Elevate your design thinking with sketch thinking

Sketch thinking is a collaborative visual language tool to share ideas during the design thinking process.


As the name implies, this is the perfect companion to Design Thinking. For those who don't know, Design Thinking is a collaboration method that helps a group pool their collective IQs and come up with startling good problem solving ideas. 

At Red Badger we regularly use sketching as a way to focus ourselves on a task or problem, and also to iterate on the proposed outcome. What Sketch Thinking does, is increase the sketch fluency of the group and therefore allow for a quicker and deeper understanding of the ideas presented. 

Quite often I've seen that when you ask people to participate in a sketch session, especially if they are client stakeholders who are not used to working this way, and don't necessarily know the people in the room that well, there is a sense of insecurity and shyness.

As sketching is often seen as an extension of writing and speaking, it's only natural that there's going to be some anxiety if you believe you are unfamiliar with, or unpracticed in, the language you are being asked to use. 

One solution to overcome this is to offer a simple and unified language in which to sketch - this has the added (and in my opinion, major) benefit of allowing the creative brain to focus on the problem at hand and not on the process of sketching. This can only be a good thing.

What is it?

Sketch Thinking was developed by Jose Berengueres, a professor at Stanford, who recognised that while he may have room full of astoundingly intelligent people, somehow workshops would fail when they were trying to communicate their ideas. So, in collaboration with Alli McKee, he established the Sketch Thinking framework.

The core principles of Sketch Thinking are:
1. Draw fast
2. Sketch people feeling something
3. Storify

We do this by:
1. Using a minimal set of symbols
2. Evolving the stick man
3. Demonstrating flow with arrows and frames

As outlined in JB's book "Sketch (for design) Thinking", a fluency in sketching will give you two things: the ability to use sketching to bridge language barriers; and to transform your meetings into visual conversations.

The Tool

For starters, everyone should know that the Sharpie is the best tool to use - it's pleasing to use, optimises quick drawing and discourages unnecessary detail. It's stroke is thick and will be visible across a meeting room, so everyone will be able to see it on the wall.  

 Only Sharpie is the answer Only Sharpie is the answer


If you want to get technical about it they also produce a steadier trace as they have higher lateral friction with the paper. So why are Sharpies better? Because science. 

The People


 The evolution of Star Man The evolution of Star Man


Evolving from the Stick Man to the Star Man will instantly make your sketches more appealing. And drawing him is not as hard as you think, he's just triangles really:


 All hail the conquering Star Man All hail the conquering Star Man


Giving the representation of people more character with this simple step can be good news, especially when working with stakeholders that are quite far removed from the users who have the problem they are trying to solve. You can change the position of the head to give a sense of direction (set on the left would indicate looking that way) or mood (set lower on the body would indicate dejection).

 Emotional Emotional


We can play with the curvature of the limbs or add props to express certain tasks, balance, intent and other body language.

The Star Man is great for expressing emotion, but if you want to draw a crowd then the Tooth Man is a better bet. Just a head and shoulders, he's a very quick and efficient way to communicate volume. 


 What's the collective noun for a Tooth Man group? What's the collective noun for a Tooth Man group?


Feelings can also be expressed by the eyes, or the mouth:


 Emotional rollercoaster Emotional rollercoaster


You can of course use both, but choosing one or the other will mean faster sketching, and being able to get more ideas across in the time given.

It's not all about people

I know, this may seem odd when everyone's focussing on User Centred Design and creating personas and user story mapping etc, but sometimes you just want to map out a pathway, or draw a timeline. A good old arrow will do the trick, but sometimes you may need to be more expressive. 

If you're trying to storify a workflow, putting each stage inside a frame with varying gaps between them can help to create a feeling of transition, and whether it may be fast or slow.


 Spaces can function as punctuation Spaces can function as punctuation


Similarly using a container for text can help express what feeling that stage of the process may have.


 Speech, thought, or exclamation? Speech, thought, or exclamation?

In Summary

If you're facilitating a sketching session with people who are unfamiliar with the methodology, or you yourself are looking for some pointers, then Sketch Thinking can be a valuable way to spend the first 5 minutes of the session. It levels the playing field, makes everyone aware of the (low!) expectations of their sketching, and will help relax participants so their creativity can be focused on the workshop task.


Bloomberg: How Business is Adopting Design Thinking

Similar posts

Are you looking to build a digital capability?