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Getting Started with Sketching for Developers

Sketching is not just for designers and artists. If you're a developer looking to add sketching skills to your arsenal or improve your current sketches, here are some tips at getting started.

whiteboard sketch


"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." --Picasso

Okay, so if you're the average software developer, you're not looking to become Picasso here. But he's right--with age and education sometimes comes inhibition. Don't get in your own way. Sketching is a powerful tool for building software, saving time, testing ideas, and finding problems before they're chiseled into code.  It's about time you got more comfortable with it!

At Radiant Wolf, we've been working on our first game for iPhone and iPad, and here are some of the tools and techniques that work for us when sketching out and thinking of ideas.

First, You're sketching for you! You can't do it wrong.

Seriously. No one's going to see your sketches unless you show them. No one needs to see it ever, if need be. So forget about if it will look good or bad. Sketching ideas isn't about looking good—it's about thinking. You can always incinerate the hideousness so that nobody in the world will be exposed to it, and try again. Fail again, fail better, as they say. If you must, hide yourself in a closet or cozy corner. Sketch with your door closed. The more you give it a try, the more comfortable you'll start to feel. Or sketch with someone equally as uncomfortable as you are, and be sure to find the silliness and humor in it. Perhaps over a beer or two?  ;-] Or if you're like me, margaritas.

Nobody can draw, and yet you seem to be able to write...

Look, grab the nearest writing instrument and draw a line. Was that so bad? Now draw a box. That's more than half of what you need!  It doesn't even need to be a straight line!

But more seriously, everyone feels like they can't draw. And there are those few awesomely talented* people out there who know they can do it, but most people would not say that they can draw. But can you draw a line? An arrow? A circle, a square? What about a stick figure? Those kinds of shapes are all you really need to draw user interfaces, as well as many other subjects.

Playing with new tools can make sketching more fun.

You can sketch with anything. Try sketching the same idea multiple times with different writing implements. Anything you can find nearby will do: pens, pencils, markers, crayons. See what feels the best. Many developers feel most comfortable starting with pencil, so you can erase if you make a mistake. But remember, you can also just scribble over it, throw it away, or redraw it a second time. Pencils also come in many shapes and sizes: wood, mechanical, different thicknesses and darknesses. Combining more than one type will add dimension to your sketches. Two other classic tools to start with would be the designer's favorite, the Sharpie, and the ever present and available ball point pen. Whatever you choose, remember you can't go wrong!

It really doesn't matter. Scratch it out in sidewalk chalk if you want to! Noone's watching. Remember?

Explore different sketching surfaces to find what works for you.

People often forget all the different options they have for sketching surfaces, falling back on whatever's close by. And that may work perfectly! But if you're feeling stuck or inhibited (or just plain bored), it may help to get those creative juices flowing by trying out some different options.

What will work best for you will probably depend on a few things:

  • How bold or timid you feel while sketching
  • Your personal style
  • What you already have lying around your house or office
  • The size of the team you may (eventually) want to share the sketches with
  • Where you do your sketching

Here are a few personal favorites:

Index cards

Amazing for iPhone or mobile development in particular, because the size is so similar. This is a favorite of ours at Radiant Wolf and the tool we used to generate all of our early prototypes for our current game.

Printer paper

Readily accessible, cheap, and disposable means you won't get too attached to those sketches, or too inhibited. Don't forget there's both Letter (8.5" x 11") and Tabloid (11" x 17") sizes. Letter is nicely close to an iPad size. Cut letter-size paper in half (or draw a line through the middle), and you'll get a size similar to a 10" tablet like the Nexus 10.

Stickie notes

Stickies are a favorite of designers the world round. But I often find myself using some of these other methods more. Something about sticking the sticky onto the wall can feel very bold, very permanent, while you can throw out a bunch of index cards and easily slide them around—or aside if necessary. For large teams that are still in the early stages of working together, stickies can be a great way to get ideas generated and blood pumping. You can also easily stand back and see many sketches at once on the wall! If you so dare. ;-]

Whiteboards

Whiteboards are ideal for someone who's paralyzed by making a mistake. Don't let yourself fall into an erasing loop, however, where you draw something and erase it again and again until you get it perfectly. As practice, try filling the whole whiteboard with ideas once first, or generating several in a row, and then going back to erase the worse half and redraw.

When working with whiteboards, a camera is essential for capturing any work you want to keep. Whiteboard markers can also kind of suck, so if you're feeling awkward or clumsy, that fat imprecise whiteboard marker might not be helping the situation. (You can try a fresh one or buying thin ones in particular in a variety of colors, if you're feeling your whiteboard sketches are falling flat.)

Notebooks

Notebooks have their good points and bad points. Pros: You can carry them with you anywhere. (Try that with a whiteboard.) You can shut them quickly if someone comes by and you're not ready to share. You can see your progress over time. You can paste things inside, jot notes, and make it into something where all your ideas are kept. Cons: Sketching into a bound book can feel very permanent, and you're less likely to crumple up a page and throw it away. (This is a huge con if you're just starting out.) It's a lot of pages of the same size, and you may want to vary the sizes more than that. If you're a sketching newbie but a notebook sounds good to you, I'd recommend a cheap small one if you're feeling pen-shy. Maybe even a ruled one from that back-to-school sale that's on, like you had in high school. Or if you're feeling committed to getting better at sketching, find one you're absolutely so in love with that you'll be crushed if you don't fill it with notes and sketches. (A Barnes and Noble or your local bookstore can be a great place to look!)

Others:

I won't go into them here just yet, but here are a few more awesome things you should try!

Now head to that supply closet / book store / art store, and get crackin'!

Pick a practice target

You may have mastered walking and chewing gum, but sometimes thinking of ideas and learning to sketch at the same time can be a recipe for only doing one of those things well. Usually ideas win. Consider practicing by sketching other people's websites, apps, charts, or abstract ideas. How many different ways could you sketch the same thing? How would it be better or worse with a different tool, on a different paper?

 Wash, rinse, repeat.

You didn't learn to code in a day, or write, or walk, and the same is true for sketching. Try sketching once a day—after lunch, over morning coffee, right before bed, first thing after morning email. Pick a time that you'll feel relaxed and not too rushed or hard on yourself. Or incorporate sketching into your process. Each time you start something new, be sure to sketch it out once first, whether it's a screen, an architecture diagram, a poster for your yard sale, an invitation to your hamster's birthday party.... Whatever! The more often you try sketching, the more comfortable you will be.

What If I Hate Sketching?

It's cool. It's not for everybody. Here are a few more ideas, though, to try if you're struggling:

  • Get a mentor or a second set of eyes. Have any designer or artist friends? Get them to look at your sketches (if you're feeling bold or if they promise not to tease you), and get their critique and suggestions. Designers love to critique; it's in their blood. And they should be trained to do it kindly and objectively. Ask them about how they they learned to sketch and from whom. Or just ask for some tips on their process for brainstorming or designing. Try to get down to specifics—what tools do they use when and why. See if they can demonstrate a technique or two.
  • Get some inspiration. Search for books or websites with drawings you like, and don't be intimidated. One day they were starting out too.
  • Get a partner. Find someone on your team or another colleague in your town that's also interested in improving sketching, and try sketching together.
  • Keep going anyway! Push through it. With enough practice, you'll get better, and it'll get easier! I promise.

Happy sketching to you!

Some great sketching resources:

 

* "Talent" is often just the result of an extreme amount of hard work.

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