The Brainstorm Sketch, Perfected

By Bill Webb, IDSA

Sep 13 2019 - 12:58pm


During my years of professional industrial design experience, I have seen many design ideas developed and pitched using a variety of methods and media: from the cliché ‘napkin doodle’ to fully rendered product experience videos and many techniques in between. By far, my favorite method is the large-format Post-it sketch. 

My business partner Chris Harsacky, IDSA and I have spent the last 10 years developing our unique approach and process to strategy, innovation and industrial design here at Huge Design.  When it comes to the blue sky ideation phase of a given project, the Post-it sketch has been our go-to format for quickly generating design ideas in internal team brainstorms. We've found it is qually valuable as a communication tool with clients early in the design process.

Sketching ideas on Post-it notes is nothing new, but we pride ourselves on our unique approach and the technique we've developed and refined over many years in our studio.

There are many key ingredients and nuanced aspects to the perfect Post-it sketch, I shall outline them in exhaustive detail now 

A few simple tools

The most important thing to get right is the size of your canvas. In our experience, the 8” x 6” Post-it is the perfect size: big enough to boldly illustrate a single idea without the burden of having to fill a full sheet of paper. If you screw up, no worries; it’s a ½ sheet. If you nail it, it will command attention, as it is an uncommonly large Post-it hanging on the wall. 

Next up is the drawing tools; the Sharpie ‘fine point’ is our black line of choice. Sketching with a permanent Sharpie can be intimidating at first, but forces you to be bold and decisive with your idea. If the idea is complicated or requires a first pass of proportions, a light underlay with a Prismacolor black pencil can help sort it out. An additional colored pencil or marker can help to highlight key aspects of the design or bring focus to the sketch, but use restraint! The real key to the tools is to limit them. The execution of the sketch should be simple, direct and easy to read.

Stay fast and loose

As you're perfecting your ability to sketch with a sharpie, focus on speed and avoid the over-labored drawing. A design brainstorm is often a fluid conversation between designers and their sketches. The key is to capture ideas quickly and move on to new ones without the burden of underlays, erasing or striving for perfection (5-10 minutes max). The best Post-it ideas are often not the best sketches, but a product of a passing idea or discussion captured in a timely and clever way on paper. 

Tell a brief story

That’s right. We're telling a story on this half sheet of paper: a pitch for our great idea. We need all the elements of a good story, starting with the idea itself. Mentally visualize the product/idea and that one ‘hero’ view that explains/sells it best. Often, illustrating the context is as key to selling the overall experience as the product sketch itself.

Practice drawing your abstract people, hands and cars, because these elements are often needed to have the idea speak for itself. Supplemental views are often a good idea, but keep in mind, this story is like a visual elevator pitch to your audience. While your ability to draw well is definitely a key skill, more important is your ability to visually prioritize your idea by identifing the primary focus versus supplemental info. Use notes sparingly in a supporting role. The best sketches need little explanation. 

Give it a good name

Its your baby, your baby needs a good name: something short, catchy and cool. Selling the awesome idea is often as much about hinting at the marketing potential as it is the design. All great designers incorporate aspects of marketing in their work—why not start now with a memorable name that adds to color to the idea and story?

Humor is your friend

Creativity can be intimidating and designers and clients can be wound pretty tight in large groups. Humor is often the best lubricant for everyone involved. Don’t be afraid to add a goofy hat on the person in your sketch or have fun with the naming.  If the idea is good, the humor will not detract but add to the pitch. If the sketch is not perfect, a little laughter lightens the mood for all involved.   Nothing breaks the ice like making fun of your horribly drawn baby sucking on your new ‘future pacifier’.

Share, discuss and repeat

The single greatest feature of the Post-it is the sticky bit on the back. During a studio brainstorm, every designer at Huge knows that all the ideas go up on the wall and each designer pitches their idea to the team as soon as it's finished. The ideas stay up and then the discussions happens. Jokes are made and new ideas start to percolate as half-drawn ideas are modified. 

The power of one nicely drawn sketch hanging on the wall is one thing, but the impact of an entire wall of ideas is undeniable. Once you have 20-30 well-executed ideas, you can begin to filter and focus. Not all ideas are winners. The losers come down, and we keep going as a group. 

When done right, a wall of well executed brainstorm sketches can supercharge any ideation phase, engage clients in our process and drive the best from the design team. Almost every project at Huge leverages this approach at some point in the process. Whether it’s in the context of a group brainstorm, a one-on-one session between designers and engineers or a workshop presentation for our clients, the value of this communication tool is absolute. As much as people love the high polish of a 3D rendering, it is the initial sketch that often steals your heart for a new idea or design.

Bill Webb, IDSA is a product design professional and co-founder of Huge Design Inc., an industrial design consultancy in San Francisco. Before Huge, Webb worked as creative director for one of the Bay Area’s top ID firms, Astro Studios, collaborating with some of the biggest consumer electronics brands and boldest tech startups to deliver award-winning product designs.