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Have you read Sketching User Experience by Bill Buxton? Then you must. Right away. Even stop reading this article here. Well not really, but I hope I conveyed my sense of urgency. His book and his work has been a huge inspiration to me. Most directly it is a strong influence on the workshop I sometimes teach called “Sketching for Interaction Design”. Recently I taught the class to a group of 20 budding user experience professionals. Afterwards I received some feedback and there was one meme that seemed to have permeated throughout the class: Multiplicity.

While Bill Buxton writes about a few apects of sketching that make a sketch valuable: quick, rough, disposable, cheap, I think he doesn’t quite put enough emphasis on one important definer: creating multiplicity. Doing it rough makes it quick and disposable and obviously cheap, but having multiplicity of ideas juxtaposed together is the key ingredients that makes sketching one of THE defining tools for all disciplines of design: interior, fashion, industrial, graphic, architectural. And it is multiplicity that in my mind truly defines how design works!

Why is it so important?
I love the name of a company I recently gave my sketching workshop at (coincidence? … I doubt it.) called “Bond Art + Science”. Don’t know what the Bond means, but saying “Art & Science” to me says something really important about the state of design today. That it is a conjoining of these two sometimes diametrically opposed parts of culture.

I believe the UX community at large though has been mostly attempting design through science. Whether qualitative or quantitative the drive for “data” has been the main form of practice for UX practitioners at least those in my sphere of influence. And while data is important, it is only half of the question when it comes to trying to develop ideas.

But what is Art. Oy… I’m not really going to go there. But I will say that artistic modes of creativity usually follow non-linear, exploratory and experimental paths of engagement. While many might think that art is created in a single blast of brilliance, and sometimes it is, much art is a path of sampling and modeling and evaluation on themes of aesthetics over time.

My first connection to this process came when I saw a Degas exhibit. First, you were introduced to the “master pieces”. You’ll see why I put that in quotes in a minute. But there amongst these amazing paintings were other works of craftmanship. Sketches and sculptures all playing on the same theme as the paintings. The craftmanship was of such high quality that if I put these in the room by themselves without the final reference, I would think these were final works of art. But they weren’t and some might even question whether Degas really wanted them to see the light of day outside his own work studio. They were not complete subjects but rather explorations on the path of telling his final story on canvas.

Sketching is the juxtaposition of creative change, and associations whose close context allows for deeper and deeper creative translation and transformation on iteration

These were sketches in the most important sense. I’m not sure quick and disposable, nor cheap, but definitely done in multiples. Seeing them juxtaposed one might attempt to create a path towards the final work. However, it is more of a post modern deconstruction. Elements of this and that from different sketches keep getting combined and re-combined, altered just slightly here and there. While a recognizable relationship exists in each sketch, their non-linear path is difficult to trace. Did sketch A inform B or visa versa on the way to C?

This is the craft of sketching. It is not merely rough redundancy for volume’s sake, but rather the juxtaposition of creative change, and associations whose close context allows for deeper and deeper creative translation and transformation on iteration.

The process’ goal if not intentional, definitely leads to a planned serendipity–joyful accidents that lead towards useful ideas. Accidents require two parts minimally to collide together. In my experience in design, though, the really juice accidents happen as multiples increase.

The picture on the right is from one of the best storytelling movie studios in the business today, Pixar. A huge influence on my thinking about creativity and design was the Museum of Modern Art exhibit, Pixar: 20 Years of Animation,” in New York City in 2005. Throughout the exhibit was example after example of how juxtaposed associative thinking using the tool of sketching led the creative team through design/art rendering decisions.

The sketches above are from the movie “Cars”. One of the things that separates Pixar (and I’ll say Dreamworks) from other animation studios is the level of creative detail. This takes a huge amount of trial and error to get the right level of balance so that the story is maintained, but enough delightful & unexpected moments are added to increase audience engagement. This can really only be done through rapid, modeling of the stories so that pacing and well audience reaction can be gauged.

During my workshop, I tell my students that sketching is both a collaborative and a personal process. That communicating ideas is an important part of sketching when collaborating, but it is more important to use sketching as a tool for crafting ideas the way we use software for any other craftsman tool. You can achieve ideas without it the same way you can do cabinetry without one tool or another, but the results are always better when you are using the right tools.

I also say that it is a personal tool because many UX practitioners feel time & budget pressure and asking for a new stage of the development process would be looked at negatively. But so long as the designer achieves their results within the same time frame and don’t require changes to other people’s workflow any designer can easily add sketching to their personal tool kit without any disruption.

Try it!

Top image by tico24
Sketches by Edgar Degas & Pixar

David Malouf

Professor of Interaction Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design

3 comments on this article

  1. Dave – Wonderful book, great article. Buxton’s book gives so many terrific thoughts and perspectives. As I have read it, I have usually had to stop after 3 or 4 pages just to stare off into space and think about what he wrote.

    The emphasis on sketching as a crucial activity is almost an insight directly into how to be creative, it seems to me. The idea that one thing made “permanent” can lead to new thoughts about the same topic. Not only is it eye-opening about fostering creativity, but it’s also an antidote to the diva-esque “I spat out an idea, so it must be good” mentality that can cause so much trouble. And I would say it’s even a form of self-collaboration, putting something into a medium external to oneself so you can get our of your own way and think newly about your goal.

    The nice thing too is that this is not getting away from science at all, because in the end we need to measure the effectiveness of what we do as designers, so we can know whether we are harnessing our creativity well. So, the flow of sketching must still drive us toward the accounting of what we are doing. Indeed, many times the “final” version is nothing more than the best sketch currently and there is always version N+1 to make changes for.

  2. When I read Dave’s article I had to think of an article by Jared Spool: Failure is not an option – It’s a requirement.

    Why are we so focused on direct perfection? I don’t believe it has anything to do with pressure on time or budget. I think it has something to do with our education. Most of the times students are being judged on the end result instead of the path they took. The process of discovery isn’t important anymore.. we’re afraid that if we present something that isn’t finished, others will judge it as an end product.

    We need to become explorers again, seeking for worlds we don’t know that exists. The patterns will have to follow later.

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