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Sketching as a conversation with our ideas.

In the cartoon world, a ponderous character’s thought is depicted by a cloud over their head linked to them with a series of disconnected bubbles.  The idea is floating there, precariously tethered; it’s almost as if a strong breeze could just blow it away.  In many ways this is an accurate portrayal of how the creative process can feel.  As we start to create, our ideas feel nebulous; a flux of chaos, disparate and disconnected.  The sketching process can take that cloud and give it structure; it turns the thought bubble into a dialogue where we can actively engage in our ideas.

This dialogue is analogous to our natural sensemaking process.  Sensemaking is our attempt to “order the intrinsic flux of human action, to channel it toward certain ends, to give it a particular shape” (Tsoukas and Chia 2002, p. 507).  Sensemaking is the active conversation we have with the events that we encounter; it’s our ability to take in information, process it, and derive meaning and action from it.

Rather than focusing on the external, sketching provides us a sensemaking process for our own creative flux. When we’re presented with a problem our minds go to work to create this cloud of ideas, populating it with information and attempting to form connections. This facilitated sensemaking turns that abstract concoction into a concrete reality.  This works because sketching forces us to make decisions and apply structure to our ideas.  By externalizing we pass those fragments through a filter of our own experience creating a foundation to build our ideas from.

When we externalize the pieces of an idea through a sketch we’re making a testable “design move” which we’re able make judgements around. This positions us to make further moves that iteratively cycles and builds an idea.  When these “moves function in an exploratory way, the designer allows the situation to ‘talk back’ to him, causing him to see things in a new way – to construct new meanings and intentions” (Schon 1984, p. 132).  Over time, as the idea builds, it begins to form it’s own set of “likings, preferences, values, norms, and meanings” that the designer can start to judge a design against, creating an active dialogue between the designer and the idea (Schon 1984, p. 132).   A new idea is fragile; it’s easily interpreted and changed.  When we build an idea it’s fidelity increases and become more resistive to change. In this regard an idea develops a self determinist nature giving it resilience. Sketching forms the foundation and tool of this process.

What makes sketching special in this process is that it highlights other levels of thinking, specifically the visual aspects of our creative process.  Talking through our ideas is our default medium to work in.  Speech is a natural tool for us, but it’s inherently limited by the constraints of it’s pre-structured nature.  When we sketch we open up the creative process to engage a more complex dialogue with our ideas, one that can explore the visual and emotional aspects of our creativity.


Sketching as a shared conversation.

Design thrives in the context of a collaborative environment where sketching becomes the tool to quickly give others access to our ideas. Once an idea is externalized as a sketch it becomes a medium of exchange and a tool of provocation.  Sketching creates an informal, mutable narrative that allows a collaborator room for interpretation and improvisation. Collaborative sketching allows us to asymmetrically explore and share independent design moves that build on a core idea, creating a sum greater than the individual parts.

In the collaborative design process we use sketching to give others access to our ideas while simultaneously provoking them into their own.  Similar to this process, in research we attempt to provoke our participants in giving us access to their experiences and perspective. Here at AC4D my design team attempted to facilitate this process using sketching. The thought being that if structured correctly sketching could us access to their own experiences in a new way.

Through our research around healthcare and medical documentation we were trying to explore the emotional aspects of interacting with the health care system.  To do this the design team devised an exercise where the participant was instructed to draw the emotional journey of her medical recovery.  She was asked to a map that journey on a chart with the axes depicting “sense of emotional control” over time; she further marked the significant moments in her journey with illustrations.

This forced provocation gave our participant a new framework to re-travel their recovery.  The structure of the timeline and the act of sketching forced her to re-think her recovery as a process, using the key moments as waypoints to guide the rest of the story.  This same structure allowed us the opportunity to explore of our participants experience while revealing to us her more emotional moments generating a wealth of inspiration and insights that we’ve continually gone back to throughout our design process.


Sketching as a conversation with the world.

The creation of an idea involves us traversing the chaotic mess of our creative process, gleaning fragments from this flux and manifesting them into tangible reality.  It’s a complex process that requires countless design moves that move us along a non-linear path.  In the end we have a self-resilient idea that only we fully understand. Half the battle of design is creating an idea, the other half is convincing the world.

Sketching becomes a tool that allows us to reflect on the complexity of an idea and to come out the other side with something that’s approachable.  It allows us to not only give someone access to an idea but also to a focused view of the process we took to get there; a curated access to our sensemaking process.  In this way sketching shifts from a generative process to a storytelling device.  Just as when you’re building and exploring and idea, a visual articulation highlights the aspects of an idea that can’t be articulated through language creating a rapid narrative.

Earlier this year my design partner Scott and I applied for IXDA’s student competition.  As part of our application we produced a 3 minute video extolling our design methodology.  It was important for us to share our complex views of design in a way that was easy, fun and most importantly, brief.  We ended up utilizing a format that relied heavily on visual articulations to supplement our verbal arguments.  Sketching became a tool to give the judges a deeper access to our design philosophy. You can see the video here.

Of the liberal sciences, design is unique in it’s ability to tackle the complexity of human problems.  To do this we need to tools that better reflect the under-defined nature of our creative process.  Sketching is an expressive and human device that gives us a sharp provocation to cut through not only the complexity of own process but also the human problems we’re trying to address.

- jacob



Tsoukas, H., R. Chia. 2002. Organizational becoming: rethinking organizational change. Organ. Sci. 13(5) 567–582.

Weick, Sutcliffe, Obstfeld. 2005. Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking.Oran. Sci. 16(4) 409-421.

Schön. 1984. Problems, frames and perspectives on designing. Design Studies. 132-136.

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