• Our Favorite Tools for Sketching

    There's an interesting shift happening in user experience design. After years of making documents that look like they are FEBE (for engineers, by engineers), we're seeing increasing evidence of the human hand in our own work. Why are sketches and drawing suddenly so prevalent? Well, for one, they can save a lot of time and mitigate the risk of building the wrong thing. But we're also finding that drawn elements magically invite people into the process and make ideas proliferate. 

    Whatever the reasons, sketching and drawing seem to be emerging as the next must-have skills for user experience professionals. If you've been wanting to beef up your sketching chops, this newsletter is for you. In it, I share my toolkit for sketching like a pro — even if you aren't one. We'll be giving away toolkits similar to mine and showing how to use them at our newest workshop, Good Design Faster, April 2-3.

    But why wait for April? Don't miss Rachel Glaves' virtual seminar Sketching 2.0: Communicating Complex Interactions Clearer, Faster and Smarter. It's tomorrow at 10am.

    Leah Buley 

    Our Favorite Tools for Sketching
    Here's something that should be obvious, but isn't: sketching is much, much easier if you have the right tools.

    I wouldn't try to ski down a mountain on tennis shoes, but for some reason, I have always assumed that I should be able to pick up a crayon or a quill or an old stub of a pencil and produce the same industrial grade renderings. How foolish of me. Only recently have I realized the importance of having a good kit of supplies, and using the right tools for the right things.

    Here's what's in my sketching toolkit, and  how each of the tools helps me be a better user experience designer.

    1. Mesh Carrying Case

    I bet I know what you're thinking. A mesh bag isn't a sketching tool. Sure it is! Here's why: it pulls together all of your sketching instruments and makes them easy to grab and go. This means you're more likely to bring your sketching tools with you, and, consequently, use them in more situations. 

    If you can sketch what people are talking about right there, in the middle of the discussion, you can use the drawing itself to clarify what people mean and give everyone a shared image. Sketches like these that are created in “real time” in conversations have incredible sticking power in the imagination, and they tend to be referred to again and again afterwards. “Remember that picture we drew the other day with the big box and the two circles. I was thinking that there's a third circle we forgot to add…”

    2. Warm Gray Marker

    If you're leery of bringing juvenile-looking stick figures into your professional business deliverables, the warm gray marker instantly dresses up a sketch. I just use the gray as a highlighter, adding in simple shadows and creating a subtle sense of foreground and background. This gives your sketches depth, and often makes it easier for the eye to decipher the situation.

    3. Blue Photo Pencil

    A valuable tool for the beginning sketcher, the blue photo pencil is used to roughly map out the sketch before going over it again in ink. The blue pencil line is easy to erase, and if you scan or take pictures of the drawing afterwards, the blue isn't visible.

    Be careful not use the blue photo pencil as a crutch, though.  The whole idea of sketching is that it's not art — it doesn't require perfection or a fussy attention to detail. And the blue pencil admittedly gives you the ability to be a bit fussier than perhaps you need to be. But for sketching storyboards, or when it's important to render people in certain positions and poses, the blue pencil is a godsend.

    4. Fine Red Marker

    To call attention to parts of the sketch, plain and simple. The red marker is especially good for things like arrows and motion indicators.

    5. Chisel Tip Sharpie

    How I love the chisel tip sharpie. Like any good tool, it's a multi-tasker. I use it most commonly for adjusting the line weight in sketches to call attention to the things that matter most. Adjusting line weight (basically, just retracing over certain parts of the drawing) is one of the simplest and most effective sketching cheats. It instantly creates contrast and visual hierarchy, which makes the sketch more pleasant to the eye and easier for the brain to decode. 

    I also use the chisel tip sharpie for lettering. Lettering and labels are the unsung heros of sketches, in my opinion.  We worry a lot about the image we're sketching, but as Jessica Hagy demonstrated so delightfully in her book, Indexed, a clear, punchy label pointing to the right thing is what really gives the sketch instant “readability.”

    6. Regular Sharpie

    The regular sharpie is the workhorse of the toolkit. You'll use it to sketch people, diagrams, labels, interfaces, bounding boxes, arrows, and more. In fact, it's best to have a few of these in your kit at any time, since the tip of the regular sharpie quickly gets worn down and mounded from much use.

    7. Super Fine Sharpie

    The super fine sharpie is particularly useful for sketching interfaces. As a first step in design at Adaptive Path, we'll commonly sketch many thumbnail-sized interface ideas before fleshing out the details in a smaller number of larger, more detailed sketches. The thumbnail sized sketch is so small that it forces you to boil the idea down to basic essence. Headlines, blocks of text, places where photos and features would go — these become light allusions in the form of squares and squiggles. Rendering all those squares and squiggles in a way that still looks meaningful requires a good fine tip. We'll be going into a lot of detail on our process for sketching interfaces at Good Design Faster.

    8. Drafting Dots

    Drafting dots turn any vertical surface into a display and presentation space for your sketches. These round stickers adhere to most surfaces, leave no residue behind, and stay sticky for a long time (so you can rehang your sketches elsewhere). Hanging sketches may seem basic, but putting them up so others can see turns sketching from a private ideation tool into a group problem solving tool.

    So, yes, I kind of have a thing for supplies. Office supplies. Sewing supplies. Don't even get me started on the hardware store.  But of course, what really matters is not the supplies at all. Pictures, sketches — these are not the destination. They're simply there to get you where we're going. 

    What Shall We Make?

    In designing for the frontier future, sketching is perhaps our most unfettered tool for showing how something that currently exists only in the imagination will look, behave, morph, flex, and, most importantly, how it will interact with us. If we designed every new application with the Visio stencil set, we'd be living in a world of radio buttons and dropdowns. That may have been the case in the past, but that's certainly not looking like it'll be the case in the mobile, multi-channel, service-aware world we're designing for now. Which means that it's time to consider new tools, or perhaps old ones.

    If you're interested in learning more about tools for next generation user experience design, please join us at Good Design Faster in San Francisco, April 2-3. Use the code “NEWS” for 10% off registration.

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