Why Designers Should Always Sketch

Here’s something that a lot of you might disagree with: every designer should start their design process by sketching ideas.

I know some of you might think, “Duh, of course we should, that’s what design school taught us!”, but the reality is that most of us do not start our designs with a piece of paper and pen, or a whiteboard and marker. Instead, we jump to the internet for inspiration (mistake #1) and then immediately start wire framing or making rough digital concepts in some Adobe program (mistake #2).

pile of sketchbooks
The wide variety of sketchbooks I’ve filled over the past couple of years.

Sketching seems like something that has become a lost art of the design process. Years ago, even when I was in design school, it was mandatory to sketch out hundreds of thumbnails and dozens of rough, hand-drawn sketches. Nowadays, that seems to be missing in curriculum and it’s most definitely missing in the workforce. So why is sketching important and how come we’ve deviated from it?

Why do design sketches matter?

  1. Ultimate ideation freedom – a sketchbook, whiteboard, or even iPad with the Apple Pencil are all limitless tools when it comes to creating ideas. This applies to visual, web, UI, and UX – that creative process of solving a problem as a designer needs complete freedom.If you’re thinking that you are a shitty artist and can’t even make the most simple shapes without the assistance of a computer; fear not! The sketches I’m talking about nobody even has to see. They’re for you and your creativity, not for show-and-tell. So fill some pages with anything that comes to mind, only you need to know what it’s supposed to be. 
  2. Take them anywhere and everywhere – before a really big project I’ll often do this; I take my sketchbook, a pen, and my car. I’ll drive somewhere hours away from the city here in Arizona. When I’m at that place I enjoy the nature, beauty, and peacefulness (let’s say this place is the Painted Desert). When my mind is clear, I grab that sketchbook and start sketching wherever I’m at. Sometimes in my car with the windows down and the breeze blowing through, other times on a bench or ledge of an overlook.I can take my sketches anywhere I want to, and don’t need to worry about battery life or the internet distracting me. That’s be beauty of this part of the design process – sketching out ideas can be done anywhere you want, especially away from your desk. 
  3. Distraction free design – this is a big one for us 21st Century designers. When you’re using a sketchbook or whiteboard, you can easily detach from the world. You don’t have any popups showing on your paper about an email or Instagram comment. Instead, you are able to vomit every idea, flow, and thought through that pen. You’d be amazed by how many new ideas come to you when you’re distraction free.
  4. A beautiful process archive – something I found useful after filling dozens of sketchbooks over the years was that all my notes, thoughts, and sketches provided me with a useful tool in my arsenal of interviewing for design jobs: I had my processes documented.At first I was a little nervous to open up my sketchbook to a potential employer, especially since I am not a fine artist, so my sketches are really only recognizable to me. However, that didn’t matter to the employer – I was able to walk them through a few pages of a filled sketchbook and show them how I came to an idea. This ended up wow-ing a lot more people than I thought.Plus, it’s kind of neat to grab the box (or tactical bag that I use), and browse through your old projects and processes. There’s something fun about analyzing why you did certain things years ago and how you’d change that now
bag of sketchbooks
My tactical bag (a gift from my days at TASER) has become a nostalgic source of notes & sketches.

If you’re in design school and haven’t been forced to put the computer away and sketch out 100 thumbnails, then you probably don’t know where to even begin? What types of sketchbooks should I get? Lined paper or dot-grid paper? Pens or pencils? What about my iPad – can I use that?

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what medium or tools you use to sketch on. You could use a Bic pen with a wide-ruled Mead spiral notebook – it doesn’t matter what you’re putting your ideas on, just put away the computer and do it.

However, I’ve found a few of my favorite sketchbooks and pens over the years and so have my design friends (some of which use digital sketchbooks, like an iPad). Check out this post to see my favorites.

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