In his articles for ArchSmarter, Michael Kilkelly comes across as something of a technophile: some of his favorite topics include Revit macros, coding, Excel, automation and... Moleskine? In this article, originally published on ArchSmarter as "Why I Still Use a Sketchbook," Kilkelly explains why despite all the technology, sketchbooks remain one of the most important tools at his disposal.
I was in a full panic.
I got to the hotel when realized I left my sketchbook in the cab. I was freaking out. I called the cab company and explained, with a mounting sense of urgency, what happened.
“You forgot your sketchbook? What’s that? Some kind of laptop?”
“No,” I explained. “It’s a notebook with good paper. I sketch in it. You know, with a pen.”
“Why don’t you just use an iPad?”
“But I like to draw. I like the feel of the paper and it never runs out of batteries” I replied.
“Whatever. I’ve got a great sketching app on my iPad. Plus like a thousand games. And I can read the newspaper. And check my email...”
He spent the next couple of minutes listing all the things he does with his iPad. Knowing I wasn’t going to convince this guy of the merits of sketching, I clenched my teeth and patiently listened until finally, he told me they found it.
“Yeah, buddy, we’ve got your book. You sure you want this thing? It looks pretty nasty. It’s probably not worth much anymore.”
I’d been carrying around this sketchbook for a while and it had only a couple of blank pages left. This meant two things: one, it was in fact looking pretty nasty looking and two, it was chock full of my ideas, notes and sketches from the last few months. It wouldn’t be worth much of anyone else, but to me, it was priceless.
Why I Still Use a Sketchbook
Despite my love of digital technology, there are a lot of good reasons why I still use a sketchbook.
For one, sketchbooks are messy and unstructured. This makes them perfect for capturing loose thoughts or for working out a problem. I have complete freedom on the page. My sketchbook is a mix of drawings, text, to-do lists and notes. It’s really a mess but that’s OK. It’s not meant to be read by anyone but me.
Another reason is they never run out of power. All I need is a little bit of light and a pen that works and I’m good to go. No hunting for outlets or a decent WiFi signal.
Also, sketchbooks will last a lot longer than most digital files. I still have my sketchbooks from architecture school but most of my digital files are long gone or in a format that I can’t open using today’s software.
Digital Sketchbooks Suck
I like the idea of a digital sketchbook but I haven’t had much luck getting one to work. I have a pro account for Evernote and I use Pinterest regularly. However, I use them more as a repository for articles and images, rather than a place to actively record ideas.
Part of the problem is that I have’t found a digital workflow that’s better than my sketchbook. A lot of the apps are too precise for them to be useful. You need to add tags and titles and stuff. You can’t just jot down a quick idea and move on. There are too many steps and too much friction.
Evernote does have a process for scanning your hand sketches into your online notebooks, which looks interesting. I haven’t tried it but it could be a good hybrid practice, provided it isn’t too difficult to implement.
There’s also the issue of ownership. Do you fully own the sketches and notes you’re uploading to another platform? What happens if the site gets sold or goes out of business? Will you still have access to your files? Maybe, maybe not. I know that if I have my sketchbook in my possession, then I own it.
Travel Back in Time
Sketchbooks are a great tool to remember what you were thinking 3, 6, 12 months ago. Taking the time to re-read your old sketchbooks is like going back in time. There’s always some good things in them, things you’ve probably forgotten.
One of my goals this year is to schedule periodic sketchbook reviews. It only takes 10 – 15 minutes to go through a book, so there’s no reason why I can’t do this every other month. Plus, with Bullet Journal, it’s easy to identify things I considered important when I made the note or sketch.
I recently came across Bullet Journal, a simple yet powerful system for organizing your sketchbook notes and scribblings. The Bullet Journal process uses a series of symbols to indicate notes, tasks and dates in your sketchbook. These items can be further highlighted using graphic signifiers. I’ve implemented some of the recommendations and they’ve helped provide some order to my sketchbook with very little overhead.
What I Use
My current sketchbook is a large Moleskine Art Plus. At 5″ x 8.5″, it’s the prefect size for carrying around but still big enough to capture notes and sketches. I’m prone to spilling things so I really appreciate the hard cover. The paper quality is quite good. It’s thick and holds ink well.
The sketchbook also has some nice extras including a pocket at the back (perfect for holding receipts when on the road), an elastic closure (which holds in all my loose papers) and a built-in bookmark.
Though I love my Moleskine, I’ve been testing out some other sketchbooks. I recently picked up a have a sketchbook from Baron Fig. It’s a really beautiful sketchbook. It’s well-made and comes exquisitely packaged. That said, it doesn’t have an elastic closure and back pocket, which are two features I really appreciate in my Moleskine.
I also have a Magma sketchbook. Magma gears their sketchbooks for different design professionals like graphic designers, fashion designers, art directors and illustrators. What’s really unique is that each sketchbook includes a whole bunch of reference material at the beginning and end of the book.
I picked up the design and art version which includes various rulers, typography definitions, standard paper sizes and conversion charts. They don’t make one for architects but they really should.
My Ultimate Sketchbook
My ultimate sketchbook would be a mix of digital and analog. I still want paper and a pen but I would love some way to archive, backup and search my sketches. If I leave my sketchbook in a cab again, it would be great to know the contents have been saved up to the cloud. Ideally this system would recognize my handwriting and convert it to text so it can be searched and indexed.
I would also like some way to add lines or grids to certain sheets in the sketchbook. A template or stamp would work great. As I mentioned before, I draw, write and make lists in my sketchbook. It would be great to have a different type of paper style that’s suited for the type of note or sketch I’m making.
I carry my sketchbook everywhere so it’s really handy to have pockets and folders for holding pens, receipts and business cards. My moleskin does this pretty well with the help of some handy add-ons but I think this could be better integrated into the sketchbook.
Lastly, I would like a section with reference information for architects, similar to the Magma sketchbooks. It would be like a pocket version of Graphic Standards, with just enough information so I don’t always have to go to Google.
How About You?
So do you keep a sketchbook? What type do you use, digital or analog? What would your perfect sketchbook look like?