Sketching out ideas using pen or pencil is the designer’s primary method when starting new projects. But as part of this project, we spent a lot of time doing short, intense sketch sessions in groups (internally here at Podio and also together with our partners at Made by Many). This technique really challenged me and I thought I’d share my reflections here.
The process generated a lot of questions inside me. What do people gain from this process, apart from getting a lot of ideas in a short space of time? And if it’s just to get as many ideas from as many people as possible, why don’t we just write them down? When should we use this design method? Should we use it only at the initial stage of design? And how is the quality of those sketches?
Another way to generate new ideas
The quick-sketching method was introduced to us by Made by Many a couple of weeks ago. Our team of 9 people – including team leaders, marketers and designers – were asked to sketch out as many ideas as we could within a few defined themes. We were provided with a bunch of Sharpies and some nice markers. We could pick one of three UI templates printed on A3: iPhone, tablet, or browser. Interestingly, all the templates were neatly hand-drawn, no sharp straight lines. The first time I held one, I really wanted to grab a pen and start drawing.
During the sketch session, everything seemed to go very fast. While I started thinking what the design solution could be, people around me were actively drawing. And that forced me to do the same and to stop thinking too much. Once I sketched out a few incomplete ideas, my stream of thoughts intensified. So I continued drawing. Around two minutes later, one of my colleagues finished his sketch and explained it to the team. He got a candy as a small reward and quickly grabbed a fresh new template to start his second sketch. Within 30 minutes, we had generated 50 ideas. We grouped them and took a deep breath.
What did we gain from this?
Did this technique accelerate our creativity? We certainly got a lot of ideas. As Aaron mentioned in our last post, the next step is to develop the right ones further into prototypes. The benefit I see in this method is that it amplifies the power of individual ideas. Sketch out many ideas, pick some and sketch them out again with a little more refinement. And instead of doing it alone, we’re harnessing collective brain power. Most importantly, we’re not trying trying to figure out the final design solution. The aim of the sketch is to help us explain the idea when showing it. But still, the same thought I’d had before occurred to me again at this point: If the drawing is just the representation of the idea, why don’t we just write it out? Why do we need to draw?
Drawing is fun
It’s more fun to draw. And when you’re equipped with nice markers or thick point pens and candy, it makes people feel rewarded. We were told a lot that the sketches don’t need to look nice, which I agree with. However, I observed that the people who drew nicely seemed to produce more ideas. Maybe they feel more confident showing their beautiful sketches compared to those of us with less illustration skills. But fun is important because it motivates people to continue. So let’s continue to draw.
Design knowledge is ‘knowing-in-action’, revealed in and by actual designing.* In our case, our sketching is the actual designing, but it’s designing rough. The activity of drawing helps us to release tacit knowledge. The more we draw, the more we can release. What actually happens in our brain when we sketch out the idea? I have observed that what we draw on the paper is what we recognised in the brain. In other words, we construct what we see from the brain and draw it on the paper.
This process happens very fast and it’s so complicated that the sketch appearing on the paper is not a 1:1 translation from what was in the brain. I found from my drawing that I’m too concrete. What I mean is that instead of capturing the abstract thought, I actively translate it on the paper, refining it as I draw. That’s why my drawing is too cartoony, very detailed and very messy. While I don’t think my sketches are that good personally, I know that they can be improved in later sketching rounds. Things get clearer over time. We just have to keep looking, keep sketching. Drawing is important… it accelerates the ideation process. You think of something, you draw it, you refine it.
My tips for rapid sketching
- Use nice stationary and pens (fanciness gets you in the mood).
- Use A5 paper for initial idea generation.
- Use A3 for later rounds and to show the product flow.
Written by Joy Leelawat
*Donald A. Schon, Design as reflective conversation with the materials of design situation, June 25, 1991