Digital Sketching and the undo button

A colleague of mine has been working on some research with students using cintiq graphics tablets. They were asked to complete a small design task using only a tablet to come up with and communicate concept ideas. They were then asked about their use of the tablet, its affordance and limitations; how it compares to ‘hand’ sketching.

I sat in on the interview panels and one thing that struck me was the importance they bestowed upon the ‘undo’ button - 'it was great to know that you can easily go back and redo…’ or words to that effect.

This brings up some interesting questions. How does the use of sketch tablets, with all the associated digital functionality, influence the designer’s reflection on and progression of concept ideas - given the different affordances of the media?

Does the digital tablet spell the end for the humble paper and pen? And, before/if it does, have we considered the full implications of going digital?


I’ve mentally reached for the undo button while sketching with pen on paper.

Just like writing, making images will always have analog and digital versions. With writing and image making, it usually come down to clarity of message, and how much time you have to convey your thought. A quick 2 min thumbnail sketch or grocery store list doesn’t need an undo feature. You just cross it off or sketch over it or do another one. An email to a client or a sketch to the client probably needs to be more clear than just a visual reminder for yourself. You want to make sure the idea is conveyed clearly and easily. An undo is a great way to make sure that only the best lines or strokes or words are recorded.

As far as “reflection and progression” goes, image making has always been about recording something. You maybe able to do a little doodle and know what it is and be able to

Over time I have noticed that I ended up losing the record of form development. If something looked off: undo, erase, sketch more, undo/erase till it feels right. Saving rough steps as separate files or copying layers felt tedious to me and I found myself skipping it to aid the flow.

The loss of thought germs never happens on paper, you always have a backlog of every wrong line and it’s nice to go back to all of the “off” forms sometimes to retrace your steps to make sure you didn’t miss something, find a new point to branch off of, or whatever.

I’m a huge fan of thinking on paper, and going digital for tighter drawings. Also, there’s something about sketching on paper, it is more fun for me. Maybe because it’s reserved now for early concept stage mostly (the funnest part for me) or maybe it’s texture of paper and smell of sharpened pencil that’s easier on the senses than staring at a glowing rectangle?

Does the digital tablet spell the end for the humble paper and pen? And, before/if it does, have we considered the full implications of going digital?"

Nope. Paper will never go away. Digital sketching is a supplement, not a replacement, and as I constantly tell students - if you can’t draw on paper, no amount of undo’s will teach you how to draw well digitally.

I would Also say that I prefer paper instead of a cintiq

I had one…until it died on me :wink:

It was the best thing that could happen to me. Because there’s no undo button with regular sketching I make more sketches. Exploring more shapes and ideas. I find that a computer takes me in one straight direction, while I actually want to explore as many as possible. So therefore I would say no to digital sketching and yes to analog sketching. Especially in the ideation- or concept-phase of a project/assignment. (Unless you have the self-control to not use the undo button or any other digital gizmo, but then why wouldn’t you sketch on paper?)
Lots of beginning designers/students tend to go for digital sketching because they can erase/undo their mistakes. And get something cool on screen without much skill. This really is a death trap.
The real creativity/desigining happens on a simple piece of paper and in a workshop.
Learn form your mistakes and redo it untill you get it right. If you must resketch an idea over and over it’s not a waste or lost time. It’s exploring a shape idea/untill it’s perfect.
The computer-environment is there to detail/hone the design. Not to perceive it. I only use CAD/digital sketching software once the concept is chosen and most problems are solved in the workshop or via sketching.

Just my 5cents



Also I would advise to sketch with a ballpen and not an erasable pencil. You should learn from your mistakes not erase them so you can pretend they never happened.

Sometimes the mistakes become the insight to a new solution…

That said, I’d still like an iPad to sketch on (uh, Apple… my address is…)

I find that I get a lot lazier with line economy and thinking before I put down a line when I go digital. Unless I’m ideating for some form that’s symmetrical (symmetry tool!) I prefer to do it by hand. I also prefer hand rendering. Digital renderings feel so cheap. I could spend hours staring at a marker rendering.

i agree! preferably a fine ballpoint so i can still make light strokes, nothing beats it…that said i wish i could only sketch digitally, i really do not like having to scan & adjust sketches, its just the feel of sketching on a cintiq isn’t quite the same & the power of undo is a temptress that is hard to ignore; so i find myself in no man’s land in between the two…

I’ve noticed a resurgence in appreciation for and interest in marker rendering from some students in the US. While 5 years ago, the best students wanted to go all digital, it seems now, some of the best are starting to re look at analog… maybe it’s the vintage sketch forum and the doodling forum?

This is a very interesting subject for me as well. However, many people have confused my digital sketches with marker renderings. A lot of people have told me how much they love my pencil sketches with the hatching and everything as opposed to all the digital work they see. Funnily enough, those sketches were all done on Painter with a tablet! I think the interest has more to do with recreating that analog look and feel then it is about going back to analog tools. In much the same way Tarantino will intentionally try to make his movies look like they were filmed and projected with traditional equipment. Designers are romantics!

I love sketching, so I love to sketch with ball point and just as well I love to sketch/paint digitally. I’ve also noticed that I come up with better ideas when sketching digitally. This mainly has to do with the layering features and the ease of creating iterations and changes on the fly. However, I have noticed that there is a bit of a learning curve with digital software. As with everything, it takes a fair amount of practice and time before you can become comfortable and really exploit the capabilities. A lot of beginners think they have it figured out as soon as they learn how to create a path. The reality is using these softwares is as much an exercise in creativity as their intended function. After the use of the various digital techniques became second nature, I found my creativity got shot to the next level. I’m still amazed at how many Industrial designers (even young ones) do not know how to modify brush parameters or even create entirely new ones.

I have another theory about this subject derived from John Maeda’s illuminating take on simplicity vs complexity. He proposes that when human beings have to work, they prefer simplicity. When it comes to the act of play or enjoyment, human beings actually prefer to make things complex. Think about it, does American football really need THAT MANY rules and regulations (and I used to play on my HS team :exclamation: )??

One of our retired instructors showed us a ton of vintage auto renderings and I realized a distinct difference in style from many of the renderings used for promos today. The vintage ones showed insane precision in its linework and reflections while todays renderings look pretty emotional and gestural. Going back to John Maeda’s observation, it’s pretty easy to create spastic drawings the traditional way. You would show your expertise in the skill by being as precise as a machine. Fast forward to today, the exact opposite is true. Since we’re designing on the computer, creating precise looking work is easy and often considered boring. So the experts in digital image creation show their skill by making their work look more emotional and casually hand drawn.

Hi all,

First off, thanks for some very interesting insights and suggestions. If I might just summarise what’s been said so far. As far as the ‘undo’ button goes - or to put it less crudely - an ability to quickly go back, to redefine the embodiment of ideas while sketching on a tablet, there seems some general agreement undo does not help with your reflection upon and evolution of design intentions? However, for others, like Modsquad, used in the right way this can be a benefit.

Also, more broadly, there is some negative sentiment towards the ‘digital feel’ of digital sketching - wishing the digital sketch to ‘not look so digital’. One thing the designers say to me here in the UK is that they’re always looking for sketch books when employing graduates. Not digitally enhanced sketches - but quick, hand drawn thinking sketches. They reason that the hand sketch shows personality and allows them to see the designer’s thought processes - there decisions and creative ability.

Can the digital tablet provide this personality and insight in the designers thinking? Perhaps, like everything else, it seems to be a case of having to learn the affordance and constraints of digital sketching tools and then play on these to achieve your purpose - more working through the tool less working around it. An awareness of the undo button and a playing on its affordance rather than clicking-back, clicking-back because they’re not happy, lack confidence or wishing to make the world’s prettiest sketch - when they really need to be thinking through design idea.


This, to me is the foundation of this discussion. The undo button is a confidence booster. But in its ability to boost confidence, is something inherently lost from the design process?