Do I have to be able to draw well to be a good designer?

By Brian Ling December 6, 2006

This by far, is one of the most frequent questions designers always ask of me. Furthermore, “I can’t be a designer cos I can’t draw” is also one of the most frequent reasons people give for not being a designer or any type.

I myself had to deal with this when I started my career in design as my sketching skills at that time were very poor. However after almost 10 years in this business I like to give my take on this perennial question.

What is pretty unbelievable is that I have seen famous designers (who shall remain nameless!) create terrible sketches but end up with great designs, and great sketchers that are hopeless designers.

Therefore my answer to this question really is “Yes” and “No”.

Picture removed. Apologies to all parties involved.

Essentially you would only need to draw or sketch well enough to communicate your concept on paper without you having to explain what it is. You don’t have to win the beauty contest, but you WILL have to do well enough so that a fellow designer (or if you want it to be tougher on yourself, a non-designer) can understand what you are attempting to communicate.

Notice the key word here? It’s not drawing, draw, design, or sketch, it’s communicate. A good sketch communicates an idea clearly and succinctly.

Sketching is also one part of the design process that makes up a successful design. Strong understanding in proportions, colors, and manufacturing processes are other important elements that can make or break a design. So don’t despair if your sketching ability, at this time, is not up to par, as you will have a chance to refine it in the downstream design process.

Before we go on lets take a look at the different kinds of sketches so as to not confuse yourself when you go crazy over somebody’s apparently great work.

Thumbnail or Napkin sketch

Source: Core77

A thumbnail sketch is a very basic sketch that has an almost child like quality to it. This type of sketch is mainly about getting your ideas down on paper as quickly as possible without too much care about proportions and beauty. Its often pretty rough focusing only on the key “big” idea. Thumbnails sketches are often the most frequently used sketch technique used to communicate ideas.

You can learn more about the importance of thumbnail sketches here at Steelcase’s 360 E-Zine.

Emotion Sketch

Source: Mikedesign

Emotional sketches are the main source of what I like to call “sketch discouragement”! These are the sketches people go ga-ga over and a main source of a designer’s spine tingling sensation as well as frustration. Also called Inspirational sketches, such sketches are often use to set the tone of a design, brand language or product range.

Source: Toyfon

Emotional sketches are also very difficult to do. Simply because an emotional sketch is extremely form orientated, and used as a means to communicate emotion. Hence the designers who create emotional or inspirational sketches are often called “form monsters” and have the uncanny ability to turn an emotion or expression keyword into a line, form or silhouette.

However one if you look closely into such sketching style you would realize such sketches don’t actually communicate a lot of information. If you look at the example above, can you ask yourself how does the door open? Where is the door handle? The side mirrors?

Its because such sketches are meant to convey just the look or feel of a product and nothing more. It intentionally or unintentionally leaves out things like mechanical fixtures, part lines, or assembly information etc. The best emotional sketch designers are actually able to convert their sketches into great products, but unfortunately you be also surprised to know most cannot and remain in just form or concept development.

Information Sketch

The information sketch is perhaps the level at which what most designers, whom are worried about their sketching ability, should aspire to. It’s the minimum type of sketch level that would allow other designers to understand what you are trying to draw.

I drew this to describe to my client’s engineering department, how the design’s different parts all came together.

hp laptop2 copy
Carl does probably some of the best informational sketches I have seen. Waaay better then mine! Source

There are a lot of tangent lines, exploded views, transparent layering, a little color here and there, but all in all you can easily tell almost right away what is going on.

Right now so how do we do it? How to we get to the level we are satisfied with? Or how do we just improve our sketching ability?

No gentle reader I will not leave you high and dry! Tomorrow, in part 2, I will list 10 tips that has helped me improve my sketching ability! So do stay tuned and please keep in touch!

Brian Ling

Brian is the Founder and Design Director at Design Sojourn, a Design Led Innovation Consultancy. He is a multi-award winning design leader, and specialises in strategic design and innovation programs that drive successful organisations. Brian’s 20-year career in design, driven through a deep understanding of human behavior, spans over multiple domains such as consumer electronics, government, healthcare, non-profit agencies, hospitality, F&B, retail, online solutions and best in class service experiences.

Leave a Reply

22 Comments on "Do I have to be able to draw well to be a good designer?"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Thulasizwe Mike Dlamini
Thulasizwe Mike Dlamini
Hi My name Mike from South africa, I’ve been drawing ever since I was a kid so passion is what I have and ever had for car designing, I could carry on with my studies cause there were no car designing schools. I’ve never attended art school but it was the love I had of drawing cars and laying them In diferent views. So due to life situations I had to sort out my life as it is now, if I may find a way through of doing what’s taking me to my dream of becoming a car designer I’d… Read more »

It needs high level of drawing..


[…] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Wave Of Confusion […]

Juan Fandiño

Hi its an interesting and educating post, I’ve allways hear that question from many people. A Teacher said: You can have ecxellent draws but that doesn’t make you an ecxellent designer, the importance is how you represent your ideas. Im a venezuelan student. I have a little blog check it out!

Hi, I am a senior in college majoring in graphic design and I can not draw. Yes, I can sketch my ideas on paper, placing type and such on to the page and draw thumbnails, but I am no “artist” in the sense of drawing. I am creative I have many ideas for all of my assignments and I put them all on the computer. My graphics teacher never asks us to sketch our work first, but my typography teacher always did. My drawing teacher also believes graphic designers need to have some ability of drawing. To me it’s personal… Read more »

i don;t know if anyone has ever asked this…. im thinking of starting up my own blog and blogging about this…

why is it that all designers handwriting looks the same? I admit i write the same. could one say the same about all doctors? is it something inherent in who we are? maybe its genetic :p and why is it we all have such appreciation over arrows in sketched…i spent years perfecting different forms of arrows trying to find ones which communicated my ideas the best. what is the fascination or was it always just me?


ha ha, do i have to be able to draw,, the answer, is… only if you expect to graduate…

alison stedman
I work as a designer in a technology centre dedicated to design and technology in schools. It is the perennial question – is sketching neccessary? Yes and I believe it needs to be taught. To me personally the napkin sketch (which my husband did many of in our art college days )says more to me than the emotional sketch (though they are beautiful) but you can always employ an illustrator to do them. Sketches don’t have to be works of art they are in many situations working sketches which is a very difficult concept to get over to children who… Read more »

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

You will get monthly News & Announcements. New Work & Theme Releases. Freebies & much more.