13 March 2013

Sketching to develop ideas and solutions “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” — Dr Linus Pauling

By Kristian David Lee

Sketching in a colloquial sense is a drawing activity that allows the artist to record what they see in their surroundings. For a designer, sketching is about thinking, communicating, interpreting and developing ideas into solutions. However, this does not happen until the designer has assessed the problem at hand. Depending on the wants and needs of the client, design problems can vary from designing a logo, the layout of a poster, brochure, pamphlet, website or any product for mass production.

Whatever the goal is, the designer investigates and cultivates ideas through sketching various possible solutions through form finding and exploring various compositions. Through this investigation, the designer then narrows down the choices and meticulously works towards finalizing the idea into a solution.

During the earlier stages of the sketching process, it can vary from a quick drawing to abstract shapes. The designer brainstorms, connects and experiments his or her ideas with various forms. At this stage, the marks made are often subjective. To objectify the designs, the designer interprets what he or she sees in the sketches and works towards prototyping a solution. This process also helps to set the stage for the necessary framework or structure for the designs. Paula Scher, an American graphic designer in partnership with Pentagram Design, was given the task of designing a new corporate identity to symbolize the merge between Citibank and Travelers Insurance in 1998. By fusing both visual elements from each company, Scher sketched and came up with a logo on a piece of napkin in a coffee shop which then got worked on to become the new corporate identity for the bank.

Without this process the designer would be rendered helpless, or at least handicapped, in finding and harnessing ideas for solutions. Thoughts or ideas that are kept in the mind are nothing more than abstract elements (depending on the memory of that individual) that usually do not remain in the mind for very long. This is why sketching is important because it not only documents but visualizes the abstract and charts the unknown. As for sketches that are not used, it gets archived in the designer’s sketchbook. This is not to bury the idea but for the designer to reinterpret and work on at another time.

Just because a particular idea does not work for a problem does not mean that it cannot be worked on as a solution for future problems. This is where innovation can come into play. Innovation, by its general definition, means to make a change to something or to bring something new. Good ideas that get used are often thought to be innovative. However, arriving at innovative ideas requires time and work, which starts at the foundation of brainstorming for ideas. Steve Johnson, an American media theorist in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, enforces this notion by stating that good ideas do not just arrive overnight but that it is a gradual process that requires connecting and linking ideas. An epiphany or a realization of a good idea could reveals itself at any given time, which may happen in a second of a minute or an hour of any week at any year. Therefore, it is paramount for the designer to archive and document ideas in sketchbooks for future development.

Designers and design students who tend to forgo sketching and work directly on the computer should think twice. While ideas can be explored digitally, the development would be limited towards the capacity of the design software. With ideas coming and going at the speed of thought, sketching is still a faster and more efficient method of developing ideas. This is still valid in today’s professional practice.

It could also be that they assume that design is ultimately about the final look. In some cases that may be true – if the client wants their particular design to be an exact copy or a replica of something they want. However, in most cases the client is usually looking to change or renew. Therefore, the process of harnessing ideas needs to be present for the solution to come to fruition. Whether they realize it or not, a designer is not judged on what design software they use but how they synthesize and interpret various concepts and forms. Whoever has the perception that a designer is someone that decorates is gravely mistaken. A designer’s role is to find the right solution for their clients.

Whether you are a designer, artist, student or just someone who loves to draw, encourage yourself to draw on a daily basis as a way of visually developing ideas. You might just have the solution to someone else’s problem.

Kristian David Lee is a lecturer with the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus.