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.

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Head of Interaction and Service Design at DigitalDWP.

10 thoughts on “Why sketching is an important part of the design process…”

    1. I’ve always tended to go for a plastic covered WH Smith A2 sketch book, I’ve tried others put I like the quality of the paper.

  1. Good stuff Gav. I even think there are a couple of stages to sketching as well. Sketching, throwing ideas down on the paper, over and over, then what I would call “drawing”, taking the best idea(s) and doing a better, more accurate, sketch. For me, sketching = quick and dirty, drawing = less quick and clean.

    1. I think your ‘drawing’ is my iteration where each sketch becomes refined. I guess we both probably do the same thing but interpret the language we use differently.

    1. Thanks Bastian! I think archiving your notebooks is a great idea, I’ve got a tonne stacked up in a cupboard. You never know when you might need to reference something.

  2. Great post, Gavin 🙂
    I agree – the freedom of thinking and going from doodle to sketch and beyond cannot be underestimated. Does free up your mind to just get the instant result on paper. Though I have started using digital sketching via the iPad now as well – using a pen for this so it feels almost the same.

    This is why I loved reading the recent ALA articles, such as “Sketching: the Visual Thinking Power Tool” by Mike Rohde(http://www.alistapart.com/articles/sketching-the-visual-thinking-power-tool )

    power to the pen 🙂

    1. Great comment, Prisca. This post has actually been pending to post for nearly sixth months now but my feelings toward sketching have become more prominent of late because of the projects I’ve been working on. A great article by Mike on ALA.

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