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Why sketchbooks matter

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

My sketchbook is a masterpiece. I doubt to other many other people, but to me, it’s pretty awesome. In fact, I have many, gathered over several decades.

I’ve never really thought of writing about the process of sketch-booking until I recently responded to a post about it on Facebook group for professional jewellers. I realised that I had quite a bit to say about them and so I’m writing this article to explain why I think they are a fundamental part of a creative business, and actually, well, life in general.

Despite doing lots of art and DT as a school kid, it was much later, during my Product Design degree I learnt the value of keeping a sketchbook on the go, putting something in it on a daily basis, and keeping it close by me for that spontaneous entry that would disappear if not committed to paper. I got through ten or so over the course of my degree. I’d fill it with drawings of stuff around me, inspirational cuttings from design magazines, concepts for various projects. It was the media in which we might undergo what I later know as the ‘geneplore’ process; generating and exploring possibilities, capturing the elements that would inform thinking, and concretising them into new design concepts.

To me my sketchbook was also a visual diary, a platform for expressive artwork and ideation, documenting my development as a fledgling artist and designer. Though looking back on it now with a degree of cringing, it was a commonly used device for recording idealistic expressions of naïve points of view, and the angst of early twenty-something romances and heartbreaks… I’m sure you get the idea!

Anyway, since those days, I have been fortunate enough to have worked as a head of DT in two new secondary schools. When I set up my first department, I had the rare opportunity to develop a brand new culture, set in place new learning protocols, and offer my vision for the education in design. And I saw the sketchbook as a fundamental tool. An experienced colleague told me she’d always bought the highest quality sketchbooks for pupils that her department budget could stretch to and encouraged me to do the same. We are talking spiral bound, highest quality cartridge paper and silver foil embossed school logo on the front! The idea was, if we give them something to value and we show we value their ideas, then THEY will value their ideas. I did that for the many years I held that role (ok, not the spiral binding-that’s just too expensive for schools these days) and it paid off massively. And pupils have every reason to value them their sketchbooks. They are a platform for creativity, an extension of their minds, and every single idea it contains is precious.

In the same way that ‘being creative’ very often requires instruction, using a sketchbook is likewise. I try to teach the importance of sketchbooks as early as I can. There are several strong messages I try to impart when pupils are using them. Here are a few:

1. To most, a blank page is terrifying. So I often get them to start with ‘de-blanking’ the page so that it loses its threat. Ideas can flow without anxiety, or ‘getting it wrong’.

2. Because every idea is precious, we don’t use rubbers or cross things out; no design is a mistake. We are not restrained, so we don’t sketch ‘neatly’, unless of course, that comes naturally (I'm totally serious when I say I've literally written a thesis on this one). But we are ALWAYS thoughtful, and we remember every idea has value.

3. Design isn’t binary, there are no right or wrong answers, but some ideas are better than others, and those lesser ideas are still an avenue worth exploring and ruling out, they stay there dormant, until we might choose to activate them. So we sketch without judgement, until we are ready to make decisions.

4. And the sketchbook, as an extension of our minds, is precious. We look after it, we treasure it.

5. (I love this one) If it doesn't close flat, you have used it well. What I mean by this is FILL IT UP. Throw all your experiments in it and annotate around them. My most recent sketchbook is a hefty old weight with the araldited copper and silver samples of various experiments that went well, and more importantly, those that didn't.

These days, my sketchbook is used alongside the many creative apps that exist. I absolutely love apps like Pinterest, Houzz, National Geographic, Instagram for inspiration…. Perhaps I’m old fashioned and sometimes I find it good to collate interesting images in paper form and sketch alongside them. Turn them upside down, put a mirror next to them, get out the copper wire and sketch model, photographing and printing the outcome in my sketchbook before it gets lost somewhere in the computer or the everyday pile of things to do…

Anyway, these are the notions and methods that have worked for me. My sketchbook is a massively important part of my everyday practice as both a jewellery designer and teacher. That said, I rarely come to very final ideas through my sketchbook (a personal way of working that is for a future article). For me, my sketchbook is a library of thought, a record of the design experiments and journeys that get so far on paper, and equally, of those not yet fulfilled.

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1 Comment

Liz I really like the way you write.I enjoyed reading your post, for the information but also the story, and the interesting concepts and vocabulary-'geneplore' is definitely a new one for me!I finally realised why I like scetchbooks so much!I am going to get some tomorrow for all of us, especially George who is going through whole packs of A4 at the moment for his sketches!Thank you so much for sharing your ideas and knowledge with us.

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