Sketch, Sketch, & Sketch Some More

Observational Sketching is a great skill to develop.  It helps you understand things on a deeper level, it increases your design comprehension, and it increases your ability to clearly diagram ideas during your design process.  Due to these clear benefits, designers should take the time to foster this skill.


What I Did

I've been sketching for a long time, but taking a few days to set aside time to reconnect with the craft reminded me of its highest utility.  Observational sketching helps you see things that you wouldn't normally notice.  When you take the time to look at something with more than a fleeting glance, you discover the manner in which it has been thoughtfully designed.  Or, in some cases, you see how it doesn't function properly at all.  

For this exercise, I began by taking roughly 4 to 5 minutes per sketch in order to capture the experience of what I observed.  Once I hit about 50 sketches, I shifted my focus to editing.  The issue became one of only capturing what was necessary by only allowing myself 3 minutes for each sketch.


Early Examples

A simple street sign is a quick study in how to organize information.

My, what an elegant phone charger I have.

These early sketches are nice, but they don't have much vitality.  Where are the people?  And they're taking up the full five minutes.  Sometimes a little longer!


Second Round Examples

Nice, wide, tree-lined sidewalk to enjoy. Yet some choose to walk right up against the building.

Bay Bridge looks a little like the Golden Gate. It has two levels. What else could differentiate it in a quick sketch?

Some of the details here are being neglected for the sake of time.  That can be problematic.  Striking the right balance is essential.  This is an exercise in rapid story telling.  It's not about blazingly fast drawings, nor is it about detailed works of art.

I will say that in these examples, the general essence of what I'm capturing is being clearly communicated. However, there is still a lack of interaction in these.  I need to have characters in my stories.  Granted, I have captured someone experiencing the environment around them while walking along a sidewalk and I suppose there's a lot of cars that people are driving across that bridge.  Ok, that's absurd.  Let's continue.


I'm on a Boat!

The gentleman in front of me got comfortable and enjoyed about an hour of solid napping.

From where I'm sitting . . . 

I allowed myself to get looser on the ferry from San Francisco to Vallejo.  I observed how people get into their routines on the boat.  Some people caught up on sleep and had to find comfortable ways of doing that.  Others got on their phones or laptops and needed to find more private spots on the boat that allowed them to get work done.  I simply watched how they interacted with the environment, with other people, and with their devices.  I also noticed things like the fact that no one can see the sign indicating where the life jackets are when I'm sitting there because my legs get in the way.  I began to have a real sense of capturing the essence of what was happening without the sketch taking as much time.


A Brand New Day

Let's keep the forms of the people loose because it takes time to accurately draw a person.

Felt like I needed to include a little more detail than before.  This was a regression.  It took too long.

This one is a great example of capturing the essence of a situation in a very short amount of time.

After extensive sketching, I really wanted to explore how to achieve a high level of communication while minimizing the time spent on each sketch.  I began to explore how best to show people actively engaged in an activity.  Of the examples shown above, I progressed through multiple iterations.  The first was a quick look at friends sitting on benches behind the Ferry Building.  One pair sat very close together, while another sat at almost opposite ends of the seat.  I kept the visual representation loose, but I was worried that the figures were so amorphous that there was no clear sense of what was happening.  The next sketch showed a little more detail in both the figure and the surroundings.  To some degree, the details of the bridge and the railing only serve as a distraction.  Therefore, I went quickly on the next one and found a good way to show people standing, walking, and sitting within a limited sense of place.  For a quick sketch, it conveys a lot.


Final Thoughts

Sign written on a broken piece of wood that was zip-tied to a chain-link fence surrounding a vacant lot.

On my final round of sketching, I learned yet another way to be more iterative with the creative process and not view my sketches as so precious.  Before this round of putting pen to paper, I had two separate coffee meetings an hour apart.  The rush of caffeine was pumping blood through my fingers at an incredible rate and all I could do was draw quickly and make the sketches raw.  This actually made something like the chain-link fence in the image above pretty quick to complete.

And what a way to finish.  A random sign reminding me to "be open."  Such an important takeaway for the creative process.  Whether it pertains to ideas, collaboration, or the process itself, those of us in the creative profession need to allow ourselves to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty without fear or hesitation.


There are 3 key points you should know about sketching.

  1. It takes time to get better.

  2. It's fun.

  3. It helps you see the world in a different way.

And remember - Be Open!

John Ferrigan1 Comment