A Concept Visualizer’s Guide to Sketching Your Ideas

A Concept Visualizer’s Guide to Sketching Your Ideas

Have you have ever described an idea to a colleague and, instead of seeing a flash of understanding and excitement, you’re met with that “deer-in-headlights” stare? 

Why not try a quick sketch to remove that shadow of doubt? There are some tried-and-true ways to communicate your idea so that you can take it successfully from a “shower idea” to an idea that helps grow your company.

Visual thinking

As a concept visualizer, I am an artist who is trained to quickly translate ideas into a visual form for presenting to my clients and even executives. In my decades of experience, I have seen the power of visual thinking to produce buy-in and other amazing results up close many times. I believe that when you need a manager or boss to give you budget for a new product or service that will greatly improve your company’s position in the marketplace, the best first place to start is with a sketch. 

However, visual thinking is not about having artistic skills or being able to draw like an architect. It is more about the act of communicating using visual stimuli to augment your verbal description to ensure your listeners see the same thing you do. Most of us already use visual thinking and may not realize it:

  • Verbal storytelling (painting a picture with words and hand motions)

  • Giving directions to someone for a location they have never been

  • Navigating with street signs through an unfamiliar city 

  • Flow charts and graphs in a report

  • Using emoticons and emojis when communicating with a friend

  • Fast sketching in social games such as Pictionary or Win, Lose or Draw

Visual thinking is about getting your thoughts and ideas out of your head and into a sketch, where you can explore your ideas further, organize and plan how to build them, and clarify, communicate and share your ideas with others to get alignment.

Why sketch out your idea?

  • To simplify a complex, human-centered problem to its core essence.

  • To overcome language and cultural barriers.

  • A sketch helps you to explain your idea to others quickly and with more clarity and less dialogue. Words alone can confuse, while sketches simplify. People fill in the blanks.

  • Sketching your idea will help people better understand your idea and hopefully embrace it or be inspired by it.

Three parts of a sketch

When you have an idea that gets you excited, you have already identified the problem that you are hoping to solve. But when you start to explain your idea to someone else, you need to create a three-part sketch:

  1. Identify the “before,” the existing problem, pain point or situation that needs to be solved.

  2. Show the “after,” the rewarding situation when the problem has been removed.

  3. Your idea is the middle part that builds the bridge between the “before” and the “after.”

Describing the pain point first will frame the issue so your audience can follow your line of thinking — and they might already be thinking of how they might solve the problem. 

Here is the insight statement formula I use to help identify the existing situation, the reason to believe it is true and the tension (or issue that needs to be solved):

“I [statement of fact] because [reason], but [tension].”

Once you describe the problem, you can invite your listeners in by asking questions such as, “Have you ever been in this situation?” or “Has this ever happened to you?” Once they are in a solving mindset, parts two and three of your sketch will show how your idea transforms the current state into the desired state. Ta-da!

A simple visual toolbox

Using a simple visual language will make it easier for you to sketch and easier for your audience to follow because they will be familiar to both of you. 

Here are the basic elements and just some of the shapes you can create by combining them:

Putting it all together

Here is a scenario that I thought about in the shower one day. I was trying to scrub my back with soap and I couldn’t reach my back. Then I remembered that I have the same issue when I try to apply sunscreen when I’m on the beach. 

Here is the insight statement that I scribbled out so that I knew what problem I was trying to solve:

“I love to go to the beach and spend time in the sun because I enjoy the fresh air and splashing in the waves. But I always get sunburned on my back because I can never reach all the spots with sunscreen myself and it’s hard to get a stranger to help me.”

Using the basic visual language of circles, squares, triangles, lines and dots, this is how I sketched out the problem and my idea to help solve it:


My idea, the Sunscreen Roller Coat, is much easier to visualize with the help of even a simple cartoon sketch. Next step, Shark Tank?

Taking your sketches further

Now, if sketching up your idea does not come easily for you and your idea can’t wait to be shared with the world, do not fret. It may take time to get comfortable combining basic shapes to create a convincing visual to help communicate your idea. Be patient, keep at it and it will come with practice.