Pencils, A Love Story. Sketching In The Design Process.

Drawing and I have a long relationship that goes way back to kindergarten, when I’d get lost in epic, spaceship battle scenes slowly unfolding on paper canvases in front of me. Each day a brutal war would be waged on my desk at school, tales of heroic squads of fighter pilots fending off the overwhelming attacks of a powerful enemy horde. School days would end with many lives lost, battlefields littered with the crayon-colored casualties of war.

Since as far back as I can remember, I’ve been drawing and doodling. It seems inevitable this first love of mine would eventually play such a large role in my creative process today. With this post, I’ll discuss how pencil sketches are a vital component to my work.

The journey of a project can be summed up into 3 very basic steps: Concept, Build, Finalize. (For now, let’s skip the part of the story that wanders off into the dark, meandering woods of Client Revision Forest.) With every single assignment, pencil sketches drives my process in the first 2 phases.

Part 1: Concepting with pencils

One of the primary benefits to using pencils while brainstorming is time efficiency. Time is important to both the designer and client as it directly relates to cost and turnaround. It is so much more efficient to doodle an idea and quickly get a client’s thoughts on it than to take that idea to computer, add type and color, only to find out the client isn’t digging the concept.

For a logo project, I can generate well over 50 directions in a day with thumbnail sketches. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time and it’s ready for client feedback. That means on day 2 I’m already building ideas on the computer, in-step with the client’s thoughts. Plus, by the time I’m presenting logo options the client already feels a connection to the ideas because they were involved from the very beginning.


TIP: Don’t forget to number your options so they can be easily referenced for comments.

A large majority of my clients are art directors, so presenting rough pencil sketches can go really smooth given that we’re both visual people speaking the same language. But what about a direct client who’d find it very difficult to envision the final logo from a doodle scratch? Or, what if an art director wants to share pencil drafts with their client? For these situations I’ll take a few of the more promising directions and comp them in a combination of tight sketch and sample type lockup.

Building a tight pencil comp paired with type helps to close the gap from a rough doodle to a polished computer draft. Done well, it helps the client see the sketch’s potential and make a more informed decision. And for me, it takes far less time to build a hybrid comp than it would take me to build a complete computer draft. This means I can still maintain my process of showing directions and collecting comments early, before I’ve logged a lot of billable time constructing computer drafts that might miss the mark.


Another perk to using pencils during the concept process is that it keeps your mind loose and unrestricted by the distractions of detail. Good ideas materialize best from a big picture point of view. You must first give birth to the concept before you can begin to solve how to execute it. With a piece of paper and a pencil, doodling away, the ideas that flow in that environment think in terms of general directions to pursue. Our task is to solve a design problem. So, solve the problem first, then concern yourself with the execution and making it look good.

The great thing about brainstorming with thumbnail sketches is that you don’t need to be a good drawer for it to help you generate ideas. A crude scribble on a page can still lead you to a fantastic solution.

Part 2: Building with the aid pencils

When a project is complete, the final art I’m delivering my client is ready for reproduction. This artwork doesn’t contain any elements of the pencils that aided its construction. But let’s focus on the role pencil sketching plays in my journey to that completed artwork.

The pencils sketches from my initial brainstorm and idea process are pretty rough. Their purpose is to represent directions/concepts to pursue. They don’t solve execution, style and details. Before I can effectively translate these ideas to computer I must first work out a game plan and refine my line work. The purpose of refining the line work is to build a tight pencil draft to scan into the computer and use as a guide for tracing with my Illustrator tools.

In this next example, you can see the three stages of the process. The sketches on the left are the initial rough thumbnails the art director chose for me to develop. The tightened sketches in the middle are the ones I used as guides to trace and build the vector art. On the right, these are the completed computer illustrations.


Every artist is unique. We all have different skills, talents, perspectives, styles, etc. Part of our creative development is discovering who we are as artists. My skill is drawing, so I’ve learned to use what comes natural to me and build it into my craft. So, if I’m good at drawing a graceful line with my hand, then I want to find a way to capture that attribute and build it into my designs on the computer.

Tight sketches I use to trace on the computer aren’t sketches I share with my clients. These are strictly for building the computer artwork. Sometimes they aren’t even complete sketches, they’re only what I need to aid my computer illustration. So, for example, if I were building a symmetrical piece, I might only sketch half of it knowing the other half will be formed when I mirror the art in Illustrator.


Many times the initial build of a computer illustration include some areas that don’t turn out so well and need to be reworked. In this case, my approach might be to print the computer work-in-progress draft, place it on a lightbox and trace over it to solve the troubled areas. Tracing over the working draft helps because as you draw, you can see how the new line work is working in context with the illustration. The new sketches are then scanned into the computer, traced with the Illustrator pen tool and applied to the working illustration.



There isn’t any point during the process of illustrating freeform shapes, that I construct them without the aid of a scanned, hand drawn guide to trace over. Not only do I want my drawing skill to come through in my work, but also, I know I can find the perfect shape I’m looking for much quicker and easier by hand. Even areas that will be built with non-organic shapes such as perfect circles or straight lines, I’ll still sketch those to help guide their size and placement in the artwork.

Every artist has their method. I’ve certainly seen some incredibly talented artists build their solutions, from A to Z, all on the computer. It’s a very impressive skill. I just know that approach doesn’t work for me. Whether it’s building kindergarten space battle scenes, or the next illustration assignment, my trusty sidekick has and always will be, the pencil.


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