Why sketching is an important part of the design process…

A little while ago I wrote an article about ‘a better web design process‘, I discussed the evolving nature of the design process from old to new and the benefits of each progression. One of the largest parts of my design process which I have added to and extended is the sketching phase. This phase includes other areas which I will detail and explain below.

I used to stay away from sketching, I guess I was a little stubborn thinking I could do everything off the top of my head. I think the stubbornness was one of the largest contributors to me nearly losing my mind on numerous occasions. There were two ways I started a new project,

  1. I used to work by inspiration, waiting for that great idea and quickly jump in to Photoshop.
  2. Go straight in to Photoshop and start moving around elements of the design.

I can tell you now I was going about this all wrong.

Sketching is a lot more than just putting pencil to paper. It’s about understanding, thinking, planning and iteration. As part of the design process sketching is a hugely under-rated step.

Sketching and planning a new project

The more you understand the project you’re working on, the easier the sketches happen. Whilst you sketch you notice things that you probably wouldn’t have if you’d gone straight into Photoshop/Fireworks or the browser. It helps you understand the context of the content you’re working with and help you put everything in order. Designers are a unique in that we deal with elements of design and understand how they’re supposed to be used, sketching helps us justify our decisions for dealing with things people feel and sometimes don’t see.

Granted we can think about design whilst we’re using our tool of choice, but often we get caught up in what we’re doing and charge ahead for that aesthetic look instead of keeping our minds on the on the real goal which is the core of the design. Sometimes we set ourselves up for a fall by thinking to literally instead of figuratively. Yes there are rules, or guidelines which can be followed but there’s no reason why we can’t let each design have its own unique twist, with sketching we can let our minds wander down other routes as our sketching doesn’t have any rules and we can have as many scribbles, crosses or arrows as we like.

The execution of your design comes down to planning, we’re happy to enough to sketch out a room in the house when we’re looking to convert it into an office. We do this because it’s a clean slate and we have the option to do anything we like, the same as our designs. Sketching doesn’t just help us plan our designs but we can manage the hierarchy, structure and interactions between every element or link.

Sketching out a payment process

It’s all well and good doing one sketch to map out what we have in our head but a lot of the time that won’t take everything in to account. If we iterate our design in the sketching phase, it can reduce the amount of time in Photoshop and even when the site goes live. Granted we need to user test the design, but putting that extra thought in to it before hand could and should reduce the amount of time spent after wards.

Sketching doesn’t have to be perfect and you most certainly don’t need to be an artist. We’re talking about squares, rectangles, circles and crosses. This is how I work. I attribute shapes which make sense to me that I can understand when I look back on them.

The amount of sketching I do varies on what project I’m working on. I have multiple sketch books ranging from A5 to A2 in size and I work in them all. I prefer to work out of my A2 sketch book when I’m at my desk as I can iterate five or six times before needing to turn the page. I probably sketch each section of a design once or twice and there could be up to 2 or 3 iterations of those. I’m currently working on a rather large project where I have covered 16 or so A2 pages front and back and those sketches aren’t refined, I generally sit with my A4 sketchbook when I’m in Photoshop to refine a sketch down in more detail.

The amount of time on the actual sketch is usually minimal, its the thinking time which should be higher. That time should include planning and iteration and generally keeping your mind free before settling down on the aesthetics. If you move into Photoshop and then ditch one of your sketches, quickly re-sketch what you’re thinking and see if this takes you down a different avenue. You never know where it will end up unless you make that effort.

So there’s why I think sketching is so important and a little bit of insight into how I work.

Let your elements breathe

Moving on from ‘Simplifying your design‘, I think it is also important to remember something very important when designing. We need to think of the content first and treat it as the core of the design itself and create elements around it. It is very easy to get caught up in adding what can be described as ‘noise’ when most of it can be left out.

More so, when you are adding elements in to the design give them room to breathe. There is nothing worse than looking at information on the screen without being able to take it all in correctly. Elements which are too close together or the same size when one should be smaller than the other can become annoyingly awkward to interpret.

Using a grid system, can but not always help with this problem as even with the best grid systems out there, the gutters are still frustratingly thin so take them as guidance at best, if an element looks like it needs more room around it then it probably does.

Give them room to breathe.

Everyone has their zone

That place where your concentration, motivation and focus is higher than anywhere else. Some people find it by listening to music, some find it by working with others. It’s funny how different locations, emotions and times of the day affect our ‘zone’. Designers are renowned to have an up and down mood, whether that be over a matter of days, weeks or months. We’re never at the top of our game constantly as sometimes we can find our motivation and creativeness in the middle of the day or in the middle of the night. When it happens it happens. Most if not all designers love what they do, sometimes to the point that it becomes a danger as we seem to be unable to stop what we’re doing resulting in an extended amount of time at our desks thus creating this burning the candle at both ends scenario. Fatigue sets in and we’re an emotional mess, unable to find that motivation and ‘zone’ until we’re fully recovered.

My zone is in a room with the door shut and in the pitch black. You’ll find me with my headphones on and the music turned up. Depending on what type of design I’m working on I’ll listen to different genres of music but that’s my place, my operating zone where I’m most comfortable and confident in my own ability. I don’t care at that point if the sun is shining or it’s throwing it down with rain. Needless to say that when I’m in my zone, my productivity goes through the roof.

What’s your zone?

Simplify

It’s easy to pump an idea full of features when designing. A set of stages where you think to yourself “Oh that would be great!”, “We’ll need this…” when in actual fact you won’t. Next time, sit back and ask yourself to simplify it. Then simplify it again. You’ll find doing that will increase the experience for the user as well as pulling unneccesary bloat from your design, whatever that might be.

So next time just stop and simplify.

Interlink Conference

Interlink ConferenceI’ll be speaking at the brand new Interlink Conference in Vancouver, Canada on June 2-4 2011. Shawn Johnston the founder of Interlink has put together an awesome line-up with Whitney Hess, Frank Chimero, Elliot Jay Stocks, Brian Hoff, Sarah Parmenter, Jonathan Snook, Simon Collison, Meagan Fisher, Patrick Lauke and Dan Rubin.

I’m humbled to be speaking alongside such awesome people as I had the honor of sharing the stage with at DIBI 2010.

Shawn has done brilliantly with the planning of what looks to be rock solid line-up of workshops and talks without even looking at the unbelievable venue he picked being the Theatre for the Performing Arts at Capilano University.

Early Bird tickets are on sale now so head on over and take your place. I’m really looking forward to being on the other side of the fence and moving from Conference Producer to Conference Speaker for a change. 🙂