How I Use Simple Sketches to Communicate Design Direction

Preston Rayhons posted this in
Inside Rocket Media
on February 17th, 2015

If you were to walk into the Rocket Media offices today, you’d probably first notice all of the state-of-the-art Apple computers, iPads and Wacom tablets we use to create awesome digital solutions, along with plenty of Pantone 368 C (Rocket Media Green).

Although these tools are very important and integral to our processes, for me it all starts with something a little more basic—a pen and paper.

Where it all started

As a kid, I can remember sketching anything that caught my attention: NBA team logos, cartoon characters, maybe even an overly eccentric teacher. (Of course this was received well by my classmates, but not so much by the teachers.)

Even my note taking during class looked like an interesting arrangement of lettering and informative doodles.

If I was intrigued by something, I’d sketch it.

At the time I certainly didn’t realize how powerful of a skill sketching would become in my life and career, but I sure did enjoy it.

The “aha” moment

As I continued to explore ways to use this passion to express my ideas, I’d started to notice a pattern in myself and in how people were engaging with the sketches I was creating.

Sketching helps me retain information and provoke conversation with others.

But that was just the start. I use sketching all the time as a designer to solve problems. Here’s how…

4 Ways I Use Sketching As A Web Designer

1) To generate lots of ideas

Early on in the design process, I focus on getting as many ideas down as I can.

Exactly what I draw depends on the problem I’m trying to solve. So for websites and apps, these could be:

  • Wireframes
  • Small parts of the user interface
  • Modules
  • Type treatments
  • And so much more

But at this point, I’m not concerned with validating any of these ideas; I am simply focused on generating a lot of them.

Sketching is the perfect vehicle for this. I can quickly get a concept on paper, then move on to the next one.

It’s also quite impressive how much information a simple sketch can contain. I try to sketch just enough to get the concept out of my head and then move on to the next idea.

For example, in the image above, I was exploring different ways we could shape the Rocket Media “R”. The goal was simply to try to get as many ideas down as I could think of.

2) To communicate ideas

Verbal and written communication alone can leave certain things open to interpretation and lead to assumptions.

Try sketching out your ideas in your next meeting to see what results you get.

In the next meeting you’re facilitating, try this:

Grab a whiteboard on wheels or tape a large piece of paper to the wall in the meeting room. Draw a large but simple sketch in the middle of the board (or paper) that has to do with the topic for that meeting.

Now, the fun part. Leave the room and wait for all meeting attendees to arrive. Give it another minute or two before joining them in the room. If, when you walk in they are talking or asking about the sketch on the wall, you’ve just successfully started a conversation without saying a word!

3) To aid collaboration

Collaboration is a key element to success on any team.

As I narrow in on a design direction for a project, I start to discuss my sketches in more detail.

As I discuss these with the team, I like to add little notes (I call’em “call-outs”) to my sketches to provide more context to specific area of the thumbnail (hint: describe the intended interactions.)

Add sticky notes if you are working on a whiteboard or large wall paper.

Here’s an example from some early brainstorming about our website redesign for PHX Renews.

Try to collect as much input from your team as possible.

Remember to keep the target audience in mind throughout this process. If your team has created personas, tape them up in the room.

4) To improve note taking

Throughout school, I would take notes in a sort of “collage format” with unique lettering and small diagram sketches all over the page.

And still to this day I’m that guy in the meeting who’s doodling and sketching. But believe me when I tell you, I am paying close attention.

I find that sketching helps me collect and process key takeaways from a conversation.

For example, the image above is from my notes on the design process in college. Sketching the process helped me better understand what was being said.

Also, when I return to my notes, I’m amazed at how much information lives in a single sketch and how much of the conversation I can remember that was happening in the background while I was sketching at that particular point.

If you’re interested in more on visual note taking, I suggest you check out Sunni Brown and see all of the innovative ways she’s facilitating doodling in the workplace.

The big takeaway

In this digital age, with all of the tools available to a designer, I still continue to uncover new ways to save time and reduce effort with a simple sketch and some conversation.

How do you use sketching in your daily life? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Additional reading:

Preston Rayhons

Lead Designer

If you follow along with us on the Facebook, you may already know Preston as the man with way too many shoes. But there's more to him than just shoes, Preston is a traditional artist turned digital designer who claims his most useful tools are simply a pencil and paper. He is responsible for most of the design work turned out by Rocket Media.