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Design Like Da Vinci: Sketching Lessons from Leonardo [Slides and Audio]

Mona LisaLeonardo Da Vinci is the archetype of a Rennaisance man–artist, mathematician, sculptor, scientist, writer, and more. As an artist, Leonardo produced a very small sample of great work that included the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.

Leonardo was a prolific sketcher, producing more than 13,000 pages, which are arguably his greatest legacy.  Within his sketchbooks, you can find futuristic devices like a helicopter, airplane, tank, and parachutes.  But, you also find some practical things, such as a movable wall to to prevent invading forces and improved bridge designs.

Here is my SxSW 2013 presentation called Design Like Da Vinci.  Enjoy!

Listen to the audio at Sound Cloud:


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7 Responses

    1. Mark, this is very, very kind of you. I ended up looking at all of Da Vinci’s Sketchbooks. I read Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Vasari actually lived during the Renaissance period and knew Leonardo and Michaelangelo. I am thinking about doing a follow-up presentation about Picasso, who produced over 50,000 known pieces of art. I am curious as to how he could produce so much stuff.

  1. Hi Brian,
    Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to produce and share your analysis of DaVinci’s sketching and thinking methods. I’m a UX Design Consultant and sketch everything I do. I’ve experimented for many years trying to find the best tools to do this from pens, paper types both appearance and porosity even tried various tablets. However, I always seem to return to individual sheets of plain paper with my favourite drawing pens. This is similar to your conclusion regarding DaVinci’s preferences for individual sheets for sketches. Also your thoughts on generating lots of ideas without judgement and analysing after is exactly the technique I follow and have done for more than 20 years when I first heard of the technique during a lecture from Edward DeBono on divergent and convergent thinking. It’s a very powerful technique.

    Finally I’ve just ordered the book you referenced about thinking like DaVinci from Amazon. I’m looking forward to reading that. I now plan to Listen to your presentation again and make some sketch notes of my own.

    Thanks again for inspiring me to learn more about DaVinci and improve my craft.

    1. I would make a few suggestions. Use a markers for finer detailing. I have learned that people cannot see pencil and pen from across the room. Plus, the thumbnail pics for pencil sketches cannot be seen. You have to open up each one. You can start with pencil, but go ahead and trace over with markers. Fat-nib markers are best. People can visually see them.

      Also, you probably want to just keep them as black and white. Use a black marker on white paper. I know this sounds very basic, but it is important. When you start to compare different ideas, you want things to look visually similar. In addition, the early stages of design are really about the concept and the information design more than anything else. The interactions and visual flair comes in a little later. Black markers on white sheets force you to look at just the concept and information design rather than anything else.

      Finally, do not color your sketches. I have seen a designer get bored during a Design Studio, so they literally color their black and white sketch. As much as color can convey meaning, it is a distraction. The small bit of visual flair, such as a colored button or blue marks to show underlines, can influence people. The color distracts people from looking at the information design. The colored sketches will stand out from the black and white sketches, too. Once you have made a final decision on the right black and white sketch, you can render it in Photoshop and apply the colors of your style guide or brand.

  2. I have to agree with Mark, this was the best talk of SXSW. I’ve studied art since I was a little kid and filled sketchbooks with copies of Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s work. I must have drawn the Sybil of Delphi 1000 times. My love for art is what led me to become a designer in the first place, however I never thought to connect the process of the old masters to my own design process.

    I am in the middle of a project and I embarked on a brainstorming journey using the methods of sketching that I learned at the talk. I produced over 30 pages of sketches in a few hours; it was the most fluid, fun, engaging and challenging private brainstorm I can ever remember having.

    What I learned in this talk will forever change the way I design for the better. Thank you!


  3. Leonard

    I saw this talk back at my first SXSW. It’s hard to put in to words how influential it has been to me. It changed my approach to design, thinking and put me on a path that’s been a great driver of positive change in my life. I still link people to this any chance I get!

    Just wanted to take a moment to saying thank you.

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