The Ultimate Design Tool
I have a nerdy confession to make. I recently watched the keynote presentation from last year’s Adobe Max convention in San Francisco… for the third time. This presentation has made a fairly large splash in the web design community because Adobe announced and previewed a series of new design tools for the modern web. I am completely enamored by the new interfaces, the sophisticated and unique approaches to solving some of the most difficult web design problems, and the sheer coolness of these new applications. I have a weakness for cool new tools. A real weakness.
For you it may not be web design tools, but I’m sure there are applications (most likely by Adobe) that you favor and turn to as a security blanket. Photoshop seems to be a place of happiness and comfort for the most designers. Illustrator is for nearly everyone else. During my college experience, I had the pleasure of taking courses from Robert Winward, a graphic design professor with great insight into the problems modern designers would be facing in the coming years. He often presented his nomination for the ultimate design tool.
The ultimate design tool is not found on a computer, but in your hand— the #2 Ticonderoga Pencil.
Not what you expected? Too bad. Designing with the pencil is by far the best way to approach a design problem. I’m not talking about choosing colors or fonts. I’m talking about seriously looking at a problem that needs to be solved and coming up with concepts and ideas. Using a pencil has a great amount of benefits over any computerized medium. Here are my top three arguments for using the pencil before ever jumping into software.
#1: Pencils Break Down Boundaries and Encourage Thought
Perhaps one of the best reasons to use a pencil instead of software in the early stages of design is the ability to throw away boundaries. When you work in Photoshop, the first thing you have to define the canvas of a new document. Seriously? You haven’t even explored the problem yet. Using a pencil allows you to sketch a variety of document sizes and shape in seconds, without needing to save, rearrange windows, create new canvases, or calculate any dimensions or resolutions.
You also aren’t influenced by the presets. There are no fonts to look at, no color swatches, no photo libraries, no preset textures or brushes. Just white space and a tool to mark it up. While some designers may be intimidated by this lack of boundary, I submit that removing the influences of a software program leads to more intellectual thought and freedom, resulting in more original and powerful design concepts.
It also removed the boundary of expectations when coming up with ideas. All too often I see instances when stakeholders become obsessed with a certain piece of the design comp, thus entirely failing to even consider the message and concept being presented. Pencil sketches are usually created in a short amount of time, with little attention to detail. This allows the concept and solution to take the focus, not the details.
#2: Pencils are Mobile and Encourage Collaboration
It is far easier for me to carry a pencil and small sketch pad than a laptop with a mouse or tablet. In most cases, I find the major design decisions on my day-to-day projects are not made in front of a computer screen, but in front of a client or stakeholder. Most people have little desire to sit down and watch you layout a grid, fill it with placeholder text, choose fonts and colors, and arrange things in a layout program. Rather, they want to get excited about the idea and give their input prior to the production of the work.
Consider this: a client may not know how to use photoshop enough to share any input, but everybody can put a simple drawing down on a piece of paper and talk about it. The next time a client or stakeholder is trying to explain something design-related to you and is struggling, put a piece of paper and pencil in front of them and watch the idea take form.
Using a sketchbook and pencil allows you and the client to put down ideas in simple, understandable pictures. This fosters a near-perfect environment for ideas to flow and be communicated without interruption. Pencils work without power outlets, without table space, and without batteries in nearly every level of light and every temperature. Pencils can easily be taken to meetings in nearly any location and at nearly any time. Pencils… are awesome.
#3: Pencils Return the Craftsmanship to the Profession
We are seeing a discouraging new trend amongst recently graduated designers across the board. I have had the opportunity to view a wide range of personal portfolios from other entry level designers in the past few months and I see it more and more each day. New designers often lack passion in craftsmanship. This is really a whole other post by itself, but in plain terms, when you use a piece of software to generate your ideas, the tactile connection and the need to actively consider your decisions is removed from the equation.
I find there is a level of individualism and ingenuity in my work when I start with pencil sketches. When I use a pencil, I have to actively and intentionally tell my hand what to do and take full responsibility for my actions. If I make a mistake, I can do my best to clean it up with an eraser, but that doesn’t always work. I have to consider how I can simply portray a complicated thought to another person in such a way that they can understand and share the idea. Essentially, when I draw with a pencil, I have to choose for myself what elements and shapes to use, how dark and how thick to make lines, and when to stop. All of which can shape the idea long before going into production.
If nothing else, it’s highly impressive to clients, and a pencil drawing that communicates strongly will build your credibility as a designer. What do you think? Am I on to something here, or did I completely miss the mark on this one? Leave your comments below.