Sketching as professional practice, part 1: The why

Communication, ideation, learning, sketching

"Why is sketching something I would want to do? I don't know how to draw, so there’s no way I can make credible sketches. And I definitely won't send out my scribbles to clients and colleagues. Sketching is also an unnecessary step in my process because it is more cost-effective to design directly in Photoshop."

This two-part post tells you otherwise. This first part explains why you -- a developer, product owner, designer or sales expert -- should sketch. The second part will show how you can create sketches that look good and communicate ideas well. And if you feel you can't draw? It doesn't matter, because sketching is different than drawing.

Why should I sketch?

It's no secret that sketching is an effective method of communication. In addition to quick, back-of-the-napkin scribbles, you can create high-quality sketches that can be used as alternatives to Photoshop designs. Furthermore, sketching is a method that can be used in memorization or innovation. In this post, I will go over the following reasons for why you might want to sketch:

  • How to communicate ideas (How do I explain and gather feedback about my sales case, idea or design?)

  • How to generate ideas (I have a problem I need to solve; how can I find the best solutions?)

  • Memorization (I just learned or saw something that would be good to capture.)

Sketching in design and business communication

Generally, there are two categories of sketches for communication: dependent and independent sketches. With dependent sketches, I am referring to sketches that require someone to explain them – ones that can't be tossed around with the expectation that people will understand them. These would be your typical whiteboard and napkin sketches. They are very good in terms of quickly communicating ideas, but we won’t focus on dependent sketches in these blog posts.

Independent sketches are more rare but nonetheless very useful. They will be my main focus in this two-part blog post. Independent sketches communicate an idea in a way that can be understood solely from the sketch. Typically, these sketches are more time-consuming, taking anywhere from half an hour to a few hours to draw, and require some practice. Independent sketches can be, for instance, storyboards, sketches of user interfaces or other kinds of documentation. Why would you draw these by hand instead of making them in Photoshop? A few reasons:

  1. High-fidelity designs (made in e.g. Photoshop) are not always the best way to communicate ideas and get the desired type of feedback. People tend to see them as something that has taken a lot of time, effort, money and commitment. They mean well, and are afraid of critiquing work that has had a lot of effort put into it. Another common problem is that people focus on aspects you did not intend to communicate, such as colour or type. Sketches are less final and people tend to be more open to discussion. It is often easier to focus on the idea behind a sketch than from a detailed design.

  2. I have personally witnessed situations where unclear ownership of the concept has created tension in the design and ideation, and thus made presenting ideas intimidating. In these situations, I have found sketching to be extremely rewarding because of its neutrality. You can show an idea without overriding someone else’s influence or stepping on another person’s toes.

  3. Sketching doesn't require costly and complex software tools and doesn't require to learn how to use them. Tools can often guide your way of working. Not relying on technology frees you from considering the limitations of the tool (Visio, Word, etc.) and helps focus on possibilities and communication itself.

  4. Beautiful hand-drawn sketches can be produced during the very early stages of the project – even by a business manager, before any project team member has been allocated or contracts have been signed. This is good for validating the concept with the client at the very beginning, and then use the independent sketch to communicate the concept to other stakeholders (such as the project team that takes responsibility for designing and developing the system).

However, this kind of sketch often needs to look good for business and communication reasons; a very rough doodle does not necessarily communicate the idea well. You might also feel intimidated sending out a rough sketch to a client because it does not look professional, making your way of working seem sketchy (pun intended). Fortunately, sketches don’t need to look crude. With a few tips, you can make them look beautiful. I will focus on this in part 2.

Sketching in idea generation

Sketching is also a very powerful tool for idea generation. Your first ideas are never the best ones, and sketching makes you fail fast in order to find a better solution quickly. Sketching is great for when you have a set of requirements and a problem, but you don't know how to get to the solution.

You might be thinking about a visual identity, a layout, or a service concept. By forcing yourself to sketch, it makes you focus on the problem at hand. In idea generation, the sketches themselves might have little value; they are not always used for communication or documentation. However, it is the process of sketching that helps you analyze the problem visually and compare solutions.

It is a shame that sketching is seldom taught to designers who have a technical background. This is quite surprising, since sketching has a solid place as part of the creative process in graphic design. It is taught as an iterative method where you create choices (diverge) and make choices (converge) consecutively.

When diverging, you should force your pen to the paper and create many possible choices. Most of them will be poor. After that, discard the weak solutions and continue working on the best ideas to create even more choices in that direction. Repeat this process a few more times.

Forcing yourself to sketch and be open-minded is something that requires getting used to and may feel hard at first, and requires great discipline and focus – like any other professional practice. Letting go helps you explore the problem from many different viewpoints and come up with ideas you otherwise might not have found. You can time-box the process if you want, or limit the number of iterations. The important thing is to produce choices in mass, and move systematically towards the best ideas while iterating this at least three times (the first focusing on numerous different solutions and the last being only small variations to the best solution).

If you want to know more about sketching in idea generation, be sure to read Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design.

Sketching in memorization

These are your lowest fidelity sketches, ones that are not necessarily meant to be shared with anyone. If a picture says a thousand words, a rough sketch reminds you of five hundred. If you're a doodler, you're probably familiar with these types of sketches – but here are a few ideas to make the most out of them.

First of all, it is important to think about sketching as a professional practice, and to treat it like one. This means organizing sketches, notes and doodles, and getting a sketchbook that suits your needs. It should hold your Post-it notes and sketches in one place so that they are at hand when needed.

One good idea is create a library of cool ideas by copying details that you find interesting. It could be a witty user interface component on a website, a layout, or a cool Minority Report-style interaction. Sketching is a quick way to capture just the small detail that you found interesting. You can then refer back to this collection of ideas later on when you have a problem to solve.

If memorization and taking notes is something you want to improve, check out Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook. It teaches you how to sketch during a meeting while looking the client in the eye, or how to quickly capture details in a situation where you get only a quick glance at the target.

Enforcing sketching as a professional practice

The first step is a change in mindset. You need to consider sketching as a valid professional method for communication, problem-solving and innovation. Ask yourself these questions: instead of making a Photoshop design, would a sketch work? Instead of writing a lengthy document, would a sketch do the trick?

As any other professional method, sketching should be managed: have a proper sketchbook, Post-it notes, pencils, and take them to meetings or wherever you might sketch. Don’t just doodle on napkins or loose paper, but keep your sketches organized. I'm a big fan of Post-it notes and store them in my sketchbook – I don't like my sketches and ideas lying around to get thrown away or go missing. If you sketch something worth remembering on a whiteboard, take a photo of it, print it and stick it in your sketchbook. You might even want to own an instant film camera for this purpose.

Sketchbooks come in different types and sizes. You can find typical A4 blank page books as well as more specialized ones, such as the little action cahier I carry around with me to meetings for tiny sketches. Sticky notes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, too. There are even transparent sticky notes in case you find those useful.

For sketching geeks like myself, going to an office supply shop can be a thrill. Nevertheless, making good and beautiful sketches is not about the stationary. Sketching is not about owning a cool sketchbook or stencils. It is a professional method that anyone can learn and use for different purposes. I personally consider sketching as an essential skill in agile design and development because of its efficient nature. If you are a designer, embrace sketching in the ideation for your next design to come up with awesome end results. If you are a business manager or a product owner, instead of writing lengthy emails, finding a designer or trying to describe ideas in words, try creating an informative sketch that can be shared and attached to a wall for every passer-by to see.

Before doing so, you can boost your confidence by familiarizing yourself with sketching methods. In the

next part of this post

, I will dive deeper into the methods of making sketches, and will hopefully show you how to make good-looking sketches.