I am a teacher by profession, but I have always programmed for fun. I went to PyCon, a conference for people who use the programming language Python, for the first time this past spring. Throughout my career as a teacher, I have noticed elements of the programming culture that would benefit educators. When I listened to the talks at PyCon, I saw opportunities everywhere for teachers to learn from how programmers and their colleagues work to create high-quality products that many of us use on a daily basis. One of the areas we can learn from relates to visual design.
The Problem: Assuming students have basic design skills
As teachers, we often assign projects which require students to lay out and organize information. Many of these projects require an understanding of basic design concepts if students are to do a good job. But who teaches students these design skills? For most students, no one does. Fortunately, some simple design concepts and techniques can bring students a long way towards creating higher-quality products in all of their classes.
Consider a simple class assignment: “Make a poster showing what you have learned about Newton’s Three Laws.” This kind of assignment is usually accompanied by a detailed description of what information is to be included in the poster. But for the most part, students are left to themselves to figure out how to visually organize their information. A walk through most middle and high school hallways shows what happens if no one teaches students specific design skills. We see posters that are too crowded to read, posters with elements that are poorly aligned, posters on fluorescent backgrounds, and a host of other designs that distract us from the information being presented. This is not surprising, considering the examples we all see in everyday media. Busy infographics and websites are everywhere online, and student textbooks have become heavily biased towards busy page layouts.
Sketching: A Partial Solution
I attended a talk at PyCon by Idan Gazit, a designer and developer, called Sketching a Better Product. Programmers hire people like Idan to come up with a clean and efficient “face” for their work. Idan’s goal is to engage users, and help them focus on the most important elements in a product. If he is successful, users intuitively use a program (usually a web page or an app) as the programmers intended it to be used. If he is unsuccessful, users have to hunt around to figure out how to use a product, and will likely decide not to use that product. His job is important, because when most people check out a new web page or app, they decide in a matter of seconds whether to give the product a try or not. That decision is based as much on a product’s visual design as it is on the product’s capabilities.
Idan’s talk described the use of sketching as a tool to develop effective visual designs. Listening to his talk, I was struck by how useful this technique could be for students. Sketching provides a good way to explore visual ideas, and to develop a product that focuses the author and the audience on the most important aspects of a piece of work. Sketching is also a simple enough skill that students can learn the basics of it in a short amount of time. In addition to the specific technique of sketching, there are a number of mental habits involved in the act of sketching that can help students get past some common roadblocks to academic success.
What is sketching?
According to Idan, sketching is a “tool for exploring visual ideas”. We have all sketched informally at times, but sketching in the design world has some specific characteristics:
- Sketching is quick.
- Each sketch should take no more than a minute or two.
- Working quickly keeps us focused on the big ideas in our work, and keeps us from getting lost in details.
- Sketches should be “ugly”.
- Sketches are supposed to represent visual ideas. Implementing those ideas carefully and precisely is a separate phase.
- When sketches are “ugly”, we are less likely to become attached to specific elements in our design. We are open to new ideas, and feedback from others.
- This emphasis on “ugliness” is part of what makes sketching accessible to everyone.
How to Sketch
To start making sketches, you need a few items.
- One or two fat markers. No more than two, or you will get lost in color choices. You also might want to stay away from skinny markers, pens, or pencils, which can pull you into focusing on details.
- Blank paper, of different sizes. Stay away from graph paper, because the boxes are too small and you will start focusing on details.
- A wall and some tape. We see patterns, and we can recognize good and bad ideas when our sketches are all laid out in front of us.
Two Main Elements: Lines and Boxes
There are two main elements used in sketching, lines and boxes. If you can make some ugly lines and boxes, you can begin to develop effective visual layouts.
- Lines can be straight or squiggly, and they can be thick or thin.
- We can make a line once, or we can go over it several times to give it more visual weight.
- Boxes can be big or small, heavy or light.
Using the Two Elements
Lines and boxes can be used to represent most of what we want to include in our visual layouts. Some of these elements, such as greeked text and icons, are used mostly in digital interfaces. However, if you develop an understanding of how to represent these main elements, you will be able to find a rough representation for most of the elements you would want to include in a visual layout.
- Big Text
- Large text is usually used for titles and headers.
- Use big squiggly lines to represent large text.
- Trace over your lines to represent bold text.
- Running Text
- Running text is “copy”, the paragraphs we include in our web pages, posters, and brochures.
- Use lines that are less squiggly than your big text.
- Use several lines of running text, with the last line shorter than the rest.
- Greeked Text
- Greeked text is a digital concept. It refers to blocks of text that are too small at the current zoom level to read. These blocks are rendered on the screen as blurred text.
- Sketch a top and bottom line, and fill in the space tightly with a squiggly line.
- Sketch a box, with an x filling the center of the box.
- Specific Images
- You might represent a head and shoulders for an image of a person, or a silhouette of a mountain for an outdoor image.
- Many icons can simply be represented the same way we would represent a small image.
- If there is a simple way to make an icon identifiable, such as using a small grid to represent a calendar, you may wish to do so.
- Grids can be used for overall layout.
- Grids provide visual structure, but also allow for an infinite variety of layouts. Don’t be afraid of using them; they will not stifle your creativity.
- Use doubled lines, to allow for space between your elements.
Sketching with Students: An easy routine
Now that we know the elements of sketching, it is important to create a routine for sketching. That routine is fairly simple, but it is important to stick to a routine if we want to keep students from going “down the rabbit hole” of including too many details in their sketches.
- List the kinds of information that need to be included in the sketch. We want students organizing their information at a high level, not thinking in terms of specific details.
- Identify the format of the final product. Are people sketching a poster, a brochure, a web page, or something else?
- Set a time limit, and stick to it. I have used 5 minutes pretty effectively. This is longer than any one sketch should take, but we want students to be able to make two or three sketches.
- Let people sketch. Answer clarifying questions as people start to use the technique, such as “So we’re not actually supposed to write any text, right?”
- Enforce your time limit strictly for the group. If you let it drag on, people will become too attached to their ideas, and start including lower-level details that don’t belong in their sketches.
- Create a routine for sharing ideas.
- Turn and share with someone near you. This has worked well for me, because people’s ideas are so fresh in their minds, and they have something physical to show other people.
- PyCon has Lightning Talks, where anyone can sign up that day for a 5-minute speaking slot. It’s the sketching of public speaking. Ask for several people to come up, one at a time, and in 2 minutes or less share with the group their sketch and their thinking as they sketched.
- Lay all the sketches on a table with nothing else on it, or tape them all to an empty section of wall. Better yet, use magnets and put them on a whiteboard so the sketches can be moved around and grouped in different ways. Have everyone walk past all the sketches, and listen to the conversations that develop.
That’s it. If we do nothing else design-wise, students will begin to develop more visually appealing products that also focus more clearly on the most important aspects of what they are supposed to be learning about.
An Example: A workshop with teachers
This article is based on a workshop I gave to a group of teachers during one of our opening inservice sessions. After showing Idan’s talk and going over the sketching process, I gave everyone a handout summarizing the sketching technique. I then gave teachers the following exercise:
Sketch a poster version of the How to Sketch side of the handout you just received. The kinds of information to be included in the sketches are:
- Overall description of sketching
- The names of the elements (“lines”, “boxes”, “running text”, etc.)
- Descriptions of the elements
- Examples of the elements
I gave teachers 5 minutes, and enforced that time limit strictly. Everyone made at least one sketch, many people made two sketches, and a few people made four or five sketches. Teachers had been making positive comments throughout the first part of the workshop, but after using the technique themselves people were even more positive about how useful this technique could be with students. (The following comments are in quotes for readability, but they are paraphrased.)
- “I am not an artist, and I can’t draw, but I felt comfortable sketching my ideas. I think my students who can’t draw will end up feeling comfortable with this technique as well.”
- “I found myself just copying the design you used in the handout.”
- I responded that this was perfect; it’s how we learn a new technique, and engaging with an existing design helps us sort out what parts of the design work for us, and what parts are not effective for us.
- “I tried using the grid. The doubled lines were hard to get used to, so it took me about four tries to get a grid that did what I wanted. But I ended up with exactly what I wanted, a layout that let me put the description in the middle and all the techniques neatly around the edges.”
- “I honestly did not think this was going to be relevant to my work with students, but now that I’ve done it once I can see how many of my assignments could benefit from sketching.”
- “Many of my students are slow to get started in their work, because they don’t know what to write. I think this idea of sketching with no text at all, could help many of my students feel more comfortable starting their projects.”
There were more comments, and I’m sure there were a few people who did not see a use for sketching in their classes, but the overall response was quite positive. People were open to the idea of using sketching with their students, and a number of people expressed a wish that everyone would teach basic design concepts and techniques to students.
There are a few things I’d like to do in following up on this workshop:
- Compile a set of basic design concepts, that we’d like all students to know. This includes such concepts as how to choose colors, and removing unnecessary elements from your work. I think we will use Idan’s other PyCon 2012 talk, Data and Meaning, as a jumping-off point for this work.
- Collect student work samples. I envision a long stretch of wall space, covered with a student’s entire series of drafts, from initial sketches to final product. This would help everyone see the role that sketching plays in creating high-quality work, and would make it easier to get buy-in from new students. Many students see high-quality work and assume it is out of their reach. It is quite powerful to point at an ugly sketch and say to a student, “If you can make this, then we can show you how to turn it into that [polished final product].”
- Continue sharing the process. If it works with our students, it will work with any group of students.
That’s all! If you end up using this technique with students, please feel free to get in touch and let me know how it goes. Thank you for reading, and thank you Idan for sharing the secrets of your trade in such an accessible manner.
How to Sketch handout: