware is becoming more and more sophisticated? Is improving your hand-sketching skills really worthwhile when high-tech software is advancing every day? What difference can a pencil possibly make?

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about hand-sketching these days. Some absolutely hate the thought of putting their ideas to paper because they can’t draw to save their lives. Others couldn’t imagine their creativity surviving without it. Love it or hate it, there’s much more to a sketchbook than old-school charm.

hand sketches1

Here’s the thing. From personal experience, I know that sketching on paper has something powerful about it that takes my designs to the next level. I’ve spent hours in front of both computer screens and sketchpads, and something about the latter always keeps me going longer, thinking more clearly, progressing further and designing better.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

To understand why hand-sketching makes such a difference for me and many designers I know, I did some research. Here’s what I found.

External Memory: Take A Load Off Your Mind, Literally Link

Cognitive psychologists have been studying the impact of sketching on brain functioning for years, and with good reason: Putting ideas to paper is a powerful way to extend one’s memory. Back in 1972, Allen Newell and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon studied6 long-term memory, short-term memory and — here’s where it gets interesting — “external” memory. They argued that representations such as diagrams and sketches serve our external memory and reduce the burden that we experience when recalling ideas and problem-solving.

Flexibility: Hand Sketches Improve Your Ability To Restructure Ideas Link

Consider your initial idea for a project. At this point, it exists only in your mind. All of a sudden, you start giving it (physical) shape in what Jill Larkin and Herbert Simon call “external representations7.” You’re basically pulling the idea from your mind and recording it somehow. As long as the idea is in your mind, the number of changes and improvements you can mentally process is limited. Your idea won’t get anywhere unless you manipulate and enhance it.

External memory aids, such as sketches and diagrams, can help us overcome the limited capacity of our short- and long-term memories.

Here’s where hand-sketching saves the day: It enables us to externalize our mental images and achieve something that Ilse Verstijnen calls “restructuring.” Verstijnen works in the Psychological Laboratory at the University of Utrecht and has coauthored several articles about the relationship between imagery, perception and sketching.

Restructuring transforms one configuration into another, and in scientific studies, advanced hand-sketchers score highest at restructuring when they are allowed to sketch. In an experiment9 by Verstijnen, sketchers were shown to be better than non-sketchers at modifying their initial ideas and coming up with novel changes.

Because of our brain’s limited processing capacity, externalizing our ideas on paper makes it easier to restructure them, transforming the initial structure into a new one.

Another study11 by researcher Zafer Bilda and his group at Bilkent University in Turkey compared designers’ cognitive processes when sketching on paper versus using software. The study identifies several significant differences: Designers who used paper changed their goals and intentions more frequently and engaged in a higher number of cognitive actions. Changing goals and intentions while sketching is vital because it enables you to pivot your initial idea and to be versatile in your approach.

Interestingly, these results may have less to do with the way we are wired than with the way we have been educated. Can you remember how you first learned to draw, how all of your design courses required physical sketchbooks? That’s right, most of us learned to sketch on paper — and this might actually have affected the way our brain deals with it.

Here comes another buzzword, from our friends in behavioral psychology: conditioning. If paper was one of the first creative stimuli in your life (to the point that, as soon as you saw a blank sheet, you felt the urge to scribble), then it should come as no surprise that your sketching behavior is different on paper than on screen. Regardless of your philosophy of human behavior, we can all agree on one thing: paper has been around far longer than the digital screen.

Don’t get me wrong: Developers of digital sketching devices out there are definitely raising their game and making the lives of many designers easier in exciting, innovative ways. Manufacturers are making the lighting, size and weight of tablets feel unbelievably similar to paper. They’ve come up with ways to make graphic tablets sensitive to stylus pressure and be capable of digitizing paper sketches instantly. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, we can expect better digital sketching experiences. WACOM12, a graphic tablet manufacturer, invites sketchers to tag their creations on Twitter with the #madewithwacom13 hash tag.

Serendipity: Happy Accidents From Unfinished Strokes Link

When was the last time you sketched a perfect image? It’s safe to say that most of us do not aim for perfection with a pencil and sketchbook. And that is exactly what makes a pencil stroke different from a vector.

Jonathan Fish and Stephen Scrivener authored “Amplifying the Mind’s Eye: Sketching and Visual Cognition14,” in which they introduce the idea that “indeterminacies in Leonardo’s sketches elicit mental imagery because automatic mental recognition mechanisms attempt to complete the missing parts and match precepts to memory images.”

Hand-sketching results in inconclusive strokes that open new doors to creativity.

Consider every time you’ve left unfinished strokes, gray ideas over top solid shapes, quick side queries, blank spaces, wobbly lines and figures. Happens all the time, right? These indeterminacies, or “flaws,” which reflect our indecision, are great pointers to new design directions. We lose these when we opt for pixel perfection.

Group Thinking: Connecting Brains Via Hand Sketches Link

A group of scientists in the Netherlands, led by Remko van der Lugt, observed16 four idea-generation meetings in which participants used one technique that involved writing and another one that involved sketching. They concluded that sketching stimulates group creativity by enabling individuals to reinterpret their own ideas further and to facilitate other people’s access to those ideas once they are brought to the table.

Collaborating with others in generating concepts is easier when we share sketches that are flexible, unsettled and, thus, full of possibilities.

Not only does hand-sketching improve the idea-generation process, but it provides an effective, visual language that makes it easier for others to understand, comment on and integrate your ideas. This might be even more important in cross-cultural groups, for whom visual sketches can bridge gaps of understanding.

Effectiveness: Better Design Outcomes Link

Does sketching like a maniac guarantee a better design? The easy answer is no. The subtler answer is that, in certain circumstances, sketching like a mad person could result in a better design. Yes, you read that right.

A useful design mantra is, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found a thousand sketches that don’t work.”

I ran into this idea while reading one of Maria C. Yang’s studies19. She tracked the sketches of a group of engineering students in the idea-generation phase and measured the results according to their final grades and their performance in a contest. She found that the number of concepts that students generated, as evidenced by their sketches, correlated to better design outcomes as long as two things held true: first, the sketches included dimensions and, secondly, the sketches that were significantly tied to the outcome were generated in the first quarter of the cycle (i.e. they were early sketches).

Concentration: Ready, Set, Sketch! Link

Were you ever in the middle of a major design breakthrough and then were suddenly interrupted? Concentration is key for designers because the creative process is anything but straightforward. The process requires a strong and rare connection between our thoughts, hands and source of inspiration. Its rarity is, indeed, the reason why some of us don’t sleep.

Well, that and deadlines.

There is evidence that sketching aids concentration. Jackie Andrade, of the University of Plymouth’s School of Psychology, tested20 whether doodling correlated to higher levels of concentration among 40 participants, who tested while taking a telephone call. While we can define doodling as aimlessly sketching patterns and figures unrelated to the primary task, her discovery that it can reduce daydreaming, increase concentration and curb boredom is fascinating.

This helps to explain why some of us find value in carrying our sketchbooks everywhere, pulling them out in the least expected places and in the middle of completely unrelated events.

To recap, sketching stimulates us to a comfortable level — enough to keep us awake, concentrated and engaged. As if this weren’t enough, other studies have found that subjects who consume information on paper were significantly less stressed and tired than those who use screens. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg argued21 that those who were looking at screens may have been more exhausted because of the “dual-task effect.”

It makes sense. When using a computer, you have to not only complete the task itself, but also figure out your way around the hardware and software. For those of us who learned to sketch on paper, this learning curve feels a lot like stress. For those who are comfortable with graphic tablets and other sophisticated input devices, stress is probably not an issue.

Montessori education encourages children to learn concepts with all five senses.

Some believe that we reach deeper levels of concentration and develop richer concepts when our own hands are the hardware. Regina Rowland, who teaches the “Idea Visualization” course at the Savannah College of Art and Design, has a unique perspective on the matter:

What I noticed when we moved into the digital world was that exercises all started to look the same. All of a sudden, everybody was designing in Photoshop and the quality of the work started changing dramatically. Before, exercises had a character that was unique in each person. I don’t want to ditch digital; there’s stuff in digital that we could never do by hand. But I do think that when you learn how to experience the world in its visual form, you realize that it is important to have a real, multi-sensorial experience and not an abstracted version of the experience.

With digital, you are looking at a screen with 2-D shapes and no interaction. I’ve realized that students who go into a sensorial experience with letters and shapes learn better than those who abstract them.

Now, there are nerves in the tips of your fingers, and I believe that when people draw with their hands it makes a different impression in the brain. There are references to this idea in Montessori education: It is through sensorial experiences that you form structures in your brain, and therefore all their activities and teaching tools are things that children have to do with their fingers.

Talent: Enhancing The Graphic Library In Your Mind Link

What happens when you continually draw and connect symbols as you sketch? What happens when your brain tries to recall shapes that are appropriate to the idea you are trying to externalize? It isn’t hard to see that the better you become at translating imagery from your mind to paper, the more visual resources you will have to draw on and the easier it will be to retrieve them in the future.

Ian Storer, who lectures in the Department of Design and Technology at Loughborough University, came up with this idea of a “graphical library” that designers can combine and restructure to generate concepts. He states in his paper23 that “creative sketching and designing requires a body of knowledge to base new ideas upon.”

Would I like to nurture a powerful mind for design? Yes, please.

Hand-sketching forces you to access and cultivate a unique visual library in your mind. As much as I love computers, the Internet and the almighty search engine, would I like to nurture a more powerful mind for design? Yes, please.

Problem-Solving: Unlock Solutions With Visual Synthesis Link

It is fair to say that most of the problems we face as designers are confounding, fuzzy, indeterminate — the types of problems that common logic stumbles on.

I dare anyone to try to solve these types of problems using only simple paragraphs of text. Writing falls short for most design problems. Jonathan Fish explains this brilliantly in his article “Cognitive Catalysis: Sketches for a Time-Lagged Brain.” He compares our design problems to trees whose trunk and branches are vague or abstract descriptions and whose leaves are images that represent “depictive concrete thought.”

Jonathan Fish explains that our design problems are like trees whose trunk and branches are abstract (usually textual) descriptions and whose leaves are concrete depictions (i.e. images). Most design solutions aim to reconcile these.

He goes on to explain that when you try to solve a design problem that is full of uncertainties, “both description and depiction are interdependent.”

Niall Seery and his colleagues at the University of Limerick propose26 the best definition of sketching that I’ve ever read:

“Sketching is a sense-making tool which supports the synthesis of visual imagery.”

Ready to improve your flexibility, serendipity, group thinking, effectiveness, concentration, talent and problem-solving? The eight benefits we’ve covered here may be just a few sketches away!

(al ea il)

Footnotes Link

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Laura (@laurabusche) earned a summa cum laude degree in Business Administration from American University in Washington DC, a Master of Arts in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and is currently completing a doctoral degree in Psychology. She is passionate about consumer research, design thinking, branding, and their exciting crosspoints. She is the author of O'Reilly Media’s Lean Branding book and a Brand Content Strategist at Creative Market. Laura regularly blogs about branding and business at

  1. 1

    Shardool Singh

    October 10, 2013 2:08 pm

    Firstly many-many thanks to Laura for sharing this great article on this dias.
    I personally feel that sketching with hands provides more scope than that on screen ( of course with the help of some great softwares in the market ). As our brain can output valueable ideas and plots anywhere at any point of time, sometimes you might be lucky to have your favourite software on screen but mostly a sketch book is much more portable, and we can sketch as roughly as possible just like as our brain is thinking and can easily make appropriate changes to it resulting in better design, really you’ll be more productive and more creative by doing so.
    Another important aspect of sketching with hands is it will be more enjoyable and of course stress free.

  2. 3

    Jenn at Medialoot

    October 10, 2013 2:30 pm

    Fantastic article, Laura! There seems to be more and more of a call to incorporating sketching in design lately. Either that or it’s becoming just one of those things where I think I’m seeing it everywhere. Your post is by far the most well-researched and comprehensive.

    I’ve started to reincorporate sketching into both design and non-design projects, and I’m loving how much it helps me solve problems in every respect.

    • 4

      Sketching has always been a constant in the design process, especially before the days of tablets, sketching software, styluses and the like. I think what we are seeing now is a decline in pen & paper sketching because of these new technologies and more articles trying to revive it.

      I can’t imagine not sketching at any point in a design project. Good design is all about iteration and there’s no better way to iterate than on paper.

      • 5

        “Good sketching is all about iteration, and there’s no better way to iterate than on paper” — felt completely identified with this thought Mazurca

    • 6

      It’s true Jenn, everyone seems to be jumping on the hand sketching bandwagon. Personally, I’ve been doing it ever since I can remember and highly recommend it for any setting: concept generation, group meetings, journaling — even personal correspondence. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. 7

    Michael Meininger

    October 10, 2013 5:22 pm

    I think one of the biggest benefits of solid sketches is the positive impression it leaves on clients. It reassures the client that you are grounded, talented, able, and creative. It’s also provides quick and easy visuals during client interaction.

    In true designer cynicism, I am debating to start carrying an obnoxiously large pencil for the inevitable “make my logo bigger” discussion.

    • 8

      I agree Michael! There’s something to be said about a designer that can still pull out a sketchbook and make an idea clear. It’s a timeless skill, in my opinion.

  4. 9

    I tried a sketchy proposal once with a visual-oriented client on their website project (I am no designer, but managing client accounts). Our designer has done it nicely, but when our client saw the work, the first thing I heard from them was “We expect a digital one, not this type. I think people just do it in movies only.” Still, I love sketchy stuff.

    • 10

      I believe this is slowly changing Nhut. There’s an emerging appreciation for hand-sketched diagrams in business, and I’m curious to see how proposals look 5 years from now :)

  5. 11

    The concentration thing is so true! I had notebooks full of intricate doodles & designs in high school – The movement of pen on paper always seemed to make listen more intently, keep me awake, etc.
    I never really had thought much about my habit until I was at a new job. As is my tendency, I was doodling during a weekly meeting. Afterwards the manager came up and asked me about my ‘behavior’ during the meeting. I was clueless what she was talking about so she explained I seemed to be drawing the whole time instead of paying attention. It was the 1st time anyone had ever said anything, so I actually had to try and verbalize why I did it which in turn made me think about why I did it…
    The most ironic part of it all? Years after high school, college, the odd manager and thousands of doodles I was diagnosed with ADHD. (In retrospect, Duh.)
    One other interesting aside – My first few years of school were at a Montessori school. When I transitioned back to a public school I was light years ahead of my peers…and of course a doodler.

    Fantastic post!

    • 12

      Glad you felt identified Amanda! I also belonged to the what’s-up-with-this-kid-doodling-all-day club in high school. It has changed my professional life in ways I am yet to realize

  6. 13

    You cannot match the simplicity and the depth of complexity of pencil and paper. The use of pencil and paper even becomes more relaxing, thought provoking and invigorating compared to having to use software/hardware if working in the digital workplace.

    Okay I’m just a big fan of pencil and paper : )

    End of the day, each to their own.

    • 14

      Big fan of pen and paper here too! Try looking at the results in social media for #penandpaper– inspires me every single day.

  7. 15

    stephen chininis

    October 11, 2013 5:18 am

    I really enjoyed reading your post Laura. I teach a course all about bridging analog and digital drawing over at Georgia Tech in the Design School. We are mostly sketching on paper, scanning the sketches, then using computers (wacom cintiqs plus photoshop) to compose boards and enhance the sketches. A computer, used correctly can replace markers, not sketching, plus it comes with a much needed history,which makes experimenting and playing much less stressful! We are doing all kinds of experiments to get the best from both analog and digital and have noticed many of the things you point out! I came from an art school, and it is so clear to me that design results are better when students put up drawings so they can see 5 of their own ideas at the same time. Also, you just can’t get cozy sketching on a computer – that’s for sure! There are digital tools that are getting closer though, like the iPad!

    • 16

      I agree Stephen. New tablets are making it easier for us to get cozy and feel comfortable sketching digitally. Your course sounds really interesting! I think you’ll love this new project by the Paper App + Moleskine:

  8. 17

    Great article!! In this digital age, so many people are moving away from paper. I have always found that my ideas flow more readily when brainstorming on paper and this article has done a great job of validating that feeling and explaining why that is the case. Graphic design tablets are helping to bridge the gap between paper and digital, but you’ve provided a lot of great, research-based information supporting the value of a classic. Thanks for writing this!

    • 18

      Validating my feeling was exactly what I was aiming for. It is challenging to find scientific research to back up something that you recognize “intuitively” — but it was definitely worth it!

  9. 19

    I enjoy the article as it is the opposite of the way I think and operate, but everything rings true(for me) if we switch hand sketching to digital sketching.

    I grew up on a computer and would wager that I’m younger than a good majority of designers. I never related to drawing, and always gravitated towards technology so for me it’s completely untrue that hand sketching was one of the first ways I learned to express my thoughts.

    I find myself doodling through my laptop during meetings in the same way many people do in the margins of their paperwork, and honestly it gives me the same result. I have more attention and more depth of thought for the topic that I’m discussing.

    As to the iteration process I can’t even fathom how, at least in my work, iterations could be made quicker by hand sketching. Then again I do a lot of work with geometry and mathematics, which I think lend themselves to technology.

    I have recently started to sketch during preliminary meetings with clients who are unwilling or unable to use screen sharing for digital sketching, but note that it takes longer than jumping straight in. It’s just not the way I think or work.

    In the end I think it’s essentially the argument of film photographers or vinyl records reiterated. Is there something organic and beautiful about the process of hand sketching? Yes. Are most people of the age group that’s working in the field more comfortable with hand sketching? Yes. Do most young and upcoming artists agree, or support the idea? Not so much. I don’t think one is inherently better than the other, simply it’s coming to the point where people are going to make you think that there is a choice to be made.

    • 20

      Anne Easterling

      October 16, 2013 2:53 pm

      Jay, can you tell me more about how you doodle on your laptop? Programs, methods, etc.


  10. 21

    Matthew White

    October 14, 2013 4:47 pm

    Great article. And, this is so true: Writing falls short for most design problems. Sometimes it’s nice and much more effective to sit down with a pad and pen.

  11. 22

    Chris O'Connor

    October 16, 2013 9:39 am

    I agree Laura. I almost always start my designs on paper. I also find this a quick way of getting rid of all my dodgy designs and ideas.

    I do on occasion sketch digitally either with my tablet pc or Wacom and laptop but I have found that my work flow isn’t as instinctive.

  12. 23

    Thank Laura Busche for enjoyable article.
    My supervisor always encourages our team sketching by drawing tablet in stead of the traditional way Pen & Paper, because he thinks that will help to protect the enviroment. But I can’t got a feeling as sketching on computer screen :(

    Mavis – From – Book illustrator

  13. 24

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article Laura. Hand sketching is not just for designers. Since childhood, I’ve been a visual notetaker, including drawn images with written words and numbers. And–I confess, sketching images of people in a meeting, lecture hall, conference, etc. I studied ecology and marine biology. Then I studied psychology. I read that over 60% of people are primarily visual learners. As an executive coach and facilitator for 26 years, I have been creating visuals to “feed back” and synthesize what my clients are sharing. I create those on flip chart paper or large (4′ x 6′ or 4′ x 8′) swaths of butcher paper. The insights that emerge as people see in pictures what they’ve been saying has helped them make impactful decisions, create new products, restructure their team or company, appreciate the value of each person in the room, make plans, take action, etc. And they and I have fun :)

    I use good ol’ black and white scientific notebooks to jot notes, ideas, and sketches for myself. One notebook just for planning work for my clients includes visual diagrams to plot out sequences, timelines, elements needed and actions to be taken. When I’m planning something for a client and want to reference a similar previous engagement, a quick scan of the visual is all I need to inspire myself.

    Sketching is very cool!

  14. 25

    Nathania Johnson

    October 27, 2013 7:29 pm

    Great piece, but I wouldn’t discount writing. Designers and visual types benefit greatly from sketching, but design *clients* and non-visual types benefit greatly from brainstorming through writing. Free form writing is a great way for non-designers to help communicate their design needs – and they do have design needs, despite being less visual.

  15. 26

    Amazing tips. As someone who loves to sketch by hand, I guess this article really made me realize that I need to go back to sketching rather than using too much “mouse” :) . I need to get my sketchbook back on my desk!

  16. 27

    I dont understand this part: “Researchers from the University of Gothenburg argued that those who were looking at screens may have been more exhausted because of the “dual-task effect.”

    You can also just read a PDF book on your screen, and this is not dual tasking. But does reading a book on a screen makes you tired faster compared to a physical book?

  17. 28

    Very interesting post, a should read for designres I say. I also made a post about sketching on my blog: But this one is way more comprehensive, and a good read if people want to know more about sketching after reading my blog post. Can I add a link to this article at the bottom of my sketch blog-post?

  18. 29

    Galina Moskvina

    December 1, 2013 4:59 pm

    Bravo, Laura!

  19. 30

    Thank you for this informative article. I used to sketch a lot when I was a student, but after reading this article I am returning to the old habit. While reading the article, I kept notes about the key points by sketching on paper :)

  20. 31

    Douglas Wittnebel

    December 3, 2013 6:19 am

    Fantabulous article, and I thank you for creating this piece, long overdue for consideration by designers everywhere. When I teach, I press on the importance of the hand, the eye, and the image that is a result of a imprint of energy from the process of drawing. When we travel, we should allow the camera to rake a break and spend more than an hour of pure observation and drawing of new scenes and environments. Doug

  21. 32

    A word or two here.

    Firstly well done Laura, an excellent read.
    Secondly, I’ve been an interface designer for thirty odd years, starting at Xerox in the late 70’s, I was sketching back then, and still hard at work now. It is most important you use pen and ink. NOT pencil, nor an ‘on-screen’ sketch program.

    The importance of using ink cannot be over stated. Ink leaves a permanent trace of your thought patterns. Erasing ‘mistakes’ deletes a memory and who is to say they are mistakes? When retracing one’s steps and reviewing sketches there may well be the germ of an idea in a little previous error. Even drawing a line in the wrong place, don’t erase it, draw a line in the correct place or start again, don’t lose the starting point. Drawing allows the mind to wander, and the hand to doodle odd thoughts, just see where those thoughts lead (Slow Design).

    If you use layout paper (45 g/m2) to draw on, that will allow you to place one sheet under another and trace off the items you want to keep. I use Uni-Ball pens normally, though some fiber tip pens have a nice effect. Learn to relax while you draw. Start by drawing straight lines. If you look at the reverse side of the sheet and you can feel/see impressions of the lines, then you’re pressing too hard; your pen has been designed to leave a mark on the paper, not to engrave ;-)
    To give a bit of depth to the sketch Pantone or Magic-Marker markers can help no end. If you find the color a little too strong, turn the paper over and mark on the reverse. When turned back you will find the thickness of the paper can give the effect you are looking for.
    For an example of my work, do invest in Bill Buxton’s excellent book ‘Sketching User Experiences’ you will see my early sketches for Sony’s 2002 touch screen phone interface the P800. There is also a link to an animation of the same to be found via the book.

    Happy doodles, Ron

  22. 33

    I’m a big fan of hand sketching before moving forward with designing with Adobe software. Hand sketching website pages and even logos. Sometimes a simple sketch can save you all sorts of headaches down the road. It can also bring your attention to things you did not think about it. Better to take 10 minutes to create a quick sketch then to do a full design that does not work for the client!

    Isadora Design – A Professional Web Design Company

  23. 34

    Great article and I agree completely. I find stepping away from the computer or even starting ideas on paper provides me more room to brainstorm. Also, when sitting in client meetings and I have a creative spark that I want to share I always bring a paper and pencil. Most clients want to see, rather than to hear about an idea.


    Cory S Cochran

  24. 35

    Andreas Lorenz

    July 10, 2014 10:34 am

    Thanks Laura for this great article. My grandfather was an artist, so drawing is an important part of my live since i was a small boy. Today, i never got a big fan of drawing tablets. I prefer paper. But sometimes on the way, waiting the tube there is no paper. So we just developed a simple app called eskiis. Easy to use, just scribble some ideas on the way and save or share them with others on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. You get the app for free:


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