Out of Line: The Incredible Creative Impact of Sketching

Doodling, drawing, workshopping, outlining: call it what you may, but putting pen to paper in search of something new is a powerful creative catalyst. Ideation and imagination need room to work it out, and based on psychological research and artistic practice, sketching space is the place where it often happens.

She was nicknamed Queen of the Curves for good reason. The late architect Dame Zaha Hadid never seemed to meet a right angle she didn’t want to alter, tweak, shape, or bend into a breathtaking work of art. Her Vitra Fire Station was a piercing prism of concrete, abstract, and awe-inspiring. The front of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, a white parabolic dip from the roof to the ground floor, that didn’t curve as much as bend the horizon, like a map projection flexing on the edges. A lifetime of museums, high-rises, and schools spelled out a visual language that looked positively otherworldly, a look at the future that other structures on the skyline simply couldn’t match.

Hadid’s expressive designs seem to come from another planet. But the origins began at an everyday starting place: the tip of a pen or pencil. Long before she became a leading architect of her time, she was best known for a series of beautiful sketches.

An impressive student fascinated with mathematical logic and geometry, Hadid was a “paper architect” who only did speculative work. Many of her drawings were displayed in museums, like her proposal for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong, which helped bolster her earlier career despite never going beyond the idea stage.

Like many creatives who kept meticulous sketchbooks, Hadid sketched ideas not just as part of an artistic practice, but as a design process. It’s one of the most significant, and perhaps misunderstood, benefits of sketching: providing a space to work it all out. Scientists have even proved up this key benefit of pen-and-paper creativity: Dutch psychologist Ilse Verstijnen calls it “restructuring,” or transforming ideas. Putting it down on the page means energy spent remembering can be focused on creative transformation. Recording ideas actually makes them more personable and moldable. It’s why legendary American graphic designer and inveterate sketcher Art Paul, who created the Playboy logo, likened the practice to a “conversation.”

“As I sketch visual sequences, the images I draw seem also to be conversing, page to page, with each other,” he said.

Whether working solo or with a group, sketching, at its best, improves collaborations, helping suggestions percolate and gain momentum. The reason why the action helps get everything on a roll is actually baked into the way our brains operate.

We often assume that the brain is split into the logical left side and the creative right side. That’s wrong, says Scott Barry Kaufman the scientific director of the Imagination Institute and a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. When the brain starts a creative pursuit such as sketching, neurons in different sections start snapping. Sketching is so powerful because it turns on what Kaufman calls the Imagination and Salience Network and silences the Executive Attention Network, getting different parts of the brain to focus on improvisation, ambiguity, and making connections. Sketching flips the brain into a flow state: think of a rapper mid-freestyle, or a jazz musician gliding through a solo.

These aren’t the only ways sketching lights a creative fire. Jeffrey Wammes, a researcher at the University of Waterloo Department of Psychology, has found that sketching creates more cohesive memory and connects visual, motor, and semantic information. The quality of the sketch didn’t matter. Even though laying out ideas on paper frees the mind to improvise, the act of creating the image helps preserve and process. Wammes’s experiments found that even a few seconds of sketching bolstered a subject’s memory.

Consider Picasso’s famous Guernica, an iconic piece of 20th century art. The mural started as a series of sketches, where the artist shuffled through dozens of concepts and layouts to arrive at his famed anti-war statement. It was “Darwinian creativity,” a series of experiments and occasional dead-end paths that came together in the end to create a masterpiece.

The boost in processing power also helps designers, teams, even artist’s ability to synthesize and assimilate. The creative consultancy IDEO brainstorms with easel-sized Post-It notes, generating a literal paper trail of creative debate, deliberation, and production, helping participants recount the road to a breakthrough.

Turkish researcher Zafer Bilda discovered in repeated trials that designers who use paper to sketch “changed their goals and intentions more frequently and engaged in a higher number of cognitive actions” than those using software, leading to a more versatile approach. The rough roadmaps laid down on page after page perhaps couldn’t have been realized any other way. There’s a reason artists and designers list pencil and paper as their favorite brainstorming tool. Perhaps, like Hadid, they understand that the road to a great idea is never one single, simple straight line.


This article was written by Patrick Sisson and originally published in Issue 11 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly. The Mohawk Maker Quarterly is a vehicle to support a community of like-minded makers. Content focuses on stories of small manufacturers, artisans, printers, designers, and artists who are making their way in the midst of the digital revolution. Learn more about the quarterly here and sign up to receive future printed issues.

Share Post

Leave a Reply

[BLOG] Champions of Craft: Sebastian Cox: We know that materials matter, and the right materials can take a p... https://t.co/NDMG0CUGIn @feltandwire - View on Twitter
[BLOG] Inspiration, education + conversation: A Maker’s Field Guide to Texture and Color: The competition for... https://t.co/WeqCJa92nr @feltandwire - View on Twitter
[BLOG] On The Wire: Designer to Watch, Mimi Kim: Today, guest blogger, Sarah Schwartz, editor of Stationery T... https://t.co/7PX5EFbFOm @feltandwire - View on Twitter
Submit a Topic or Article
We want to hear from you!
Send us your ideas for future articles, past inspirations, and present insights.
Submit a Topic or Article