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Sketching for Ideas

When the hanging file folder that stored my design sketches began to bend and buckle, it prompted me to wonder whether the sheer magnitude of my accumulated paper explorations, ink-imparted ideas, and long-dead designs might hold an opportunity for introspection into my personal approach to problem solving. I knew I turned to pen and paper over other tools when I wanted to iterate rapidly, but I wasn’t sure why this medium induced ideas in a way that others didn’t So when the over-burdened file folder finally burst, breaching my loose leaf sketches into the annoying abyss that is the bottom of a filing cabinet drawer, it (in combination with my compulsion to keep even annoying abysses organized) sparked my musings on the matter of sketching as a catalyst for ideas. As I picked apart my own pages and processes for patterns, I decided I’d exploit my findings to help others harness the power of pen and paper, too.
Project pretext: Personal
Objective: Study my own process to learn, and ultimately share, how sketching serves as a superior medium for idea generation



Based on the 4-inch-high stack of sketches I’d produced in as many years at work alone, I realized that the act of sketching served as a more suitable medium for conducting ideas than most other approaches and tools I’d tried. To learn why, I analyzed my lofty pile of potential evidence for clues.

A ruler is propped up against a tall stack of dog-eared loose leaf papers, measuring in at 4 inches high.

Death by a thousand papers: RIP (in all senses of the term) flimsy little file folder.

I examined the sketching techniques I’d adopted to convey my ideas, as well as shortcuts I’d developed as I became more relaxed and familiar with my materials over time. I’d found it helpful to start small when sketching screens and interfaces, because it physically forced me to leave inconsequential details by the wayside. Another pattern I took note of across my work again and again was the way I used color: I tended to abstractly encode meanings through hue in several different ways, rather than communicating the literal brand colors that the interfaces would ultimately end up taking.

The launch of a new project or problem solving endeavor guaranteed that I'd reach for my mug of drawing utensils—once I'd even sketched over 70 pages within the first week of starting a new project—but in retrospect it became clear that wasn’t the only time.

I used sketches as a way to more thoroughly explore and understand a problem, but also drew upon them to communicate ideas to others. Paper prototypes worked well to that end, because they conveyed interactivity and allowed anyone with whom I shared them to test out my idea themselves, rather than just looking and listening. This helped my collaborators better understand my concepts, which in turn enabled them to provide better feedback and even grow my initial ideas further.

An animated .GIF that makes use of stop-motion to show the parts and pieces of my paper prototype moving in the ways a user would interact with it.

I built a quick paper prototype out of Post-its to explore a couple distinct mindsets to approaching the way an expanding panel within a UI interacted with the existing content: it could cover the content like a window shade—existing on a plane above, or it could live on the same level as the rest of the content and effectively push it down. I explored what these physical metaphors meant with tactile pieces of paper, making it easier for others to understand when I communicated these two options. It was helpful to explore both analogies in the context of the types of content the panel would apply to, as well—one was simply scrolling lists, while the other was a network diagram that could be panned and zoomed. To me, it didn't make sense for the panel to push down anything but scrollable content, but the window shade metaphor suited either content type equally well. The tangible prototype helped me to visualize my reasoning for this as well.

It was a sure sign that I’d return to my notebook with pen in hand if a design direction or a detail within it felt precariously presumptive: consciously—and often subconsciously—I knew that the problem space and its possible solutions needed to be scrutinized more thoroughly. My stack of sketches contained a considerable tally of sticky notes that had once made their home as part of a Post-it pad that still resides in my nightstand; I can fuzzily remember awakening in the night a number of times to hastily jot down an idea for a design problem that wouldn’t leave me alone, even in my dreams!

Six Post-it notes site side-by-side, all the same lovely goldenrod color as the pad of stickies I keep by my bed for midnight idea-emergencies.

I’ve learned the hard way to always take advantage of my nightstand Post-it notepad—too many of my ideas have been lost to the night when I’d somehow believed I would still remember them in the morning. For the same reason I always bring a few sticky notes and a pencil with me on my lunchtime walks.

I found that as my familiarity with sketching design ideas grew, so did my comfort with drawing for the sheer fun of it. Outside of the formal design process I've come to rely on sketching as a mechanism through which to examine the world around me in detail, communicate concepts to others visually, and investigate questions.

Once I'd analyzed my stockpile of sketches (and safely filed them away, distributing their collective weight across multiple sturdy hanging folders), I decided to start a sketching club at work: it held the promise to help me learn more about others’ drawing habits while also allowing me to share a bit about what I’d picked up myself during my time as a diligent design-sketcher. The club started out strong but after a while began to fizzle out; it was hard to arrange times to meet that accommodated everyone. A teammate suggested we start with our immediate team at a regularly occurring time each week, making it something our smaller group could commit to and pull into our culture. Since then, passers by from other product teams have joined our sketching routine.

As I became consciously aware of the contexts in which I turned to sketching and the ways in which I manipulated the medium to help me, I began to plan ways to more deliberately share my insights. My first move was to condense my main points into a 20-slide, 6-and-a-half-minute Pecha Kucha that I presented to incoming designers at IBM.

All 20 slides from my Pecha Kucha, formatted as a grid.

In a Pecha Kucha, each slide stays on the screen for exactly 20 seconds. I tried to use the fleeting time wisely, starting with an introduction to the concept of divergent design and idea generation, then transitioning into how the medium of sketching acts as an aid to this part of the process, and ending with tips to help onlookers start sketching more themselves.

Every time I presented my thoughts and approaches around the relationship between sketching and idea generation, I re-examined the way I told the story for my various viewers. And each time I finished sharing, I learned a little more from the questions my audience made me consider, and the connections they drew between my concepts and tangential topics. The time had arrived to build my insights into a more robust presentation that I could share beyond the walls of my workplace.

A notebook spread displaying a rough attempt at storyboarding my talk about ideas and sketching, including preliminary illustrations for each slide.

It was a bit meta to be sketching about sketching when I outlined a talk I planned to give at World IA Day, but it helped to document visuals that referenced each of my more abstract concepts. Some of the sketches that had simply started as a shorthand to myself made their way into my final presentation as illustrations.

From there it was just a matter of identifying opportunities to distribute the insights and advice I’d collected through my sketching practice and that I’d been pushed to discover as I developed my talk and experimented with it around the studio.


After introspecting my stack of sketches and testing the resulting takeaways with others, I’d come to some conclusions around sketching as it fits into the larger practice of design. I'd also thought a lot about the ultimate output of sketching—divergent ideas—and their contribution to a solution.

Of the many possible paths to a solid design outcome, nearly none are straight, short, or flat. Instead—comprised of vigorously winding routes that trail-blaze through previously unexplored territory—these trajectories to a final resolution are fraught with forks that veer out of sight and postulations that fizzle out. But if we are well-practiced in the creation of oodles of ideas, the very fact that we take an unpredictable path at all should be by design, as only through exploring the true extent of the problem space can we hope to arrive at a satisfactory and thoroughly considered design solution.

I introduced a new way of thinking about good ideas in my talk at World IA Day.

I distilled my conclusions into a comprehensive collection of illustrated takeaways and supplemented them with tips exemplified by real process sketches, which I presented first at Austin Design Week and, after more introspection and iteration, again at World Information Architecture Day.

A photo in which I am standing in front of the room at World IA Day, presenting my slide around the concept that “Good* ideas are humble”, which includes an illustrated string of tiny Christmas lights, acting as a metaphor for the humility of a truly good idea: just one amongst many others.

It was an honor to be selected to share at World IA Day, especially after I’d gotten so much out of the event myself as an attendee the previous year.

“Lia, that was a marvelous presentation! I have so much to think about now.”

—World IA Day attendee, Rackspace UX Research Lead

Sketching makes for a superb idea-eliciting medium in part due to the unfinished feel of its outputs; compared to digitally rendered wireframes, sketches of interfaces and even interactions seem to reserve room for growth and change, which prevents both the sketcher and those they share their work with from getting too attached to a single direction too early on.

I stand in front of an audience explaining a projected slide that has a photo of one of my paper prototypes.

Discussing paper prototypes with the Austin Design Week audience.

I wanted to tangibly coax others into adopting the practice of sketching—or at least give them a great first impression of its potential—so I developed sketching exercises, and following my talk, led a workshop aiming to help others get comfortable with sketching, wield it as a force for divergent thinking, and put it to use communicating their concepts to others.
You can even have a look at the exercises to try them out yourself.

The unrefined messiness of a sketch is one of its biggest boons, and I believe that this quality should be embraced. However, when first attempting to apply sketching to their process, some expect their drawings to be beautiful, perfect renditions of the idea living in their mind. In my talk and workshop I aimed to help attendees get past the superficial layer of their sketches' visual styles, and instead to use lines, shapes, and shading to convey their ideas in a number of ways that can consumed by others.

“I loved all of your sketching activities. I had been trying to sketch whenever I start a project, but these really helped me get past the fear of what my drawings look like and, by the end, focus just on being able to communicate with sketching.”

—Austin Design Week workshop attendee, UX design student at the University of Texas

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