The Enemy of Good

in Musings

Johnny Holland recently posted an interview called Drawing Ideas and Communicating Interaction, about why good sketching skills are important for interaction designers to have. It’s an interesting talk, but it makes me a little nervous. You see, I can’t draw.

I’ve long considered myself “not a visual person.” That doesn’t mean I never work something out visually on a piece of paper, or that I don’t like images or diagrams or whatever. On the contrary, I depend on external visual artifacts to do what I can’t in my head – visualize things. When people say “picture this in your mind,” I can’t do it. I only “see” things in my mind with a very great effort, and even then not very vividly. By contrast, I “hear” things in my mind practically involuntarily, and have very clear and long-lasting auditory memories.

I just recently discovered that there’s a label for my problems. I seem to have a mild non-verbal learning disability. I’ve got all the “assets” except unusually good rote memory skills, and have some experience with each category of deficit, though my problems with mental imagery, visual recall, and reasoning about/ judging spatial relationships are by far the worst. I never realized all these different things were related, but seeing them all laid out like that, it does kind of make sense.

I’ve never particularly suffered academically because of it, thanks to the strongly verbal orientation of traditional education and a variety of compensatory mechanisms I’ve developed, but I regularly have non-academic “real-life” difficulties that I can trace directly to things like poor visual recall or difficulty coordinating my movements in relation to the objects around me. I get lost and bump into things a lot. My partner is always yelling at me for injuring myself in the silliest ways. I also have some trouble with non-verbal social interactions, though I’ve learned to deal with that one pretty effectively as long as I have adequate time alone to recover.

So…the point is, when I have an idea in my head, it’s usually not visual. What exists in my head might be a verbal description, or a scenario of use, again expressed mainly verbally, or even a sort of nebulous, pre-verbal but also not visual, proto-thought. Just a kind of feeling about what I want. Usually, of course, it’s a mixture. So then when it’s time to sketch it, I have to translate all that non-imagery into something visual. I don’t really know what the sketch should look like until I’m in the middle of drawing it. And then I make a lot of mistakes. For example, I officially know all the rules of linear perspective, and in theory it’s easy to add a little bit of informal perspective to a drawing to give it a sense of depth, but if I don’t actually draw my vanishing points on the page and use an edge to line up my lines and plan carefully, I always put in angles that are completely wrong and the line ends up sloping to the left when it should be to the right, or straight vertical when it should be diagonal, or something like that. I can recognize it immediately once I’ve done it, but before I see the drawing itself I can’t tell which angle is correct. I’m the same way with spelling, actually. I can always spot a spelling mistake once I’ve made it, but if I have to spell a word without seeing the letters I get confused.

Now, I fully believe that I am capable of getting better at sketching. Every time I make an ugly sketch with lots of mistakes, I tell myself that I have to make lots of bad drawings before I will be able to make better drawings. It’s not like this is a new idea - I’m a fair poet now, at least when I can manage the time and mental space to write, but I wrote a lot of very bad poetry when I started in 7th grade. I think I forget that sometimes. I’m so used to being good at the things I do, I’ve forgotten how to deal with the frustration of failure. Well, it helped that when I was thirteen I didn’t have much sense of the terribleness of my poems. Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I’ve been developing my ability to make judgments of visual artifacts a lot longer than I’ve been developing my ability to produce them. So I have an acute sense of just how ugly and wrong each sketch is, and that can make the process painful. But still, I persist, because everyone keeps telling me that sketching is important, and that the ability to do the kinds of sketches interaction designers need can be learned. I want to be good at sketching. The trouble is, of course, I want to already be good. I don’t want to be frustrated and disappointed in my work.

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” is one of those quotes everyone and no one seems to have said, and as a confirmed detail-oriented perfectionist who in the past has been willing to turn in no work at all rather than let someone else see my shoddy work, I think it’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve been trying to learn here in design school. One beautiful little irony is that I’ve been trying to write a blog post about my sketching and the importance of letting go of perfection, for at least three weeks now. This is my third attempt from scratch.

And I’ve been making progress. For one thing I’ve accepted that my sketching process is always going to begin with words, and that’s ok. It’s what I need to do, and it’s incredibly helpful for my work, even if it doesn’t produce cool-looking and “designerly” images. Even when I make a deliberate effort to visualize as much as possible, I write a lot. That’s not a failure, that’s me. For another, I’ve graduated from a 5”x7” sketchbook to a full 9”x12.” I’d be lying if I said the transition didn’t make me nervous - I’ve always preferred drawing small. I felt much more in control of a small image.

But, ever since I learned about this nonverbal-learning disability, I’ve wondered if I will really be able to make good drawings. It’s not just a matter of having the skills to translate images in my head into images on a page – it’s having to translate non-images in my head into images in the first place that I worry about. And every time I come close to reconciling myself to that idea, to be comforted by the fact that there are lot of important design skills that I am already pretty good at and fully believe that I can continue to improve, I come across something like that video. You know, a person with dyslexia is never going to be able to read or write as effortlessly as I can. I’m not sure I’m ever going to be so comfortable turning my thoughts into images that I can just pick up a marker and create visually impressive sketches in the middle of a conversation with a client. Is that ok too? I don’t know. I mean, it’s not that I am not constantly reaching for a marker and sketching when I’m trying to explain an idea - I’m often the first at the whiteboard in a team meeting, and regularly demand other people draw their ideas for me rather than just talk about them. When I’m teaching, too, I’m always drawing diagrams on a whiteboard or on a piece of paper. I mean, working through my thoughts on a piece of paper is one of those fundamental compensatory mechanisms I’ve developed for my lack of visualization. I’d never have passed a math class in my life without an unreserved use of scratch paper.

And I’m just fine in those situations with ugly sketches. I need to communicate an idea, not impress someone. But with a client rather than a colleague? When part of the importance of the sketch is to create something visually engaging and expressive? I do believe I can learn to create a rough sketch and refine it to the point where I am comfortable presenting it for those kinds of purposes. I am much less confident that I’ll ever have the visual fluency to go from thought to sketch in front of an important audience or client without making those stupid mistakes that drive me so crazy now.

Perhaps what I ought to do is work on building a vocabulary of simple images that I can put together to express different things. I don’t have to think of every sketch as a new image. If I stop worrying about being to draw a dog with legs that actually bend the right way and proportions that make sense, and just get really good at star people and cubes and rectangles with rounded corners, maybe I could cover most of the kinds of things an interaction designer will need to sketch? Pretty sure I’ll need to work on hands, though. I find myself sketching hands all the time and they always look hideously deformed…