Thumbnail sketches: a great design tool

I’ve heard for many years that speaking in public is one of the top things that people in general are afraid of, but I never realized that fear of drawing is also so common. An online search for “fear of drawing” yielded a surprising number of sites where this is discussed, or that give you tips and suggestions on how to overcome it. For designers, it’s a necessary skill, so, in this post, I’m going to discuss a great tool we use all the time, which involves… what else… drawing.

What we call a “thumbnail sketch” is just a very small, very loose, very fast drawing made at the start of the design process, which helps the designer begin to visualize the final product. These sketches are used all the time by architects, engineers, industrial designers, and many other creative people in their work, as they help get concepts on paper quickly and with only a minor investment in time. And, because they are so quick, they are also disposable; in my own case, I often do 20 or 30 of them when I start on a design project, until I’m happy with the direction I’m seeing.

I showed a few thumbnail sketches in  A set design from start to finish, so here I’m going to show you how to do some from Square One. Let’s say I’m designing a set for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I’ve already read the script, done some research, met with the director, and agreed to bring the set close to the audience. So I’m ready for some preliminary ideas, and I’m going to do them on scratch paper as I write this post. BTW, the red ink is just a personal thing.

The first sketch just shows the proscenium arch, the thrust, and a couple of figures to provide some scale. Notice how loose it is. The sketch is just over two inches across.

VW 1

The second sketch shows everyone’s first conception for a box set: a box on the stage, with the front door up center. Booo-ring.

VW 2

Sketch #3 changes the angle of the walls. A little more interesting. Now I’m starting to get somewhere, and the sketch is still just over two inches across.

VW 3

For the next sketch, I moved the set downstage so it comes forward of the proscenium opening, onto the thrust. I like it, but it’s too much.

VW 4

In sketch five, I’m playing with the shape of that back wall.

VW 5

Sketch #6 takes that shape from #5 and turns it into an entryway, up a step from the main floor. At this point I’m liking the look, but now I need to get thinking about the furniture. Time for a floor plan.

VW 6

Next is a floor plan, still a couple of inches across. I’m liking the shape, but the furniture needs room too.

VW 7

Sketch 8 pushes the furniture upstage . Now I see what I have to do with the walls.

VW 8

Nine is a mess: I’m adjusting the angles of the walls relative to a large rug I just introduced. The nice thing about these sketches is that they’re for me (or, in this case, for you), so they don’t have to be pretty. They’re just a way to think on paper.

VW 9

Ten is getting somewhere. Now I added an alcove SR for George’s desk and a window alcove SL for additional seating (this is also where I would do a little more research into residential interiors). These give me more usable space and make the walls more interesting. Also, I’m showing two smaller rugs instead of one large one.

VW 10

Next, Sketch 11 shows me, in all its “looseness,” what my primary shapes are. I went over them with a blue ballpoint, just to clean them up a bit.

VW 11

And finally, Sketch 12 is a slightly cleaned-up version of 11, focusing on the geometric shapes of the walls and the overall architecture. It’s still very quick and loose, but it tells me a lot. Now I can begin to develop this as a real floor plan, add another entrance or two, and have something to show the director as a first-pass concept.

VW 12

For this post, I only did twelve sketches, just to keep things (reasonably) brief. But, as I mentioned above, I generally do lots of these, at the level of detail shown in the first three or four, before I go beyond that. Thirty or forty aren’t unusual for me, but they only take a short time, and I can do them in an easy chair with a mug of coffee.

What I also do, often, is to do a few, go away for a while, and then come back and look at them with a fresh eye. That’s when I start asking, is this concept serving the story? Then I can go from there.

Thumbnail sketches are a great way to begin the design process, as you can explore several different approaches in a short time. As you continue doing them, you’ll find they become easier and faster, and you’ll be pleased with the results.