Usability Rant: If You Haven’t Drawn A Picture, You Haven’t Really Thought About It

November 21, 2014 in Human-Centered Design
David Bishop
Director of Human Sciences, Chief Human Scientist

When you’re trying to understand something, if you haven’t drawn a picture of it, you haven’t thought about it in a meaningful way. Of course sketching is part of the iterative design cycle – moving from low-fidelity (paper and pencil) to higher fidelity work (wireframes, mockups, prototypes). But I’m talking about something different: the ability to think better, understand better and more effectively use your brain.


The famous Bauhaus painter Paul Klee said: “A certain fire flares up; it is conducted through the hand, flows to the picture and there bursts into a spark, closing the circle whence it came, back into the eye and farther.” This sketching-and-interpreting cycle refers to the deeper understanding you achieve when you put your ideas on paper.

By sketching something, you are effectively reducing the burden of trying to hold a complete idea in one place (your brain). This allows you to free that brainpower to generate new ideas, to iterate and to improve upon your idea. In fact, there are many positive impacts sketching can have on your brain functions.


Sketching is also a way to enrich communication — rather than you imagining what I’m trying to say, I can draw a picture and make it more concrete. It creates a reference point for us to add details to, or even argue about. It gives us something to hang our assertions on. Kim Dowd, a former intern at MAYA Design, left us with an observation after working with a number of MAYAns who find it nearly impossible to describe anything without a whiteboard marker, pen or pencil. She said: “Drawing is the best way to communicate anything to someone in a different discipline, even if your best drawing of a bike looks like a hairball with feet.”


The brain and the hands are tightly coupled. One of the hallmarks of the Montessori approach to education is a hands-on environment. Maria Montessori once said, “the human hand allows the mind to reveal itself.” Not only can sketching help you understand and help you communicate, it can also help you focus. I first saw this discussed by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal. Shellenbarger points out that doodling can help you stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information.

So keep a sketchbook or scrap of paper handy. Draw a picture the next time you’re trying to explain an idea, or when you’re alone and trying to understand something. You’ll see things much clearer.

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