The importance of sketching in research and development

New, challenging ideas are vital in R&D, but how you share and describe them is crucial.

Sketch of a mechanical tool and testing procedure to be done at CERN

Every single design, let it be a hardware or software one, is the result of a series of constraints and choices to balance all the elements in it. But how do you keep the balance, especially when you either have to coordinate a group of people or work into one?

The Timing Factor

We’ve all had that time, perhaps underneath a relaxing shower or maybe during a bus ride, with some kind of music in the air. The “Ah-HA!” moment.

In a sudden flash, we get the point: an image, a new movement, procedure or code. That’s the time when we have to be fast to jot it down somewhere.

Being able to sketch, in this frame, means to have the ability to create a piece of work capable of a full description. To catch the essence of what we’ve just felt, and put it on paper, phone or whatever we have at hand.

One should then work to understand all the possible ways to do this, and the ones better suited for him or her. Otherwise, we might be losing That Crucial Idea capable of fixing some unbalances in the original design.

The Expression Factor

To exercise is not only great for the advantage of improving oneself at drawing anytime. It’s also a head start to understand our mind.

We all have different ways of expressing ourselves, especially in arts. Some would point to a Monet’s painting when asked about love. Others to a childhood song, a sculpture or a piece of poetry.

The same happens with our ideas, we all have our own preferred technique to convey what we mean to the real world. Therefore, we ought to ourselves to understand what that style is.

How can you be sure to have it? Try different methods, and when that itchy sensation of not being able to describe what you mean will disappear, you will have found it.

But hey, you might be wondering now, weren’t we talking about “others” as well?

The Sharing Factor

If you’re working alone, whatever way you find to speak with yourself is ok. Having to do with other human beings is the tricky part. We’ve mentioned we all have different ways of expressing ourselves. How do you know then all those other people and weight their preferences accordingly? You don’t have to.

Luckily, even though people might choose different ways of expression, if pointed to the drawing of an object, or being shown the video of a movement, if those are clear enough, the message will pass. But being clear should be our focus. Let’s see how with a few steps.

1 – Show some colours

Colours are important to gain and retain attention

As a general rule, visuals are the best way to convey an idea. Our brains are super sensible to colours and imagery, that’s why companies spend millions to research how to prepare an advertisement, being it a short video, a single picture or how to colour their shops or packaging boxes.

If you can, start with visuals. Let them be drawings, photographs or origami. Leave some Lego pieces in the meeting room if necessary, but show something colourful. If it has a shape, it’s an added point*.

*Exceptions apply to coders, but you might surprise everyone with some inventive.

2 – Act like a newbie

Sketch clear things and write explanations where necessary. Avoid using single letters or numbers without any evident meaning linked to them. This sketch, without the picture, would not make any sense (and I would argue even with it)

Always ask yourself what you’re looking at from a neutral point of view. Stand in front of your sketch and imagine you’re a newcomer. You know nothing about the surroundings. Would you still be able to get your idea? If not, simplify your design and or add some words of clarification to it.

3 – Ask yourself why

Why something works is always more important than what works, it’s about understanding!

Why is it that your idea is the best answer to the design challenge to solve. What are the pros and cons of your implementation? Can you pinpoint them with a few short sentences? Write those reasons in your sketch with clear, plain and simple words.

4 – Create a Story-line

Front end electronics board concept design at CERN (from Right to Left due to location reasons)

In case you’re designing a procedure or movement, be a cartoon designer. Sketch multiple frames with the object of attention being in different stages, or moments, of your line of thoughts. Show the beginning. What’s happening in the meantime, and how it ends. In a word, you should be able to create a little storyline.

5 – Make it memorable

One slide I made for a long presentation where I needed to retain the viewers attention

To have an idea without a story at the beginning is risky. When you’re sharing your thoughts, the first thing you should do is to acquire attention.

This can be achieved in multiple ways. If your sketch is small by design, write a funny or intriguing title (this holds true to emails too). If your idea is about a procedure, create a little story at the beginning, keep it short and funny enough to get that sought attention.

After you have all the eyes on you (or your drawing) explain it, but if it’s long, mind to regain that attention from time to time. Add little jokes here and there and weight it accordingly to your environment, even though I would argue we all need to smile more.

6 – Simplify!

Sometimes you don’t even need words: here I was showing the idea of taking an Eagle view of the Giant’s Causeway reef, and using it in a product design

In the end, look at the result and investigate how many unnecessary details can be removed. Nobody will care if the bus you were on was yellow or red unless that’s a detail capable of conveying your sketch and making it memorable. When you’re talking to people and working with them, the two most important factors are attention and retention.

Once you have the first, if all the rest you say is coherent, colorful and funny, then their minds will hold on to it, and yours too. But if you’re losing the story or your drawing into plenty of unnecessary details, everyone will zoom out.

The takeaway? Exercise

Whenever you are starting a new design, jot it down on paper at the office. Try to sketch it on your phone while waiting for the bus. If you’re in an elevator alone (or even in company, it might be entertaining), try to record a 30-second audio note on Keep, describing what you’re going through with your mind. If you’re at the bar, or restaurant with a colleague, try to sketch what you want to express on a blanket or tissue.

Learn by doing how to tell little jokes to colleagues, family members or friends. Try to gain attention on a specific topic or shift it towards another one. You don’t have then to say anything about it, but it will help you in exercising some influence. That’s your aim if you want to show a new idea. Shift the attention, and make it compelling.

As a funny note, a key idea I had for a project that later led me to get hired by INFN and work at CERN, was born this way. On the back of a restaurant blanket while dining with my family.

Live simply, Nadim.

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