February 16, 2006

Under The Loupe #4: Keeping a Sketchbook

This week we are going to take a brief look at the benefits of maintaining a sketchbook and the impact it can have on your own creative process. To be thorough in the context of this series, let’s define a “sketchbook” as a place to store simple visual representations of ideas and concepts.

Sketchbooks are about as basic as it gets when you are talking about visual design. You, a pencil, and some paper. But oh, the power these simple tools hold! Sketchbooks take many forms, and at times the actual sketchbook can be it’s own form of expression. They range from the stylish Moleskine, to basic art store brand, to handmade stacks of stapled paper. You don’t need to be a great artist to have one, and you don’t need to be trained in… well, anything. Sketchbooks aren’t as expensive as software, but they can be much more powerful.

Designers need to be visual leeches, constantly cataloguing and recording information like a camera that’s always snapping photos. As designers we really never stop working, every thing thing we see, every thing we hear and experience shapes our creative process. A sketchbook serves as a physical repository for all of those outside stimuli. I use my sketchbook often to scrawl down ideas before I forget them or to quickly flesh out concepts. It serves as a timely archive of where I have been and what I’ve done. Because I created everything inside, it takes on a new life as a book of my ideas. It’s not a design annual or a gallery of websites; it’s a book of my concepts that I can always go back to and reference for future work.

Have you ever gotten an idea for a design in your head that you think is great, only to find out once you have it in Photoshop that it wasn’t as wonderful as you thought? Me too. Sketchbooks fuel that all important need to see an idea realized. But, the difference is that there is very little commitment and time involved in evolving your ideas on paper before getting to the computer. Due to this, you are able to cycle through many permutations of one idea which will often lead you to more ideas. Most times you end up in a far better place than where you started.

Since design is about communication, much of the real design lies within the ideas behind it. Most times design is not created by the medium, it is created in the mind of the designer. The design is therefore only realized by the medium. One thing I have been reminded of over the years is that design and communication are both skills. Like any skill, the more you practice it, the more you will improve. Keeping a sketchbook will make you a better designer and a better thinker.

Commentary (39):

1. Zeerus says… feb 16, 2006 | 8:55 am

Another great addition to the series. I myself have a sketchbook, but I rarely use it. I find that I can draw extremely creative things, but when it comes down to getting them into Photoshop or Illustrator they just don’t come out the way I want them to.

What I like to do instead is carry around my camera and take pictures of cool things, and use them later on as inspiration. I know more than once that after downloading a photo to my computer I’ve vectorized one or more parts and used them as stock objects in the design. It’s a good way to bring real life elements to your work.

But back to the sketchbook, I always have one with me, whether it’s stuffed inside my laptop case or on the side of my seat in the vehicle, so when something does come up I always have access to it.

2. Nik says… feb 16, 2006 | 9:06 am

Sketchbooks are probably a great idea, if you can keep track of one long enough to actually draw some decent things before it dissapears into oblivion…

3. Jason Santa Maria says… feb 16, 2006 | 9:09 am

Nik: Maybe you should get a bigger sketchbook so it will be easier to find when you lose it ;D

4. Jamin says… feb 16, 2006 | 9:43 am

It’s taken 10 years since graduating with a degree in writing to see the relationship between writing and design. Both are a means of communicating. Both are skills, as you suggest. And both can benefit from keeping a journal.

My professors always recommended keeping a writing journal to capture thoughts and ideas. I have found keeping a journal to be beneficial for my writing. While I’m not a designer (yet), the sketchbook idea makes sense in the same way that a journal makes sense for writers.

5. J Phill says… feb 16, 2006 | 10:11 am

I used to always carry around a sketchbook, and now that I design in photoshop, my sketchbook has collected quite a bit of dust.

I brought out my book a few weeks ago, for the first time in ages, and sketched out a design, and it turned out really good! I think its time to but the sketchbook back in action.

6. Ben Young says… feb 16, 2006 | 10:16 am

A sketchbook is something I’ve always thought would be useful, but have never gotten around to buying and using. I’ve heard many times the benefits of keeping one, and I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly.

I just need to get organised…

7. Dean says… feb 16, 2006 | 11:43 am

Agree - sketchbooks are great for the mind and design process. I’ve taken to using one everyday. I write the date each morning and then even, if I don’t have a specific project in mind, I still try to doodle or scribble something. It’s amazing how many times this will lead to other drawings and ideas for projects.

8. Hercules Papatheodorou says… feb 16, 2006 | 11:54 am

Ah, sketchbooks… I recently made a custom one (yay for my paper cutting skills) but it’s so cool looking that I fear to make doodles on its pages… And a hint: the less the detail in your notes, the best the final result.

9. Smallest Photo says… feb 16, 2006 | 12:24 pm

I recently discovered the joy of keeping a Moleskine notebook. I probably take notes more than sketch, but it’s a step in the right direction. Btw, Hercules - I think I need your name. Want to sell?

10. James AkaXakA says… feb 16, 2006 | 12:32 pm

Too true.

11. Michael Hupp says… feb 16, 2006 | 3:38 pm

Not to mention that sketchbooks play an integral role in the Grey Box Methodology that you introduced a while back and I have been using ever since.

Often I end up taking different aspects of multiple sketches and Frankensteining them together to make my initial working Grey Box. In this way, I don’t have to resketch the entire concept, just the part that I’m reworking.

In this way, time is saved, workflow is improved, widgets are recycled and passive voice is used.

On a related note, I’ve heard from many folks the joys of using a Moleskine, but I am one of those people that need to hold something in my hands to judge value before plunking down hard-earned scratch. I’m not opposed to spending more for quality, but would never do it sight unseen. Does anyone know a chain that carries Moleskines? I’m in Kansas City, so a pretty decent sized city and haven’t been able to find a local vendor.

12. Jason Santa Maria says… feb 16, 2006 | 3:44 pm

Michael Hupp: Yes indeed! I use a Moleskine myself because I find them to be sturdy and compact books (that also happen to lie flat when placed on a scanner bed). I have noticed recently some bigger chains like Border and B & N started carrying them. Otherwise, hit any decent art supply store and you should be able to fine them. Or just order one online.

13. Nate Steiner says… feb 16, 2006 | 3:49 pm

Yes, “repository” for those who already have a well tuned visual-leeching ability… for those who don’t, or who are out of practice, I think sketchbooks can serve as doorway to better seeing. They encourage you to look, to find things worth sketching, and that determination itself is pretty valuable.

14. gali says… feb 16, 2006 | 4:06 pm

Wow ! This is the first article i read on this blog, and it’s great ! (i add it to my favorites ^^).

I’m thinking of having this kind of notebook for months, and i’ve just beginning using one, so you confirm what i was believing, it’s a good way to become a better designer ;)

15. Kenn Louis says… feb 16, 2006 | 4:18 pm

Last year I resolved to keep a daily sketchbook where I draw at least one thing in it per day. Oftentimes, it’s rushed and looks like crap, but other times it’s an inspiration that turns into a piece of art. It’s good to put the drawing programs aside and remember what results you can get from simple pencil and paper.

16. P.J. Onori says… feb 16, 2006 | 7:03 pm

I cannot even begin to express how important the sketch book is for my work. All of the mulitudes of constraints are non-existant with a pen and paper. I totally agree.

17. Terry Tolleson says… feb 16, 2006 | 9:22 pm

I have used Canson sketchbooks for a long time now. I am currently on my fourth one (there are around 230 pages per book). The first couple are rather sparce, but SketchIII and SketchIV are rather filled.

Here is a scan of a small portion of SIII, page 188.

Sketchbooks are wicked powerful. I just wish I would fill mine up moreā€¦

18. Zach Inglis says… feb 16, 2006 | 9:48 pm

I totally agree with you but I have to admit, it’s also a bit depressing when you can’t draw (and I don’t mean that in the “just waiting to be dscovered and show my wierd but beautifull art of to the world”…can’t draw)

When I look back at some of the wireframe’s that i’ve drawn I wonder how I sleep at night calling myself a designer.

I do agree that a sketchbook is a must though.

19. Jacob says… feb 16, 2006 | 10:27 pm

I’ve gone from Canson’s to Moleskines (love the lie-flat for scanning bit) but have kept a book for the last 4 years or so pretty religiously. Mine are mostly filled with writing and comps with a few things pasted in here and there.

One aspect of keeping a book that you didn’t mention though is how valuable it becomes, or rather, irreplaceable. Being able to flip back to ideas for designs, art pieces or websites from years ago makes the thought of losing my book quite scary. I forget most of my ideas pretty soon after I write them down (go GTD!) and so my book becomes priceless to me.

I still shudder remembering the last time I thought I had lost it—my friends thought I was crazy, but I was almost sick at the thought of losing years of thoughts.

20. NickS says… feb 17, 2006 | 1:12 am

I’ve got old comp books, moleskine type journals, actual sketch paper pads, and many other forms of paper all over my office. some are recent, some are years old. But each time I flip through one, I find some idea that I had one time, and start to play off it again.

I just find that I wish I had been more consistent with DATING the material as I realized it. Invaluable resource to have though.

great writing Jason. As always, thanks for the words.

21. Mike Palmer says… feb 17, 2006 | 1:21 am

Like P.J. Onori says above, my sketchbook is absolutely indispensable, however I do find that there are issues when translating a sketch to the screen, things like guaging how much space certain things will take up, scale, etc.

22. Chris Lee says… feb 17, 2006 | 4:10 am

I feel the same way about sketchbooks. I really love them.

I’m very curious how your sketchbooks look like. Do you think you could post images of your sketch book?

23. Benjamin Bergh says… feb 17, 2006 | 5:40 am

I’m just as curious as Chriss Lee to see how your sketchbook looks like, could be an interesting thing to see.

24. Jason Santa Maria says… feb 17, 2006 | 7:39 am

Chris and Benjamin: There’s nothing very special about my sketchbook, and though I started out as an illustrator looooong ago, you wouldn’t know it from looking at my drawings. I will try and get a few pages on the scanner this weekend :D

25. Joel says… feb 17, 2006 | 11:42 am

Having one on hand is an excellent thing, but I unfortunately come up with most of my ideas driving, and they drift away before I get a chance to put pen to paper. Of, for the want of a third arm!

26. Russ Morris says… feb 17, 2006 | 4:58 pm

I use sketchbooks for collage, painting, drawing and writing. All in the same sketchbook. Very personal, they are.

A wonderful way to create.

27. Dead Pixelz says… feb 18, 2006 | 6:14 pm

I’ve experimented with a digital version using Alias Sketchbook as well as Zengobi’s Curio. In the end, my trusty and crusty moleskin seem’s to be the best bet for rapid unhindered easy of use for idea capture. The ability to take it anywhere and the 0 second launch time make physical sketchbooks o’ so good.

28. n ! c k says… feb 19, 2006 | 12:41 pm

This article is very inspirational! I love using a sketchbook… typically I really enjoy a 11x14 pad with a Sharpie!

I’ve seen these moleskins at B&N and I’ve considered buying one… but never have. After this article I’m sold :D

29. Mark Bixby says… feb 19, 2006 | 4:05 pm

Carrying a sketch-book is one of those things that seems like it should go without saying. I’m guilty of keeping one for 6-8 months and then resorting to scribbling on the nearest piece of paper, resulting in piles of take-out menus, cardboard, pages from phone books, junk mail, lined notebook paper, and whatever else happened to be at arm’s length the moment inspiration struck. Thanks for the reminder! Love this series! -Mark

30. todd v says… feb 20, 2006 | 11:50 am

Awesome post! I couldn’t agree more. I have been on a 12 month long odyssey this year to 1. force myself to improve and expand my drawing techniques, and 2. to have a collection of works to refer back to for inspiration. I have already filled 1 and a 1/2 Moleskines in a month and 20 days. I hope to fill at least 10 of them this year.

I invite all who wish to share their doodlings to visit us at www.sketchproject12.com and send in your drawings, or join us as a regular contributor.

see ya,

31. Tim says… feb 20, 2006 | 7:15 pm

J, you made me open my eyes. Next to me, I have a pile of loose papers with all kind of notes, sketches, … and I never knew what I was doing wrong… I’ve run to the store and got myself a compact, strong sketchbook and I’m going to force myself to take this little got-to-have everywhere I go! Like you said, inspiration always hits you when you least expect it!
Love your work!
- Tim

32. Jared says… feb 24, 2006 | 3:28 pm

I’ve never bothered to keep a sketchbook because I can’t draw for the life of me. After reading your article, I marched right over to Barnes and Noble and purchased a pocket-sized moleskine. Thanks for the needed motivation!

33. John Athayde says… feb 25, 2006 | 1:17 pm

Having gone to Architecture school, I’ve been designing in sketchbooks and on rolls of 12 inch trace for 10 years now. I still do initial designs and ideas on trace. The imperfections of the gesture you can get with a pen vs the precision of the computer. And at a concept phase, spending hours kerning text because it distracts is simply WAY too detailed. Yay for scribbles!

34. Chris Lee says… mar 4, 2006 | 2:50 am

you didn’t keep your word :o)

35. Joachim says… may 8, 2006 | 9:33 am

a nicely kept sketchbook is a great creative tool!

36. Soo says… may 30, 2006 | 4:29 am

I cannot live without sketchbooks! Been keeping visual journals for the last 9 years…

37. Carolyn says… sep 12, 2006 | 12:58 pm

thank you, thank you, Jason for reinforcing the idea of the sketchbook. I am a partime instructor for Graphic Design one and two students at a jr. college in St. Louis. I get so many complaints and resistance from students because I want them to put their ideas on PAPER (God forbid) before going to the computer to do some technique. Your article has strengthened my resolve to keep up this requirement. Yea!

38. a design student says… sep 15, 2006 | 7:03 pm

thanks a lot for your little article. my teacher carolyn is making me put pencil to paper. god forbid.


39. Jason Santa Maria says… sep 15, 2006 | 7:12 pm

You’ll thank her someday, trust me :D

The computer is just a tool and only one of which in your repertoire.