Tell me if this sounds familiar. You start working with a designer and they jump directly onto their computer open up their tool of choice for example Sketch/Figma/Photoshop and start making precise layouts to represent what they think you want. Precision has a place in the design process, but not at the beginning when ideas haven’t solidified. This direct to computer approach to production is short-sighted and should raise some concerns.

Precision and perfection during the exploration and discovery phase create an illusion of certainty and permanence. It minimizes opportunity and reduces the scope of options.

A more effective process begins with rough concepts, sketches, critique, and reflection. If the outcome of these early explorations isn’t right, you throw it out and start over. These rough artifacts make the work completely disposable.

The dozens if not hundreds of sketches that cover a wall during a project are the artifacts of a process that allows room to explore opportunities before choosing a focused direction. This isn’t an uncommon process as many experienced problem solvers start wide and narrow down. However many software teams take a more limiting approach—they start narrow and refine too soon.

Computers as tools can help us be more efficient with tasks, but they can hinder the creative process. They let designers jump directly to pixels, precise alignments, and fully formed executions. These hi-fidelity artifacts are hard to abandon. They feel complete. And this narrows the scope for exploration to only those few ideas that are well rendered.

To find the best design solutions you have to commit to the process. Start wide, create as many rough ideas as you can in order to refine down to a direction that can be explored with more precision and detail.

Putting pencils before pixels creates more space for critical thinking and more effective solutions.

The power of a pencil

The pencil is the inverse of a computer. It’s simple, accessible and limited in its functionality. And this is why it’s effective.

Pencils are valuable to the creative process because:

  • Pencils are inclusive. Anyone can use a pencil to express an idea more clearly.
  • Pencils are lo-fidelity. Quick sketches are by their nature an incomplete thought and open to discussion and feedback.
  • Pencils are faster than a computer. You can explore many ideas and directions to the same challenge in minutes and you won’t feel bad about throwing things out since such little time was invested.

When ideas get put on paper they are made tangible. And sketching is a way to let others get involved in the process.

Sketching is a way to think with others and a way to bridge teams. When hi-fidelity designs are viewed it presents the impression that the important decisions have been made and finalized. But when sketches are viewed it’s clear the process is still in progress and open to participation and input.

An idea isn’t real until someone else can view it. Get your ideas out of your head to allow others to view them. What you may brush off as unviable may only be missing a piece of information a teammate can fill in. That only works when ideas are explored together.

No artists required

Sketching does not equal drawing or “rendering”. You do not need an art degree and formal training. If you can draw boxes and lines, you can sketch.

Sketching is something anyone can do. And inviting others to participate in the process helps produce more diverse explorations of solutions.

Sketching Together

Getting your team comfortable sketching can be accomplished through a simple activity with tight constraints. I use a method called Design Studio or 6-8-5 that was created by Todd Zaki Warfel. It allows you and your colleagues to create 6-8 possible design solutions per person in 5 minutes. This works so well because the time limit forces the mind to not get stuck on the details. It’s about getting the ideas on paper, not generating a “perfect” solution.

Here’s how it works:

  • Gather: Get the team together—everyone with important domain knowledge is encouraged to participate. Designers, engineers, product managers, founders, etc. Any stakeholder that has responsibilities to the project. To keep the session productive and the discussion manageable, I suggest keeping the group to 10 or less.
  • Supply: Give each participant a sheet of paper. 8.5” x 11” works fine. Fold the paper 3 times to create 6 boxes.
  • Frame: Next, frame the challenge to address and clearly state any constraints the desired outcome should fit into but do not prescribe an execution or specific feature or functionality. Be sure to include any research findings to help ground the scenarios and situations. For example, “Our research is showing these customers (perhaps a specific customer segment) using our product. We see activity during these periods of the day, and on these devices (which may be irregular or infrequent). We want to make using this product part of a daily routine for this segment. How might we achieve that?”
  • Time: Set a timer for 5 minutes and instruct everyone to sketch possible solutions individually and silently to help everyone focus. I like informing the group of the 5-minute time limit just before they start sketching. It’s the sudden jolt of limitation that works as a motivator.
  • Present: When the timer goes off it’s time for each participant to present their ideas. This is key. Conversation and critical feedback help highlight the best ideas and additional areas for consideration. Everyone should present and be given the opportunity to share.

If time is available you can do multiple rounds to go deeper into ideas. Working together to address challenges gives everyone shared ownership of the process and generates many diverse results due to everyone’s perspectives. I’ve run this exercise in blocks of an hour to an afternoon and the amount of work generated by the end is astounding.

Remember at this early stage of the process the goal is quantity, not quality. Getting all the ideas on the table first then filtering down to viable directions lets you cover more ground in less time.

The right tools for the job

The tools you use to sketch can limit or expand how far your explorations go. Loose sheets of paper work best for these sketches. They can be passed around, posted to walls or pitched in the recycling bin as ideas are cut.

Fine line pens or mechanical pencils create more detailed sketches, which are slower. With fat tip markers, or dry erase markers, it’s pretty difficult to draw detailed UI elements. Instead, they force you to focus on layout and screen flow. As ideas are refined, moving to a medium marker can help you add more precision to your explorations.

Sketching remotely

As I’ve stated, team sketching is an important part of the design process. Each project should start with research and exploration including sketching sessions. But how can you participate if you have a remote team? There are simple and inexpensive tools to sketch as a team no matter how much distance separates your colleagues.

  • Choose a camera - a simple USB document camera can be under $100.
  • Choose your camera source during your video conference - By switching the source to your document camera you can walk others through your ideas and sketch live to explain a new concept.

That’s it. It’s simple and effective. It keeps the team focused on a quantity of explorations early in the project rather than jumping right to pixels where the focus is for refinement.

Ideas before execution

Sketching first has a multitude of benefits. It’s accessible to all. You don’t have to be a designer to participate in the design process. It opens the door for more diverse perspectives. And the most valuable is that it keeps the focus on ideas instead of the polish of execution.

Here’s a to-do list to push sketching into practice:

Generate dozens of ideas on paper before transitioning to the computer. Sketching helps you discover unexpected ideas.

Get stakeholders involved by conducting a team sketching exercise like 6-8-5. It adds clarity for all involved and it creates shared ownership of the project.

If your team is remote use a USB document camera to share sketches and ideate as a team.

Embrace constraints like fat tip markers and time limits to keep from getting focused on the details too soon. Remember designing is an iterative process. Start wide then narrow in.