Saul Greenberg

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Your Sketchbook

Keep a printout of this page taped in the cover of your sketchbook. Refer to it periodically

The sketchbook is perhaps the most prevalent best practice artifact found across all design disciplines. Many designers keep a sketchbook with them at all times. They use it to record and elaborate their ideas, to gather other people’s ideas or artifacts of interest that may inspire future ideas, to ‘doodle’ half-formed thoughts, and to share ideas with others by showing. The sketchbook is particularly valuable as it encourages its owners to develop a multitude of ideas and choose between them, rather than to fixate on a single idea. Bill Buxton calls the process of distilling between many ideas as ‘getting the right design’, whereas the process of developing a particular idea (e.g., through iterative refinement or usability engineering) is ‘getting the design right’. The former emphasizes design that chooses between idea alternatives, while the later is the creative engineering that refines a particular idea.

Computer science students do not normally keep sketchbooks, and as a consequence they typically develop the first idea that comes to them. That is, they worry about ‘getting the design right’ without considering if the basic idea is the best one worthy of pursuit. This is equivalent to the local hill climbing problem in Artificial Intelligence, where local maxima are reached without considering how they would relate to a global maximum. Sketches become a way to investigate other nearby hills (ideas) to see if they can offer better solutions.

To encourage you and other students to develop many ideas, your primary course text is an empty sketchbook. I insist you buy a nice one (hard cover, coiled) so you can take pride in it. You are expected to fill their sketchbook with their project ideas over the course of the term, and to show these ideas to others on demand. I can ask to see it at any time, where your sketches must reflect where you are in particular projects. You should not do sketch dumping, where you sit down after the project is being done. In terms of grading, the key deliverables are that you must generate at least ten different sketches demonstrating quite different ideas for a particular project, and then choose one idea and develop ten variations and/or refinements of that idea. Unlike most grading schemes, you are evaluated primarily on quantity!

Why a sketchbook?

Real progress in developing yourself as an interaction designer will depend on you frequently and habitually sketching out your ideas and their variations, recording other people’s ideas you may see, reflecting and choosing between these ideas, and then further developing those ideas that seem promising. The sketchbook records all these, and carrying it with you at all times will help you incorporate sketching and reflection into your daily routines.

Learning objectives

The sketchbook will help you learn the following. You will:

  • develop skills in freehand sketching and annotation as a way to describe visual information (ideas and descriptive details) that inform projects you are developing.
  • develop the sketchbook as a personal reference tracing your interaction design ideas over time, and for reflecting on the progress of these ideas.
  • acquire the habit of using a sketchbook for freehand sketching and annotations of interface ideas (from casual and spontaneous ideas to studied interface design development) and for detailing where inspirations came from (other systems, students, magazines, and so on).
Sketchbook grading

I and the teaching assistant will be looking for the following evidence.

  • Idea quantity, where you develop many ideas. For each project, we expect a minimum of 10 sketches illustrating 10 quite different ideas, and a minimum of 10 refinements / variations for a chosen idea.
  • Regular use, where you habitually use the sketchbook to jot down, annotate, and develop ideas over time – at any instance, we expect your sketches to reflect where you are in your project.
  • Thoughtfulness, where you can explain the development of your ideas within particular sketches.
  • Attribution, where you credit other people's ideas that you are using.
Due dates

I and the teaching assistant will be looking at your sketchbook

  • as it is being used in class;
  • periodically (by collecting and reviewing it after several weeks);
  • in detail at the end of the term.

Your sketchbook should be a 8 1/2 " x 11" or 9" x 12" coiled book containing (mostly) unlined paper. This size of your sketchbook is important: its pages should be large enough to accommodate idea development comfortably, while still being easy to carry with you at all times. A coiled book means that you can fold it over easily and you can hold it in your arms while sketching. A harder cover is preferred, as it tends to protect its contents.

What is a sketch?

This list paraphrases Bill Buxton’s properties of sketches in his book: Sketching the User Experience, Morgan Kaufmann, 2007.

  • Quick to make.
  • Timely so they can be provided when needed
  • Inexpensive, where cost must not inhibit the ability to explore a concept.
  • Disposable so you can afford to throw it away - the investment is in the concept, not the execution.
  • Plentiful, where its meaning is within the context of a collection or series
  • Clear vocabulary where the rendering style signals that it is a sketch
  • Distinct gestures, where their fluidity gives them a sense of openness and freedom vs. engineering precision and tightness.
  • Minimal details, including only what is required to render the concept.

Sketchbooks are useful in many ways. It is a place where you should:

  • jot down and annotate your own initial ideas - and there is no such thing as a bad idea!
  • explore and refine ideas both in the large and in the small.
  • develop variations, alternatives and details.
  • refer back to your ideas and reflect on how your thought processes have changed over time.
  • record other good ideas you see elsewhere e.g., in other systems, in your readings, and in your classmates' work.
  • collect existing material such as pictures from magazines, screen snapshots, and tape them into the sketchbook.
  • develop your skills, your accuracy and your confidence in sketching out your ideas through regular use.

Sketches do not have to be pretty, beautiful, or even immediately understandable by others. However, you should be able to explain your sketches and ideas when anyone asks about them.

Best Practices

Try to develop the following ‘best practices’ into your everyday routine.

  • Label it with your name / email on an adhesive positioned at the outside lower front of the cover. This is important as there may be many similar sketchbooks in class, and you can recover it if you leave it somewhere.
  • Keep a pencil handy in the coil binder
  • Date the pages as you work, usually in the upper or lower outside corner.
  • Always carry your sketchbook with you everywhere (a 2nd small sketchbook is helpful).
  • Jot down ideas as you think about them.
  • Sequentially work the pages, front to back.
  • Practice sketching by continually developing new ideas and by being inspired by outside material, e.g., your classes, readings, other people's software.
  • Use it frequently Try to add to it at least several times a day or 15-20 minutes.
  • Fill pages with a series of related drawings about a design idea, or with a single well-composed design idea.
  • Consider alternatives. A series of sketches related to the same interface problem might explore different aspects of the interface. These could include different interface representations, different interaction details, different screens, different levels of details, different contexts of use, and so on. Each page can become a series of studies that will help you develop and reflect on the many ideas you will have.
  • Annotate drawings appropriately, including information such as descriptions for ideas that you cannot draw out well; textual addendums; sources of your ideas (e.g., books, magazines, classmates) or any other relevant information. Be legible.
  • Do not erase ideas because they are messy or because you no longer like them. Remember that your sketchbook is there to help you record your developing ideas. It is only rarely a place to record final ideas.
  • The sketchbook is for design only. Do not use it in other classes just because you do not have any paper.
  • Keep your sketchbook handy and use it!
  • As you learn things in class, apply them to develop ideas in your sketchbook.
  • Refer back to you sketches. Reflect on your ideas, and add to them.

Credits. This page is partially based on Sketchbook Ideas by Colleen Campbell, a designer and artist who taught at Mount Royal College in Calgary. See also chapter 1.3 on Sketchbooks in Sketching the User Experience: The Workbook, Morgan Kaufmann, 2012.