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The Role of Sketching in the Design Process

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Read Time: 8 mins

As a tool or skill, sketching has its role in the design process. That role will vary depending on the end-product being created, the size and scope of the project, the individual designer's style, experience, and workflow, and the client's expectations. Find out more about how sketching is used in the design process within multiple design disciplines.

The role of sketching in digital art varies depending on if your creating Web sites, identities, illustrations, product concepts, or other designs. An illustration or a logo is likely to need more sketching than a website.

A large project with a significant client budget will benefit from sketching throughout the design process. This makes sure that before massive amounts of time are invested on refining a solution, a direction is first agreed upon with the client. Sketching can start loose, beginning with basic concepts. Then work on compositions or layouts. After those directions are chosen, the concepts can further be refined with detailed sketching.

5 Uses for Sketching in Design

There are multiple uses for sketching in the design process. Below is a review of five categories of uses with examples and links.

1. Rapid Concept Development

Sketching is an excellent way to quickly explore concepts. You can sketch for one or two hours and work out multiple possible solutions to the design problem at hand. This is an essential step in the design process. It will save you time to work through concepts on paper before going to the computer. While it is possible to build sketches on the computer, it's not as fast as sketching multiple concepts on paper.

In the article bioTrekker Logo Design Sketches, designer Karley Barrett shows us her vast use of rough sketches for logo design development. She explores over 60 possible solutions before narrowing the concepts down to just a handful of best ideas. It's interesting to see how she explores iconic imagery, typography, and layout.

She works through multiple ideas and searches for the best presentation of those ideas. Because she's making small sketches, she's able to work quickly and generate a multitude of ideas in a relatively short period of time.

Product designers spend a lot of time sketching. If you're going to design the next sport shoe, piece of furniture, or bike, the idea doesn't start in a computer, it starts on paper.

James over at the blog Bicycle Design has this to say about sketching, "Putting ideas quickly on paper is the only way to evaluate them to see if they are worth exploring further. Computer renderings and modern CAD and modeling packages are great, but thinking on paper with a good old-fashioned pencil is always the place to start."

2. Basic Composition or Layout

Sketches are a quick way to create the basic composition of your illustration. They are also used in Web site design and graphic design to quickly evaluate layout choices. You can make a series of thumbnail sketches, or they can be larger. As long as your sketches are good enough that they capture the necessary elements, drawing skill is unnecessary.

In the tutorial Creating A Cool Vintage Collage Design In Photoshop, Fabio describes how it's faster to do some sketches before going to the computer. As you can see below, he captures the basic composition on the left in a sketch. Compare the sketch to the final Photoshop image on the right. You can see the basic layout was worked out on paper. The image of the woman is represented by a stick figure in the drawing. It doesn't require amazing, or even good, drawing skills to work out composition before opening up Photoshop.

Web Design from Scratch is a well-known Web site that offers practical advice on building Web sites. In the article The Complete No-Nonsense Guide to Designing Websites, the author has this to say about pencil sketching layouts: "The quick pencil sketch just helps me quickly record the likeness of what I've visualized in my head. Then I don't forget and can make it up quickly in Photoshop. I find this way of working a lot more efficient than starting off in Photoshop." As you can see below, drawing skill isn't necessary to capture layout composition either. The left side below is the sketch, and the right side is the final design.

3. Client Communication and Approval

Showing sketched thumbnails or compositions to clients, will potentially save you an enormous amount of time. The more detailed the project will be the earlier you want client approval. If you're going to spend hours on an illustration, you want to make sure the client is in agreement with your choice of design before moving forward. Getting thumbnail approvals from clients is a common part of the illustration process. It is also common on large logo design projects and other projects as well.

The SOS Factory designs predominately mascot logos. Their workflow follows a methodology similar to a comic book design studio. The individual that sketches is often not the same as the one who does the line work. The designer, colorist, and art director are all different roles. They break each role apart into specialties.

At this studio, the sketcher works out concepts and client corrections with the art director and designer. The client approves artwork before it goes to the next stage of inking and coloring. This saves time by solidifying an idea before going on to more advanced stages in the process. The example below is a concept worked out based on initial client communication. This sketch is then sent to the customer for approval or for change requests. Once the sketch is finalized, the design moved to the next stage of inking the line work and then coloring the character.

In the article From Sketch to Vector Illustration, Bill at GoMedia explains how early in the process they get client approval. They send a series of rough compositional sketches to the client before drawing a more detailed sketch. Below left you can see the one the client chose. Then on the right a more detailed sketch is done before moving to the computer.

4. Visual Exploration

Sketching can be used as a journaling activity to record and explore your interests. It can also be used to explore multiple options you could take in a particular design.

Sherrie Thai has a portfolio over at Coroflot. She has a section there dedicated to Sketches. These sketches show her visual explorations in multiple fields of design. In the sketch area of her portfolio, she visually explores topics such as patterning, identities, and tattoo styles.

The product design book Design Sketching explains the entire process of sketching for product design. It offers tutorials, explanations, and examples. The example below from the book shows how a designer might investigate a problem and explore potential solutions.

5. Refining Visual Solutions

The process of creating a design or illustration at later stages involves refinement. The overall concept and direction of the piece may be working great, but one element isn't. Often, this can be tightened up and corrected in further rounds of sketching. Of course, at some point a digital artist moves to the computer. The process of sketching then moves into digital drafts.

In the article A Project with Angel D’Amico you get a feel for how important sketching was in this project, but also how seamlessly the artist moves to Photoshop. In some cases, the artist prefers digital solutions as further client corrections are requested. The artist decides which medium will get the job done faster as a deadline looms.

I mentioned the article From Sketch to Vector Illustration a little earlier. It's an excellent reference on this subject. Bill discusses refining illustrations before going to the computer. There is a section titled, "Often times some aspect of the illustration looks bad. A professional artist will re-work that part of the illustration on a separate piece of paper until they get it right." He then explains his process.

In this situation, the artist has identified the need to rework a part of the sketch. In some cases, it may be based on a client request, like with Angel D'Amico above. Regardless of the reason, you'll ultimately want a tight sketch for detailed work. Below is a section of one of Bill's tight sketches. After that he brought the image into the computer to complete the process.


You may feel the desire to skip sketching and jump straight to the computer or work out your solutions as digital sketches. There is nothing wrong with that, especially for your own experimental work. There is no quicker method for exploring multiple visual solutions than sketching though. Try to weigh the advantages of sketching in regards to the project at hand.

Hand-drawn sketching plays an important role in the digital arts. The larger a project is, and the more concepts a client will need to see, the more sketching will prove its worth in your design process. Consider using rough sketches for composition or layout options in your next project. Or push yourself to do another handful of thumbnail sketches before firing up Photoshop.

Let us know what your experiences are with sketching before jumping to digital within your design process.

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