What role should sketching have in the design process?
Sharing beautiful sketches is a source of pride for many designers. Do a quick search on Dribbble and you’ll find countless gorgeous sketches that are certainly enviable.
Seeing concepts for digital design in a tangible form has a certain novelty and excitement. Further, demonstrating how those physical artifacts transition into the final digital form shows off the designer’s creativity and skill. I don’t blame anyone for being proud of that.
However, beautiful sketches have no place in the design process.
During the design process, sketching serves a single purpose: capture and explore visual concepts as quickly as possible.
To a designer, sketching is visual brainstorming. Early in the design process, designers need to have lots of ideas quickly. As the more experienced among us know, early ideas are often the worst. We need to get those bad ideas out of our minds so that better ones can start appearing.
Ugly sketches are better because they are quick. Nice-looking sketches obviously take more time to create, and thus they slow down the flow of ideas.
The desire to create beautiful sketches also causes designers to commit to a concept too soon. During early stages of the design, it’s important to move past every idea rather than dwell. The goal is to have a volume of ideas, not to develop them. Refining concepts happens later.
If you make a beautiful sketch during the early stages of the design process, you spent more time on it than you needed to. You interrupted the flow of ideas by focusing on one, before the brainstorming was complete. And, it’s possible that you missed a chance to come up with an even better concept.
Don’t limit your potential for great ideas by committing to one idea too soon. Keep your ideas flowing and give yourself the proper time to evaluate and refine them later.
A sketch is a horrible way to decide on final presentation details. A sketch should only be a rough version of an idea, and it should exist only to serve as a temporary record of that idea.
When you have chosen a concept worth developing further, you’ll make a few more sketches to explore it and exhaust your ideas, pick the best version, and proceed to a mockup or prototype.
A detailed sketch is a poor mockup—it doesn’t reflect the final format closely enough to be useful. It’s another thing you’ve created that can’t ever be used. And, there are better ways to refine your concept in detail than sketching. Sketches are bad at detail, no matter how skilled you are at drawing, because you’re creating those details in a medium that’s nothing like what the final product will be.
Remember back when many designers eschewed mockups because they aren’t functional in a real context? Everyone was supposed to start designing in code to be as accurate as possible.
Regardless of what you think of that debate, you have to admit that sketches are even worse at representing the real medium for a final design. Sketches can never become anything close to real, they don’t look real, and they don’t feel real. That’s why you should use them to record rough concepts but not for detail.
Sketches provide a low-risk way to get those ideas out. If you spend a lot of time on a sketch, you’re investing into a concept that might not be deserving of that attention. If you end up scrapping that concept later, all the time you spent making that beautiful sketch is wasted.
You wouldn’t spend 3 days creating a mockup in Photoshop for every design concept. That’s too risky. It’s too likely you’d end up wasting a lot of time.
Sketching has the same risk. It’s better to save your full attention for when you’re certain a concept is your best.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It must be fun to create beautiful sketches! I’m certainly jealous of that skill. I’m not saying you should never draw beautiful things. I’m just saying that it doesn’t have a place in the early parts of the design process.
A huge volume of ugly sketches leads to a beautiful, high-quality design. Sketches aren’t important in themselves. They are a means of creating that great design in the end.
I’d much rather take pride in the final design that people will actually use than the pile of sketches on my desk that will only gather dust.
Caveat: artists and illustrators. If you’re drawing a logo or illustration, sure, it makes sense to have nice-looking sketches. A sketch might even serve as the template or guide for lettering and other techniques. But, even in those cases, I guarantee most artists start with rough sketches first.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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