Sketching: the Visual Thinking Power Tool

by Mike Rohde

33 Reader Comments

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  1. Just wanted to say thank you Mike for a great article. I’ve always found sketching in the early stages of a project works best for me—and it’s also a lot of fun. And like most things, the more you do it, the better you get at it, as you pick up little tricks along the way. Thanks for sharing your sketches—they look great!
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  2. You are very welcome @dpenny and thank you for your encouraging words! I’m very excited to share these ideas, because I know sketches can be so helpful for thinking and solving problems, regardless of their artistic quality. If this encouragement to sketch helps readers worried about their lack of art skills to give sketching a shot, I’ll be completely stoked.
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  3. Much like yourself, I’ve loved sketching since I was a kid and I’ve found it an incredibly useful approach when starting a logo design or site layout. In fact my standard workflow begins on paper, long before I fire up photoshop / illustrator / whatever. Some of these sketches here are great! I totally agree that artistic ability isn’t a prerequisite to sketching out ideas. It’s great fun to knock out some ‘thumbnail’ ideas and then flesh out the good ones. I often come up with layouts that I perhaps wouldn’t have though of if I’d have gone straight to photoshop. On the flipside though, I’ve personally found that taking a little extra time out to learn some basic technical drawing methods (things like 3-point perspective) has really improved the quality of my work. I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to scare anyone off, rather I find that if you try a sketching approach and it works out, it’s almost like a natural progression to take it further - Because it’s fun!
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  4. What a lovely article!  This was passed onto me by a design colleague.  I am designer of learning experiences and there is no reason why sketching can’t help with this.  I also think of myself as a visual thinker and visual sense maker: having created tools that are visually based and as a major fan of mindmpaping.  I journal and doodle some but not enough. Mike presents and gently persuades us about the value of sketching as a design and problem solving tool.  The links he provides and advice on what materials and tools is helpful.  I have an iPad and am encouraged to try out the apps he suggests taking a look at.  Thanks Mike
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  5. I use the combination of Moleskine + Pilot G-1 0.7 pen or classical pencil. I also build one tool to make browser frame simulation on paper “Sketchbook for web designers”:http://www.vcarrer.com/2009/02/sketchbook-for-web-designers.html
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  6. Thank you for your kind words everyone! @Kumori Media - right on with good references on learning to draw. A book I can suggest is called RapidViz, which is out of print now but available at Amazon. Super practical and helpful if you need a good, practical reference on improving skills. http://www.amazon.com/Rapid-Viz-Method-Visualization-Ideas/dp/1560520558 @Magellan - Thanks! I think the iPad is pretty good for rough sketching, but sometimes pen and paper is the winner for convenience and cost. Glad this article inspired you! @Vladimir - Thanks for the note. Maybe you can hire a printer to create books with your web template already printed into bound or spiral books. That could be very handy.
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  7. I’m a project manager, with barely any drawing ability at all.  But I’ve spend the couple years with a moleskine cahier extra large square ruled journal as my daily carry for meetings.  The grid allow me to easily make not only occasional UI or information design sketches, but also works great for meeting notes and easily doing multiple levels of indentation for structured items - todo lists, navigational hierarchy, tasks and subtasks, etc.  About $6 each I’m a big fan of the feel of pencils also, and have a handful of pentel graphgear 500 .9mm pencils with the softest lead I can find.  Also about $6 each
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  8. I’ll have you know that Bob Dylan _is_ a great singer. Even better than Caruso. :-)
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  9. @jonathanpeterson - I’m pleased to hear you’re using sketching to suit your business needs. It’s encouraging to see you making use of pencils and notebooks to think visually with the drawing skills you do have - I suspect you communicate with drawings better than you may think! @asjoegren - I like Dylan’s style! :-)
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  10. I completely resonate with the use of sketching as an imaginative tool.  Even though my drawing ability is pretty poor, I still derive great value from trying my best to lay things out. That said, I noticed that while you had a set of great resources on ways to use sketching as an imaginative tool, there weren’t any on improving your sketching itself.  Do you have any recommendations there?  Thanks,
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  11. Hey, would you consider sketching with a Wacom Tablet on Adobe Ps or AI same as sketching on paper?
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  12. @kball - There are a variety of books out there for sketching technique, usually I suggest RapidViz as one for quick starts. Before buying books, why not drop by your local public library and look for books on drawing and sketching techniques first. @kawohi - I think using a drawing tablet on a computer great for sketching concepts, especially if that works for you. But in my experience, ideas come to you at unusual times—that’s when the back of an envelope and a ball point pen beat slick technology, every time. :-)
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  13. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas regarding your talent Mike. I am not good in drawing though I love to do so. I just get envy with my younger brother who is so artistic and love to draw and sketch anything that goes in his mind. I love this article because it encourage me to do what I really like plus a tip on how to do so. Your article will really help a lot of dreamers to draw and sketch more and to not give up. Keep up the good work Mike.
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  14. It was in grade school that I first did my first sketch of our favorite pet “Ringo”.  He is a dog, but he looked like a dinosaur in my sketch.  Since then, I never had confidence in sketching.  But having been read this article, my interest in sketching is now coming back.  Thanks to you!
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  15. @padillamartin47 - Thanks for your kind words! I’m so glad to hear you are drawing, regardless of how you feel the quality is. As a thinking tool, this is the perfect way to approach sketching. Aas you do it, you’ll find your comfort level improving. @becas02 - I’m really happy my words have been an encouragement for you to get back into sketching. Remember that it’s a tool for you to think - nobody is judging your sketches for inclusion in an art gallery— it’s just a means to an end. :-)
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  16. Sometimes when I sketch, I use Pencil from the Pencil Project. http://pencil.evolus.vn/ It’s a good and opensource software for GUI prototyping.
    It’s developed for linux / win / mac when standalone and as firefox plugin.
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  17. Was just having a discussion about neuroplasticity and the brain yesterday. If you don’t already sketch, taking it up encourages participation from parts of the brain you might not be tapping. Mike, your article has encouraged me to try to make it part of my workday processes. Some books also worth mentioning: Drawing on the Artist Within and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. Also, The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Non-artists like myself might also spend a little time looking up “gesture drawing.” The idea of gesture drawing helps loosen my tightly clenched grip on the pencil. If I can get myself to sketch consistently, I’m interested in observing how it might affect my thinking processes.
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  18. ... is what I keep saying for years. I don’t remember how many times I have been laughed at. I wouldn’t write “Carry a _notebook_ and pen or pencil with you wherever you go.”, but instead, “Carry a _sketchbook_ and pen or pencil with you wherever you go.” Well, you never know. Fully agree with what is being said. Nice piece of work including nice pieces of work.
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  19. @NKjoep - Very interesting software/plugin - thanks for sharing! @RichardPosey - Really pleased you are going to give sketching a go and for sharing those book titles here. All of those book suggestions are great ones - Dan Roam’s is especially helpful for those who may feel drawing a tough thing to start doing. @Oliver B. - Thanks for the kind words. I think there are many who start projects with pencil sketches. I hope this article encourages even more to give sketching a try.
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  20. Sketching is one part of the design process that is very fun and enjoyably, it allows you to be flexible and think outside the box (grid). Very importatn to get over the ” I cant draw” and just do it, there is no wrong or right when it comes to sketching when you are using the process to work through ideas on a project. A sketched idea can rock the world : )
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  21. I teach in a 2-yr Graphic Comm program. Sketching greatly improves both fluency and function in our work, regardless of the medium/a it’s intended for.
    We faculty walk uphill both ways getting students to spend enough time in sketching mode. Many want to leap into their Mac apps too soon.
    I find this an alarming disconnect—and outright fuddling—since they often claim to be “visual learners” and come to GC because the “graphic” part of GC attracts they way more than the “communications” part.
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  22. Sorry, Mike, clicked “submit” too soon. Meant to proof and add this:
    I intend to share your article with all of our students in every class—also appreciate “further reading” suggestions.
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  23. @foldingdummy Thanks for the note - I came from a 2 year tech college so it’s great to hear this article can help your students do more sketching up front. I think it’s a human thing to jump to what seems like the end point (computer) so we all need to remind ourselves to sketch first - I have to remind myself at times too!
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  24. First up what a great article. You might be interested in knowing that in addition to all the benefits you mentioned sketching with a pencil (or pen), works well for another reason. When you write on paper you will engage more areas of your brain, example the motor cortex as we write and the Somatosensory system as we feel the pencil on paper. Unsurprisingly the more parts of your brain you engage the more interesting things get. Cheers
    Mark Levison
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  25. I am an art teacher and can absolutely teach anyone to draw, especially the negative types who say “can’t draw a stick figure”.  It is the connection: eye, hand, mind.  Love the article. Thanks
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  26. Thanks, that was a good inspiration to kick me in a direction I had already been thinking of! I’m a coder gone freelance, and have found I have to broaden my skills into design as well, and using sketches for “prototyping” could work well. I’ll go get a notebook with a grid tomorrow! ;) One thing I did miss from the the article tough, was how sketches can aid coders. That’s something I’d like to see, a way to make a simple mock-up of a logic solution, which is what programming is about, but without going as far as UML diagrams or similar.
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  27. Thank you for the article!  Even though I’ve been a long-time sketcher, I don’t really care for concepting my design ideas in a book or all on one sheet.  I feel like I’m wasting paper or running into myself too much if I draw too large, and not getting enough detail in if I draw too small!  And I’ve got way too much stuff crammed into my purse for a sketchbook of any decent size; what if I have an idea when I’m out at a restaurant somewhere? Instead, I snip old printouts (making sure the backs are blank) into quarter sheets of paper.  I keep a pile of quarter sheets at any desk I work at: home, work, drawing.  I also keep some in my purse; in fact, a prerequisite of buying a purse/wallet for me now is that it can fit about 10 of them in a pocket somewhere. They’re great because: • They’re not bound, so I can draw all the way to the edge. • They’re easy to rearrange in a particular order, which works great for storyboarding out the flow of a site or animation sequence. • I can toss out/redraw something that gets too messy; after all, it’s only a quarter sheet of paper! (I’m a ballpoint pen girl, myself) • When you’ve got a set that’s related, you can paperclip it together for easy storage. • They’re thin, so they’re easy to trace over if you want to make a more detailed sketch of something. • Reusing things that would have been thrown away makes me feel greener, and cutting them makes me feel less wasteful (it also ensures I don’t mistake them for important documents floating around my desk that I shouldn’t be drawing on). I can’t begin to describe how they’ve helped my ideas flow and supplemented my initial concept-generation process.  They come with my highest recommendation.  =)
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  28. http://www.noteslate.com/ I came upon this by a colleague. Even though paper will never go… i do like this.
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  29. Mike, first of all great last name!  I found your site due to an errant tweet of @mrohde but I’m glad I did. I’ve always avoided sketching because I’m not an artist but you make some compelling arguments to sketch to quickly get your ideas out on in a concrete form.  I may take your suggest of carrying around a sketchpad to see if it helps me brain storm ideas and become a more visual thinker.
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  30. Mike - Thanks to you and Sunni Brown for sharing your inspiring thoughts about using visual thinking to unleash our imaginations and problem solving.  I just finished teaching an executive MBA course at UW-Milwaukee that focused a lot on visual thinking.  We used Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin as a text and I was very pleased to see my students take the risk to sketch their ideas and share them with others.  We had fun exploring to web-based drawing tools - Dabbleboard and Simple Diagrams.  Both tools helped us gain some confidence in our ability to use drawings to solve problems and think more visually.  Thanks for sharing your work - I really loved your sketch notes in Rework!  Keep up the great work.
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  31. Coming back to my article after a little time has passed and am very pleased to see great comments here. @Mark - great point on brain engagement. There is something special about the mix of thinking and handwork that strengthens the ideas we process. @ritart - You are right! Everyone can do it. Whenever I talk with people about sketching, drawing or sketchnotes I encourage them to forget those old hang ups and just draw, however badly they feel they do it. The point is not the quality for art sake but rather, the quality of thinking it produces. @drlinux - Sketching for coders is a great idea for a new article. I have a good friend who does front-end development and he sketches on top of printed mockups as a way to process how he plans to execute his work. @delphina2k - Love the quarter sheets of paper idea. @Kortschot - Thanks, I have seen the Noteslate mentioned but haven’t tried one. Looks like a very interesting tool indeed. @MarcRohde - Hello fellow family member! Glad the article was inspirational - I hope experimenting with a sketchbook you carry around works well for your process. @drjuderathburn - It’s great to hear you applying visual thinking with students - providing some new tools they can use to solve problems as they make their way in the world. Happy to hear you enjoyed my REWORK illustrations!
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  32. I really enjoyed the richness of your article.  In reading it and seeing the illustrations it did remind of the Da Vinci exhibit and the value sketching was to bringing out his genius.  It also reminded me that the value of sketching extends beyond design as a visualization tool for solving engineering and physics problems.
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  33. Sketching with a Livescribe pen makes a great combination of the paper experience but digitized in an easy to follow manner. The pen can record the creation of the sketch so you can replay your ideas as you explain them by voice. And you can share directly from paper with the latest models. Been using one for a couple of years and it’s amazing.
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