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Google Ventures On How Sketching Can Unlock Big Ideas

Jake Knapp, author of Sprint, reveals a four-step process for sketching your way to greatness.

Photo: Vgajic/Getty Images

Imagine you’ve got a great idea. You’ve been thinking about it for weeks. You go to work, describe the idea to your teammates, and . . . they just stare at you. Maybe you aren’t explaining it well. Maybe the timing isn’t right. For whatever reason, they just can’t picture it. Totally frustrating, right? It’s about to get worse.

Now imagine your boss suggests an alternative idea. It just popped into his head, and you can tell right away that the idea isn’t thought out and won’t work. But all your teammates nod their heads! Maybe it’s because the boss’s idea is vague and each person is interpreting it in his or her own way. Maybe everyone is just supporting him because he’s the boss. Either way, it’s game over.

Okay, come back to reality. That was an imaginary scenario, but it’s the sort of thing that happens when people make decisions about abstract ideas. Because abstract ideas lack concrete detail, it’s easy for them to be undervalued (like your idea) or overvalued (like the boss’s idea).

Sketching is the fastest and easiest way to transform abstract ideas into concrete solutions. Once your ideas become concrete, they can be critically and fairly evaluated by the rest of your team—without any sales pitch.

Work Alone Together

We know that individuals working alone generate better solutions than groups brainstorming out loud. Working alone offers time to do research, find inspiration, and think about the problem. And the pressure of responsibility that comes with working alone often spurs us to our best work.



But working alone isn’t easy. The individual has to not only solve the problem but also invent a strategy for solving the problem. If you’ve ever sat down to work on a big project and wound up reading the news instead, you know how hard this work can be.

In a design sprint, Google Ventures' five-day process for teams answering crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas, people work alone, but follow specific steps to help everyone focus and make progress. That includes sketching. When each person sketches alone, he or she has time for deep thought. When the whole team works in parallel, they generate competing ideas, without the groupthink of a group brainstorm. You might call this method "work alone together."

The sketches that result become the fuel for the rest of the sprint. You critique everyone’s sketches and pick the best ones. You turn them into a prototype. And you test the ideas with customers. That’s a lot of mileage out of a few drawings, and it might make you think we’re expecting a work of genius straight out of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook. Not so.

You Can Draw

To put the power of the sketch in perspective, let’s take an example from a sprint we held with Blue Bottle Coffee. The boutique coffee company had gathered in our San Francisco office one Tuesday to tackle a big challenge: how to sell fresh coffee beans online. There, in the middle of the room, on a coffee table, was the source of the team’s consternation. Not the challenge itself, nor the tough questions it raised—but a stack of paper, a dozen clipboards, and a paper cup filled with black pens.

Somebody cleared his throat. It was Byard Duncan, Blue Bottle’s communications manager. As everyone turned, he cracked a sheepish smile.

"So . . . ," he said. "What if I can’t draw?"

Drawing is a great equalizer. Everyone can write words, draw boxes, and express his or her ideas with the same clarity. If you can’t draw (or rather, if you think you can’t draw), don’t freak out. Plenty of people worry about putting pen to paper, but anybody— absolutely anybody—can sketch a great solution.

Take a look at one of the sketches that came out of Blue Bottle Coffee’s sketching exercise—a solution called "The Mind Reader." Each sticky note represents one page on Blue Bottle’s website.

The big idea behind "The Mind Reader" was to organize the online store the same way a barista might talk with a customer. As you can see in the three frames, this solution leads with a welcome, then asks how the customer prepares coffee at home, before offering recommendations and a brewing guide. There’s a lot of complexity to the idea, but the drawing itself was straightforward: mostly boxes and text, the kind of thing anyone can draw.

Later, the team made a realistic prototype based on "The Mind Reader," with details filled in from some of the other sketches.

When shown to real customers, "The Mind Reader" was remarkably effective. Customers grew confident in the quality of the coffee as they clicked through the website. They found beans they wanted to order. They described the prototype as "way better" than competing retailers and mentioned that "clearly, these people know coffee." It became the foundation for Blue Bottle’s new website.

So, who sketched that solution? It wasn’t a designer, an architect, or an illustrator. It was Byard Duncan, the Man Who Couldn’t Draw.

A few more solutions from Blue Bottle's sketching exercise

The Four-Step Sketch

When I first started running sprints, I tried to recreate my own most successful work sessions. I was most effective when I took time to "boot up" by reviewing key information, starting my design work on paper, considering multiple variations, and then taking time to create a detailed solution. And, since I am a world-class procrastinator, I was also most effective when under a tight deadline.

The four-step sketch contains each of these important elements. You start with 20 minutes to "boot up" by taking notes on the goals, opportunities, and inspiration you’ve collected around the room. Then you have another 20 minutes to write down rough ideas. Next, it’s time to limber up and explore alternative ideas with a rapid sketching exercise called Crazy 8s. And finally, you take 30 minutes or more to draw your solution sketch—a single well-formed concept with all the details worked out.

The four-step sketch provides a reliable way for anyone to make ideas concrete and capture them in a simple sketch. Because sketching is above all about solutions. When your team evaluates these sketches to decide which are best, and when you test your prototype, it will be the quality of the solutions that matters, not the artistry of the drawings from which they came.

For a detailed guide to the four-step sketch—and the rest of the sprint process—check out Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.

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