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Archive for September, 2009

Sketching Strategies

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

_DSC0548 (Large)In the last few years I used my sketchbooks nearly everywhere: during talks or meetings I attend, at conferences, in classes, or in the train – I always sketch my thoughts and ideas in one of my sketchbooks. Often these sketches help me to structure my own ideas, help me deciding between alternative approaches, or just remind me of projects I want to work on later. There are several themes I noticed in the ways how I use my sketchbook, and in this blog entry I explain a few of these.

Collecting project ideas

When I start with a new project I want to work on, I begin with sketching everything that comes to my mind related to that idea. This might be related to Brainstorming; however, the essential difference is that I do not start with words or phrases (as usually in a brainstorming session), but by sketching small single pieces that relate to the general theme of the project. Later on, I sometimes go through these sketches and label or categorize them. In summary, these sketches form my idea pool for this particular project I want to work on. Sometimes pages with these sketches may even include sketches of other unrelated ideas, but this is also part of the idea of keeping the sketchbook.

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Collections of related material

Whenever I find photos, maps, or illustrations that relate to a project I’m working on, I print them out and add them to my sketch book as well. I usually try to leave enough space on the page to include my comments and thoughts on the same page. Sometimes I first collect all this related material in my sketchbook first (having them in there before I forget them), and after a week or two I go over these pages again to add comments and annotations. I found it quite useful to add the source of the information (e.g., the URL) to the material. I also keep the digital version of all the images that I print out for my sketchbooks in one location on my computer, so that it is easier for me to find them when I need them later.

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Iterations of ideas (multiples)

Before working on specific implementations (e.g., programming a new software) I usually go through my ideas in a few cycles and create ‘multiples’. This idea follows Bill Buxton’s idea of “Getting the right design and the design right”. I absolutely agree with Bill on the importance of creating these multiples very early in the design process. This principle pushes you to trying to think about one idea from diverse perspectives, which can be often quite challenging (getting input from others can help). Having a set of ‘multiples’ allows you to overlook the design space, compare alternatives, and discuss advantages and disadvantages.

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Reflecting on sketches of others

Besides reflecting on my own ideas, it is also very insightful for me when I get the chance to include sketches of others (e.g., colleagues, students) in my sketchbook and rethink their sketches. When including these sketches I try again to leave enough space on the page around these sketches to add my notes and comments.

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Taking notes during classes, meetings, and presentations

Sketches that are taken during classes, meetings, or presentations are extremely helpful when revisiting later, as these sketches might condense a lot of information in a very compact, visual form. Here it is challenging to create these visual summaries while you hear the presenter talking; and sometimes these talks don’t include any visuals at all. I often try (and not always succeed) to represent each talk I attend in a summary of small sketches on the page (see the image below).

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Field notes

These notes remind me a little bit of notebooks from biologists or other field researchers. An example of such field notes are pages from my exploration of RFID technology. Besides many related notes and sketches, they include glued or taped in opened RFID tags or antenna material. These field notes really follow my exploration process of new domains.

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Construction plans for electronic and mechanical components

My research sometimes includes building electronic circuits or mechanical units. Sketching pages for these projects usually include a collection of related sketches and notes from the following categories: overview plan (rough sketches), detail views of sub parts, measures and dimensions, list of needed components, and assembly instructions.

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During programming

When programming I sometimes use my sketchbook to sketch ideas for user interfaces, but also to write down formulas, variable values, algorithm structures, etc (see second photo). This might look a bit far away from ‘sketching’, I find it however quite useful to have these notes in my sketchbook as well. These pages often contain a lot of useful information when I go back to the source code of an older software project, and in these cases I search in my sketchbooks for the corresponding pages.

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Overviews and diagrams

I often use these sketches to structure my ideas. These can be for example flow diagrams, hierarchical diagrams, or even UML-like relationship diagrams (or any other UML type). Sketches go from high level conceptual overviews to low level implementation overviews. I also noticed that I use color very frequently in these types of sketches; usually to cluster related parts or to highlight links in between them.

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Before starting to create a new presentation or video, I begin by creating storyboards that include the step-by-step walk through of the single pieces. Sticky notes are very useful to sketch down each step (scenes for video, slides for presentations) as they make it much easier to reorder them afterwards. The process itself is not very different between video projects or presentations. For video projects each single note also includes important information about scene composition, whereas for presentations the focus is on key points of the slide and the ideas for slide design.

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When working on a new project, specific scenarios often are quite useful to identify requirements for the implementation quite early in the design process. For example, when building a developer’s toolkit for my MSc thesis, I sketched the scenarios shown in the following picture. Each of the sketches included one scenario – beginning from simple ones and continuing to more complex ones on the following pages. Later I went through these scenarios again, and identified themes that made it easier for me to target my toolkit for a specific subset of these themes.

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Lessons I learned

In summary, I really see sketching as one of the substantial tools in my everyday research.

  • Browse your sketchbooks: Quite frequently when looking through my old sketchbooks I find project ideas that I wanted to work on but then forgot to follow up, or I find my notes from talks I have attended a while ago that inspired my work.
  • Date your sketches: this can help later when cycling through your sketchbooks. In particular, this is useful when trying to find digital information on your computer that is related to a particular sketch.
  • Avoid erasing notes or removing pages: sometimes sketchbook pages might look messy; but this is part of keeping the sketchbook. Starting a new sketch on the same page is often easier than erasing parts of an existing one. And by leaving discarded sketches on the page, you later also have more information about previous approaches.
  • Have your sketchbook with you: when buying new sketchbooks, I try to find a size of the book that ensures that it has the right size so that I can take it with me all the time (i.e., it easily fits into my bag or backpack). When ideas come to my mind I often create notes or sketches right away; even in the train or when sitting in the park…