Mastering the Art of Sketch-Writing

Written on 23 May 2013

One of the most obvious yet commonly overlooked elements of being a designer is the need to be a deft communication facilitator. Pictures are very often better than words, and mastering the art of “sketch writing” is so important. You don’t need to be an artists, but you do need to be able to capture thoughts and ideas visually, or translate information into something that can be consumed and understood quickly.

In meetings with clients, this is an effective way – often the most effective way – to describe their requirements, and explore solutions in a meaningfully and inclusively.

Even for good sketch artists, there’s no better way to master the art of sketch notes than to practice. But there are some fundamentals that will help you to become successful:

  1. Listen to everything. Information that might seem insignificant at the time may prove to be the key that unlocks a puzzle later in the design process.
  2. Think ahead. Think smart. When drafting your sketch, plan the space you will need for each section or component.
  3. Explore different styles. Find your own. This will make the presentation and communication of your sketch notes more effective. And this process of self-discovery will improve your communication more generally, across a broad set of design methods.
  4. Put pen to paper. A natural ability to draw – and a “designer’s eye” – will help, but you don’t have to be good at drawing to create effective and powerful sketch notes. Be adventurous, find your flow, even if you don’t feel confident at first.

Every designer will develop his/her own style, but it’s important to explore alternatives. No two sketch notes will be the same, because no two sketch notes will be designed to communicate the same information or do the same job.


This example illustrates how a particular designer uses text and titles to illustrate key information gathered during a client interview. Some designers prefer to use images to get a message across, but just because we’re designers doesn’t mean we’re tied to pictorial visualization. Understanding how to design with text is just as important.

In his Dual Coding theory, Paivio elaborates on the idea that we learn faster with mental images. Using sketches, we can help people to understand and absorb ideas quickly; and to build consensus and make good decisions. Iterations are important. Sketches improve as ideas are better understood. And, from the design hot seat, you will find that you process ideas more quickly with every sketch. As your sketches become rich with information, you will find yourself facilitating real communication; real collaboration. It can be exhilarating.

Lastly, as with everything, be prepared.

Make sure you have a good seat with a clear view. If you’re in charge, make that clear by positioning yourself correctly.

Make sure you have all your tools ready and to hand. You’ll miss ideas if you’re hunting for the right pen.

Keep a cool head. There’s going to be a lot of information to capture. Don’t expect to catch it all. Learn to be selective and to multi-task. Listen for key points that you’ll want to re-visit. Look out for great quotes and take note of images that pop into your head. (It doesn’t have to be art, just make sure you capture the essence in a quick sketch.)

And remember to have fun with it! Make sure there’s plenty of you in your sketch notes. Your own voice – your own personality – is important. Use styles and typography that appeal to you. If you’re enjoying yourself, your notes will reflect that. And you’ll want to do it again.



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