Starting by Sketching

This is one of the most important tools in the studio: my trusty red Sterling wirebound sketchbook. And it’s just the current one—there are dozens of spent ones filling a shelf at the back of the office.

Now, I love my computer. Love it. But my sketchbook is where all my projects begin.

Computers can do a lot, but they can’t come up with ideas. Working things out on paper allows me to explore what the design should be, not what the computer can generate to fit the bill. Starting on the computer also plunges me right into refinement and details, before the big picture is established—I can burn a lot of time tightening up an idea that doesn’t deserve it. And having a few options that look polished tends to cut off the exploration and experimentation before everything has actually been tried.

The first step in any design project is, of course, thinking: pondering what visual metaphors could represent a company for its logo. Simply recording these ideas—good or bad—is one great way to use a sketchbook. For me, sketching is part of this brainstorming process. Then sketching takes over and I’ll blaze through page after page exploring ways an idea could work formally. Above are my sketches for the first round of concepts for the logo for DC restaurant Halfsmoke. None of these drawings is “suitable for framing” by any stretch. Some are truly awful scrawls just to capture an idea. Sometimes I’ll actually just write the company name down several times, approximating a typeface, to see how the letters work together or play off each other. That lead to the idea above where the lowercase L became the 1 in a “1/2” built into the logotype. Truly “messing around” with the words, letters, or symbols I’m considering always reveals something I wouldn’t have thought of unless I was working through it on paper.

The inherent looseness of a quick thumbnail sketch can also immediately validate an idea worth keeping or exploring further. You can see this happening with a few of the ideas above (the script, the flame) which ended up resolved enough that it was just a matter of scanning them in and tracing them on the computer to get the final version.

Below are some early sketches for Elevele, many of which show it was very much about playing with expressive opportunities found among the letters. Sure, I would have seen some of these opportunities by typing out the name in Helvetica onscreen, but pencil and paper made me think through the ideas more critically. And after working out a bunch of sketched ideas, I could immediately see which ones were worth bringing into the computer and which weren’t. Had some of these ideas been conceived on the computer, they might have looked more successful than they really are, due to the level of polish.

Beyond greatly aiding the ideation process, sketching has another huge benefit: focus. Simply being away from my phone and computer (or better yet, in a different room) eliminates the distraction of email (and Facebook, Slack, etc.) to allow for some good quality time concepting.

And I don’t just do this for logos. I sketch everything from magazine covers, to web sites, to things like the infographic below, which was done for Hyde Park Angels. (For the life of me, I can’t interpret exactly what’s going on in these sloppy sketches now, but it meant something at the time.) I could have taken to the computer right away—quickly drawing some icons and typing in the stats. But sketching in a case like this is almost like “rapid prototyping,” allowing me to quickly try things out to see where things need to go for them to make sense. And the broader perspective afforded by quick sketches lead to some interesting relationships among the elements.

As I pointed out in the post about our logo design process, sketches can also offer the client a snapshot of numerous directions before a huge investment of design time has been made. But for me, the best reason is simply that the conscious, deliberate act of scratching lines into paper brings a different perspective to shapes and formal relationships and always leads to unexpected discoveries.

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