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  • Jesse Allen Cooke

Should Every Project Start With a Sketch?



We’ve all heard the purist designer describe the need to sketch—always. I’ll admit it, I’ve been that designer. There was a brief stage in my life where I truly believed that we needed to stick to the ways of our predecessors. A Field Notes sketchbook accompanied my shirt pocket wherever I went and I made sure that every project started with it. But, did every project need to start with it? Now, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to be learned and applied from the great designers that have come before us but we also need to understand that things have changed.

Sketching is an important step in the design process. It works because it doesn’t deliver a final product. It starts and ends as a preliminary step. If you look back at the way things used to be done then sketching makes perfect sense. Setting up an advertisement in the “Mad Men” days required exact measuring by hand, ordering and cutting out lines of type, pasting the elements onto paper to then be copied—and that’s only a small percentage of the steps involved in the process. A designer couldn’t just go into the project blindly, they had to sketch or at least create some sort of rough layout beforehand.


The practice of roughing out an idea before execution still holds true today but we have new technology and clients demanding faster turnarounds. Programs like Adobe Illustrator allow us to create variations and change things almost instantly. In a matter of 20 minutes, a designer may be able to put together 10 different layouts for a poster along with multiple color combinations, photos, and type choices. Whether or not they’re taking the time to create something meaningful that fits the client and the target audience is a whole other issue.


The point is that we are able to make instant executions with the ability to instantly change things as needed. It’s okay to skip the true form of sketching on some projects because we are able to “sketch” in a different way now. Place the photo on the right, then the left, then cropped at a 1:1 ratio, then make it a full page image with type over it. There’s no consequence to trying these things! As Aaron Draplin once said, “vectors are free.”


In my experience, it’s best to do whatever works best for you. Process varies from designer to designer. Everyone has the things they do to get the results they’re known for. Most people sketch but maybe you work better without sketching. Maybe you work better sitting in the sand along the ocean on a stormy day with a cup of tea and an old Windows laptop.


I think it’s important to explore your process and figure out if steps like sketching are right for you and the projects you work on. I find it really beneficial to sketch for logo design projects but I find that it’s almost useless (to me) when working on a web design concept. Whether or not you decide to sketch, it’s important to understand the initial purpose of it in the design process; to express the bad ideas and explore rough ideas until you come across the best one.

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