Everyone should be able to sketch

Once again, I’m stuck in a familiar place. A major grant proposal deadline is looming, the thing has been written, survived a round of edits largely unscathed, and now needs to be finished, and it’s like pulling teeth. Why? Something I have always struggled with is being more facile with rapid production and dissemination of my thinking.  Deep down, I’ve still got this Victorian notion of the writer in his garret, scratching away all day, perfecting his work until “it’s ready.” This might be great for literature, but it sure doesn’t work well in the workplace.  I need to improve my ability to generate the written equivalent of “sketches” – the throw away impressions of ideas that designers in general are so much better at producing. Everyone should be able to sketch.

Sketching – the rapid production of representations of your thinking –  is an essential skill. Practicing it, developing techniques that work for you, and inventing new ways to get your ideas out faster are all fundamental to design learning. “Sketches” are how you present your ideas, test your proposals, and turn your vision into something concrete. It should be at the core of your development process, and not just something for the designers to do.

Sketches are the manifestation of your ongoing conversation with the project. If you look back at the project files for a completed project, it’ll be full of sketches (concept art, wireframes, outlines, models, etc…). These are all sketches and not products in their own right. They exist to get you just far enough to advance your thinking and solicit input on some specific point.  When you’re in the midst of the dialectical conflict between the project goals and the gritty reality of the moment, sketches are things that let you find a way to proceed. “If we get rid of this, what will that look like…?” What if we add a fourth section here…?”

How can you have a conversation with something that has yet to exist? Easy. The simple act of externalizing anything changes it, so that your vision has to fit into lines and colors and volumes of space, and your idea has to fit into words. The results are always different and force you to confront the reality of making anything. Your design is an embodiment and must therefore be different than the mental image you have. There in the difference between the idea and sketch lies the center of the design process and the conversation. You have an idea and the sketch you produce, and never the twain shall meet in my experience. It’s a quantum phenomenon Heisenberg would recognize – the act of externalizing changes the vision. How your design forces you to confront your goals and plans is its part of the conversation, if you’re listening.

Why sketch?

Exhibit development shares much more with movie making than it does with software development in terms of process. A major motion picture might spend years in pre-production, and only a few weeks in principal photography, the part that most people think of as being “the meat” of the act of making a film. A major exhibition may take years to develop and a few months to fabricate and a few weeks to install, the part of the process most people visualize when you say “I make exhibitions.” Fabrication and installation are also very expensive, so a good process does everything possible to minimize the cost and duration of the fabrication and installation phases. Figuring it out on paper or on-screen is a lot cheaper than building it and then trying to figure it out. Moving a display case on a plan is easier than having four people pick up the real case and schlep it across the gallery, especially if there’s a chance of someone saying, “Nah, that doesn’t fit. OK, put it back where it was.” Moving a button on an interactive is easy on-screen, and less embarrassing than going to the fabricator and asking them to drill a new hole in the freshly-built exhibit and plug the old hole with… something. That kind of design laziness gets old fast.

The most common tools for managing the evolution of the vision during a project are written documents of various types; exhibit outlines, taxonomies, specifications, style guides, artifact lists, and so on. Documents have some significant benefits; they are concrete, they last, they are easy to share. But documents also have significant drawbacks. Documents have to be interpreted by the reader and I’m sure we all have had experiences of two people reading the same document and coming away with completely different interpretations of what was said. Documents also have a hard time adequately expressing the abstract, the vague, and the uncertain; precisely the qualities that any not-yet-created thing will possess until very late in its gestation. Many is the time I’ve seen colleagues look at a preliminary floorplan or concept document and say, “But if I show this to ____, they’ll think this is what the final is gonna look like, and we know it’s just our current version!” Documents can have a frightening concreteness. Calling them sketches robs them of some of the solidity they possess when you treat them like products. You have to look at them as temporary manifestations of your thinking. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth Life.” Putting dates on everything is a great way of expressing the idea that every sketch has an expiration date and old sketches should be treated as suspectly as an old quart of milk in the fridge.


  1. Reading this over at the end of the day, I can’t help but recall T.S. Eliot’s apology to a friend, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” I do go on and on sometimes…


  2. A lot of what’s written in this post is easy to relate to off the bat. I work in a small museum with a mixed designer-researcher exhibit team and the sketches–written or otherwise–rarely go both ways. We actually got creative at one point, grabbed a vast conference room, some styrofoam panels and big paper squares for exhibit cases, and had the whole team generating a life-size sketch. Some participated more than others, but it was incredibly difficult to ignore!

    What jumps out at me most, though, is your comment that once something’s on paper, it feels official. It strikes me as so odd that even exhibit designers themselves expect the development of an exhibit to be linear, are embarrassed to admit the false starts and deviations. These should be embraced! Exhibits really are brain children, ideas synthesized over months or years. As my museum’s blogger, I want to openly share the idea of “sketches” (tangible realizations of the steps toward an exhibit) because I see them as a valuable part of the exhibit itself, not something to be ashamed of. And, although I’ve received so much support from my team, I can still feel the relief that we haven’t had to admit a “mistake” yet.


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