What Sketching is and is not

Sketches dominate the early ideation stages, whereas prototypes are more concentrated at the later stages where things are converging within the design funnel. Much of this has to do with how they differ with respect to the attributes of cost, timeliness, quantity, and disposability that we discussed above as characterizing sketches.

Essentially, the investment in a prototype is larger than that in a sketch, hence there are fewer of them, they are less disposable, and they take longer to build. At the front-end of the funnel, when there are lots of different concepts to explore, and things are still quite uncertain, sketching dominates the process.

They are not prototypes. While both sketches and prototypes are instantiations of a design concept, they serve different purposes, and therefore are concentrated at different stages of the design process.

The relevant attributes of sketches are:

  • Quick: A sketch is quick to make, or at least gives the impression that that is so.
  • Timely: A sketch can be provided when needed.
  • Inexpensive: A sketch is cheap. Cost must not inhibit the ability to explore a concept, especially early in the design process.
  • Disposable: Sketches are disposable. If you can’t afford to throw it away when done, it is probably not a sketch. The investment with a sketch is in the concept, not the execution.
  • Plentiful: Sketches tend to not exist in isolation. Their meaning or relevance is generally in the context of a collection or series, not as an isolated rendering.
  • Clear vocabulary: The style in which a sketch is rendered follows certain conventions that distinguish it from other types of renderings. The style, or form, signals that it is a sketch. The way that lines extend through endpoints is an example of such a convention or style.
  • Distinct Gesture: Not tight. Open. Free.
  • Constrained Resolution: Sketches are not rendered at a resolution higher than is required to capture their intended purpose or concept. Going beyond “good enough” is a negative, not positive. (Which is why I take marks off student’s work if it is too good.)
  • Appropriate Degree of Refinement: The resolution or style of a sketch’s rendering should not suggest a degree of refinement of the concept depicted that exceeds the actual state of development, or thinking, of that concept.
  • Ambiguity: Sketches are intentionally ambiguous, and much of their value derives from their being able to be interpreted in different ways, and new relationships seen within them, even by the person who drew them.
  • Suggest & explore rather than confirm: sketches don’t “tell,” they “suggest.” Their value lies not in the artifact of the sketch itself, but its ability to provide a catalyst to the desired and appropriate behaviours, conversations, and interactions.