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  • October 2, 2014

Opening My Sketchbook to a Client

People who sketch well are intimidating. I’m talking about those who confidently visualize an idea with speed and style. Some are just born with this talent—others have to develop it. I fall into the latter category. Decorative Illustration

Like many designers, I showed enough drawing ability to have put me on this career path but not enough to be an illustrator. That gap in drawing talent manifested itself as a lack of confidence with sketching, as well. I tend to see the vision as the pencil hits the paper—not before. As a result, throughout much of my career, I’ve kept my sketches to myself in volumes of Moleskins. I’ve rarely shared those doodles with coworkers and never with clients. The thumbnail-sized brainstorming and visual problem-solving made sense to me, but I had no confidence it could communicate clearly to others.

Technology did more to squash than develop my confidence in sketching. The Mac provided a great excuse to limit its appearance in my process. I also had a vague sense that to prove my digital expertise, I had to show my digital chops in the artifacts I delivered. Why waste time hand-drawing imperfect boxes and arrows when you could jump into a vector application and create perfect ones in a quarter of the time?

Then, Apple released the iPad. I was an early adopter, immediately drawn to it not just for content consumption but as a creative device. Every stylus and app released gave me hope of more control and new possibilities. I migrated all my note-taking from Moleskins to the Notes Plus iPad app. I even became confident enough to do some simple wireframing for a client deliverable using the iMockups app.

I also found myself drawing and sketching more. Most of it was having fun with new apps or just creating something for myself, but I was exercising weak design muscles. The convenience of having a boundless virtual notebook a tap away had me sketching as much on the couch as I was at my desk. Technology was finally building up my confidence in an area it previously helped atrophy, because the tools have advanced to the point where they feel natural and more integrated.

I’m always looking for ways to augment our process with artifacts that communicate different aspects of the overall solution. However, deliverables must also give clients confidence and keep them engaged. This has me considering how sketches could be a part of that mix. I’ve also run out of excuses.

Here are some potential benefits a sketch deliverable can bring to your design process:

  • Convey the big picture. You can quickly move back and forth from macro to micro thinking as you sketch. There are fewer expectations of whether a sketch should focus on individual screens, viewports, modules, or user flows. You can move in and out of those contexts as needed to solve the big problems.
  • Emphasize process. We are increasingly looking less for “approval” and more for permission to move forward. Sketching provides visual evidence that we are iterating and evolving to solutions. It’s easier to say “okay” when no pixel is final. Sketches convey fast and temporary.
  • Guide priorities. A sketch provides the freedom to walk that line of too much detail and not enough detail. You can draw imagery and headlines to the fidelity that will allow you to have the appropriate conversation at that point in the process. Vague can be good.
  • Begin rough art direction. Every client hits wireframe fatigue at some point. You can gauge their threshold and augment traditional wires with an appropriate level of art direction with sketches. Sketches can introduce touches of color, type direction, dynamic layouts, iconography, graphic elements, etc. to ease into those conversations.
  • Show craft. Things created by hand convey important human-centric attributes. It’s no coincidence there is a growing trend for hand-lettering as our world becomes more binary. Your hand pulling each line from the pen to the paper (yes, even if it’s a digital pen and paper) will convey effort, skill, and passion.
  • Narrative. It’s easier to compose sketches into a story than some other types of artifacts. You can twist and change them to relate in a context that conveys your idea. Morph from a set of documentation to a storyboard.

Have you opened your sketchbook to a client? What benefits have you seen and what are some of the risks? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

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