Thoughts on digital sketching

“Can I use my tablet for these classes?”

I often get questions from students about the use of sketching tablets and software to replace pen, paper and markers. To help anyone struggling with these questions I would like to share my thoughts here with you.

I understand how the use of a digital tablet can instantly make you feel more confident and professional. Yet, I highly recommend starting on paper before jumping on a tablet.

Let me be clear, in most design firms, sketching on a tablet has become the standard and I think developing digital sketching techniques is an absolute must for any aspiring industrial designer. The benefits of sketching digitally certainly pay off in a professional studio environment. At the same time most of my sketching classes are based on some core values that vouch for a more analogue approach in the development of your sketching skill.

Let me explain.

Take it step-by-step

To effectively train a skill you need to break it down into its core components and train them individually. When you practice multiple new techniques simultaneously you lack the focus needed to develop fluency in the individual components.

To be able to use digital tools effectively requires additional training. On top of developing motor skill or perspective construction methods you now also need to learn how to use your tablet and get used to the interface and functionality of the software. This is simply too much to handle all at once and attempting to do so can easily turn your initial excitement into a highly frustrating learning experience, blocking your creative flow altogether!

In my classes we always start training the basics on paper. We typically first work on getting used to pencil, pens and markers and handling them properly to produce fluent lines, shapes and marker fills before moving on to more complicated techniques such as constructing volumes in perspective. You really need to train these basic techniques individually to reach a level of fluency that allows you to work more freely later on. When you switch to a tablet you will have to go through a similar learning process to also reach fluency in the use of the hardware and the software.

When you deploy your sketching techniques in a design challenge you must be able to use them without thinking. You really don’t want to spend your time fixing a skewed perspective or scrolling through Photoshop tutorials online. You need to stay focussed on the design and any hiccup caused by a lack of skill can seriously throw you off.

Undo is addictive!

A second argument for starting on paper is that it is much easier to switch from analogue to digital sketching than the other way around. When you start with all the benefits of sketching digitally there is a good chance you also become dependent on them. Whenever you need to sketch something, but you don’t have immediate access to your digital tools, you will realise quickly how much you got used to the ability to undo a wobbly line, to zoom in and out, or to adjust the values of your work. Not having these options available can make you feel highly uncomfortable when putting pen to paper which in turn may hold you back from sharing your ideas with others. That would be a huge loss!

Do not disturb!

And last but not least, being creative in a digital format can be even more challenging than when using pen and paper. Don’t get me wrong, I use digital tools all the time in my professional work. Especially to prepare client presentations, but in the earlier stages of concept development I find it much more difficult to get into a creative flow when sketching on a tablet.

Digital sketches often end up on different layers in files in folders on hard drives or cloud servers. To access your work you will always need a device and view your sketches on a screen. To develop and refine a concept I need to have immediate access to all earlier development to fully immerse myself in the project, keep track of the process and visually stimulate my brain. I definitely don’t want to interrupt my flow searching my hard drive for sketches that I made last week.

When you sketch on paper you easily keep track of your process. I like to leave my paper sketches on my desk or pin them up on the wall to get a nice overview of the work in progress. Sometimes, when I enter my studio the next day, a certain sketch will catch my eye and I suddenly see what is wrong with the design or it may spark a new idea for further exploration.

Design is teamwork

This permanent overview becomes even more relevant when collaborating in a design team. You need to see what everyone is doing to fuel each other with ideas and maximise the creative output of the team. Doing this in a digital workflow can be done but it is much more challenging and the extra effort can easily disrupt your creative flow. Documenting and sharing your digital creative process is hard because you constantly need to remind yourself to do so. If you forget, it’s often hard to explain how you arrived at your final design and recall all the decisions that you made along the way.

When I sketch on a tablet I try to produce multiple sketches on a single canvas just like I do on paper. This way I can clearly see the design develop and unfold as I go. I have also trained myself to work light enough to accept imperfect lines and work without using ‘undo’ all the time. It’s still a sketch after all!

In conclusion

For anyone trying to justify the purchase of a tablet, I think you first need to ask yourself: Am I ready to start working on a tablet? And be honest with yourself! Sketching with digital tools can be very powerful, but only makes sense when you already have a good foundation under your belt. In the end it is just another tool and it is not going to produce the design for you.

If you feel ready to get started with a tablet please keep these suggestions in mind:

– Train basic techniques one-by-one to develop fluency first.

– Don’t get dependent – you will feel lost without your tools.

– Use digital tools just like you use a sheet of paper.

– Don’t forget to document and share your work in progress.

In short, embrace all the benefits, be aware of the pitfalls and remember to start with the basics on paper!

Hope this helps.

PS. If you are interested in learning analogue sketching techniques, check out my online course: Fast Track to Design Sketching.


Martijn van de Wiel is an independent Dutch creative entrepreneur and design teacher on a mission to help aspiring and professional designers unlock their creative potential. Through online courses, keynote talks and hands-on workshops, Martijn keeps beating the drum for sketching as a vehicle to support thinking and stimulate the imagination.

Back to the classroom?

It just dawned on me recently: all learning activities need a home – a space where learning takes place, where instructions are given and where practice is done.

Sounds obvious, right?
Or is it?

Here’s some things to chew on as lockdowns are being lifted and we start crawling back into our classrooms.

My kids go to a Montessori school (just like I did). What I love about this school and the system is that kids share a classroom with three different grades. One of the consequences is that they stay in the same classroom with the same teacher for three years before they move on to the next classroom for another three years.

They occupy the space, it’s theirs. It’s where they read, write, draw, make, watch, sing, eat, drink, cheat, chat, laugh, bully and fight. They probably spend more hours in this classroom then they spend awake at home! For them it’s not just school, it’s also another ‘home’.

When I started my studies in Industrial Design in The Hague back in the 90’s the school was based in a relatively small building that was shared with two other faculties. Most courses had a dedicated classroom and design projects where done in project spaces where sketches and prototypes could be left behind to continue work the next day.

At least for the duration of a project that space was our home. We occupied it.

During my third year in The Hague a brand new campus was built right in the city center to bundle the majority of studies under one roof as one big collective. The prestigious campus for the newly branded ‘Hague University of Applied Science’ would make for a strong image to attract students from all over the world and the move to a single infrastructure would ultimately be much more cost efficient.

The basic idea behind this new efficiency is that you can optimise the use of all educational space by means of centralised planning – no more empty classrooms. That may have sounded like a briljant idea from a management point of view, but this efficiency also came at a cost.

With fourteen academies spread out over an eighty-three thousand square meter site, we were now sharing the available educational space with more than twenty thousand students and all of a sudden our classes took place in anonymous lecture rooms that could be scheduled on one of ten different floors every other day.

I felt lost!

Years later, when doing an extra year at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (CA) I finally had another home-at-school-experience. For a whole term our class would ‘own’ a studio space.

We could design and setup our own workspace and use this room as our private design studio, where professors would come to visit us and not the other way around. We even had a couch to take naps in between classes or watch videos at night. Some students never went home at all!

Over the past twenty years I have been teaching design sketching classes and workshops in many places all over the world, including the department of Industrial Design in The Hague where I started my studies. I am fortunate to be teaching most of my courses there from a home base – the vislab studio, one of the only dedicated learning spaces in the whole building!

It’s a light and spacious room with individual drawing tables, a wall to pin-up sketches and shelves full of product samples, reference books and sketching tools. A place to get inspired, to practice, experiment, fail and reflect. Where guests are invited to share their expertise. Where work is submitted, where feedback is given and where students come for advise, even after class is over.

A place where staff and students feel at home.

This studio space was not given to us by chance. If it wasn’t for the perseverance of my co-teacher Rein Have, the vislab would have never existed. He fought like a lion for this space because he believed our sketching classes needed a home base.

I fully agree and I also believe this insight extends way beyond my own classroom and applies to all learning activities – everywhere.

At the same time I see that opportunities for creating and maintaining a home-base are under constant threat by management driven cost reductions – everywhere.

Whilst many teachers seem eager and excited to return to on-campus teaching, I feel more reluctant than ever. Don’t get me wrong – I know students need to meet up physically to engage in social interaction and have some sort of student life.

Yet, the distance that came with teaching remotely during the pandemic has made me even more aware of the pitfalls that are undermining the educational system as a whole. When educational space gets managed like factory space, students and staff will feel like moving through an assembly line.

I no longer want to expose my students to nomadic lectures in anonymous classrooms. I am going to make an effort to make my students feel like we own the space together.

It’s their education after all.

Martijn van de Wiel is an independent Dutch creative entrepreneur and design teacher on a mission to help aspiring and professional designers unlock their creative potential. Through online courses, keynote talks and hands-on workshops, Martijn keeps beating the drum for sketching as a vehicle to support thinking and stimulate the imagination.

It’s about time!

Writing has been on my list for way too long and, as with all things that are stuck on lists, I know that taking a first step is all that is needed to get started. For this blog I am finally taking that step and, to be more precise, I am taking that step backwards.

I am taking some distance from the never ending flow of work and creating some time to reflect on what I am – and have been doing. I intend to write a series of short articles on the insights I gained from twenty years of teaching design and sketching classes and workshops. Both online and in class.

I specifically want to write about the experiments I have done recently in shifting my courses online and teaching my classes remotely during the covid-pandemic. Not about the band-aid solutions during the initial lockdown, I was there too and it was ugly, but on the experiences that followed. When I had more time to prepare my classes and create new meaningful ways to support my students remotely.

I will probably also write a bit about Design and Sketching and share some insights from the various classes I teach and, as a co-founder and long time user, I will definitely include some thoughts on the use of Sketchdrive, the platform we created to share visual work in online classes.

Although I will mainly use this blog to document my own reflections, I hope that sharing my experiences and insights with you will also trigger dialog and collaboration. To re-think and re-build teaching and learning in design education and create change!

Feel free to connect with me and share your thoughts, experiences and ideas.

Martijn van de Wiel is an independent Dutch creative entrepreneur and design teacher on a mission to help aspiring and professional designers unlock their creative potential. Through online courses, keynote talks and hands-on workshops, Martijn keeps beating the drum for sketching as a vehicle to support thinking and stimulate the imagination.