Sketch to explore, not solve

Sketching is quite simply the essential skill for any designer at any level. This is a definitive point of fact. And yet, lately I’ve noticed an odd reluctance to sketch out ideas, particularly among candidates we have been interviewing to join our UX team, for which I serve as UX Architect.

I wonder if this reluctance is due to an unfortunate prevailing presumption that “sketching = solving”, as if putting pen to whiteboard means one has the right answer. Far from it! Sketching is more often about probing & exploring a problem space visually. This includes a re-articulation of the problem statement, usually as a re-confirmation of what was heard or interpreted from the Product Manager or Engineer. This goes right at the fundamental irony/contradiction/tension of designing: in order to understand the problem, you need to create something suggestive of potential solutions — which are knowingly “wrong” — yet they help suss out latent constraints, unrealized patterns, hidden relationships, and even surprising opportunities. To break out of the prison of “analysis paralysis” — and I’ve seen candidates do this, writing gobs of words all over the whiteboard, spinning in circles — you gotta start sketching something, which will activate other parts of your mind & senses. You might discover something new that re-frames your understanding of the problem! Therein lies the profound power & benefit of sketching to explore, not just solve a problem.

And, taking it a step further, there’s the collaborative (or more precisely, coconstructive) nature of sketching on a whiteboard in real-time with cross-functional colleagues. The sketching activity encourages a dynamic of quickly thinking, judging, assessing, filtering collectively, sparking additive notions or supplemental considerations from multiple perspectives. That’s a very good thing! Hopefully others will jump up, and in that moment will take a pen to sketch out something that builds upon what you just drew. Or offer something that’s a contrasting idea. The meeting then becomes less of a “what’s the answer” face-off, and more of a group journey of achieving shared understanding, with assorted epiphanies visually sparked along the way.

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