What is a sketch? Is sketching important?

Hi all,

I’ve just gotten around to viewing a video of Bill Buxton’s keynote presentation at the Department of Industrial Design, KAIST, Korea:

Bill Buxton, Sketching Experience: Design Thinking & Thinking about Design
(when in the site click to stream or download a copy)

In it he addresses the questions presented in the subject of this post. Although his talk is book ended by a discussion of complexity and design (front), and co-design or collaboration and design (back). The presentation attempts to define design and then proceeds to discuss sketching as a critical tool in exploring the design problem and supporting design activity.

Personally, I would have liked to hear some more on the ways ‘sketching’ compares to the use of modelling software and CAD tools. He speaks at the start of systems and technologies that do not make best use of our aquired skills. However, the talk makes a strong case for sketching as an important, reflective tool, critical to design exploration and divergence. In fact Professor Buxton see sketching (and by this he seems to mean any process that supports reflective, divergent and dynamic exploration) as the only way to start to explore the design problem.

It would be interesting to hear your views on the presentation…


Well it is more efficient to pull out some paper; a napkin or something (tablet) jot down your idea and share it with whomever, rather then pull out a laptop and start banging out CAD.

Like the 10,000 hours thread, most people by the time they would be approaching CAD would already have thousands of hours of experience of pencil and paper.

CAD/ Software is also a rigid set of rules- there are only a few paths to get to Shape A, this constrains what is possible to output. A sketch is so much less rigid- pretty much if you can think it you can draw it (provided you have the skills to do so).

I can’t find the piece, but I read something about how writing technologies change how things are written because of their inherant constraints:

Longhand is the slowest but allows more thought to go forward into what will be written next, more care is taken over exact meanings.

Typewriters (especially if you can touch type fast) allow a conversational/ stream-of-conscious style.

Word Processing allows much faster editing as well, so structure is easier to visualise, but you go back over what you’ve written again and again, so you don’t need to be as precise as if writing longhand.

Dictation software (when if it works, the amount of times I’ve talked about a ‘new direction’ and it gets written down as ‘nude erection’…) is almost as fast as you can think it, so requires lots of editing and tidying-up.

(also, I read something about car designs in the 60’s and 70’s are a direct result of the use of blue pencils, anyone know about this?)

With regards having spent 10,000 hrs on their sketch skills before they go to CAD, that assumes they have done lots of ‘design’ sketching before being hooked by the reassurance and certainty that the command-based, more constrained system CAD can provide.

A characteristic of novice practitioners (and this includes designers) is a lack of confidence and working through a process characterised as trial and error - try something, see if it works and try something new. Of course more experienced practitioners may do this but they will also use their knowledge and understanding, built up through past experience, to take a more holistic approach to their work - they get a ‘feel’ for what’s ‘right’. I think this is where sketching is a particulary effective tool - to explore the ‘feel’ of the design. This is particularly important in design practice where the problem can have many possible solutions.

CAD plays into the novices’ pre-existing tendency to wish to move towards a solution more quickly - CAD can accelerate this tendency.

With regards writing technologies, of course that is true - the tool-in-hand will influence the activity (in this case writing). Just as the tool of sketching will also influence the activity; although writing is a symbolic system of communication, a sketch or drawing attempts to represent something else pictorially of course.

When CAD was first introduced to Car design, designers were able to tell which software the design team had used by the shape of the car. I also recently interviewed a practitioner who claimed he could see which software his competitors were using by looking at their designs!

The point is though that, although CAD may influence the nature of design, the relationship between the tool (CAD) and the user of the tool (Designer) will also influence the activity (in this case design activity).

There is so much personal preference to these types of discussions its important not to think about efficiency too much.

I’ve always personally felt that sketching is for idea and exploration and lends it self much more to collaboration and CAD is for execution and refinement, but is inherently solitary.
Both are important.
An often ignored side note, I enjoy sketching much more than pumping CAD. Happy designer = better work.
The output can also get mutated by the need to stop the process at predefined tollgate to share with the client. Some clients love rough ideas and exploration in sketch format, some can’t read it and need a more develop CAD rendering (those clients typically have to wait longer).

That being said, I know people who take sketching/rendering way farther than I ever would and folks who do a ton of front end exploration in CAD. If you’ve every seen first hand an expert sketch-bot or CAD-bot working on client deliverables, they are both amazing and could be used to exclaim that x is better than y. That is a mistake.

Doing truly good design work is hard enough, let people use whatever tool resonates with them.

I agree that the best person to decide what tool (sketching or CAD) to use is the designer themselves. X is not better than Y because it all depends!

But I also think it’s important for the novice designer (student) to gain an awareness of the ways in which the tool may influence the activity and how that activity locates and is informed by the requirements of a design process.

As the post above has said, there are qualities in sketching and CAD that lend themselves to certain type of design work. However, the client and requirements of the design process also influence the designer’s choice and use of tools. But, importantly, the designer’s own approach to and use of tools can influence when they are used and what they are used for.

It’s because truly good design work is so hard, that designers need to develop awareness of how tool use relates to their own design work and how it relates to and is informed by design practice. This will then help students become more critical and aware of their own use of tools and their own studio practice.

Don’t forget that young designers don’t work in a vacuum. They work with experienced senior designers and directors to guide them through the process and direct the flow of work.

I wouldn’t want to become a designer if there was no sketching involved, that is how important sketching is to me.

Don’t forget that young designers don’t work in a vacuum.

how could we when that generation is so good at reminding us? :slight_smile:


You may be aware of this already, but I would suggest Goldschmidt’s Dialectics of Sketching paper in which the idea that beyond efficiency and experience of use, engaging in a conversation with yourself by accessing the unique connection between hand and brain is discussed. Sennet’s the Craftsman touches a little on this connection as well.

Sure you need 10000-ish hours to master something, but actually, aside from that easily quotable and digestible sound-byte, one of the studies that talks about that figure also talks about needing only 1000 hours to get to a professional level at some tasks, like CAD, and being able to do it for a living. I think it is important for undergraduate design students to sketch before they go to CAD, and make mine do so, because it helps them to make a good deal of design decisions before they start fighting with the computer program in the effort to learn it. I think that it can be a little much for them to both learn a software package and participate in the design process simultaneously (I mean at the same moment, not in the same semester). In addition, some are still learning the process, which can make for a pretty rough day at the workstation.

What is a sketch?

Pei et al. - 2011 -A Taxonomic Classification of Visual Design Representations Used by Industrial Designers and Engineering Designers

you might be able to get it here, if your institution has a subscription:


Thanks for the references - I was aware Goldschmidt has done a raft of papers on design representation, but not sure if I’ve looked at the paper you cited (or at least may need to revisit it). Design Representations, Goldschmidt & Porter (Eds) is also a good read. I’ve met Eujin Pei and know his work, a great taxonomy of design tools. He’s also published, with Loughborough Design School and the IDSA, a set of cards to support collaboration between designers and engineers. Find the CoLab cards here:


I’m not sure if Pei et al tackle the questions posed in the subject of this thread as ‘head on’ as Bill Buxton has tried to do in his presentation at ID KAIST. As Buxton suggests, there is something about sketching that makes it particularly effective for conceptual design (divergence, ambiguity, lateral transformations, lower levels of suggested commitment to design intent, interaction, dynamic exploration).

I think its okay to ‘make’ design students use one tool as opposed to another, as long as they are also given a strong understanding of why a given tool may help at a certain stage in the design process. This understanding of the ‘why’ of tool use, I think, comes from an awareness of the relationships between the design tool (sketching or CAD for example) and the requirements of a design process. But then, of course, approaches to tool use are also informed by the designer’s own idiosyncratic working methods, developed through experience (it’s complex!). I think it’s about making students aware of their own approach to design activity and how this approach influences their use of a given tool.

I realized during university that a good part of my then sketching/drawing style was related to duplicating the physical sound of my father’s hand across paper. Speed of a line and line ending reverse had a particular sound and rhythm “required” to feel correct.

That’s a great insight into the ways personal experiences have influence upon approaches to sketching. It also points to a more ‘embodied’ experience when sketching compared to say, using CAD tools.

I wonder if others on the list may have other ‘stories’ to tell?