I am a slow thinker, so I need to draw to make sure I am keeping track of everything. I draw to see what’s in my head and what people tell me, so more often than not, I’m drawing in a meeting at the flipchart or whiteboard, during a conversation, or at least once or twice a day when working alone on a project. Line by line, shape by shape, what emerges isn’t some stunning masterpiece rendered in Sharpie or EXPO Dry-Erase marker that would give Leonardo Da Vinci pause. It’s just a crappy drawing.
Pretty isn’t Everything
Drawing and sketching have received more attention in recent years, although their value as thinking tools is often overshadowed by their aesthetic appeal. When I see certain creative professionals tout the importance of sketching and visualizing ideas, I hardly ever see ugly — but clear — drawings as examples (there are plenty of pretty but unclear ones, though). They often set unreasonable standards for what drawings should look like, with their delicately inked sketchnotes, lush graphic recordings teeming with cheerful illustrations and deft hand-lettering, or architecturally exacting pen-and-ink concept diagrams. Rather than expose the difficult trial-and-error work of figuring stuff out on paper until you get it right, these examples just showcase a single end product and flaunt the creator’s artistic talent, while creating the false impression that “good” drawings have to look just so, and that they happen in one shot on the first try.
I appreciate artistic drawing in certain respects, but my attitude and relationship to it has evolved as my work has evolved. My design journey actually began with a deep interest in art. Over the course of my design training and career, I’ve departed radically from the formal, figurative representation I once sought to perfect. Visual thinking is an essential, irreplaceable part of my information design work, and my drawing method reflects the relationship between the two; fundamental structural and visual principles take priority, like symmetry, balance, rhythm, spacing, contrast, and visual flow. No stylistic illustration or dimensional rendering.
Crappy Drawing Leads to Clearer Thinking
While I do apply my art training heavily to my personal drawing, I don’t approach my drawing as art and don’t aim to put it all on display for the world to see. Mostly, it’s just for me, to help me identify and put together all the pieces of whatever mental puzzle I’m confronted with. My goals are always speed and quantity: I fill sheet after sheet of cheap newsprint paper with messy, crude symbols and shorthand text annotations that quickly map connections, flows, and other relationships that are too many or too intertwined for my simple brain to hold at the same time. Nothing is precious. One after the other, the iterations accumulate until, say, version ten, when the thinking has solidified sufficiently and the message or story resonates. Viewing all the iterations of a diagram or all the dimensions of a story pinned up on a wall helps me see what’s working and what isn’t, zero in on what I want to improve or make consistent, so I can focus on developing the next round of refined sketches. The process can be time consuming, even when the drawings flow, but I’ve come to accept that there are no shortcuts. There is, however, a sense of a stopping point to the cycle of making and reflecting: when almost all of the major conceptual, structural, and graphic problems have been reasonably resolved.
If I’m creating something that needs to communicate to others (a client or their audience), I move to the computer to make use of the precision and ease of production it affords me. I get to work with clean geometric shapes, lines, and curves, as well as take advantage of scaling, nesting, and duplicating elements in a composition (I recall achieving some of these effects ages ago with many redrawn images, tape, and creative use of a photocopier). The digital diagram serves as another thinking tool that enables easier iteration, manipulation, and reuse to get an idea or concept across.
My favorite thing about crappy sketches is that they are pure process and completely disposable. Once they’ve served their purpose, I scan or photograph them for later reference, then shred or recycle them. Most of the sketches shown in this post no longer exist in paper form.
C’mon, Get Crappy
To me, the greatest benefit of drawing is in the support of concentration and focus. It effectively directs attention on visual exploration and investigation — whether in fine art or problem solving — and it can even induce a zone-like state. Working through a progression of crappy rough sketches to more refined ones is also a lot like visiting the eye doctor and testing different lens strengths for new eyeglasses. The blurry image gets sharper and sharper with each new lens, until at last the world is in crisp, clear view. But it takes some work, along with a hefty resetting of expectations.
Drawing to think is within virtually everyone’s capacity, yet its value is untapped because of inhibition, self-consciousness, and intimidatingly high standards popularized in the professional creative world:
- If drawing skill holds you back, create a language that makes sense to you and that you can draw almost as fast as you can write. Then it’s a matter of practice. (A trick for dealing with hard-to-draw concepts is to write the word, then draw a box around it so it becomes an object among other elements you draw.)
- If wasting paper is a problem, don’t use an expensive sketchbook or fancy paper. Hoard used paper or buy the cheapest drawing pads (hint: sketch pads for children are cheaper than “professional” ones and work just fine). Or maybe consider a small whiteboard. You’ll feel more free to explore when you have a surface you’re comfortable messing up.
- If using up pens and markers seems wasteful, just use anything that writes with a nice dark line. Maybe stock up on really cheap writing instruments or use something that takes ink or lead refills.
And if you’re afraid your drawings don’t look like the stuff you see online or in fancy books or that people will make fun if they see them, who cares? Embrace the crappiness. All that matters is that your drawings make sense to you and help you sort out whatever’s going on in your head.