Over the past few years “sketching” has become an often talked about activity in the web/ux design space. I don’t think there’s a question as to whether or not sketching is a valuable exercise. But I do think that over time we’ve begun to fetishize the act of sketching, or maybe more precisely the sketches themselves.
At one point I was the curator of Johnny Holland's (the online interaction design magazine) flickr groups, one of which was dedicated to sketches. The more sketches that I saw being submitted, the more I became curious about the patterns I was seeing. These “sketches” were often pristine documents, lines meticulously placed, with precise edges and indicating elements like rounded corners, drop shadows, I even saw some that seemed to indicate font selections like serif vs san-serif. It was obvious that the creators had taken a great bit of care in creating them.
The more I saw, the more I wondered, why were the creators doing this. Is this what sketching is about?
I’ve studied art and illustration since I was 14; when I was 19 I also started studying animation. Sketching plays a huge part in these practices and in my time studying them I’ve come to understand two distinct but connected purposes for sketching.
Particularly in commercial applications of art, sketches themselves are used to communicate a basic idea, such as composition. Often this is done in the context of getting approval to move ahead form an art director or client. For example, sometimes when I do commissions, I get a clients OK on a sketch prior to starting on what will be the final piece.
A lot has been said about the ability of a sketch to quickly communicate an idea and to serve as a catalyst for productive conversation on the elements of a design. Where many ux and web designers used to lean on wireframes, sketches have been seen as a potentially faster tool that has less of a tendency to be turned into “documentation”.
Sketches are a great vehicle for communicating basic aspects and concepts within a piece without having to spend time to create something final or near final, or spending time thinking through detailed decisions that aren’t, at the point in time, important.
It’s clear to me that, in the sketches I was seeing on Flickr, this was the main purpose the creators were striving for. They were looking for a way to communicate their ideas to others. But what was concerning was the level of detail to which they were going. At the point in a process where sketching is useful do things like drop shadows and line weight matter? Were they really saving much in the way of time?
And there was something else that seemed to be missing…
The Other Purpose: Idea Exploration
The other purpose of sketching, and to me the primary purpose of any sketch, is to explore an idea. By sketching something out on paper we are able to quickly see how the pieces of our idea will actually fit together when assembled. Gaps quickly make themselves evident and we start to see opportunities for variations and entirely different paths and approaches.
Sketches start a stream of thinking that produces curves, branches, redirections and all sorts of changes to our thought process around possible solutions. All of this tends to happen rapidly and so sketches take on a “messy” and sometimes jumbled quality. This is a major component of what I felt was missing. There was no evidence in the “sketches” I was seeing that an evolution in thought was taking place.
So was it that messy quality that I’m missing? Yes and no. What I wasn’t seeing was evidence that ideas were being explored and that the creators were investigating the numerous variations that their sketches made apparent were possible. Instead they appeared as if the creator had a very precise image of what they wanted to put on the page and then did so with great precision. And took extra time to embellish their rendering with details that likely didn’t matter much.
How much time did they really save? How much more time could they have saved? How many other ideas could they have explored as part of their sketching?
If you look at the sketchbooks of an industrial designer or character designer, you’ll see essentially the same objects or characters drawn over and over again, but differently. Sometimes it’ll just be subtle changes from picture to picture, sometimes it will look almost completely different, but the sketches show an evolution of thought and the exploration down those paths.
Maybe all this is present in the things I didn’t see in the photographs. Maybe I was just seeing pictures of one sketch out of many. It’s completely possible. But only being able to judge by what I could see in the photos and photo streams, I was left to wonder. And I’ve seen this pattern show up outside of those flickr submissions as well.
Connecting the Purposes
The two purposes are closely tied. A designer may explore an idea and then use the sketches generated to share their ideas with others. Additionally, A sketch may serve as a catalyst, used to to communicate an initial idea to a group who will then together explore that idea likely through successive sketching.
Is it OK to sketch with the sole purpose of communicating? I suppose. Not sure I could say it isn’t. But I do think it’s important to fully understand what sketching is good for and when to do it.
Is this a discussion of semantics: What does it mean to “sketch”? Maybe. But as I’ve mentioned before, I think semantics are important. What we call things matters, particularly because we are expected to communicate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it quite often, especially in cases of collaboration.
So when you sketch, are you exploring an idea? How many variations or alternatives are you sketching out so that you can compare and contrast to find the best choice? How much detail are you putting in? Are those details important right now?