How to use sketching to build brilliant designs

Sq1's senior art director, Sarah Holmes explains how she goes about sketching her ideas and bringing them to fruition.

Sarah Holmes of Sq1

I’m not the best wordsmith in the world. In fact, writing this article took me days.

As an Art Club member and a yearbook staffer at school, I’d always been a visual person constantly picked first for Pictionary, and although my science projects didn’t always work, the presentation sure looked grand. So when it came to deciding my future, I majored in communication design and began my journey as an art director.

Drawing, sketching, visual note taking – whatever you want to call it – is the most crucial step in my creative process. It’s where strategy, ideas, brainstorming and collaboration take the first jump toward reality. After all, ideas are just ideas until you make them happen.

Getting started

I like to think that sketching is somewhat like a wireframe. It’s the rough draft of a final paper and the blueprint to your house. I guess it makes sense, then, that I sketch all my ideas before going anywhere near Photoshop. And because the freedom that sketching provides is unlimited, it invites more and better ideas to take shape.

First things first. You’ll need a couple of freshly sharpened #2s and a decent sketchbook. Some art directors like grid paper, but I prefer a clean, white fine tooth surface.

Second, figure out what you’re sketching. I like to study my creative brief, discuss it with my UX partner and do a ton of research before really diving in.

Research phase

My research usually includes past campaign successes as well as product research. Only then, when I feel comfortable and confident, do I begin tapping into the imagery forming in my head and quickly and very roughly, sketch out the contents of my mind’s eye.

I use this period to excavate every last idea from my head (the good and the bad). Since I’m not using Photoshop or Illustrator at this point, I don’t have to concentrate on the minutiae, such as what font this should be or what colour to add there.

Don’t get me wrong, I love details, but I want to make the best use of my time, so I save the intricacies for the computer. I keep the detail in my drawings to the bare minimum required to be easily understood and in order to explain the overall concept and look.

Involve the team

Once I reach a happy stopping point, I then involve my team to make sure I’ve got the best possible answers to the project at hand. I want to check if the user flow of the page layout feels right or if a Flash ad needs simplifying.

My copywriter should feel comfortable with the visuals, and my creative director should highlight any holes in the overall strategic plan. This time is spent trying to encourage everyone onboard to agree on concepts and potential layouts.

Paper and pencil are good starting points for any kind of design work

My clients appreciate and enjoy seeing my drawings, and this validates the method even more for me. When I know I have the best solution in sketch form, it allows me to be more experimental with the actual design elements.

Finally, it’s time to jump on the computer.

Add personality

Now that a particular layout has been approved by my entire team, I can start to give it a style and personality all its own. I can go wild! I play with typography, imagery and textures. I can even design two separate layouts from the same sketch, time permitting.

The coolest thing about sketching ideas is that I don’t get lost in my computer. I optimise my time wisely by knowing where every component goes before I start making it look “pretty”. I don’t merely push shapes around the screen. I plan before I build.

Every movement of my mouse represents a clear thought, and throughout the entire process no time is wasted. Efficiency has always been a strength of mine that I continually strive to hone, be it in my day job as an art director or in a personal capacity.

I’m glad I was the “artsy” one in school. I’m proud of my unusually large stack of used sketchbooks on my desk. And most of all, I’m happy to say that in the digital world in which we live, my pencil and paper will always have a home with me.

Words: Sarah Holmes

Sarah Holmes is senior art director and designer at Sq1. If you ever need to get her talking, grab a cheese plate and start up a conversation about vampires, organic gardening or the newest camping gadget.