UIEtips: Why We Sketch

Jared Spool

September 22nd, 2010

One of my fondest childhood memories is traveling to New York City to see an exhibit filled with Leonardo daVinci’s notebooks. I remember staring, with awe, at the pages of sketches he’d created—solved problems that were years ahead of their time.

These memories all came flooding back during a recent phase of our ongoing research into design excellence. In this phase, we’ve been talking with designers who are at the top of their game, looking at the tools and techniques they employ.

Even though every designer we talked with had completely different backgrounds, training, and work habits, they all shared one common element—they sketched their work. In addition, they weren’t just sketching their designs. They were sketching their notes in meetings, their conversations with their co-workers, and their understanding of their design research. Sketching was a common medium for a variety of design-related activities.

In this issue of UIEtips, we take a tour of these different activities and the sketches we saw during our research. Like daVinci’s sketches, these sketches solve a multitude of important design problems and are key to becoming a design master. I’m sure you’ll find this as interesting as I do.

Read the article, Why We Sketch.

Based on our research, I wasn’t at all surprised to discover the heavy role that sketching is playing in our upcoming User Interface 15 Conference. Dave Gray, Leah Buley, and Dan Rubin each have a sketching component in their full-day workshops; each one exploring a different approach using sketching to create great designs. (Interested? Find out more about UI15.)

How do you use sketching in your work? Is this something new or something you’ve been doing for a while? We’d love to hear about your experiences below.

5 Responses to “UIEtips: Why We Sketch”

  1. Nathanael Boehm Says:

    It’s something I’ve been doing for a while but only in a big way in the past year to the extent where I sketch every meeting I attend, every idea I have .. even my dreams. I just put it all down on paper as visual representations, distilling concepts to their symbolic essence, mind-mapping, annotating, crossing out and iteratively developing ideas because I even touch the keyboard.

    Example of a spread in my notebook: http://twitpic.com/2pufin

  2. Phil Barnes Says:

    I have discovered the art of paper, pencil, scissors and tape. I find this has greatly increased the turnaround time of the initial design phase. Very handy for re-designs of existing screens, where I print off in A3 the existing screen, tape some blank sheets on and sketch away. If Im using an existing component, cut it out and stick it somewhere else.

    By building layers to the design I easily visualise the interactions, without the need for worry about the alignment and correctness usually focused on when in a piece of software.

  3. Marcia Johnston Says:

    Bill Buxton’s book “Sketching User Experiences,” which I just finished reading, has great insights into the role of sketching in the product design process. Buxton gives great examples both in the book and on the companion web site.

  4. Erin Lynn Young Says:

    Jared, I appreciate this series on the habits of great designers. Thanks for undertaking a topic that can help each of us grow!

    On the topic of sketching, I’m a HUGE fan of sketching to work through thinking. When I’m tasked with creating a deliverable, even a non-design deliverable, I always think more clearly about the outline of the document when I do it on paper. I love my colorful sharpies and the back-sides of old print-outs for exactly this purpose. I definitely discover the gaps that need to be worked out before I waste time in digital, and it’s always a time-saver.

    I also use sketching to show clients what they told me – specifically, when I can mentally predict a gap or problem they aren’t visualizing. I have a love/hate relationship with this tactic because what invariably happens is that once an idea (even one intended to demonstrate a problem) spills forth from a designer’s pen, someone always assumes that the designer has some level of ownership or contribution to the idea. On rare occasion, I’ve been in situations where the client fell in love with the sketches that were meant to demonstrate a gap, problem, or poor UX. Talk about backfiring! So, although I think this visualization tactic is necessary, I hate the risks associate with it.

  5. Linda Francis Says:

    I love what sketching brings! I think of so many other occupations where sketching is a given step in the process (e.g. wordworking). I’m always amazed how things surface, when you attempt to sketch the idea, for one thing, the challenges of limitations become obvious.

    That said, I think a lot of people have “stage fright” and are worried about being public or their sketches being viewed by anyone. It seems to me that we have to “dance like no one is watching”. If we practice this, as suggested is a healthy part of developing our UI skills, eventually sketching will become as natural as talking. Without practice, and an uninhibited attitude we can be self-conscious and lose the value offered by the sketching.

    I’m always stunned by how bad my drawing is…don’t pick me as your Pictionary partner that is for sure, and at the same time, the act of sketching helps me to dialog with myself as I am thinking about something. Even though I am embarrassed, no one that I have sketched with during design discussions has ever criticized or laughed at my sketch, the only results have been the kind described above.

    Let’s teach our teachers not to discourage doodling in class!

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