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Sketching your design ideas

With so many computer-based tools available nowadays for illustration and wire-framing, the humble pencil and paper may at times seem a little out-dated and unnecessary. Yet sketching remains a critical part of the design process, whether you’re revamping a company logo or putting together a responsive website. Here’s why.

Why sketch?

Sketching on paper allows for complete freedom of thought. At the start of a project, it is vital to understand the problem and approach it from a range of angles in order to find the best solution. With a pencil and paper, you can engage in rapid concept development, exploring various solutions without getting tied down too early to just one – it’s a form of visual brainstorming.
Sketching on paper actively fosters new ideas and creativity. The ambiguity and lack of detail in a sketch itself promotes this by encouraging both yourself and others to ask questions and ‘fill in the gaps’.

Sketching can also be a powerful collaboration tool, both for involving stakeholders and fellow designers. Feedback on a rough design is easier and more honest than with a finished-looking design and people are more likely to stay focused on the concept itself, rather than on the surface details.

I haven’t got time and I can’t draw!

Sketching is actually very time-efficient and a much quicker way of generating and discarding ideas than its computer-based counterparts. In the time it would take you to produce one simple design in Illustrator, for example, you could have drawn six or seven different versions on a piece of paper and be much further into the design process. Try it and see.

It can be difficult to get over the hurdle of showing your rough sketches to other people, particularly if you’re not very confident in your drawing abilities. So it’s important to remember that your sketches are functional tools – they don’t need to look pretty, and usually simple shapes and arrows will get the message across. As long as they convey your idea and spark discussion, they’ve been successful.

The sketching process

Stage One – Divergent Sketching

Draw lots of different versions of single screens – the more options, the better – and don’t discard any ideas initially. Some designers use multi-page templates, enabling them to see and compare different layouts side-by-side.

It might be useful to keep a little sketchbook of ideas for menus, windows and so on – when you see something online that you like, make a quick sketch to refer back to later.

As well as drawing shapes, lines and so on, make sure you include annotations about your ideas and thought process. Although you don’t think you’ll forget what you meant, it’s surprising how much of your thinking is lost if you don’t write it down at the time.

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Stage Two – Convergent Sketching

Now that you’ve got lots of ideas, choose one of your sketches (or combine a couple) to develop. This should be the one that you think solves the problem the best.

Start with a blank piece of paper and sketch out just one single design, in more detail than before. Use annotations again, but also questions, strengths and weaknesses and areas for discussion. Try a few screens in this way until you’re building up a picture of the whole site.

Stage Three – Creating UI Flows

Once you’ve got your core concept working, you need to see how your screens will fit together in a practical sense. Creating a series of key screens to demonstrate how a user would accomplish a particular task will help to understand whether your solution is user-friendly and truly workable. Don’t get carried away here – it’s not necessary to show every single option – but make sure you’ve followed through on the tasks that your users will carry out most frequently.

Then what?

Then it’s time to get some feedback on your design ideas, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of your solution and finding ways to improve, integrate and clarify your concept. Once you’ve got some feedback, you might find that you’re able to reduce or simplify your approach, or perhaps include something that you hadn’t initially thought about. It’s not until you’ve got to this stage that you should move over to your preferred illustration, wire-frame or prototyping tool.

Sketching is not only cost-efficient and time-saving, but improves both creativity and collaboration in the design process. The ultimate problem-solving tool, it’s simply the quickest and easiest way there is to develop ideas and innovate. So what are you waiting for? Grab that pencil and get sketching!