Is sketching important?

A student sent me the following email. Below is my response, but I thought it would be cool to see what you all thought.

Mr DiTullo,

I am a student from XXXXXXX writing a placement dissertation. My dissertation is based on whether or not a strong sketching skill set is required in a professional design practice. I enjoy sketching and personally think it is an invaluable skill to have, however the company I am at does not do any presentational sketch work to clients or any internal sketching. This made me ask the question is a strong sketching ability required in a professional design practice? I am trying to weigh up the value of a strong sketching ability against other development tools such as model making, prototyping and CAD work.

I know from your website and your involvement in Core77 that you have an exceptionally strong sketching ability. It would be fantastic if you could provide your thoughts and insights into this subject matter i.e. What do you as a professional class as a strong sketching ability? Do you find that designers that can sketch to a high standard are better designers than those that can’t? Compared to other forms of development does a strong sketching skill set take second place?

As a professional designer I know that you are very busy so any feedback, comments, suggestions or examples that you have to offer I would be extremely grateful for.

Kind Regards,



Thanks for your email and the compliment.

Sketching is extremely important in the professional world for several reasons. The most obvious reason is efficiency of communication. Ideas tend to be visual. As someone explains an idea to you, you get a mental picture. That picture is subjective based on how you interpret words. A sketch visualizes the idea for the viewer, providing a shared visual experience that can be discussed, debated and refined.

You might say a 3d computer model does this as well, and you would be right. However, in the time it would take you to create one computer model of one idea, you could flush out 50 concept sketches, meet with a group, refine the ideas, and do another round of finished concepts. A sketch is fluid. It implies to viewers that this is still a work in process, and they are freer to have input, brainstorm, and share ideas. A sketch has that perfect amount of communication and interpretation. When the concept reaches an optimal state, then I feel confident going to 3d. If I am going to have one of my modelers spend 60 hours making a design, I want to make sure it is the RIGHT design, and the best thing we could possibly make. I don’t do 3d myself because I don’t want to design what I know I can build. My modelers are extremely talented, and speak that language fluently.

Beyond communication, sketching is a way of thinking. Throwing lines down, doodling through a problem, we find new solutions. Through documenting that thinking in drawings we go through the act of evaluating and building on thoughts until they are complete. We push beyond the obvious into the realm of the uncomfortable, where all good things tend to come from.

On a more minor level, it is one of the things in the product creation process that only we can do. It gains us respect, and elevates us from mere technicians to creatives. Spin a model around on screen and people are mildly impressed. Tear off a sheet of paper and throw down a beautiful sketch, and they are blow away, captivated, they feel they have witnessed something special. In our desire to integrate into the product process designers have learned how to speak the languages of business and engineering. It is paramount that we not forget out own language, the language of creativity and imagination.

It is these things that have gotten me into board room discussions and corporate planning meetings. Not my ability to read a spread sheet or revise a blueprint (though I do both). For these reasons I would never consider hiring someone who didn’t enjoy sketching.

Good luck with the paper.



I second everything that YO said and will add my two cents.
Not only is sketching important, but sketching WELL is important. In my experience potential employers and clients are looking for someone who not only understands manufacturing and 3D modeling, but sketches like a mad fool. I have actually been passed up for jobs because I couldn’t sketch as well as the employer would have liked. If I had any advice to give to anyone, it would be to sketch as much as you breathe, it, like breathing, can only help you. I am regretting now not putting as much time as my classmates in school to improve my sketching and my career is suffering as a result :unamused: .

Sketch on!

I agree that sketching is an almost essential tool. You can sketch an idea on a napkin, on the back of your shopping list, anywhere. All you need is a pen and paper. You don’t need thousands of dollars worth of equipment and software to hone your skill. If you come up with a great idea when you are away from your computer, it doesn’t matter as long as you can draw. As designers, it is part of our job to communicate our ideas as clearly and efficiently as possible. I don’t care how fast you can model, I guarantee I can sketch way faster. Another aspect is that a persuasive sketch is one of the fastest ways to sell your design. As YO mentioned, excellent sketching is almost like magic to the lay person. If you are kick-ass at making sketch models or a 3D whiz, you can certainly get by with that alone, but why would you want to toss out one of the best tools you have?

There are very successful designers and architects that don’t sketch very well, so they must have developed effective work flows that don’t lean strongly on 2D problem solving. Here are a couple of examples.


Became this:

Just from the sketch alone, would you have any idea that this:

Would become this?

In the above examples, if I you hadn’t seen either designer’s previous work, and they presented you with those sketches for their ideas, wouldn’t you (wrongly) assume that they were not very good? Drawing is a skill that everyone can improve with practice. I think it is well worth the time investment.

what you don’t see is the intermediary steps. I’ve seen a highly polished graphite rendering of an early version of that juicer. It originally had a spiral form in the center like in some of those quick thumbnail sketches)

Gehry does a lot of sketch paper models. Not the same as a 2d concept sketch, but very close in terms of the way it is used to communicate, collaborate, and refine. Certainly there are many steps before the incomprehensible doodle goes to a 3d CAD model. (check out the movie "The Sketches of Frank Gehry)

You’re right Yo!!

Computer design in footwear is completly a waste of time.

If you wanna see how your collection is taking form is through the sketches.Once you get the collection defined,once everything is in the properly place then (if you have time,normaly you don’t),make a render for a presentation.

Even if you want to make a render,is useless.In all the places I worked instead of render I did real scale models of upper and soles.


I dont have much to add that you haven’t already mentioned, but YES, sketching is important.

The only distinction I would make is sketching vs. rendering, which I feel is less important. A good sketch communicates a concept, idea, direction, thought, etc. It doesnt need to be fancy, doesn’t need to necessarily be 100% correct (proportion/perspective, etc.), but it should get across as much information with the minimum of time/lines/effort.

IMHO, a good sketch should be disposable and not a work of art. It’s purpose is communication of an idea and its role in the design process is one that is temporary.

I’ve ranted about this before, but i’ll mention it again as i think it’s relevant (and billymenut touched on it)- all too often I see designers consider a sketch/render precious. Spend 8 hours on a PS rendering, when there is no additional info that a 5 min sketch wouldnt communicate. This is backwards. Renderings have their time and place, but i consider a sketch like a snippet of verbal dialog. You wouldn’t spend hours carefully crafting and proofing a formal speech about your concept in the middle of a brainstorming session… a sketch is a visual equivalent of a conversation exchange. Get your point across as simply and easily as possible, generate feedback, adjust direction and move on.

Nicely worded reply, btw, Yo.


I think it’s interesting that the student came to you specifically to ask this question since you are well known for your sketching talent. Don’t you think he got the answer he was expecting?

Anyway, I’ve hired several designers who can’t sketch at all and they add tremendous value to what we do as an experience-design practice. We use many modes of narrative to communicate intent to various audiences in the fuzzy-front-end. I frequently have to throttle traditional Industrial Designers who tend to “over design” early on, thereby ending conversations instead of starting them. But I do think sketching plays its part in post-definition phases.

I think if you asked Gerhy, he’d tell you that rapid model-making trumps sketching, but they compliment each other and sketching tends to “spark” the model making process.

I think I have to start by saying, that the extent of sketching depends on where you are, and who you want to be.

In my office, barely anyone can really draw- and even they rarely get to showcase this talent. But almost no one can talk through a design idea or concept without throwing down some chalk (we have chalkboards everywhere), or ink on something.

Some of my coworkers want our partners/ customers to give us the sketches and we CAD it up. Myself and a few others raise an eyebrow and would love to keep them busy with this- but we have stuff to do too. But I, WANT, to be an effective sketcher, my coworker chooses the other. Yet he is no less vital to our success.

In places like… er… big footwear places or the similar… taking 1 of 50 sketches to the next level is status quo. Most of these are quite nice by the way- but… in other places you might not see a marker in the building.

For me, it comes down to who I want to be, and how I’d like to do it. Sometimes a couple not so clean sketches is good enough, sometimes Photostick is a decent helper.

Rapid, clean and communicative sketching is a must. It comes down to simple $$'s. It is low overhead for paper and pens. As mentioned above, it is very efficient to crank out concepts.

Having said that, sketch foam or paper models are also valid. Not quite as fast as pen on paper, but still good.

I would comment that if it is not a priority at your current office, the managers do not place an emphasis on sketching.

It is these things that have gotten me into board room discussions and corporate planning meetings. Not my ability to read a spread sheet or revise a blueprint (though I do both). For these reasons I would never consider hiring someone who didn’t enjoy sketching.[/quote]

This is very true for me also.

good topic. I think sketching is hugely important. Some industries like automotive and footwear depend more on it to create the sheer volume of design ideation needed to remain fresh and provocative in the marketplace. I’ve found that in the consultancies I’ve worked at, it comes more in waves every few weeks.

I really like where this thread is headed, I think it provides insight to what is going on inside peoples heads. I would be interested to see if others have experienced anything similar to this situation:

Interviewer: "We are looking for some who really understands the design process and can add to our design team. Understanding manufacturability is really important to us as we turn out high volumes of blank.

Interviewee: “That sounds great, I can do this, let’s look at my portfolio…”

Significant Time Passes…

Interviewer: “Your stuff looks great and your process is very similar to ours, very good.”

Interviewee: “Thanks.”

Interviewer: “Unfortunately, your renderings aren’t as dazzling as we would like, so we really aren’t interested.”

Interviewee: (blinks) “Uh, ok, but the ad stated that you were looking for an engineering-minded designer…”

Interviewer: cutting you off “…Yeah, but we really need someone who can do kickarse renderings that would make Chip Foose cry, so thanks anyway.”

Of course this situation is a little contrived, but I have had this kind of thing happen more than once. Why do so many companies place ads for Nasa capable engineeringdesigners (I just invented a word!) and look for hot shot render-monkeys during the interview? I know that there are a few, and I mean a FEW, people who can really do this, so why are non-prestigious companies thinking this is the norm? Am I delusional, or did I miss some secret designer meeting where everyone became rockstar designers?

Sorry if I sound a little bitter, but this kind of thing comes as a slap in the face when it happens.

What are your thoughts?

i do not believe anyone has yet mentioned this, but in my experience as an interior and industrial designer, presenting a sketch as the initial concept (rather than even a “quick” 3d model) is crucial if for no other reason than this: it prevents a client from getting too caught up in the details.

3d models have a tendency to look like a refined idea, even if they are a basic form or structure. i have found this intimidates clients and in a way makes them closed-minded about the next steps in the design process. clients need a gestural sketch to imaginatively build upon during the first phases of a design.

I’d like to take a different angle to this and suggest that sketching is not just about hand to paper, but rather an intended form of communication to yourself (for reflection) or to others for conversation and collaboration.

A great book to read on this topic is by Bill Buxton the Principal Deisgn Researcher at Microsoft and founder of Alias. It is called “Sketching User Experience”

Check it out!

– dave

Sketching is important. No one can deny that. Although it is the way the designer chooses to get from start to finish is what really matters.

When I was in school I was taught specific ways to tackle each project. When I graduated and started designing in the real world I learned a lot about what I am really good at and what I am not so good at. I developed my own design process based on how my brain works. Everyone is different and should not follow the same design process. Use the basics and design the way you can be the most productive and creative. Feed off your natural talents to become who you are.

You can be taught how to design, you cannot be taught how to be a designer. -

I have a car design background and admittedly, drawing well is more highly prized in that field than some others, but being able to do a quick sketch on the spot that communicates well has helped me countless times. When I interface with engineers or modelers, doing section views or clarification sketches are so much more effective than just using words.

I agree with kattyface about the importance of staying loose and open to possibilities in the beginning design stages. That ties into the distinction that rkuchinsky made between sketches and renderings. Sketches are way more useful than renderings when it comes to problem solving, but the ability to do both can come in handy.

Fatkid said:

I think it provides insight to what is going on inside peoples head

Isn’t that what sketching does? It lets others see what is going on in your head. That is exactly why it is important.

Drawing is a language. It is a way of communicating. Shouldn’t we all try to become more fluent in that language? Something that hasn’t been mentioned is how learning to draw well can help you become a better designer. I know that YO has mentioned before how important proportion is in footwear design. It is the same deal in car design. Learning to draw will train you to appreciate subtle differences in proportions. You actually begin to perceive things differently. Things that once looked virtually indistinguishable will suddenly appear quite different as your drawing ability and accuracy improves. This will only help your designs. This is not to say that designers who draw well are better than those who don’t… we all know that is not true. That is why I picked Starck and Gehry as examples earlier. Learning to draw can help hone your perceptions, so why dismiss it? I don’t think that the ability to draw well could ever hurt you, but the inability most likely will.

I agree with this. There are different dialects to use depending on what you’re designing and when. It’s a shame that sketching isn’t taught at a young age as a problem-solving tool.

I’ve found the dialects to be:

  1. Analysis: Whiteboard sketches illustrate the system (flow, sequence, culture, artifact, mind-maps…)

  2. Concept: Loose sketches illustrate the “What”

  3. Design: Tight sketches illustrate the “How”

  4. Documentation: CAD drawings specify the how.

    Today as a design manager my focus is stage 1-2, so I sketch in a different way than when I was a younger designer working in stages 3-4.

I can’t sketch. I can’t. And I have tried repeatedly to teach myself or get taught. I still can’t and I prolly never will sketch well. I’m a lefty, I think primarily in 3d, I don’t believe that I see things in perspective on paper well enough to get them down quickly. Can do outlines? Yes. Can I shade, yes. But 3/4 sketches are skewed, my persepctive is off, my crap looks horrible. Oh, I get it, I understand its value, time saving and presentation usage. Problem solving, working out details, its cool. However, there is hope for all of you who can’t sketch, or can but not well enough to show it off.
I managed to get through grad school with solid grades, I made great stuff, learned some early cad and got out on my own to become a successful designer without ever sketching well. I spent a long time finding my way. I suffered through as many as 50 interviews with my portfolio in hand. I had at least 15 jobs in 15 years time, from freelance, consultant and corp places. You might say, well, what happened in all of those jobs? Some stuck for 3 years plus, others were 3 week gigs that needed very little. My point is that I got in the door, showed my crappy sketches alongside two other important things- the final product and a machine drafting with dimensions, materials and finishes on them. People want to see stuff that you did that got made. If you can then put the product in their hands and tell them why its better, then you have a job. No, your feather chair concept drawing isn’t going to wow them.

Not to boast, but I am lucky to make more than the average designer (120k), I’m not managing anyone either, I am the solo designer here in my corp. I innovate, design and churn out stuff daily. The value I add is in thinking differently, applying that to real world problems and asking alot of questions, mostly what if’s about current products. I love the foggy front end concept end of design too.
I work the same way I always did. I understand the problem, I get as many hardline factors built in as possible, and then I either sketch loosely in my own chicken wire drawings for my own understanding, then I move to cad, and prototypes, usually it takes one more variation.

A few more thoughts-
I know plenty of designers who sketch elegantly, but their design skills are lacking, too artsy, too mech robot or too foo foo for anyone to make real.
I also know that thinking in 3d is key, I spent years as a ceramicist, scuplturer and stone carving before I moved into foam, wood and metals. A pretty picture is just that, a picture. I’d rather tweak and hold it, and tweak it again. Until it is dimensioned and mocked up, its just a flat idea of the real thing.

I feel like maybe a third of the designers I know could really sketch well. If its so important, then what are the other 2/3 of the designers doing to get by? Rendering perhaps? Scale mockups?

You can make it without being a sketching god. Getting ideas out is vital, but only vital to you, because you are the one understanding them. If need be, put it in a format whereby it can be better understood by others, in cad, in illustrator, in model form.

I know that this post is going to get bashed, but hey, I am proof of a non sketching designer.

really? you never need to communicate with other people, and if you do, you need to spend lots of extra time doing cad/illustrator? I have no idea what kind of company/product area you are in, but doesn’t sound like any designer i know.

as said many times before, sketching is about communication as much as exploration. Sketches do not necessarily need to have fancy rendering flare, but if you cant communicate a design intent with a few well placed lines i have to question your process.


another thing that hasn’t been mentioned…

i love sketching.
i am a better designer when i am happy and enjoying what i am doing.

i f’n hate CAD sometimes. it sucks the soul out of you. necc. evil.

a great question would be who is lucky enough to be a successful designer without having to sit in front of CAD?