In this day and age, every graphic designer’s work (with an exception of muralists and sign painters) ends up in a digital format. But during the beginning stages of my design process — logo brainstorming, website wireframes, illustration sketches, poster compositions — I prefer to work on paper. (You can see this process in detail in my case studies inObscuro hand lettered logo design process and Komfor band hand lettered logo design process.)
I know tablet PCs are practical and for many folks they’ve become a portable digital sketchbook. But not for me! If you’re wondering why, here are 8 reasons why I still choose to start all my design work on paper, accompanied by images of early sketches that usually no one ever sees.
2019 update: Many years after originally writing this post in 2013, I’ve purchased a Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet. I bring it to client meetings and when I travel to conferences so I don’t have to carry my heavy laptop. But I still primarily draw in my sketchbooks and sketch logo concepts on sheets of printer paper.
1. I already spend too much time looking at screens
This is the most important reason behind my decision. I spend way too much time in front of my computer, and now that I have a smartphone I’m online even when I’m sitting on the couch, riding a bus, or chilling in a café. I have a terrible self-control when it comes to the internet, so for the sake of not staring at screens 24/7, I prefer to work analog for as long as I can.
Pencil sketches of logo ideas for a nonprofit organization brand identity
2. I’m more focused when I work offline
Like most people nowadays, I have terrible focus, and find it difficult to work with the Internet’s siren song calling me to check e-mail, blog comments, Twitter, Facebook, and other websites multiple times in a day. In the beginning stage when I still don’t know what to do, this is a problem because every question “What do I do now?” can be answered with ”You could check e-mail/social/etc…”
I have to be sitting away from the computer to remove this temptation. I work on paper until I get a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do once I sit in front of my computer, and by then I’m already immersed in work and thus less likely to procrastinate.
I’ve written about reducing distractions and procrastination before in these arcicles:
- My Top 5 Tips For Preventing Time Suck & Increasing Productivity
- Productivity Tips from a Hopeless Procrastinator
3. I generate ideas faster on paper
I’ve seen folks like Aaron Draplin create a whole bunch of logos in minutes by using geometric shapes, and then duplicating and tweaking them to create new variants. Sure, if you want to make slightly different versions of the same thing, you can’t beat digital copy/paste.
When it comes to designing unique, freeform ideas, sketching by hand (using a pen or a stylus) is no doubt faster. Unless geometry is at the core of the logo concept, I prefer to just sketch organic symbols and freehand letter shapes during the initial stage of generating lots of ideas.
If I need the ability to draw straight lines easily, I print a dot grid on the page. If I need a perfect circle or an ellipse, I use technical drawing templates. I’ve also sketched some pretty precise logos in pencil using the “flower of life” grid in the past.
But if I’m just sketching a bunch of rough ideas, I don’t need my doodles to be precise—I only need to note the idea so I don’t forget it. Refinement comes later.
I shared my complete list of creative, business & productivity tools, which includes lots of useful sketching supplies
Will my initial ideas look pretty? Usually no. But the more often I draw, the better and faster I become. I am unbeatable in Pictionary not just because I know how to draw, but because I sketch fast. Would I be able to sketch just as fast digitally with a tablet? At this rate, I don’t think I could catch up even if I practiced every day for months.
4. It’s easier to connect the dots when everything is in my view
My desk with sketches and notes for a hospitality consultant logo design
I like to have papers strewn across my entire desk as I work, giving me an overview of different approaches I’ve already tried. This enables me to go back and forth with different solutions, as well as having multiple references at a glance and combine several ideas into new ones.
Even with a 2-monitor setup, I still can’t quite get quite the same effect on my computer — even less on a smaller tablet screen. I’ve seen some design teams print their ideas and tape the papers to the walls so they can discuss them, so clearly I’m not the only one seeing the benefit of this approach.
5. Limitations of the medium force me to create better designs
I always start working with a graphite pencil or a black pen. Even when I’m designing digitally, I draw all the shapes in black first, and only apply colors after I’ve perfected the shapes. This ensures that the graphics and interfaces are readable and easy to understand even when no color is present. When working digitally it’s easy to skip this step and dive right into color combinations, ignoring the effect that only composition and value contrast have.
When working in a grayscale, low-res medium such as graphite or ink, you can immediately see where the problems arise: areas that are too thin or too close together, or the meaning symbol is unclear.
Every logo design must work in black and white. If it doesn’t work in black and white, it won’t work in color, either.
Hand-lettered logo for the band Komfor, made in ink. I documented the early stages in my post: Komfor band logo design process
6. Digital tools just don’t feel the same
Even though I’ve been a very satisfied graphic tablet user since 2006, the feeling is quite different from traditional media. Digital and traditional mediums each have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Calligraphy samples that I used as the basis of my hand-lettered logo design for a holistic health coach
I prefer sketching on paper to sketching digitally, and I’m very particular when it comes to choosing my tools and art supplies. Especially when it comes to hand-lettered logo projects, I employ fountain pens to create realistic cursive script and Pentel brush pens for brush script, that I then scan and carefully trace in Adobe Illustrator.
7. More opportunities for happy accidents
Each medium has its own character, and you should accept it for what it is, even if it frustrates you.
Traditional tools can offer more dimensionality and texture that the digital tools don’t possess. Digital tools try to emulate the randomness of traditional tools, such as rugged edges and watercolor-like texture, but it still looks too perfect, too synthetic. I can clearly tell the difference between an Illustrator or a Procreate brush and an actual brush, or between organic watercolor texture and a digitally generated repeat pattern.
An unexpected brush stroke, the way paint settles in the grooves of the paper, or a stream of consciousness doodle could take you places you wouldn’t gotten otherwise. It’s exciting, and it has been immensely helpful to me in the past.
Ink drawings of icons for an older version of my website design
8. Ink lasts longer than a battery
I take a sketchbook literally everywhere I go. Sometimes when I’m particularly stuck on a project, I like to use pockets of time riding a bus or sitting in a waiting room to try to come up with new ideas. On many such occasions, I’ve actually produced concepts that I used in the final project.
On longer trips I like to keep my electronics charged for important things such as looking up directions, ordering a taxi, taking photos, messaging with loved ones, etc. I will of course read books or articles on my phone and tablet for a limited time, but I don’t want to limit my sketching time at all. I want to be able to draw and make notes whenever I want, for as long as I like, and traditional tools allow me to do that.
Sketchnotes from the conference Branding of Culture. If you want to read them, I posted a PDF for download on my Croatian website (scroll below the images for the download button).
9. People usually don’t steal sketchbooks
It’s essential for me to be able to note my ideas anytime, anyplace (which I also recommend to all creatives). I especially like to take my sketchbook to the beach and just relax as I’m watching the scenery, or work on a personal creative project.
You can see examples of sketchbook art I like to do while on the beach in my post The Zen of Watercolor: Practice in releasing perfectionism.
I can leave my sketchbook in my bag without fear it won’t be there when I come back. I do leave my phone out of sight occasionally, but I would never, ever leave a tablet unobserved because it’s way too expensive!
What do you prefer: digital, traditional, or a combination?
2019 update: Since I’ve gotten my tablet, I often use it to test color palette or a composition for my traditional paintings before I commit to it on canvas. I snap a photo of the work in progress, and then quickly sketch over it in an app like Sketchbook Pro, and make several versions so I can decide which one I like the best. I used to do something similar in Photoshop on my computer, but it would take me a bit longer. But I really don’t see myself ever eliminating traditional tools from my toolbox.
I just love the tactile sensations of traditional tools, and the joy of flipping though a completed sketchbook. Pulling out sheets of paper for a logo design in progress feels like a ritual that puts me in the creative mood.
One could argue that using paper is bad for the environment, and an unnecessary waste of living beings that are being harvested for it. I try to purchase recycled paper whenever I can and thoroughly reuse papers down to the smallest scraps before throwing them away. I work with only a handful of clients every year, so a single pack of copy paper can last me several years. There are other ways I could make a far greater impact on the environment than going paperless.
What’s your story? Digital, traditional, or both? Feel free to share it in the comments :)
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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