Make Crappy Drawings


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.


  1. Thao says:

    I agree. I used to get so hung up on drawing and whether or not it was good enough to look at so would stop myself from doing quick sketches, but lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of just doing it, and really quickly, not trying to be a perfectionist, and I’ve found I draw better this way!

  2. Nancy Clothier says:

    I always give myself to draw the worst crap in the universe in my sketch books. I mean, why bother if I’m always trying to make it look good.

  3. Leah says:

    Thank you for writing this!! I am an interior design student. We have been learning to draft and render floor plans and elevations. Often, these take up a lot of time. We sometimes are asked to do sketches of things for certain assignments. When I sketch, it doesn’t look the prettiest but I still understand what’s going on when I come back to it later. This drives my professors a little crazy sometimes. It’s good to know that someone is on my side.

  4. Susie Lindau says:

    I was an illustrator before becoming a writer. I love how you sketch to problem solve. I’ve been working on the balance between novel writing and blogging. Maybe I should sketch a crappy drawing and see if it solves my problem!

  5. I wish I understood this concepr long ago. Ive been so focused on perfectionism in my early years that Ive literally has nothing “good enough” to show for my work. Instead of drawing I write. And a few hundred blog posts later, I look back and see how crappy the writing may have been but it wasnt for anyone else…it was fore to solve the issues i was working through. Kudos on the post. Rock on. Wear your soul, rock it loud and keep on drawing crappy… xoxo Invincible Victoria 😉

  6. Gus Molina says:

    I have a very crappy hand 4 drawing. There’s a project that I really want to do but it requires my drawings on signs that resonate with people, not scare them away. jeje!
    I wish 4 someone with talent to step up &K assist me cause it might be possible 4 me to attempt it after reading your post dear Michael Babwahsingh

  7. Gen says:

    I agree. I noticed more and more people trying to learn how to draw fancily and while i admire their hardwork and the fact that they did succeed in getting good at it, it’s just sad to know that they only draw to try to impress others and themselves, to reach that common standard of beauty and art. It’s good to learn from others especially when you’re just starting, but I hope that diligence to improve is geared towards developing one’s own style and expressing their own sincere message so they don’t end up just being copycats of an already known style of drawing. People need to be reminded that the most important thing about art, in any form, is its message. Also on the part of the viewers, if more and more people stop viewing art just by its fanciness and try to learn from its message, then they will appreciate its own kind of beauty (like the beauty of what we usually call “crappy”).

  8. Sacha Nievsky says:

    How inspiring! I always find doodling or drawing excellent for concentration, focus and idea-development, so I could not agree more with your “embrace the crappiness” credo!

  9. Tobias says:

    I am not doing this but it ser så very helpful!
    I used like “mindmaps” (translator from swedish) in school, used to help me allt!

    Overall a very good articles 🙂

  10. Torshy says:

    True.. Another way of saying Be true to yourself and don’t let what others are doing define you.. Inspiring word.. Let’s indeed get crappy!! #^_^#

  11. Amit says:

    I’m with you, Michael, all for crappy sketching and drawing.. painting too; it’s all about mapping, unfolding, revealing, working challenges and unknowns along the way. Process trumps beauty and I’m perfectly ok with that. Then again, sometimes gems emerge when I least expect it. Bingo! Thanks so much for this post 😉

  12. Anna says:

    This post made me wow and it is true that something you do dosent have to look like that what others do because thats what makes you creative and special .

  13. Ratika says:

    Thank you. Even though I had no wish to gain artistic greatness, I wished I could draw nicely, as I used to until the age of eight or nine. Now I’m more excited to revisit it for the creative inspiration it could give me rather than to try to make it look impressive.

  14. Tonya Moore says:

    I have no artistic skills to speak of but I really like the idea of using drawings to get ideas down on paper. I do this from time to time but my drawings are horrible (HORRIBLE!). Even so, it really helps me to figure out characters, story settings, and even map out sequences of events.

  15. roberta m. says:

    Thank you for writing this–you have clearly communicated this “process” of thinking. Perhaps process is not the correct word (crappy word :)) but your post very much helps to explain how using drawings can help one to move the ideas from the head to reality.

  16. Lorraine Masters says:

    I love this. I’ve been trying to relax and get back into drawing but as you say, I’m treating them as too precious. I need to take your advice and make them more instinctual. Thank you for posting!

  17. Pradita says:

    You’re so right about how drawing as an art form has become too exacting. A while back I’d given up entirely on drawing, even as a hobby, because of discouragement from a few self-styled artists. But off late I’ve realised something – drawings don’t have to be exact replicas, they don’t need straight lines, neat curves…. Its about how you express yourself. So what if my cat doesn’t look like a cat? Thanks for this post! This encourages people like me.

  18. Debi Riley says:

    WOW…. I loved this! what an amazing post!
    And your statements about “pretty” isn’t everything…. and “embrace the crappiness” really say it all 🙂
    people get too fixated on obsessing for Perfection (just to please others.) Then we lose out on the real deal. On clarity and authenticity. Thanks for sharing your insights. Cheers, Debi

  19. Natasha says:

    You’re a fantastic inspiration, you seem to tackle, explain and go through all the things I’m currently struggling with as an art student. Reading this post as really helped connect a few of though illusive dots in my head, so thank you! I look forward to reading through your blog more and seeing more of your posts!

  20. Laura says:

    Working in an architecture firm, sketching is essential – except it is incredibly intimidating when the old pros turn out masterpieces within in seconds. The profession has really turned digital, but on a daily basis we need to quickly communicate our ideas through sketches. Thanks for the reminder that I don’t need to be a perfectionist, and just need to get my idea across!

    • As a retired English teacher who taught writing for years, I could not agree with you more that crappy drawing leads to clear thinking. I’ve used the process of visual sketching of ideas many times before I begin writing. What happens is that getting your ideas drawn on paper creates the visual you need to sift ideas into clear writing.
      Great blog!

  21. Jill says:

    Thank you for this! I’m studying Landscape Architecture and unfortunately am not very skilled with drawing. Although it is a skill encouraged in this discipline to convey ideas, I find that I’m constantly hindered and discouraged by what my drawings “should” look like. I’ll definitely try the tips suggested to become more comfortable drawing!

  22. Mykindlecommute says:

    This is great. I am a “Designer” by trade… And although I can create what I would judge to be fairly decent pieces of work on a computer, my sketches are distinctly crappy! It doesn’t matter though – they are for me, and me alone. If they help me to formulate my own ideas, that’s all I need from them.

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