What Is A Sketch?

Starting again as a designer

There is a connection between the story of my son and I and our struggle to sketch, and my own work as a designer. This is relevant to my work because I had this same kind of block for some time, but I wasn't aware of it.

For years, I was doing a lot of sketching in private, but what was missing for me was the bigger picture about how sketching fit into the design process. I kept seeing the mentions of the books and watched the presentations of these 2 guys and they started to influence my thinking. I had picked up both books and they really put me on the path to starting over again with sketching.

Dan Roam's book kind of democratized sketching as a tool that anyone can use to communicate visually. He shows you how effective and simple it can be. Nobody needs to be afraid of sketching because there's a basic language you can learn, and once you do, your power to communicate grows.

The bigger influence for me was Bill Buxton's book on sketching user experience. Buxton talked from both a high level and a detailed point of view about how sketching as a part of design process is valuable as a tool because it's cheap and fast, and it's the right level of fidelity that lets you make bad decisions early, and fail early so you can make those mistakes before you code.

He gives you a way of using sketching successfully by allowing you to maximize this tool at the right time so that you're not making assumptions that are wrong and going down a path that leads you to needing to pivot when you're in code, which is much more costly.

What is a sketch?

All lot of ideas were floating around in my head about starting over on my own personal artistic sketching. And while this is happening I'm thinking about Roam and Buxton. At this point I'm starting to question how I'm using sketching in my own practice as a designer. Am I doing things the right way, the wrong way?

Around this time i had also started seeing people posting pictures of their sketches, and some of them were beautiful works from people I really admire and respect. But then, some of that has the effect of making me feel like, maybe I'm doing it wrong. My work looks like garbage compared to some of these guys.

When I think back at this, what I was seeing were drawings not sketches. They were more like visual designs or pretty wireframes done in pen and pencil, rather than sketches that were being used to demonstrate thinking and problem solving. At least that's what most of these looked like to me. Compared to my sketches, these were polished, clean drawings in all the colors of the rainbow. It reminds me of when I occasionally had to interview people for IA jobs where I would sometimes be presented with beautiful portfolios of work for big brands, but when it came time to show the sketches or describe the problem solving that went into producing the work, there was nothing to show and no explanation of the process.

That's when I started to figure out for myself what I wanted my approach to be, and to decide what's important to me. I stepped back and kept coming back to the ideas I found in Bill Buxton's book and talks.

Sketching != Drawing

One of the first decisions I made for myself was that I can't look at polished design drawings and let them influence my own thinking about sketching. I need to think about sketching in a different way. I also need to look around more, learn a little more, capture what I was thinking, and then be able to express it so I could make my ideas and approach something I could describe to others and repeat. And the approach had to be super simple, because I'm a simple-minded guy that needs things put plainly if I wish to have any hope of acting on them.

From this came my first, rather obvious statement. Sketching is not drawing. It's a completely different action that is rough and loose and meant to be fast and disposable. The artifacts are meant to show the process involved in arriving at the sketch as much as it is meant to demonstrate the final concept. It's great when used in teams, but can be used individually if you're thinking about them as part of the design process that Buxton describes.

To act on the decision to approach sketching with a newfound purpose in mind, I had to think back to that idea I wrote about with my son. I needed to step back and think about why I should be sketching at all.