Hee Mong Kim, our instructor for Graphic Design 1 (and 4 & 5) at Rhode Island College had a rule for starting any project: 30 thumbnails. If you showed up for the first class after getting a new assignment without 30 little sketches, he wouldn’t talk to you.
That frustrated a lot of students in the class. But that created its own sort of solution. The school is a small state school that attracts a lot of local commuter students, many of whom end up taking Graphic Design out of a kind of process of elimination as a way to make art and make a living. I’m sure this is true at many schools, but this was my experience. That meant that in a class of 15, there might have been five to seven who were really there because they loved graphic design and wanted to make that their vocation.
So we sketched.
What I learned through that process was two of the most significant things about myself and about how to be a designer that I’ve ever encountered. First, that were I to take an average of where in that process I came across the germ of the best idea was usually around sketch #4 or #5, from which I took that I have good instincts and should trust them. Second, and most crucially, was that the first fact is utterly irrelevant. It’s the act of exploring that’s more important than where you got the big idea.
Relying on instinct isn’t necessarily wrong, but unless you train yourself to explore every idea, you lose out on the mental flexibility you gain from constantly exercising your creative muscles. Besides, how will you know if #4 is really the best idea if you’ve only explored 3 others? The value we as designers bring to any project is just that: the flexibility to look at a challenge from many angles, synthesizing the best ideas about how to tackle it from every direction.
No single sketch will contain the entire answer. It’s the constant refinement and iteration that will take the germ of the great idea and allow it to grow into the best solution. Whether it’s designing a logo, laying out a page, or thinking through a workflow — sketching is often the best way to visualize the solution, pare back the unneccesary elements or steps, and hone in on the true essence of the solution.