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Speaking In Sketches

December 15, 2009

As a computer software designer, I sketch for myself as I develop concepts and with the team as we brainstorm and share new feature ideas. When I was a landscape architect, I spoke with colleagues on trace paper sketching issues and solutions for complex landscape challenges. Most design professionals are visual thinkers and use sketching at some point in their process because it’s a superior method of communicating ideas. See the book Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton, Principal Researcher for Microsoft, for a nice summary of the value that sketching brings to design.

If sketching is so useful, then why is it so often kept on the design tables and whiteboards of innovation companies and architectural firms. Sketching needs to be taken out into the ‘real’ world where its communication ‘powers’ can be enjoyed by all.

Recently, I had two appointments that illustrate the potential of sketching outside the design office. I injured my back playing basketball and my doctor was explaining its complex structure. As her explanation began to get a bit muddy, she grabbed a piece of paper and pen and starting sketching. Quickly, I understood the issue and I even took the pen and asked a question by adding to the sketch. We were speaking in sketches and I walked out of the appointment with all my questions answered. Later that same week, my physiotherapist sketched a series of diagrams to explain exercises intended to strengthen my back. Not only did I understand what I was supposed to do but I took the sketches home so I wouldn’t forget. Sketching was a major factor in the success of my health care experience and my back is well on its way to being 100%.

In addition to improving the patient experience, sketching produces benefits for health care providers. A better-educated patient is more likely to follow their health plan reducing the doctor’s frustration from patient apathy and increasing success rates for solving health issues. Getting the patient understanding quickly will translate into higher patient volumes without sacrificing quality of care. See the blog post Visual Thinking Gets You There Faster for more on the the accelerating effect of images.

So how do we, the designers who are accustomed to using images to communicate, get sketching out into the world? Don’t keep sketching for yourself and colleagues. Carry a sketchbook and pen everywhere you go and use it often. People will quickly see the value of the skill and soon they’ll grab your pen and take part. Better communication depends on the spread of speaking in sketches. If you have any experiences where sketching improved communication outside of the design office, I’d be interested to hear, or should I say ‘see’, the details.

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