Why We Sketch

I started to think a lot about why we sketch. I began asking, "how am I making sure that the ideas I'm reading about and agreeing with are informing the way I work."

I looked at what other creative people are doing, and I picked this handful of things that are important to me.

I'm using sketching:

  • to think about problems
  • to document the solutions and the intention of the design
  • to experiment with things that are maybe unfamiliar or unconventional in terms of my own knowledge
  • to communicate and explain the solutions and decisions I'm proposing

And these last 2 are most specific to product design. I'm using sketching:

  • to fail faster
  • to find the right solution and design

Here are some examples I was finding from other fields that demonstrate why we sketch as part of the creative process.

We sketch to think

This is Frank Gehry's sketch. They're squiggles showing how he's exploring the concept for the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. It's just rough lines that represent all these undulating and curving forms that are going to make up the facade of this building in metal. He's also figuring out the relationship of the curvy metal building to the smaller rectilinear forms, and the proportion and scale with the landscape and trees.

You can also see in the prototype or model that the elements in the sketch are carried through to the final building. What we're seeing here is sketching as a tool to begin to think about the design problem of sculpting a metal architectural skin over a box until they've arrive at this main concept.

Source: Arcspace

We sketch to document

Documentation is probably a common reason for all of us to put something down on paper, if just to capture the idea for other people to use.

This is sculptor Richard Serra, who is using this sketch as a way to document how he wants this installation to be laid out, indicating with sketches and notes how he wants each piece to be positioned in this room.

Sources: Depont and zigzagblues

We sketch to document

This is Dieter Rams documenting the cutting element of the Braun razor. The sketchs shows the detail of the blades insidde the razor that clip the facial hair and capture the stubble in the rounded metal of the cutting end.

Sources: Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams and "Alessandro Mendini interviews Dieter Rams" on Domus

We sketch to experiment

This is painter Josef Albers who is known mostly for these minimalist paintings of color fields in his "Homage to the Square." work. He doesn't start from painting these clean lines, he starts with testing these colors, and how they work together and against each other with these rough sketches in paint and color.

Source: Albers Foundation

We sketch to communicate & explain

And the things most of us are familiar with, which is the use of sketching as a tool to come to an understanding about how a product is going to function. This is the kind of sketching I do most, which is a sketch that communicates the behaviors of an interface.

This is Gene Lu's sketches of the filtering interface, for the Nike Air Force 1 Facebook app. And you see him exploring the filtering mechanism in the middle, and how he's showing how the different characteristics of a shoe can be selected to refine search results.

Source: Portfolio of Gene Lu

Sidebar: The Design Process

The real turning point for me had to do with where sketching fits in with product design. And this is where we come back to Buxton in this diagram talking about design process.

This expanding and narrowing chart shows the growth of ideas you generate at the beginning of a project at the left. What you're trying to do is come up with as many ideas as possible.

And then there's a narrowing of the flow, where ideas are being selected. And when decisions are made, you expand a little bit to explore more of the ideas in each iteration and refine them. And you keep doing this iteratively until you arrive at the final concept.

And the sketches are looser and lower fidelity at the beginning and have higher fidelity at the right end.

We sketch to fail faster

Failing is the point. This process has a lot to do with mitigating risk. You make all the mistakes now in paper, where it's quick and cheap, and when you can do it with a much lower risk factor than when you're working in code. Making changes on paper costs you only time, and in the end saves you time if you've discover problems along a line of thinking before you've coded it. Pivoting once you're dealing with working code is much more expensive.

We sketch to find the right design

The final point to investing in this activity up front is this. You are expressing a lot of ideas so you can eliminate the ones that don't work, and select that ones that are right, and solve the problem you're supposed to be solving—the optimal solution. This final, "right" concept declares the intent of the product you will build.