Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thumbnails, Sketches and Doodles

Today my topic is thumbnails, sketches and doodles — how they're different, and what purposes they serve.

As the name implies, the thumbnail is a drawing in a very small rectangle, usually 1-3 inches in measurement. Making a thumbnail is a visual way to sort out and solidify ideas or layouts that are still in a rough planning stage. The thumbnails above are by my father, who enjoyed painting winter landscapes. One can see that he was positioning trees and considering including a house in the background. In the upper thumbnail, his attention focused on the foreground, where light and shadows would define massive roots. A very simple drawing, and yet lots of ideas swirling around.

Again, a thumbnail by my father, who was obviously enjoying a cup of coffee! Here the thumbnail serves the purpose of being a reminder. It's a visual memo for painting a moon landing by first making a three-dimensional model. In this case, the thumbnail isn't about layout, it's about retaining a fleeting thought that might be developed later.

I do such thumbnails all the time, like this one on a sticky note. Stick figures are okay because the sole purpose here is to simply jog the memory. Many artists carry sketch books that they use not only for recording what they see, but also as a catalog of ideas.

This is a most remarkable series of thumbnails. I salvaged this sheet from my first employer, Wayne Dale, who was both an adept businessman and a good graphic designer. He was responsible for designing Wanamaker gift catalogs in the 1970s, and I learned a lot from him. In this series of small thumbnails, Mr. Dale planned the catalog size, cover design, colors, number of pages, and the designs for each back-to-school spread. This is thumbnails at their best!

Sketches are bigger than thumbnails, and whether they are rough or comp (comprehensive), they're more refined. When dealing with a client, one might show thumbnails (but only in an initial, more casual conversation), 5 or 6 rough sketches, and 1 or 2 comps. I divide jobs into levels of presentation or completion and bill at each stage. The sketches above were by my father, who was planning his own Japanese garden.

And here is that garden realized. You can see from how closely the photo resembles the sketch, that the sketch was much more advanced than a thumbnail.

And finally, we come to doodles. Doodles are unconscious drawings, a way of zoning out and mining the subconscious. I made these doodles on a napkin one evening while I was dining alone and waiting for my meal. I have no idea what I was thinking because I was not in a conscious state. And yet our subconscious is a tremendous repository of all our observations, and a treasure trove for new projects. In this case, through doodling, I observed that the classic diagram for a box becomes two stacked Xs and a diamond, perhaps a future logo design.
One interesting thing about doodling is that studies have shown that people who doodle during speeches, meetings or classes actually retain information better. For an article about that, go here.


  1. Hi Mark, Interesting post. Somewhere between my sketches and doodles new ideas for a ceramic design is born. I'm curious about your stick figures...and the flower pots on their heads. What was the end result?

  2. Hi, Gina. The thought was to graphically illustrate how people manifest in their lives. The cornucopia represents all that is possible, and the figures imagine (image in) aspects or varying degrees of that entirety.

  3. This is a great subject Mark. You defined each one well and I love the examples given.My favorite is your first employer.

  4. Thanks, Theresa. Wayne Dale was a perfect first employer in the sense that he saw his employees as family, and was ready to teach. He had a huge office that doubled as a library, and he encouraged his staff to come in while he was working and use the library. I think you can see from his thumbnails that he also had a very quick mind!

  5. How lucky you were to have such a gifted and creative father, and what a lovely Japanese garden he created. I like that you have saved his sketches and that you treasure them.

    I have on many occasions sketched and doodled through dull lessons, seminars, workshops and presentations. I know for a fact that it didn't help me retain anything, but it certainly helped relieve some mind numbing boredom.

    In any sort of creative endeavor, I think preliminary sketches are very important. For myself, the most important thing they establish is scale, and I redo them until it looks right.

  6. Wonderful post and I love the fact that you retained some of your father's works and even one from an early employer. I'm beginning to suspect that your home overfloweth with Ruffnerian stuff!

  7. Since both my parents were artists of sorts, we had many thumbnails and sketches around and I was an obsessive doodler at work. Your doodles - at least the ones shown here - actually look very similar to many of mine!! Mine always seem to be very geometric in nature - wonder what that means!!

  8. Hi, Terry and Buoni - thanks for visiting.

    Terry, my father loved Japanese gardens and created several of them. The one featured in this posting included a pool of carp and a terrace wall made of very large boulders. Unfortunately, that was more than 45 years ago, and good photographs of that project have not survived. But I'm sure to be showing more of his creativity in future postings.

    Buoni, because I was an Army brat, I changed residence 17 times in my life (including college) and along the way I learned to edit my possessions often. Most of my collections are in fact either small items or paper.

    I live in a small house (800 square feet) which is relatively free of clutter, but I'm big on storage, with collections fitting in living room cabinets and studio flat files and filing cabinets. I've also given one closet over to office supplies. So the Ruffnerian stuff is all about storage, filing and archiving. I should have been a museum director!

  9. Hi, Quintessence. I think that the natural urge of a designer is to find or make order, and that such geometric doodles are a natural extension of that. wouldn't it be interesting to know if doodles can be interpreted in the same way that handwriting is analyzed?