Product Design Lessons

Interface Design Sketching  |   Lesson #76

Autopsy of Failed Sketches Leads to Great Work

Learn to improve your sketching by analyzing what went wrong.

There you are, standing in front of your client, ready to impress with ideas before getting the green light to make functional prototypes. You pin your sketches to a board to review ideas. The sketches suck. Your client looks at you like you're an amateur. And suddenly your brilliant ideas are in doubt. What went wrong?

In the past we've talked about good sketching technique. To fully understand what that means, we have to look at the opposite. Get your Sharpies ready: Today we're looking at bad lo-fi sketches.

What makes a bad sketch?

It's easy to spot a bad sketch, something else to analyze what's wrong. Here are characteristics of a poorly-made sketch.

  1. Too much detail. It's been said that the devil's in the details. That's not something we want in our sketches. Save finesse for Photoshop — sketches are about ideas.
  2. More than one idea per page. Treat each piece of paper as one idea so you can a) rearrange them on the fly, and b) avoid point #1.
  3. Shaky line work. Nothing cries "lack of confidence" quite like jittery lines.
  4. Whiteout. Don't use it. For one thing, it slows your thought process. For another, it crumbles under repeat Sharpie lines, which looks sloppy and unprofessional. Yes, we take sketches seriously.
  5. Generic. Sketches that could be anything tell us nothing.

Let's look at a few now.

Scan of a shaky sketch.


Above: This sketch is too generic. Its squiggles and boxes could be anything. Are they all photos? Do they link anywhere? We can't tell. The shoddy line work doesn't help. Looks like a right-handed person drew this with their left.

Scan of a miniscule sketch.


Above: This isn't a squint test, but it could be. Thin lines, drawn too small, are hard to read and waste paper. Look closely and you'll see it gets worse. This sketch tries to show off-canvas navigation, tooltips, an orbiter and a drop-down navigation bar all in one.

Neither sketch takes advantage of shaders. Instead it tried to shade with black pen instead of a gray shader. It sort of works, but lacks a degree of finesse.

Why is that bad?

Not only do bad sketches, well, look bad, but they also inhibit your process. Think about it:

  • Indecision keeps you from brainstorming on paper.
  • Details slow you down. Time is money — especially to your client.
  • Lack of definition doesn't help get ideas across during presentation.

How do you improve?

  • Be bold. Don't be afraid to screw up and throw away a sketch. That's why we brainstorm with Sharpies and paper, not code.
  • Improve your line work. Use shaders. Impress your clients.

And practice often. It's not unusual for our designers to produce 30–50 sketches to find the best ideas.

Scan of a good sketch.


Above: A good sketch takes advantage of its space. Its straight lines are unapologetic about the ideas they express, and a variety of weights lead the eye around the composition. The whole piece feels designed, even though the only tricks are attention to detail and practice.

Making sketches to show clients is a fast, efficient way to get feedback in a hurry. But the quality of your work impacts how well your ideas are received. Sketches that look great make you look great.

About the instructor


Ben Gremillion is a Design Writer at ZURB. He started his career in newspaper and magazine design, saw a digital future, and learned HTML in short order. He facilitates the ZURB training courses.