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Being Sketchy

Being Sketchy

I want to be sketchy.

Not in the “Eww, why is he looking at me, he’s a really sketchy guy” sense of the word, but rather in the “look at him, he sketches things a lot” sense.

That said, those who have seen my scribbling know that charcoal, pencils, oil, and crayons are not my tools of choice. People grab them from my hand to prevent damage to anyone who might accidentally see what I do with them.

For me, sketching is not about drawing, it’s more a philosophical approach to figuring out the world and what I want to do in it.

And I believe all of us should sketch, in our various media, in our thinking, in our lives. Strategists should sketch; technologists, art directors, business people, copywriters, biz dev folk, and regular people should sketch.

Here are a few reasons why.

Permission to do the impossible
In the old days of new media, before anyone “knew” what it was for and how to do stuff, because we didn’t yet know what was impossible we tried to do it anyway. And a lot of the time we succeeded. But if we’d had to guarantee an outcome, we never would have tried.

Sketching frames what you’re doing as an experiment, an exercise in seeing what’s possible, and gives you permission to fail quietly or to succeed loudly. And sometimes both.

You might not achieve what you set out to do, but find that in your attempt you came up with a new way of looking at something, or a new way of doing something – you were able to abandon the metaphor or cognitive model that trapped you into a singular approach, and dolly your internal camera back to a perspective view…

And things look and act differently from different angles, and we react to them differently. You might find the connections that make a larger whole, or find a way to connect the dots differently, to draw a new constellation from the same old stars.

To borrow Microsoft’s phraseology, sketching lets us embrace and extend what we know – by giving ourselves permission to make mistakes, we are free to try things that we don’t know how to do.

And simply doing things makes you better at what you’re doing. Musicians compose, and become better composers as a result. Knowing music theory isn’t enough – you have to actually apply it. Mark Pollard, Strategy Director at McCann Sydney, just wrote on Why Strategists Should Make Stuff: “Making stuff will keep you grounded and ensure you talk mostly with knowledge you farmed in the field – not simply theory.”

I recently wrote about the “learn, do, teach” mind-set of creative technologists who sketch with technology – “Stay up-to-date on the latest in technology, in research, in business, in design, in advertising, in human behavior. Then do something with it – build something, try out a new API, prototype an idea, make something talk to something else, come up with a new business model. Then show others how this stuff works – evangelize, be a resource, help people move beyond what they already know (and learn from them while you’re doing that). Rinse, repeat.”

The point is, the more you do, the better you get, not only at making stuff but at thinking about the world, at seeing things differently than you did before, and helping others see differently also.

Safely abandon the rules
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, co-founder of the school of Positive Psychology and author of a series of books on Flow (the psychology of engagement), described creativity as willfully violating the rules. Drawing outside the lines isn’t a creative act unless you understand that the traditional goal is to draw inside the lines. Picasso’s biggest creative innovations were only possible after years of painting bilaterally symmetrical people. He had to learn the rules first. Then he could break them.

Bull Buxton says in his excellent book, Sketching User Experiences, “If you’re going to break something, including a tradition, the more you understand it, the better job you can do.”

So we learn the rules… but that’s only part of the deal.

Most of us just play by the rules, and we can’t easily abandon them in our normal lives – we have client deliverables, we have people counting on us to create things that work the way they’re supposed to, the way they’re being paid for.

And it’s hard to convince clients to try something different unless they can see it. So we carefully, artfully, create beautifully realistic mockups that look finished, so we can get the point across.

And they get rejected.

Freedom to participate
When things look too good, they’re seen as completed. And for the most part, completed things can only be accepted or rejected. There’s no invitation to participate. The people we show them to have to take a position, and the position with the least risk is “No.”

Sketches, though, are loose, rough, open to interpretation. They’re McLuhanesque cool, requiring participation and involvement. There are blanks that the viewer needs to fill in.

The best execution is often the one that people have in their mind’s eye – and if you don’t give them room to imagine, they’re stuck with your vision instead. They can’t make it their own, and it’s harder for them to feel engaged. In fact, just think of how this carries over into consumer generated content – people feel engaged because they actually are engaged in the creation of something, not just nodding their heads or finding fault.

So sketching out your ideas, low resolution, rough ideas, crayon on paper, wireframe websites, back of an envelope business plan, just enough coding to make it work, a quick Arduino wire-wrap – give you room to imagine and develop your idea, and gives other people room to feel part of the process.

Fast, Flexible, Disposable, Focusing
My consulting partner, Andrew LeVasseur, describes the best attributes of prototypes and sketches as being “fast, flexible, and disposable.” They can happen quickly, because you’re not concerned too much about details or making sure everything works perfectly. You can bend them, shape them, any way you want them – they’re not fixed in stone, and certainly not fixed in time or space. You can toss them if they don’t work out, you can save the best bits and reuse them later.

And paradoxically, they can free you to focus your thinking – because you’re not going for perfection, you can just focus on the aspects you want to explore… What would it look like in green? What would happen if we gave it away for free? What would happen if it knew where you were and at what time? What would happen if we moved it from desktop to a tablet… or to a car?

In their book “Getting Started with Processing,’ Casey Reas and Ben Fry describe sketching as “a way of thinking: it’s playful and quick…. the goal is to explore many ideas in a short amount of time.” They start on paper, then code, then go back to paper, then back to code, etc. They take advantage of the speed and flexibility of a prototype, junking what doesn’t work and doing more of what does work, while they flesh out their ideas. That’s a pretty good model to follow.

Getting sketchy
It ain’t hard. But it takes doing it to do it. Got it? So – pull out that notepad that you used to write ideas in. Steal your co-worker’s dry erase marker set and find a whiteboard. Heat up the soldering iron. Remember a business idea you never gave its due. Let your mind go loose, and just start sketching. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

(note, this post also appears as a guest column in a slightly different form at Talent Zoo)

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 20, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Great post, and really it applies to all creative or intellectual endeavors. I think too that the sketching is good to remember even when things seem to already have arrived at some sort of final stage, because it is a great way to keep moving forward and evolving.

  2. July 29, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Enjoyed the post Mark, and agree. I’ve found that even if you are “sketching” digitally (say putting together a conceptual wireframe) it helps to make sure your lines aren’t too straight – we use the program Axure quite a bit and there is a “Sketchy Widget” plugin created just for that purpose. That way people don’t get too hung up on details and can still live in concept land. Also nice job writing out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

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