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Sketch This! • Do Thumbnail Sketches

Explore Design Ideas Quickly with Rough Thumbnail Sketches


Business card thumbnail sketches

Business card thumbnail sketches

illustration by Jacci Bear
Use thumbnail sketches to explore layout options. Thumbnail sketches are rough drawings, sometimes only comprehensible to the designer. These quick pen or pencil sketches allow the designer to try out several ideas and zero in on the most likely layouts before beginning a project.

Creating thumbnail sketches is a crucial part of the brainstorming aspect of your design work. Don't discount the value of this step in the design process.

Examples of Thumbnail Sketches
See the sidebar photo gallery for two images of types of thumbnail sketches. In the first example of thumbnail sketches, the E logo (lower right corner) is represented by a simple box and lines represent the text for a few business card layout ideas.

The second image of thumbnail sketches in the gallery shows a variety of thumbnail sketches depicting one and two page layouts, perhaps for a newsletter. Shaded boxes or a bunch of quick, parallel lines stand in for columns of text, darker boxes for photos or artwork, and lines and squiggles of varying thickness represent headlines, subheads, etc.

Designing with Thumbnail Sketches

  • Don't fret over details. Use thumbnails to establish approximate locations for major elements. (the examples described above may actually be "too perfect" — don't worry about making "pretty" pictures.)


  • Try for an approximately proportional page size (if doing sketches for a full page layout) but don't get out the ruler. You're aiming for a general idea of how the piece might look.


  • Make lots of rough sketches. Repeat: lots of sketches. You'll rule out many design ideas quickly this way before wasting time in your page layout program.


  • Don't try doing these initial rough designs in your software, even if using dummy text and placeholder graphics. You're apt to get caught up in things like changing the fonts or doing perfectly aligned graphics. Save that step til after you've done the initial brainstorming for ideas with thumbnails.

What Others Say About Thumbnail Sketches

Former About.com Graphic Design Expert
"These sketches only have meaning to me. I often write notes to myself so I can figure out what I meant to do, even if I can't figure out what the drawing means several days later." — Judy Litt, A logo makeover from rough sketch to finished product.

Computers Help and Hinder Design
"...designers are encouraged to do rough thumbnail sketches in pencil in the conceptual stages of a project, based on the theory that working on the polished images that can be created on the computer actually inhibits initial experimentation." — If you think thumbnails are a waste of time, read this from American City Business Journals Inc.

Creative Thinking
"Thumbnails. Repeat after me: Thumbnails. At the onset of any project, think about how it will look by quickly scribbling out shapes into a very small space." — Fred Showker, First 2 steps in a 5 step process with an assignment to help you use these ideas.

 POLL: Do you do thumbnail sketches before starting computer work on a project?
 1) Yes, most of the time. 
 2) If I'm not in a hurry. 
 3) Usually only on complicated projects 
 4) No, I don't find it useful. 
 5) No, it never occured to me to do so. 
 View Results of Thumbnail Sketches Poll 

The Desktop Document > Design Phase > Thumbnail Sketches


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