As a kid, I spent hours drawing and sketching ideas that popped into my head.
I used drawing as a primary language for capturing thoughts, exploring ideas, and then sharing those ideas. Teachers and mentors encouraged me, helping to sustain sketching as a key skill throughout school and into my professional career. Good fortune has ignited my passion to become a sketch advocate, helping others rediscover sketching as a powerful problem-solving and communication tool.
I’m excited to share why sketching can be so beneficial, show samples of sketches, and provide helpful resources. My goal is to encourage you—whether you’re a designer, front-end developer, coder, writer or whatever you may be—to add sketching to your toolkit.But I can’t sketch—I’m not an artist!
When I suggest sketching as a visual thinking tool, I often I hear “I’m not an artist” or “I can’t draw.” While I understand the hesitation, I’m here to tell you that the artistic quality of your sketches is not the point. The real goal of sketching is functional. It’s about generating ideas, solving problems, and communicating ideas more effectively with others.
When you feel inadequate in your sketching, pause and reconsider your perspective. Don’t worry how well you draw. Instead, think of your sketching as visual thinking, which works regardless of your drawing quality. Ugly gets the job done just fine.
Fig 1. Keep it loose! Ugly sketches do the trick.Why bother sketching?
There is no shortage of software or hardware tools for producing amazing work. It seems that whatever you can imagine, software and hardware can make it happen.
Adding sketching to the design process is a great way to amplify software and hardware tools. Sketching provides a unique space that can help you think differently, generate a variety of ideas quickly, explore alternatives with less risk, and encourage constructive discussions with colleagues and clients.
Let’s explore these three benefits of sketching in more detail.1. A variety of ideas, quickly
Sketching is great for rapid idea generation. A pencil or a Sharpie and a piece of paper invite loose exploration. Remember to keep on generating ideas—you’ll want to push past that first bunch of surface ideas to get the deeper concepts out of your head.
For quick idea generation, I like to read notes I wrote during the kickoff phase of a project, letting those words and thoughts rumble around my head until they lead me to new ideas. Once an idea comes to mind, I capture it on paper, add notes, and number each sketch as reference for later review.
Fig 2. Sketching allows you to explore a wide variety of ideas all at once.
The key to generating many ideas is to withhold judgment of them as good or bad until your sketching session is complete. First capture the ideas, letting them flow without worrying if they’re any good. Wait until you’re finished to judge and filter.2. Explore the alternatives
Sketching offers you the freedom to explore alternative ideas. Early in a project it’s important to see a variety of different ideas so you can choose the best option. Sketching works well for this, as you can explore those varied ideas quickly.
When you’re sketching, your mind is free to play and explore other directions that surface. Sketches help filter out “rabbit hole” ideas—concepts that are impossible to produce or impractical to deliver on. Drawing out ideas works as an early detection system—revealing potential issues before significant time is invested.
Fig 3. Early in the process, it’s helpful to see if your alternative ideas make sense or if they are crazy.
This is the time to ask “what if?” and explore the answers that pop into your head. Questions like “What if we could…” or “What if we were limited by…” can help break through the structures your mind forms around problems.3. Foster better discussions
Sketches have an amazing ability to foster discussions about ideas. With colleagues and especially clients, I’ve found sketches give everyone involved the permission to consider, talk about, and challenge the ideas they represent. After all, it’s just a sketch.
Because sketches are unfinished and loose, they invite commentary. There is a latitude inherent in a sketch that seems to magically open the door for others to offer ideas—often thoughts you couldn’t come up with from your singular perspective.
Fig 4. Sketches can help clients offer feedback because they are unfinished enough to spark discussion.
When I’ve presented conceptual ideas in finished form, colleagues and clients often hesitate to be as honest as they are with sketches. There is something in tightly finished concept work that I think suggests significant effort was spent in production—leading colleagues and clients to hold back to avoid the additional work needed to make changes.
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In the winter of 1969, Virginia Scofield faced a daunting challenge. It was a recurring challenge—more like a nightmare—and she had already failed miserably at her first attempt. This particular obstacle was one that most people consider themselves lucky to never face: undergraduate organic chemistry.
At the time, Virginia was a biological sciences student at the University of Texas. Her career plan bumper sticker could have read “Ph.D. or Death!” as there was no alternate route to pursuing her doctorate. She had to learn, integrate, and retain organic chemistry’s masochistic detail, and time was not on her side.
Having exhausted traditional learning methods such as highlighting, note-taking, and rote memorization, Virginia chose to unleash a powerful, primitive tool that ultimately turned out to be her savior: The Doodle. Virginia decided to draw rudimentary visual representations of every concept in her Morrison and Boyd textbook. She deployed a problem-solving technique that defied conventional wisdom and all the academic advice she had received. And the story has a happy ending. Not only did Virginia ace her organic chemistry final and eventually become Dr. Scofield, she also became a celebrated immunologist, earning accolades for one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs related to HIV transmission. She credits much of her success, then and now, to her world-turning decision to doodle.
So what exactly does it mean “to doodle?” If you reference any standard dictionary, it will offer up a variety of disreputable definitions: To dilly-dally, to fiddle around, to make meaningless marks, or to do something of little value, substance, or import. But considering what doodling did for Dr. Scofield and what it does for hordes of humans around the world, these definitions are nothing short of obnoxious. People have been solving problems and making sense of the world using simple visual language for over 30,000 years. A more appropriate definition is long overdue.
Doodling may be better described as ‘markings to help a person think.’ Most people believe that doodling requires the intellectual mind to shutdown, but this is one misrepresentation that needs correcting. There is no such thing as a mindless doodle. The act of doodling is the mind’s attempt to engage before succumbing to mindlessness. Doodling serves a myriad of functions that result in thinking, albeit in disguise. This universal act is known to:
- increase our ability to focus (especially when handling dull or complex subject matter),
- increase information retention and recall,
- activate the “mind’s eye,” or the portions of the visual cortex that allow us to see mental imagery and manipulate concepts,
- enhance access to the creative, problem-solving, and subconscious parts of the brain, while allowing the conscious mind to keep working, and
- unify three major learning modalities: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.
That last benefit of the doodle is no slouch. Learning experts assert that, for information to be truly integrated, it must incorporate at least two of the major learning modalities or it must incorporate one modality coupled with a strong emotional experience. For the doodle to offer up the possibility of all three modalities and an emotional experience is an impressive feat for such an outwardly simple behavior. Lo and behold, this “useless act” is really a highly functional technique with broad applications for the way we work and the way we think. It’s no happy accident that Thomas Edison was a prolific doodler and also one of our most applauded inventors. Neither is it a coincidence that many of the most innovative companies use doodling and visual language to stay ahead of the curve.The strategic doodle
Overturning decades of semantic disgrace won’t happen overnight, hence my term the strategic doodle. To doodle strategically is to doodle to track auditory or text-based information and display it back to an audience (it can be an audience of one). Strategic doodling is where powerhouse learning and problem solving take place, which is why it’s beyond justifiable at school and at work.Please, doodle at work
The doodle is the perfect office device: It’s user-friendly, it costs next to nothing to adopt and it’s accessible to all of us—not just the artistically inclined. What’s more, the doodle is the friendliest stepping-stone imaginable to mapping out serious process and design challenges. To apply doodle power at work, we first need to give ourselves permission to doodle. Next, we need a 101 skill set with which to begin.The visual alphabet
The use of a hand-drawn visual language starts with an alphabet. Namely, a visual alphabet. As complex as we perceive the world to be, when reverse-engineered, there are only twelve forms that make up our visual landscape. You can doodle every one. The forms below are the fundamental building blocks for drawing everything in the known universe. Get comfortable with these forms individually and in recombination with each other to make shapes, and you’ve already moved through the doodle doorway. Every shape you need to draw a persona, a wireframe, or a logo is before your eyes.
Fig. 1: The 12 elements of the visual alphabet. ©sunnibrown.comThe strategic doodling “basix”
Strategic doodling at its best involves the intentional construction of meaningful visual displays. This means that the more we can make information contextual, the better our display will be. When we doodle to show relationships between bits of information, to reveal a bigger picture of a system, or to decipher the efficiency of a workflow, we are embedding layers of meaning into what may otherwise be a more superficial use of the visual alphabet. Six basic elements help you add information richness to your display.
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