A New Vocabulary & Gesture of Sketching

In Buxton’s book ‘Sketching User Experience’ he talks about the nature of sketches. He says sketches are fast, cheap, plentiful, ambiguous, etc. He also talks about how sketches have their clear vocabulary and distinct gestures. Examples of this vocabulary and gestures would be how lines extend through endpoints and how they are not tight or precise. As designers, we all recognize what these early sketches look like. I think that non-designers also recognize the distinctive look of early sketches.

The attributes of sketching all seem to be inter-related and I would argue that the vocabulary and style of sketching is influenced by the attributes that are central to iterative, explorative nature of sketching, like being fast, cheap, and easy. For example, it is important that sketching is fast, easy, and cheap so that designers can explore their designs in many iterations. So designers draw loose-lined, ambiguous sketches on paper because it is fast, easy, and cheap.

The question is: When (and if) it becomes easier, faster, and cheaper to create representations on a computer, rather than on paper, will the vocabulary and gesture of sketching change?

One could argue that sketching on a computer will never be easier, cheaper, and faster than sketching by hand. Once upon a time people could write faster than they could type, but now most people in our age group type faster than they write. I personally think that the right pc interface for sketching has not been invented (or is too expensive), but when this right interface does come along, people will be able to create simple ‘sketches’ on a computer faster, easier, and cheaper than they can by hand.

And if people begin to sketch on computers, sketching will have a very different look then sketching on paper. Even my quickest illustrator sketch looks much different than a traditional paper sketch. Will people begin to recognize computer generated sketches as true, quick, fast, iterative, plentiful, ambiguous sketches even though they don’t have the loose and over extended lines of their hand-drawn predecessors? If not, would it be beneficial for the computer program begin to fake these? Or will a new vocabulary & gesture of sketching arise, where people recognize a certain style of computer illustration as a ‘sketch’?


  1. thismarty

    Buxton’s long been a big advocate of hardware/software-based sketching, as you may already know. While he was at Alias, he spearheaded the development of Sketchbook (http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/servlet/index?id=6848332&siteID=123112) which, when coupled with a TabletPC, comes pretty close to realizing a lot of what you describe, at least for some. In fact, I personally know several proferssional designers (ID and Fashion) who it use almost exclusively, when choice permits. There are shortcomings, but most stem from hardened pre-acquaintance with traditional media (i.e. paper and pencil), rather than inherent deficiencies in the tech itself.

    You make a great observation in the inevitability of sketches looking different when executed digtally. Even the most freeform and organic rendering gains something (very good, in fact) from the ability to iterate with Undo or Save As and layers at your disposal.

  2. davidroyer

    Ah, I did not know that about Buxton. Very interesting.


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