December 9, 2022
4 min read

Napkin Sketches: The Ultimate Conversation Starter in the Creative’s Toolkit

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Some of the most successful ideas in history can trace their origins to a sketch on a napkin and a conversation. Innovation is a complex endeavor, but great ideas start simple. From brands to business models, products, films, and scientific breakthroughs, this humble form of communication has the power to create magic - here’s why.

Great napkin sketches define icons. So, what is a napkin sketch?

The best and most influential designers have always known the importance of being able to define an iconic product with just a few simple gestural lines. When designers (and other creatives) are in the early stages of idea generation, they can often enter a pseudo-hypnotic trance; an organic extension of thought that’s a language in its own right that can become a conversation with oneself to tease out, explore without criticism, and ultimately develop one’s ideas. 

Enter the napkin sketch. 

Napkin sketching is extremely valuable for critical thinking and problem-solving at an early stage due to its low-risk, low-bandwidth nature for many creatives.

Although napkin sketches are far from specification drawings, they can represent the early aesthetic spirit, general layout, and key details of a final design. You don't want to create an immaculate concept with a napkin sketch; rather, you want to enable conversations that may lead in a productive direction within a particular project. The napkin sketches created during a brainstorm at a single lunch meeting in 1994 famously led to 4 Pixar films that collectively generated $1 Billion at the box office.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Often, too much information at the beginning of a project can lead to more damage than good. Have you ever heard of the term Analysis Paralysis? Writer's Block? Fear of the Blank Page?

When we're bound by limitations and boundaries, it's difficult to explore and play, and we're unable to maximize the chance for valuable discoveries. Napkin sketching offers creatives two important hacks here: 

  1. Proliferation: to capture as many ideas as possible, as quickly as possible 
  2. Spontaneity: to allow for discovery at a high reward, low-risk level

A napkin sketch is meant for iterating on designs quickly, not as a replacement for finished work. Through sketches rather than final artwork (or even just text), we avoid potential friction caused by technical limitations and assumptions. As a result, the process allows designers to clarify creative pathways to project solutions before committing significant resources and time to refinement each step of the way. Paula Scher famously solved the $1.5 Million logo rebrand for Citibank in under 5 minutes during the project kickoff meeting with their executive leadership team - effectively concentrating her 20 years of experience in just a few moments.

With just a pen and paper, napkin sketches usually take less than a minute to explore form and iterate on concepts quickly. Various functions, ranging from engineering details to marketing materials, depend on the fidelity of sketches (CAD, renderings, presentations, etc.) as ideas evolve into concepts. 

Using rapid sketching exercises to generate a variety of ideas is very useful. We are not looking for out-of-this-world ideas, but rather a variety of ideas we can build upon as a group.

Here are a few instances where napkin sketching exercises are especially useful in the design process for industrial designers:

  • Collaboratively and individually brainstorm creative solutions and designs across all stages of a design project
  • Creating original ideas and systems or collecting multiple ideas to discover a new one
  • Taking an existing concept and iterating upon it quickly and with little effort
  • Incorporating complex information into new visualizations can lead to new ideas or pathways of discovery

A napkin sketch is about the conversation, not the end result

Napkin sketches are an effective way to communicate your ideas in the earliest stages of a design process. But they're not just useful for communicating your ideas—they're also a great way to gain feedback on those ideas! When you sketch out an idea and share it with someone else, you can get instant feedback on the flow of your concept and how it might look on screen.

Remember, the napkin sketch is not the end result. It’s a tool that helps us move from ideas to action. Many designers will tell you that they are their own worst critics—and with good reason! We have so many ideas swimming around in our heads at any given time, it only makes sense that we need a way of taming them and sorting through all those thoughts before they become real visualizations on paper or screens. The napkin sketch provides just enough structure to help guide your process without limiting creativity by forcing rigid rules upon every project.

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