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The value of rough sketching

Barry Saunders explains why it is far easier to discard a paper sketch than a full set of wireframes.

Design thinking is not the same as engineering thinking or mathematical thinking. There are often multiple solutions to a design problem, and they cannot always arrive through a linear process of problem-solving. Rather, design solutions are often intuitive and holistic. They are often arrived at through immersion, iteration and amendment.

While contemplating a design problem, we need to get ourselves into the head space of our users, while also retaining the requirements of the system, the project, the clients and stakeholders. We need to hold psychological information, business information, technical information and other relevant constraints and concerns in our heads, at the same time.

Designers often have difficulty articulating their process, because it happens at the level of intuition and system oriented thinking.

The asynchronous, unpredictable nature of design inspiration can be frustrating to design practitioners — to say nothing of those paying the design practitioners wages.

A design solution may require staring at a piece of paper for 3 hours, until the design resolves itself in your head. It may require standing by a whiteboard and stitching diagrams, until something clicks. It may require post-it notes, a blank wall and a sharpie. It may drop in your head when you sit down at your desk at 9am, or may occur to you on the ride home at the end of a frustrating day.

A design solution may be arrived at through the rapid creation of a dozen or more solutions. It may be arrived at through a walk in the park, a dozen drinks at the bar, a conversation with a co-worker — or it may simply come to them in a dream. All of these are entirely valid ways of deriving a design solution.

Challengingly, few of these processes are replicable. They all rely on a lifetime of experiences, mistakes, personal interests, study and self-knowledge.

It is often the case that a design solution only makes sense when we see it. Design solutions are frequently iterative, so a partial solution can trigger thinking that leads us to the complete solution.

While this can seem like a chicken and egg problem, one technique that can be used to spur thinking is rough sketching.

Detailed sketching is useful when a solution has been agreed upon. However, rough sketches are even more useful in the early stages of design work. This is not just because sketching allows you to design a solution, it is because it allows you to design many solutions.

Rapid iterative sketching can allow you to get partial ideas onto the page. It can allow you to exorcise ideas that you already have, and clear your head for new ones.

When sketching, I find it best to rapidly sketch up six to 10 possible solutions. I keep them loose and try to avoid worrying about messiness, detail, or annotation.

Once I have generated some possible solutions, I then go back through them and evaluate them. Some of them are immediately wrong and can be discarded. Frequently, one or two appear to be a partial solution, and they can be used to start the following round of sketching.

On a psychological level, rough sketching is useful for a number of reasons. It can trigger creative thinking and further development of an idea. It can be useful to examine and discard ideas we may be stuck on. Ideas that make sense in our heads may make little sense on the page.

Rough sketching can be an effective way to stop us getting invested in a solution, simply because we have spent a lot of time working on it. It's far easier to discard a paper sketch than a full set of wireframes!


Barry Saunders is a UX Architect. He has worked on projects for News Ltd, Google, Westpac, EFIC, WWF-Australia, QUT, and SBS.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

to wonder why you ended up and one particular point. You can go back through the sketches and see what you thought were possible answers and some of the branches you took along the way. I always keep my rough sketches as one that wasn't quite right for project B may be perfect for project T some months later, or just the thing to send you in the right direction for project U later still.


The correct HTML entity is "&emdash;", not &mdash. That being said, you are very correct about the importance of rough sketching. Often when I'm stuck on a design problem I find myself revisiting rough sketches. Not only the sketches of my current project, but of other similar projects. They're usually a great source of inspiration.