the importance of sketching

I’ve often talked to students, young designers, and colleagues about the importance of sketching as a part of the design process, whatever flavor of design that might be. I like to think that I practice what I preach, but sometimes I forget.

I have been struggling with the design of an enclosure for my CNC mill that would allow me to use flood coolant and contain the mess of metal and plastic chips this machine can create. I had a rough idea in my head, and looked around at existing enclosures, so I immediately jumped into CAD to sort out the design. For days I iterated on-screen, unhappy with the results but trudging through each new concept until I hit a wall.


So last night as I sat on the couch I opened up my laptop to give it another go, only to find technical issues that kept me from launching my CAD software. Frustrated, I shut the laptop and pulled out my sketchbook. Within minutes I was teasing out the solutions that were so elusive on screen, and by the time I shut off the lights I had my design roughed out.

So, one more time, especially so I remember: Never underestimate the importance of sketching. CAD is an invaluable tool, as are rendering packages and Illustrator and Photoshop, etc. But for quick ideation, brainstorming, breaking through a mental block, or simply communicating with your fellow designer/engineer/marketing person, nothing beats sketching.

Thanks for humoring me. And stay tuned for my next rant, titled mock it up before you fock it up

16 Responses to “the importance of sketching”

  1. Sam writes:

    Nice sketching skills! I entirely agree that sometimes just getting it out on paper is better than jumping into CAD. I use the heck out of my whiteboards and sketchpads before drawing something up in CAD. I think the primary reason it works for me is that I don’t get hung up on the “non-design details” in CAD, such as making things to scale, and closing my polylines, and choosing line weights and blah blah blah. On paper you just go.

    That said, I’m not a very good sketcher (nothing like the quality of your drawings), and I largely learned design skills through CAD, not through a traditional paper-based skillset. Any advice on learning how to be a better paper-drafter?

  2. Charlie (Colorado) writes:

    I like it. I have the same experience — I need that manual sketch first, for practically anything.

    BTW, it that non-repro pencil and then Sharpie?

  3. joel writes:

    Thanks Sam! Sketching every day is the best way to make it natural and quick (and better!). Lately I set up for about an hour or two every morning with headphones and coffee and lots of natural light, and it’s been a great way to wind up for my day.

    Charlie- it’s actually a Staedtler Triplus Fineliner pen (the light blue one that comes in the eight pack) and then Sharpie. They go on nice and smooth on vellum and the Sharpie doesn’t bleed all the way through. I wasn’t necessarily going for non-repro, but I tried a bunch of the other colors and the light blue gave the best balance of contrast– dark enough to see but I’m not afraid to lay down multiple construction lines either.

  4. colin writes:

    I always sketch out something before I build it. (Perhaps it’s since I’m unfamiliar with CAD, or moreso that I don’t have a printer.)

    Your sketch style is very clean. Where did you learn, or what inspiration do you (did you?) use to learn that style? Did you use a ruler?

    Thanks for being such an inspiration.

  5. Sam writes:

    A good pen does make a lot of difference. I’m a fan of the Pilot Precise V7 line, and I always get frustrated when I’m forced by circumstance to sketch with a standard ballpoint. Seeing your drawings, it is clear that I should get a lighter colored pen or pencil for construction lines – I tend to go straight to the black pen which is probably too limiting.

    I’ve been trying to sketch more and it is having a positive impact – as with everything I just need to be more focused about it (as you are).

    As for the traditional non-repro colors, I do a lot of work with artists reproducing their work in wood or plastic on my CNC router and have gotten pretty handy using channels in Photoshop to remove nearly any contrasting color construction line – I tell them to draw their main art in black ink, and then use any other color for all the other markings. Scan, process in PS, Live Trace in Illustrator and send into the CNC toolchain. Yay, technology!

  6. Isabelle Desjeux writes:

    I am not a designer, but I do teach drawing. I am sure this entry applies to many other occupations too. In fact, I am in a crusade to get everybody to learn to draw as a useful tool. Great post, that I will share! Of course, your blue lines don’t show many “mistakes”… was this really how your drawing came out first time?

  7. joel writes:

    Wow, thanks Colin. I’ve always loved to draw since I was little, but very tight… the formal instruction I’ve gotten (art class in school, then in design school) has always encouraged me to loosen up, sketch bigger, faster. And I’ve had to loosen up as a professional designer– no time for laboring over one sketch for hours.

    @Sam- for a long time I used ballpoint pen exclusively, especially a slightly dry one– using a light touch for construction lines then pressing harder to tighten it up. Even a bold roller ball or marker can give great results… I love a really loose, sketchy style (even though I struggle to loosen up so much!)

    @Isabelle- yes this is the actual page, but I had a good jump on the design going into it… not every page in my sketchbook looks so clean ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Stourley Kracklite writes:

    Do you use a straightedge for some of the Fineliner work? Thanks!

  9. joel writes:

    No but I have a couple of comfortable angles to make straight, quick lines and I spin the sketchbook around a lot as I’m working. Which is why when I use a Cintiq to sketch digitally I like the small size one, since it can be spun around easily.

  10. tim writes:

    I would posit that the answer may be specific to each person. Some folks may prefer to do there thinking with a pencil and then go to the computer while other folks can go to the computer first. I think the same is sometime said about writers and programmers.

  11. Patron Zero writes:

    Sketching is a very important skill as much as learning to make the most rudimentary paper-cardstock models of what you are sorting out. Just being able to physically turn a model in one’s hand can be quite inspiring.

  12. Jerome Demers writes:

    I sketch before going into CAD. You have to know how to draw before trying to CAD anything. My first concept is not always the most efficient. I draw many concept of the thing I want to design then I close my book for few days and even weeks then I open it up again and work on the same project and will normally find better solutions. Then I CAD. After that, it’s a mix of both.

  13. Kelly C writes:

    Great article! I agree that starting with a decent sketch is the way to quickly iterate your design ideas. There are few (if any) design tools that are as intuitive as a pen/pencil and piece of paper.

    Also, the “mock up” rant sounds like it would be a great follow on! ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Paymaan writes:

    Just wanted to say you are one great engineer, thanks for sharing your work.


  15. Neil Hamilton writes:

    Dear Joel-
    Nice sketch, you could work for Popular Mechanics as an illustrator! Question: What kind of paper did you use; is it vellum? I think you said it was, who makes it, Strathmore? Also the Sharpie, I assume its black, ultra fine point (the cylindrical one, about .050 in diameter?
    Do you ever draw from life, or do a lot of as-built drawings? I would be interested in seeing any non-proprietary or sensitive ones just to see more of your style…very understated yet CLEAR.

    Neil J. Hamilton

  16. joel writes:

    Thanks Neil! I’m not sure of the brand of paper, it is from our stock of vellum at work, which we order in bulk. Yes the Sharpie is actually a double-ended one, fine on one side and ultra fine on the other.

    I don’t do much drawing from life these days, although I took a bunch of figure drawing in school and I loved it. I think there is a lot to learn from that kind of drawing that applies to concept sketching… understanding of light & shadow (chiaroscuro! whew, never thought I’d use that word in conversation), foreshortening, etc. never mind the ability to draw a person when you need to.

    I’ll try to post more sketches!