John Cowen

John Cowen

User Experience • Design • Creativity

The importance of sketching


I was having a bit of a clear out in the office last week and found myself flipping through some of my old sketchbooks. These were from a 12 month period after my BA in Fine Art when I was putting together a portfolio for an MA application.

For a lot of the time I was an art student, I didn’t actually sketch that much. At the time my work process was such that I didn’t feel it was particularly beneficial. In hindsight I’d disagree with that now - but it’s only with several years distance and a complete change of discipline that I can understand what the real purpose of sketching is - and something I could see in these last sketchbooks where I was sketching out ideas around a particular concept almost obsessively.

Sketchbook examples

Sketchbook examples

Fine Art is a particularly subjective discipline - and some artists might disagree with this, but looking back at these sketchbooks I can see the intrinsic value in what I was doing.

As a painter I would get ideas for works in response to things I had seen - and while I could say "that inspired me" - I couldn’t necessarily explain what it was in particular about this thing that had inspired me.

In sketching, you are not trying to outline a picture that will be transferred to a painting, you’re more likely to be obsessively drawing and redrawing scenes, objects, shapes, concepts - in an attempt to pin down which elements of it is that have captured your imagination.

An important barrier to get over when sketching is being judgmental about your work. There comes a point when you get reasonably proficient at drawing in a certain style. From here on - the value of continuing to do this in your sketchbook is potentially quite limited. Sketchbooks aren’t things you’re necessarily going to want to be showing off to other people. They’re places to explore rough ideas and if there’s not a lot of unsuccessful crap in there, you’re probably not doing it right.

Sketchbook examples

Sketchbook examples

Even the ubiquitous landscape - the interest for the artist might be colour, the physical mass of the earth, the fluidity of its outline, the material it’s built up from, it might be the earth itself or it might be our human interaction with the landscape. It’s a mixture of conceptual and perceptual ideas. Over time you’re likely to get a firmer grasp on what interests you - but a lot of the ideas come on a more subconscious level. Sketching helps define what it is you want to depict and find a visual language that enables you to do it.

What interested me about the sketchbooks I was looking through was not that the sketches were any good - from the perspective of perhaps wanting to put them on display - but how successful they were at identifying the core elements I wanted to be depicting in the final paintings.

Ultimately, sketching helps you break down complex ideas into simple ones.

The type of sketching you’re likely to be doing as an artist is different to the type of sketching you’re likely to be doing in a more commercial design role where the outcome is more objective than subjective. However - the process of breaking things down into simple and easy to understand components is really valuable.

Sketchbook examples

Sketchbook examples

For me, now, sketching is more about making lists, schematic diagrams or mapping a user journey. It’s not what you’d traditionally call sketching but the intent is the same thing: to break down and understand the most fundamental elements of the project. It’s easy to be lazy on this and make reasonable sounding assumptions based on a project brief - but it’s surprising how often this sketching process highlights complexities and - more importantly (or usefully) - flags up what are core elements of a User Experience and what are enhancements or anything that is problematic or irritating.

As an art student we were often given sketching exercises - such as only spending 60 seconds on a drawing, using your weaker hand, having your eyes closed or standing way back from the paper and drawing with a pencil strapped to a piece of stick. It stopped you getting too familiar with a given process and to embrace the accidental.

These approaches aren’t necessarily going to be helpful in sketching ideas for a website design - but pushing yourself to explore new approaches can be beneficial.

Even if we’re talking about User Experience design rather than graphic design - the same holds true. From a UI perspective - there’s plenty to be said for sticking with the familiar to aid usability and easy understanding by users. But at the heart of User Experience is: ‘what are we saying to our visitors’.

You’ll likely have a business model and a standard outline you present to customers - but I think, far too often, the message gets dulled and complicated over time. As a business grows it starts offering different services, making adaptations to core services and can develop different persona’s through staff turnover or in response to the market. Too often - the changes are added to what is already in place.

Go back to basics and sketch out the whole business model again. It will help break things down into simpler elements, help focus on the most important of these and is an opportunity to re-evaluate how they’re presented to customers. It delivers consistency and clarity. And it can make a huge difference.

You made it to the bottom! Thanks for reading.

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