Heretical Idea – Design with Paper


a sketch or a series pf wireframes, with pencils and an eraser.

Of late I have noticed a very disturbing trend.  Some designers no longer draw or sketch on paper.

Have we been seduced by the shiny digital world, sure low-res paper prototyping is still popular, but what of sketching.

Not pretty sketching where we aren’t focusing on the heart of the interaction issue, but real sketching where finding the solution is the focus. I’ll discount Inkling sketching as it’s still pen and paper.

We seem to have a collect of designers that just go straight for photoshop, illustrator, Balsamiq or Omnigraffle.  

We used to tell developers not to rush to start coding, to step away from the computer. In fact developers I have seen are doing this, they are sitting down any drawing out the wireframes etc on paper.

Digital is Bad.

Designers, however are rushing headlong to the computer, trembling to open Photoshop and draw some nice neat lines or the like.

Stop it!!

To make matters worse there seems to be a trend to producing the first idea out of our heads as the preliminary digital sketch.

There are a lot of things that I find very disturbing about this:

  • Same Environment.

    When you sketch, away form you computer, you free yourself of the trapping of your own design, likes and dislikes and allow yourself to focus on the likes and dislikes of the audience you are designing for. It’s just a change of mental space.

  • Too Precious.

    Going digital, no matter how sketchy it looks, still has an air of “time and resources” have been expended on this, it’s precious. All that time used on making it pretty, could have be used sketching another alternative.  We all know that neat and pretty leads to a biasing of a design on critique.

  • Too much Fussing.

    We tend to fuss over the precision of our digital work. Sketching is about finding ideas and the journey not the end product.  It’s about finding structure, not fussing over fine details, you can look at those later. Product designs avoid the digital and detail till the end, why don’t we.

  • No Accidents or Mistakes.

    Accidents can happen with pen and paper which are not seen digitally, these generate ideas. The free flowing nature of quick design generation on paper will often lead to a misplace line here and there and this will often allow you to abstract out another design direction.

  • Immediate Ideas are Lost.

    Sketching is about the immediate and trying out new ideas, drawing up that interaction now before you forget it.  Doing this digitally just takes too long, no matter how good you are.

  • First Design is Last Design.

    Too often the first design produced ends up as the last and only design.  With sketching you can iterate over the design, not worrying  about the outcome.

    I know sometimes the boss wants it all done digitally. Well screw them, you are being paid to come up with good designs fast, churning out the same theme of a photoshop design is not designing. Do what you are being paid for, create something new fast, on paper.

  • Can’t Draw.

    Okay this shocked me. But I’m from the old school.

    As a designer it’s not a bad idea to at least be able to draw basic shapes and know how to shade. These skills you can practice and master in a few hours.  We all have atrophied pencil drawing skills.  But never let it get to the point that your can’t draw at all.

  • Sketches are Messy.

    Still after doing all the right things your sketches are a mess. When you show them to your colleagues and peers they just don’t communicate the intent you want. This is an issue that a lot of people have. They just fall back to the digital world to escape it.

    Yes your initial sketches maybe a mess. That’s okay, lots of younger UX people have this issue. Don’t run away from it.

    Just practice. You could use any of the various series of UI stencils available if you like. But remember these are really just tools to assist you while your skills improve.

  • Collaborative Magic is Lost.

    There is a special magic that happens when you sketch ideas in front of a client on paper.

    They will often want to draw too.  Sketching then becomes this collaborative communication tool.  This synergy you get is just priceless.  Somehow that just doesn’t work on a computer or even a tablet.

Paper is Good.

So let’s just STOP pretending to sketch on the computer, tablet, laptop, whatever.  Try going analogue for once.

  1. Get some paper, a pencil or drawing pen,
  2. Go sit at another desk, table or on the couch, just away from computers,
  3. Put on your favourite music,
  4. Go draw, sketch away,
  5. Let your mind wander, try different ideas, just iterate rapidly taking the best bits from previous ideas.

You have permission to make a mess, if you boss walks in and asks what your doing, tell him you’re designing.

Don’t be precious over the ideas, just let them flow.  If it goes well you may have 10-40 ideas within an hour.

There is a wonderful aspect of “flow” that happens when you design this way.  It’s not something that you can do digitally.  Mainly because digital is just to restricted to the pixel, to perfect, to clean.

So next time you have to start a design I don’t want to see you reach for a mouse or a tablet.

Use pencil and paper, please.

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