How to draw ideas

Great ideas are hard to find. Drawing makes it a lot easier. And fun. How?

study, explore, develop, show

In a creative process drawing can play four different roles.

Let’s say, we want to come up with ideas for a new flower pot.

1. Study: Fill your mind


To prepare for our ideation we first draw what we want to think about. These study drawings are realistic images. They force us to observe our subject closely and absorb as much knowledge as possible.

Study drawings of plants and plant pots

We clarify, pay attention to details, and make the invisible visible.

Study drawings of plants and plant pots

Illustrations make abstract thoughts accessible to our emotional and bodily thinking—to our intuition.

an example for an illustration

So when we do text research, we add illustrations to make the new knowledge more concrete and real. Speaking of bodily experience: Don’t just look! If we want to learn about flower pots it helps to get our hands dirty and do some gardening. Hell, we might even try pottery! And of course we make sketches of everything we learn along the way.

illustration how to repot a plant

The aim of the study phase is to understand what is there and what is going on. Since we can’t draw everything we are forced to make a choice. This helps us clarify our interests and what we actually want. 

In our case, that means: what kind of flower pot we want to design.

2. Explore: Let it happen


After we have taken in as much information as possible, we now want to go “crazy” and draw as many ideas as possible. 

But what if our mind goes blank and we don’t have any? 

Then we still need to draw. 

Ok, but what?


Anything! Just put that pen on the paper and keep it moving. Scribble, make random marks and shapes. This will kickstart our visual thinking process.

rough sketches

And what are we thinking about? New plant pots of course! We draw everything that comes to mind. Everything! Those drawings just keep pouring from our mind through our hands on that sheet of paper. We have created a loop where our imaginations turn into drawings and those drawings initiate new imaginations.

sketches of ideas

But these imaginations are fickle, they keep changing and might even disappear forever—if we don’t catch them with our pen. So we have to move fast! This is where all our hard work on those drawing exercises pays off. The better trained our hands and eyes are, the more spontaneous is the flow of ideas.

sketches of ideas

And there is no need to worry about whether our drawings are ugly or unintelligible. At this point they are only here for us. We use drawing to have a productive private monologue, to think out loud on paper. The exploration phase is all about spontaneous drawings to get going, stimulate our imagination, and fixate all those ideas rapidly. It is not a beauty contest.

3. Develop: See how it works


Once we get into “sober mode” it is time to figure out which idea might actually work. So we arrange our ideas spatially, group them into similar ideas, and maybe add some annotations.

ideas for plant pots

Then we make a selection and clarify what we are after. I decided to go for a plant pot that somehow supports the growth of the plant. These drawings are cleaner than our initial sketches.

ideas for plant pots

They are also more precise, especially since we want to explore the feasibility of our ideas.

detailed drawing of plant pot

4. Show: Share what matters


To share our ideas with others we must focus on the essential.

The look and level of detail depend on the context. Our sketch here is made for an informal critique among designers. In a final product presentation we would use a series of images to lead the audience from the initial problem to the solution.

presentation of plant pot idea

When ideas are still in their infancy—for example here I am not 100% sure we should go with the pot rings and want to discuss the idea with fellow designers—I recommend a very simple format: 

  • one headline
  • one image
  • one written sentence

When we show an idea—as opposed to a final product—we usually want to make room for debate. The less we show, the more people can think and say. The drawing should be clear but not too elaborated. The text is kept simple and short. Too much information might suffocate precious feedback from others.

Drawing ideas as an extension of our mind

Study drawings are rich with details to make us familiar with our subject. In the exploration phase we fixate fleeting imaginations on paper. These sketches are rough, spontaneous, and above all: fast!

To make sense of these sketches we clarify our ideas using elaborate clean drawings. When we show an idea to other people we keep it short and simple, to make room for debate.

study, explore, develop, show

Drawing ideas with pen and paper can build a bridge between our imagination and the reality we want to create. So get your favourite pen and get started with these little drawing exercises!

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9 comments On How to draw ideas

  • I smiled when I read “imaginations are frickle” possibly a typo, but for me an erudite way to merge fickle with fragile, just like drawings as expressions of ideas and self, until there’s the courage to let them be by sharing them. Thanks for your posts.

  • I find this website after I watched your TED talk, it is so amazing, and I always feel bad when I drawing somthing, even I am a designer, but now, I feel I could pick my pencil again.

  • Brilliant!

  • What a great article; it demonstrates the technique while explaining it!

  • Fantastic article! Thanks for sharing!

  • I’m a kindergarten teacher and when I give my kids whiteboards to write words and numbers I often tell them we aren’t drawing we are writing because I’m trying to manage time but I’m rethinking that… some of my kids can’t connect to abstract letters and maybe drawing is the bridge to connect the mandated learning to THEIR more concrete image based schema. This will be my “sumner study” to integrate into my classroom next year. Thank you for the inspiration!

  • He sido profesora de matemáticas en enseñanza secundaria y siempre he tratado de resolver problemas usando dibujos, líneas, figuras.
    Los estudiantes visualizan la situación y resuelven con facilidad. Especialmente útil en problemas de porcentajes que no siempre comprenden los alumnos.
    Muy interesante las publicaciones! Gracias por compartir.

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