How to sketch a UX article

creativity human-centred design illustration product design visual thinking Sep 09, 2020
A mural of sixteen editorial illustrations created by Justin Cheong for the Adobe UX blogs

By Justin Cheong

How would you illustrate the concept of ‘culture design’? What about ‘designing for trust’, or ‘disability design’?

Over an 18-month period from 2018, I illustrated over 75 banners for various UX design articles across Adobe’s design blogs. These have been a career highlight for me, both as a designer and as an illustrator.

Screenshot of Adobe blog article titled ‘How UX Design Creates Trust’ written by Caroline Sinders

Prior to this role, I had limited expertise in illustration. I had been practicing UX design for a few years and I’d done a lot of sketchnoting (a.k.a. visual note-taking), but that wasn’t the same as producing finished illustrations.

So when people occasionally asked me, ‘Hey, what’s your process for creating these?’, it was a good question.

It’s not simple alchemy

When the task involves translating complex ideas into a simple visual, it isn’t just about having ‘drawing skills’. It’s about creating something new.

For these banner illustrations, I had to be creative in order to solve specific problems. Such as:

  • How do you take a 1,000 to 2,000-word article, break down the main concepts, and represent them in one image?
  • How do you keep images fresh and unique, in a way that draws people’s attention without feeling repetitive?
  • How do you do this multiple times per week, day-in, day-out?

A design process

After much trial and error, I landed on a fairly reliable process to get from an article to a finished piece. Surprise, surprise — the steps in my process looked somewhat similar to a design process.

Step 1. Discovery

Screenshot of an article with no banner image, titled ‘Why you need to design your design culture’An animation of a concept map being drawn to reflect key ideas from the article

This is where I investigate the article.

Just like a user interview, I take lots of notes and explore the topic as much as I can. To get more depth, I look up the author and any other articles they’ve written, any motifs in their work, and any visual metaphors they use in their language.

Step 2. Visual synthesis

Animation of key words on the concept map being underlined and represented as simple icon drawings

This is where I translate concepts from the article into visual language.

First, I look at my concept map and highlight any key themes. I then try to produce some images for those themes.

As I synthesise the content, I’ll go to search engines like Google Images and The Noun Project to find images that match the key themes. The images I gather then become stimulus for the next step.

An animation of key words being input into The Noun Project search engine, which returns icons for those words
The Noun Project, an icon search engine

Step 3. Ideation

This is where I sketch as many concepts for the image as possible.

Using a method called thumbnail sketching, I put down miniature versions of any concepts that come to mind. This is a quick way to generate ideas, which is great because at this stage, quantity is key.

An animation of rough sketches being made into small boxes, and words that are used as creative stimulus being struck out

If I ever run out of ideas, I’ll use a random word generator to generate some random words. From there, I’ll try to make forced associations between those words and the main topic, which helps me to come up with new thumbnails.

Of course, most of these concepts won’t get used in the end. Being OK with discarding ideas is part of the process for creating something great. Behind the 75 illustrations I’ve done are over a thousand concepts that have been thrown away.

Step 4. Refinement

This is where I take a concept and turn it from a sketch to an illustration.

Firstly, I’ll turn two of my best concepts into larger, rough sketches for my editor to choose from.

A rough sketch of knowledge workers collaborating around a wall while culture designers look on from the sides.A rough sketch of a culture designer in giant form drawing features onto an office being used by miniature people.

 After the editor picks one of them, I’ll take this image from draft to completion. I start by recreating the image on an Apple iPad Pro, using the Procreate app. My style involves two steps:

A. Line work: Taking my time, I go over the lines repeatedly until they look clean and finished. I sketch over previous layers of outlines as if they were faint pencil drawings.

B. Colour: I colour the piece in different blocks, making sure to separate them as layers. For each layer, I experiment with the Hue-Saturation-Brightness dials until the overall balance feels right. I prefer a simple, two-tone pastel colour scheme that isn’t too distracting. My assistant helps me with this step.

An animation of a sketched concept being taken from draft to a finished black-and-white illustrationA completed illustration of a culture designer in giant form drawing features onto an office being used by miniature people.

That’s it

It’s not simple alchemy, but it does feel like there’s a little magic involved.

Each illustration presented its own challenge. The more difficult topics were the abstract ones, including culture design, design systems, design ethics, artificial intelligence and UX journalism.

Regardless, the above process has been a dependable one. Since I landed on it, I’ve deployed it for all kinds of visualisations in my design work.

Highlights

The work gave me a chance to illustrate for many excellent articles written by some really great designers. Here are some of the highlights.

Articles by Lauren Currie, Don Norman and an interview article with Liz Jackson:

Screenshot of Adobe blog article titled ‘Why you need to design your design culture’ written by Lauren CurrieScreenshot of Adobe blog article titled ‘Why I don’t believe in empathic design’ written by Don NormanScreenshot of Adobe blog article ‘Forging a new path for disabled design: an interview with Liz Jackson’ by Adobe Blog team

UX evolutions articles with the UX design teams at Netflix, Medium and Etsy:

Screenshot of Adobe blog article ‘UX evolutions: How Netflix put UX at the heart of its ever changing service‘ by Oliver LindbergScreenshot of Adobe blog article ‘UX evolutions: How Medium has changed over the past six years’ written by Oliver LindbergScreenshot of Adobe blog article titled ‘UX evolutions: User centric experiences for millions’ written by Oliver Lindberg

Ladies that UX interviews with Grace Phang, Katie Langerman and Danielle Barnes:

Screenshot of Adobe blog article titled ‘Ladies that UX: Grace Phang, neuroscientist turned UX researcher’ by Sheena LyonnaisScreenshot of Adobe blog article Ladies that UX: Hybrid designer Katie Langerman on why generalists will always have a placeScreenshot of Adobe blog article ‘Ladies that UX: Danielle Barnes on how to find your voice and speak at conferences’

 

Check out the whole collection of banners and other illustrations here.



Thanks to Patrick Faller for being an awesome editor and to Annie Ji for assisting me with illustrations.

The content in this article was originally delivered as a conference talk at UX Australia 2019.

This article was originally published on UX Collective here.

 

 

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