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July 20, 2010
Reasons to Embrace Being Sketchy
I want to be sketchy.

Not in the “Eww, why is he looking at me? He’s a really sketchy guy” sense, 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.

I believe all of us should sketch in our various media, in our thinking, and 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, we tried to do it anyway because we didn't know what was impossible. We often succeeded, but if we’d had to guarantee an outcome, we never would have tried.

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

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 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. 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 "Why Strategists Should Make Stuff." He notes, “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 also see differently.

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.”

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.

It’s hard to convince clients to try something different unless they can see it. So we carefully, artfully create beautifully realistic mock-ups 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. 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, and open to interpretation. They’re McLuhan-esque cool, requiring participation and involvement. There are blanks that the viewer needs to fill. 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.

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

Fast, flexible, disposable, and focusing

My consulting partner, Andrew LeVasseur, describes the best attributes of prototypes and sketches as being “fast, flexible, disposable, and focusing.” 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, or you can save the best bits and reuse them later.

They can 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 isn't hard, but it takes doing it to do it. Got it? Pull out that notepad that you used to write ideas. Steal your co-workers 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 create.


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Mark Avnet is professor and head of the Creative Technology track at VCU Brandcenter, an award-winning graduate program in advertising. In addition, he consults on the application of creative technology and media psychology for brands. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter or here.

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