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Sketching Quickly Communicates Ideas

Monday, 21 Jan 2008 | by Mark Tucker

When I think of “sketching” (or the process of communicating design ideas), I think of Leonardo da Vinci and his invention drawings. Although not the first known examples, they might be the most well know.

 Leonardo da Vinci sketch

The British Library contains a digital representation of a Leonardo notebook in its online gallery called Turning the Pages. An interesting note is that the only major scientific work of Leonardo’s in private hands, the Codex Leicester, is owned by Bill Gates.

In Bill Buxton’s book “Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design,” he defines the following attributes of sketches (pages 111-112):

  • Quick – A sketch is quick to make, or at least gives that impression.
  • Timely – A sketch can be provided when needed.
  • Inexpensive – A sketch is cheap. Cost must not inhibit the ability to explore a concept, especially early in the design process.
  • Disposable – If you can’t afford to throw it away when done, it is probably not a sketch. The investment with a sketch is in the concept, not the execution. By the way, this doesn’t mean that they have no value, or that you always dispose of them. Rather, their value largely depends on their disposability.
  • Plentiful – Sketches tend not to exist in isolation. Their meaning or relevance is generally in the context of a collection or series, not as an isolated rendering.
  • Clear vocabulary – The style in which a sketch is rendered follows certain conventions that distinguish it from other types of renderings. The style, or form, signals that it is a sketch. The way that lines extend through endpoints is an example of such a convention or, or style.
  • Distinct gesture – There is fluidity to sketches that gives them a sense of openness and freedom. They are not tight and precise, in the sense that an engineering drawing would be, for example.
  • Minimal detail – Include only what is required to render the intended purpose or concept. Superfluous detail is almost always distracting, at best, no matter how attractive or well rendered. Going beyond “good enough” is a negative, not a positive.
  • Appropriate degree of refinement – By its resolution or style, a sketch should not suggest a level of refinement beyond that of the project being depicted.
  • Suggest and explore rather than confirm – Sketches don’t “tell,” they “suggest.” Their value lies not in the artifact of the sketch itself, but in its ability to provide a catalyst to the desired and appropriate behaviors, conversations, and interactions.
  • Ambiguity – Sketches are intentionally ambiguous, and much of their value derives from their being able to be interpreted in different ways, and new relationships seen within them, even by the person who drew them.

To summarize, a sketch is a quick way to generate and share many ideas in such a way that the ideas can generate more ideas. Often a sketch is in the form of a drawing, but the purpose more than the medium determines if it is a sketch.

The Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) group at Stanford University tackled the issue of speeding automobiles with a project that shows sketching to communicate ideas as well computer prototypes to show design.

In another post, we will apply the technique of sketching to a specific genealogy problem.

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