The benefits of sketchbook work

Part 2: Start simple

Andrew Couldwell
8 min readOct 18, 2016

Find part 1 of this article here

You have little control over how and when projects start: You receive a brief, a spec, you hold a conversation with stakeholders, you get a random Slack message etc… Your team may also have their own approaches to starting out a project, be it a meeting, brainstorming, research etc… But what you can control is how you approach a project.

Sketchbook excerpts for a CMS for WeWork — from UI sketches to a sample of the final design

I always start with a pencil and a sketchbook

Writing and sketching really help me to focus, and ideas flow from there. Sometimes I simply write words I associate with the product/project, list what it needs to do, who is the audience, why are we creating this, what problem are we solving, what content does it have/need to include, what are nice-to-haves versus what is our MVP etc…

Get it all out of your head, on to paper. It helps bring clarity, un-clutter the mind, focus on what’s important, and in time will identify a way ahead.

As a designer this sketchbook work naturally evolves into UI sketches. Sometimes I’ll sketch a feature, a small UI detail, or a full UI. It’s a quick way of purely and simply exploring ideas. Perhaps most importantly you don’t get distracted, slowed down or lead astray by pixel perfection, fonts, colour, grids, guides, notifications etc… like you do while using computer software.

There’s naturally a point you arrive at when you know you‘re ready to start fleshing out these ideas in your design software of choice. That moment feels good! Honestly, I thrive on that feeling when I can sense a good idea taking shape in my sketchbook.

For me, it’s not just about getting to an idea, it’s about really understanding and exploring a subject. I believe in order to find a solution to a problem, you must first become an expert in the subject. To distill something complicated down into something simple to understand and easy (for your audience) to use is not easy, be it product or marketing design.

It also really helps me to get motivated, inspired and build a positive momentum. A great way to kickstart a project! Coffee also helps ;)

Sketchbook excerpts for WeLive — from notes to UI sketches, to a sample of a design exploration

The psychology behind it

People far smarter than me have done studies showing getting your thoughts down on paper (by hand) helps you to remember, and better understand information.

A study showed students who write out their notes by hand actually learn more than those who type their notes on laptops. Taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop. Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing. Students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarise so they can succinctly capture the essence of the information. Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy ‘mental lifting.’ These efforts foster comprehension and retention. By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content. — Source

While I’m not presenting an argument for hand-writing versus typing, the above study is particularly interesting. In our case we could apply this theory to doing sketchbook work, versus jumping straight on to the computer…

Do you really understand the problem? Are you ready to tackle this problem head-on?

Everyone is different. We all learn in different ways. You may be very different to me, but I find it hard to process (or remember) what I’m reading sometimes, especially if I’m tired. I’ve never been a big reader. I like reading articles, but books I struggle with. I’ll read a whole page, then realise I have no idea what I just read. I didn’t process any of it. Sometimes I read design briefs over and over, trying to understand what it’s asking of me. But it’s not until I start writing words and unpacking the brief in my sketchbook before I really understand it, and start making serious progress towards a solution/idea(s).

Sketchbook excerpts for an internal data query tool for WeWork — from notes to UI sketches, to a sample of the design progressed. All data is made up.

It’s the process, more than the doing

When you take good notes you remember things well enough that you rarely look at your notes again. When we write we are putting some degree of thought into evaluating and ordering information. The process, and not the notes themselves is what fixes ideas more firmly in our minds, leading to greater recall down the line. — Source

I think the above point is perhaps the most interesting thing here, psychologically. It’s the process of writing/sketching, more so than the things we wrote/drew that has the most impact. In my experience, I rarely re-read the vast majority of the words I write to do with a project — they just somehow ‘stick’ in my mind once I’ve got them down, or rather act as a mental stepping stone to the next progression of my idea. However, I do refer back to the drawings of UI elements/templates in my sketchbook — they often act as my starting point when I get into Photoshop/Sketch.

Back to the drawing board

Sometimes my sketches are close to what I ultimately design (see example below). Other times I end up in a very different place to my initial sketches. But it’s worth noting, sketchbook work doesn’t have to stop after you progress onto design software. I often ‘go back to the drawing board’, or my sketchbook in this case. To come unstuck, sometimes it helps to break away and sketch some ideas. Also, I’ll go back to my sketchbook if there’s a ‘round 2, 3, 4…’ of ideas required, which is often the case on any design project. What did we learn from round 1? Where do we go from here?

Scans from my sketchbook for the marketing site for Adobe Portfolio

An interesting note about the project above was: I only presented my sketches at a review with key stakeholders, before progressing on to design what you see to the right. I felt the UI/ideas I’d arrived at in my sketchbook were strong enough to proceed with a design review. Time was tight and we needed to make progress — the sketchbook work did the job!

No better way to explore a design idea

Architects are taught there’s no better way to explore a design idea than with paper and a pen or pencil. Any degree of computer interaction can cause you to lose your train of thought. I must admit in the beginning, sketching felt hard. I focused too much on the straightness of lines, or the proportionality of objects. As with many things, the goal of practicing sketching is not to become ‘perfect’ but to become more comfortable. The more comfortable you are with sketching, the easier it is to focus on relaying the idea, rather than the act of drawing. — Melissa Mandelbaum

Melissa, a former architect turned product designer makes an excellent point above. I would not consider myself good at drawing. You can see from my sketchbook examples exhibited throughout this article that my UI sketches are far from perfect. In fact, sometimes they barely make sense (to you, looking on), but to my mind they do and were invaluable in exploring, building momentum and advancing the design.

Perfection kills creativity

Don’t get stuck crafting pixels in software, or drawing perfect straight lines on paper. “Perfection kills creativity,” as artist/designer James Victore puts it very well in the short video below:

“Feck Perfuction” — James Victore

When I start typing the work is done

A great engineer thinks in states. Before they write a line of code they have come to understand all the different outcomes, and use that understanding to design a fault-resistant system. One of my favorite lines from one of our engineers recently was: “When I start typing the work is done.” — Noah Brier

Okay, so not literally ‘done’. Design exploration happens throughout the process, from your sketchbook, to wireframes, to high fidelity designs, to prototypes, to the built product. But I like the sentiment. A great designer, engineer, architect etc… thinks through an idea, distilling a complex problem down to a simple solution, creating a good footing to progress.

An exclusive (incredibly limited) sneak peak at some explorations for a personal project

And finally

All this said… For me, I simply enjoy drawing in my sketchbook! I feel like a designer, like I’m actually creating something. We get so caught up in technology nowadays. Design is a craft. The feeling of a pencil, crafting designs on the pages of your sketchbook is incomparable to clicking a mouse. Think: The work you create on-screen doesn’t really exist — you pull the plug and it’s gone. There’s something nice about sketchbook work that makes me feel like I’m creating something, not just using a computer. Each to their own I suppose. Happy sketching! :)

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