I built my first web site just for fun in 1996. I’ve been designing user interfaces and exploring user experience design professionally, full-time since 2005. Along the way, like a good digital designer, I’ve learned to use all kinds of fancy software tools to express design ideas: Adobe Creative Suite, Axure RP Pro, Balsamiq, and everything in between.
Yet I’ve always believed these were the best tools for starting a software design project:
Markers. Paper. Whiteboards.
There has been a resurgence (or maybe an insurgence?) of interest in sketching in the UX and UI design industries. Suddenly there are articles, books, conference presentations, and workshops about sketching. People are are posting big lists of links to all of the above. There is renewed interest in the sketches of past geniuses such as Leonardo Da Vinci. I think all of that is great. Designers should sketch. I’ll go along with that.
But why do I feel these are the best tools to begin designing something? And what does this have to do with you, even if you aren’t a designer? Great questions. Here are my rambling answers.
1. Tool skills? Tools kill!
First, let’s lose the silly notion that you can’t design solutions because you don’t have the tool skills.
I won’t name names of course, but I’ve worked with some fairly unimpressive “designers” who knew every feature of a dozen software design tools. Those skills didn’t contribute one iota to their ability to solve complex problems and deliver great user experiences. “Photoshop skills do not a designer make,” I always say.
I’ve interviewed many candidates to join UX teams, sometimes as a contributing team member and sometimes as the team manager. In both cases, the most important part of the interview — the part I paid closest attention to — was when I asked the candidate to pick up a dry-erase marker and sketch on a whiteboard to begin solving a problem.
Many candidates hesitated to pick up the marker. They kept waving their hands in the air and talking. Some refused to get out of their seats and stand before the whiteboard, apparently intimidated by its glossy, blank surface. They just wouldn’t express their ideas by drawing. They looked impotent without their computer, like a lumberjack without a saw or an axe, but usually (once we were past the grunge era) wearing less flannel.
I didn’t recommend those people join the team. On the other hand, I added some awesome designers to my team largely because of their enthusiasm in picking up the marker and visualizing their thoughts. Potential solutions were practically bursting from their fingertips. Words weren’t enough, they had to sketch it out. Those people are designers.
A “designer” who can’t scrawl ideas on paper is like a self-described theoretical physicist who can’t do simple arithmetic. It’s bizarre and nonsensical. Sure, you might be able to fake it by showing a veneer of prowess with the more complex stuff — because nobody around you understands it. But demonstrating a lack of ability in basic skills exposes you as a fraud. That old legend about Einstein failing math as a youngster is a lie. If you don’t work out problems in simple sketches, you’re probably not a real designer.
2. Anyone can do it!
I think the fact that anyone can sketch designs is a beautiful thing. I can say this with complete confidence and security in my choice of profession: anyone with a working brain and opposable thumbs can be a designer. Some of us have just applied ourselves to the practice with more vigor, over more time, than others — but the barrier to entry in this discipline is near zero. (And with the current supply/demand equation tipping sharply in our direction, it’s nowhere near as hard as some would make it seem to land a paying job as a UX or UI designer.)
Yes, you too can be a designer. To some people who are insecure in their jobs, that kind of talk is scary. I’ve worked in large corporate environments long enough to have seen all kinds of job insecurity-related disorders. “Not just anyone can do what I do! You couldn’t replace me! Why, without me, nothing would get done around here.”
I’ve seen designers adopt this attitude, too. I think I understand the psychological fear behind it. I just don’t agree with it.
I’m the only designer on my team. But if designs are hand-drawn sketches, I don’t have to be the lone genius unicorn with magical ninja design skills. I get to teach, lead, inspire, and (most fun for me) learn from my colleagues as we design together. That’s way less scary, and way more fun.
By the way, if you ever call me a “design ninja” I will throw up on you.
3. Designing. Not drawing.
Don’t confuse design and art — they are very different things.
I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag. I couldn’t draw a Liger like this if my life depended on it. It’s awesome.
This notion that basic design skills are so simple trips people up, especially in big, corporate environments. People think: “Sketching? It’s not sophisticated enough. I mean, especially in a large enterprise environment, aren’t hand-drawn sketches kind of… too easy? Shouldn’t this kind of work be hard?”
Well, yes, good design thinking is hard work. But it’s the thinking that matters. Not the drawing. I’m not paid to draw pretty pictures. I’m paid to question, listen, observe, think, collaborate, and help my team solve problems. In my pursuit of those solutions, I scribble drawings so others can understand my thoughts.
When the time comes to make pretty pictures, I can always hire someone with artistic visual talents. And I do, even for user research efforts. I recently hired a freelance graphic designer to take my user personas and draw a stylish, vector-based, illustrated “Persona Map” indicating reporting structure and responsibilities within the organization. Because, it’s true — the research can be great and all, but global executives want to see pretty pictures.
But I didn’t start in Adobe Illustrator. I didn’t even use Illustrator myself. I did the research and worked out the hard thinking on paper first. I interviewed and observed a couple dozen people in five different markets. I sketched what I thought I heard and asked for their feedback on the sketches. Then I asked someone else to draw up the pretty pictures. I had the artwork done in no time at the meager cost of $110 via Elance.com.
My lack of artistic skill had zero impact on the success of the research project. All I had to do was create a quick sketch of my brilliant thoughts so someone else could get the concept.
4. Good designers express solutions with utmost simplicity.
Ideas cannot survive unless they are shared in the most common terms possible. This is especially true in the early stages of a project.
There is certainly a time and place for fancy graphics programs, taking raw ideas into the realm of high-fidelity and interactive experiences. And I love doing that. But if you start there, you’re missing the point. And you’re quite possibly drawing very lovely pictures of very bad solutions.
Even a brief review of books or articles about achieving simplicity in design process will reveal the same themes popping up repeatedly:
- Clear communication
- Alignment with stakeholders
- Gathering input from a diverse group
If there is a faster, better means of exercising these principles than sketching, I haven’t found it yet.
5. Great solutions start with many shared ideas.
There is great power in turning your thoughts and words into unpretentious, unvarnished, hasty pictures that anyone could look at and think, “I could have drawn that…”
Then — and this is magical — their next thought is, “I could have thought that.” And so they do think it. Then you have understanding. A meeting of minds. Critique. Iteration. Collaboration. Suddenly you are designing together. And it all started with a humble, hand-drawn, back-of-a-napkin sketch.
The innovation team I’m working with is about to begin the design stage in one of our projects (we call them experiments.) We’re going to sketch. There will be lots and lots and lots of sketches, drawn by lots of people, representing lots of ideas.
Most of the sketches will be thrown away almost immediately. Ultimately, all of the them will be discarded. Indeed, many of the ideas behind the sketches will be poor ideas. But the good ideas will be quickly grasped, identified as valuable, discussed, tweaked, and drawn again. Until we arrive at a solution that all of us agree is the way forward.
No fancy graphics programs or magical design skills required. Just your brain, a marker, and a piece of paper.
Like when you were a kid.
This is my three-year-old daughter Ashley. One Saturday she came into my study, picked up one of my markers, and sketched. I asked her what it was.
“It’s a humidifier.”
She’s three. Of course it is.
“With a green light. It goes hissssssssss.”
Ah. I see that now.
A humidifier might seem a mundane object to an adult, but it is a rather sophisticated piece of machinery to a three-year-old. I doubt Ashley even understands the concept of steam, or what a humidifier does. She just knows that on dry nights we put a humidifier in her room. It’s dark. It has a dial that glows green. It makes a quiet hissing noise.
She was fascinated by it, and it was on her mind. She wanted to share this amazing thing with me, for me to understand that she was thinking about the humidifier in her room. So she just had to draw it. I didn’t suggest she do that.
Having learned the skill of holding a marker in her hand and moving it across a drawing surface, she intuited that a thing drawn is a thing expressed. Although she has an above-normal vocabulary for a child her age, she didn’t begin with words. She just started drawing. Then, when I asked her about the meaning, she used words to clarify.
Ashley’s drawing wasn’t brilliant. But after she told me what it was and explained its key features, the sketch worked for me. I got it. It was a humidifier with a green light that goes hisssss. Duh.
Make it better. Together.
Could you pick up a marker, stand next to Ashley, and try to improve on her design? (Not improve on the drawing, mind you — but the concept?) Or are you going to be that sad, shriveled up shell of a person who believes a three year old can do something you can’t?
What would you draw to make her humidifier better? Could you explain to others why you drew what you drew? Can you then step back and let others draw, and critique their thoughts?
If so, you can design. So let’s design something great. Together.