2 February 2024

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.

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