Part II : How and why does sketching deliver?

In this post, we begin by revisiting why sketching delivers and explore new dimensions not touched in the last post. Additionally, we focus on designer’s behavior during sketching and attempt explanations of designer’s actions, practices and behavior. This material contains lots of statements. These are based on arguments and not necessarily validated experimentally. I request readers to do fill in gaps and refute statements they consider incorrect as their reactions.

Though we are discussing sketching, we cannot escape discussion on design process and problem solving. We will touch the process issues as a context to the role played by sketching in the early part of the design process when ideas are generated.

Section1: Sketching within the design process

Design process normally is built on the concept of finding design opportunities by interviewing users and other stakeholders, conducting ethno studies, observing how and why people use products, collect literature on market and the available competing product variations. Designers more inclined towards systematic processes rely on this approach. They start searching for solutions as broad answers and then go into details. It is also likely that during systematic collection of data some solution directions may have already emerged and can serve as starting points. (In fact, for most experienced designers, the problem and solutions occur simultaneously, but that is for later discussions)

To expect a single agreed starting point and a linear predefined process is unrealistic in design (as well as in art). Few designers prefer to pick up some aspect of the problem and search for solutions, then move on to the next aspect and so on. These ideas grow independently, often incrementally, till some of them fall into place together as a coherent solution. In both the modes, they tend to rely heavily on sketching driven by internal thoughts initially. Other designers have a very personalized approach to start the act of design. However, in all of these diverse approaches, designer’s actions remain in reactive mode.

Designing is reactively creating a redesigned real world

The actual sketching actions are driven by visualization and thinking that precedes it. In problem solving, both the processes demand that the design approach remains largely reactive to the real world context that the designer had investigated. Such an approach may show creative flashes, but designer reactively creates a redesigned real world. In this process, the role of sketching is to give physicality to the ideas, externalize visualizations and help detail them out.

While such an approach may be appropriate for large number of projects, there are times when you need to be proactive. The process can trap the designer in the study of real world context. This often results in evolutionary mode of product development.

The questions we will address are,

How does designer get out of the trap of reactive mode? And particularly, what role sketching can play in making the design approach move towards being proactive?

While sketching plays its complementary role, thinking and visualization actually drive the sketching actions. So, it will be unfair if all the creative actions and results are attributed exclusively to sketching, nor is it intended. At best we can say that sketching has its share of contributions in the creative process. This post is restricted to how sketching contributes in the creative tasks.1 That is why plan to focus on iterations and the exact role sketching play in them.

We cannot forget that developing a solution is iterative and thus cyclic act. The idea was discussed in the model proposed in Fig. 3.2 in the earlier post ‘Why do designers sketch?’ The model proposes that you ‘see’ the real world context and issues, ‘think and react’, ‘visualize’ and ‘sketch’. Most ideas concretize in incremental steps often over a length of time.

We believe that the iterative actions + sketching combination has lot to do with being proactive. Let us understand this idea. How can we modify the model to incorporate the creative nature of iterations?


Figure 1: Shows how the influence of designer’s sketches increases with he reacting more to the sketched-world than to the real world problem.

Reacting to the sketched-world can be proactive

Once the cycle of iteration and sketching speeds up, the new sketches available as display dominate the subsequent thoughts. So, instead of talking of sketching, we should now talk of pile of sketches created in series of iteration. As the iterations multiply, designer reacts more to the modified ideas and eventually creates an alternate ‘sketched-world’. The sketched-world eventually separates from the real world solutions. We can now understand why it works.

Instead of reacting to the problem, when designer reacts to the ideas in the sketched-world, his reactions are qualitatively different. The first sketch prompts the next and that in turn prompts further sketches. Designer is now engrossed in the sketched-world and only occasionally worries about the real world problems.

Hunches that prompts iterations

It is interesting to look at the nature of thinking that dominates iterations. Keeping the understanding of the problems as a background, designer uses sketching not just to find an adequate solution to the problem, but to privately explore his hunches and fantasies. Sketching scores when hunches are being explored. During sketching, designers raise and answer questions like ‘Why don’t I do X or Y?’ and execute the idea as a quick sketch and then reflect on it, trying to figure out if there are bugs in the idea.2 This is the part that is typically accompanied by designer talking to himself (the sub-vocal speech). We talked about this in the last post.

From grounded reality to rooted fantasy

His understanding of the design problem is rooted in the real world as well as the sketched-world that he created. He has now two lines of thoughts in his mind. He constantly shifts between the sketched-world and the real world of objects, its context and its practices that he had earlier analyzed. Using your own sketches as a resource to react gives him opportunities to willfully get out of the clutches of the reactive approach. It is of course left to the designer how far he wants to stretch, but it does offer him the chance to move into his world of ‘rooted fantasy’! See figure 2.

Diagram 2-01

Figure 2: As the time passes, the design actions fluctuate between the influences of the two. With more sketches to react to, the chances of proactive solution appearing are higher. In real life, the paths 1, 2 and 3 depend on the demands of the problem as much as the abilities and inclinations of the designer.

The designer-created world of sketches has lot to do with moving away from initial reactive mode to being progressively proactive. The sketched-world complements the thinking process and designer’s reactions and reflections on this world can potentially lead to new discoveries and ideas.3

Even during the flight of fantasy, it is not that he is not aware of the real world. He comes back to it intermittently while reflecting on to the sketches in front. Sketching serves at once as a creative as well as an analytical tool.

Thinking sketches

Perhaps now it may be little more clear why these early sketches in the design process were referred to as ‘thinking sketches’. They help clarify thoughts and explore what you are looking for, find bugs and induce the designer to modify the directions of the current thought. There are two reactive states. First, when the sketch is available as a depictive displays to reflect on. This was discussed in the last post extensively. Second, during the process of sketching. The thinking process continues to supports this sketching act. It is likely that halfway through designer abandons the sketch when he realizes the flaws in his line of thoughts.

Working with other forms of representations

We cannot forget that what the section above describes is a property of all forms of representations that allow quick on-the-spot changes. Sketching happens to be on top of my list. To understand why, let us try something funny. All you have to do is to imagine yourself to be a designer in ancient times, when paper and writing instruments were not invented. Imagine now that as a designer you would be required to detail your the idea by etching on stone tablets! Also imagine if you had made a mistake in the etching that was carved out! See how lucky we are that we have soft, pliable tool available in form of sketching on paper!

So far, we addressed the question ‘How and why sketching delivers?’ It is clear that designers get much more out of sketching than what the normally understood functions of the sketching are.

Section 2: Unexplained design behavior

In this section, the story continues to unfold and we now plan to focus on designer’s strange sketching behavior. On the face of it, it appears to defy logic, till we understand how and why it works and often delivers. The rest of the section will deal with designer’s somewhat strange practices and behavior during sketching and attempt explanations of his actions.

Where do I begin?

To imagine that designers have a well laid step-by-step procedure and a clear starting point like in some of the counterpart disciplines, will be far from correct. Similarly, to assume that the designer has a clear visualization of idea in his mind and has to merely sketch it out is far from true. It is not uncommon to see designer starting his sketching with a vague and incomplete visualizations and actually use sketching to search for an idea! Strange are the ways designer seem to work!

Why wait till I understand the problem fully?

Designers tend to use sketching to comprehend design problems! While sketching, when designer’s pencil is moving, the intense thinking that goes on in his mind is often trying to understand and sort out the problem that he is yet to fully comprehend! They use speculative ‘Why don’t I try ‘X’?’ approach, then reflect on the solution. In the process of accepting or rejecting the solution, they develop an understanding of the problem.

Designers believe that some understanding of the problem is good enough to start sketching, but if that understanding is not there it is fine. It will develop through sketching!

It is not uncommon to find designer getting frustrated, often resulting into tearing of paper and throwing them away in the waste paper basket. On subsequent realizations that the idea had a potential that designer did not realize, back comes the paper from the waste paper basket! (Contemporary digital tools have its equivalents.) But it can even get stranger that this!

Blank paper and a blank mind is also a good starting point

We hinted earlier in this blog that designers often do not have a clear visualization of ideas in their mind when they start. It is not uncommon to see designers facing a blank sketchbook patiently waiting for ideas. (Artists too face blank canvas. During practice, some chess grandmasters stare at the blank chessboard in front to project their actions and moves.) All they have is a feeling that it is a good time to start thinking about the problem and solutions!

If designing is an intentional act and a deliberate process, how can it account for what we discussed above? How can it explain apparently aimless looking activity like scribbling and doodling?

Doodling makes sense

Doodling often starts without a tentative or somewhat vague goal/s. The actual goals, patterns and shapes are ‘discovered’ during and after the act of doodling. The concept might sound irrational to many disciplines, but in design and art this is not unusual. So much for the linearity and rational thinking in problem solving! On the face of it, doodling appears to be a strange act. Yet, it has two functions.

Doodling affords serendipitous discoveries

Most of his doodling efforts are based on a belief that something interesting will eventually come out. In a way designer is like a child who picks up something on the road. Ask the child what he wants to do with it, and most likely answer is, ‘I will think of something!’ The designer’s actions share some of these qualities. It is because of this innocence and the hope that the child will be able to come up with something interesting. Designer too hopes to ‘discover patterns’ in groups of marks on the sketchbook, that may lead him to a new direction to pursue, a new idea and so on.

Designer sees and reinterprets the marks on paper with an open mind and hopes to discover unexpected new possibilities and directions to pursue further. The marks on paper, even if they were drawn with different intentions, do suggest new ideas and directions! The doodles as well as the ongoing sketching and doodling activity do ‘tell’ designers (and artists) what to do next. He often discovers new possibilities.

We believe designer has to be an out-and-out optimist. (We don’t see how he can survive if he is not!) Perhaps it could be explained by the fact that he has a problem at the back of his mind when he looks at his doodles. Don’t we see more patterns in the cloud when you are searching for ‘something’ to be identified, than during a free scan of the sky?

Operative words and phrases here seem to be ‘open mind’; ‘innocence’; problem at the ‘back of the mind’ and ‘unrestrained optimism’.

Doodling keeps brain in visual-spatial mode

Doodling keeps the hand moving in readiness to tackle spatial issues. Earlier in this post, we discussed important role that bodily movements in space play in handling visual-spatial problems. Call it scribbling or even doodling, but we suspect that the physical action of doodling serves an important function of retaining the visual–spatial way of thinking in STM.

Initially they may be aimless marks, but these marks form a depictive and somewhat ambiguous display in front to react to. The ambiguity is an asset that is precisely what is exploited. More about it in the next post.

Sum up

Revisiting how and why sketching delivers, we discussed how sketching supports the reactive mode of thinking and fits well with the design process. We then moved on to the reasons and the potentials of sketching contributing to proactive mode of thinking, where you react to your own sketches, thus leading to new thinking directions and more new sketches.

Designer reacting to his own sketched-world can potentially lead to his movement towards being proactive.

In the later part of the post, we focused on designer’s strange sketching behavior, which, on the face of it, appears to defy logic. Designers don’t seem to wait till they understand the problem fully. They make a beginning and get into the act of sketching and use it to understand the design problem! We also looked at how they seem to search for solution through rather aimless activity like doodling and why it actually works.

Designer’s unusual approach is based on operative words and phrases like ‘open mind’; ‘innocence’; unrestrained optimism’ and ability to keep the problem at the ‘back of the mind’, attributes that are naturally associated with art.

Some of these practices appear strange and irrational to other disciplines, but in creative design and in art, these are not unusual. It is worth repeating the point that was made in earlier posts.

Approach, as well as these processes that designer use seem to have clearly inherited from the roots in art. The aspects of the thinking process discussed here is just one small part of this inheritance.

But the story of designer’s strange ways does not end here. More will obviously follow in future posts.


  1. It will be unfair to attribute proactive problem solving actions to sketching alone, nor is it implied. In design problem solving, it is the active and thinking brain that drives the designer to be proactive. Thinking often does change the directions of the thoughts. Similarly, domain knowledge and memory of precedent solutions can also lead to proactive ideas. So does the ability to reframe the problems and drive solutions in new directions.
  2. There are some similarities with Schon’s idea of moves and reflections given in his book ‘The reflective practitioner’. We touched this idea in earlier post too. The topic will come again for discussion in later posts.
  3. During early creative phase, designers rely heavily on sketching. Design research literature does deal with the links between sketching and creative explorations. Surprisingly, effects of sketching or other forms of representations are rarely discussed in literature on creativity.





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