Creative Sketchbooks/Journals: Tips on the Process

June 10, 2009

Sketchbooks, journals, whatever you want to call them, are so important in a designer’s life. I find actually that so many disciplines could benefit from a creative record like it. It hasn’t always been an easy process to build and maintain this, so I want to share what I went through and some things I learned from my own journey.

Pre-Fashion School
I liked to draw as a kid. I liked fashion. I had determined at age 7 that I wanted to be a fashion designer. Throughout my childhood I did manage to pursue many different disciplines and explore a little bit of each before returning back to fashion. Throughout this period, I never managed to maintain an ongoing sketchbook. I drew some sketches now and then on paper and had them scattered in random places. I did, however, keep a journal for most of these years until grade 9. I’m not sure why I stopped, but I did. When I decided for certain that I was going to pursue fashion, I started keeping a sketchbook of fashion drawings. It was more of a way to practice drawing than it was to jot down creative ideas, in hindsight.

Fashion School: The Early Years
Keeping a journal was a part of the curriculum for design class. I think this time was an eye-opener for me about what sketchbooks/journals could be. It was more than just drawing clothes. It was about analysis and observation. I tried hard to keep my journal filled and useful, but soon it became a very limiting process, and I felt uncreative. My natural style in communicating my ideas is very organic. The example below (from my first semester) looked pretty, but it led me toward the path of analyzing other people’s work and what was going on around me without delving into my own creative well.

After a few more semesters, my design journal became more and more unstructured, which suited me much more. But, I realized that I had become lazy. My design journal started to fuse with my life and I couldn’t keep the two apart, further blurring my creativity. Soon, it became less a documentation of creative process and visual inspiration and more a dumping ground for random, uncreative thoughts.

I knew there was a lot going on in my head that could contribute to my life and work as a designer, but I couldn’t seem to get it out in a concrete way.

I’m not sure when it happened, but eventually I realized a few things about sketchbooks and journals that I feel are helpful to share with others who may have struggled with the same things I have.

  1. If you are a goal setter who plans and writes a lot, think about keeping a separate journal for that purpose. I found that once I kept my day-to-day life and my creative life separate that I benefited from the clarity.
  2. Keep your mind open to ideas outside of your discipline. Everything influences fashion. Write about whatever seems interesting, but don’t write about your own life. Because I am a conceptual person, I analyze fairy tales and connect their themes to fashion. A great way to fuel creativity when nothing is coming is going back to one of your favorite things and connecting it somehow to your discipline, or figuring out the metaphor behind it. Remember, art is all about metaphor.
  3. Experiment with size. I went through many sizes and formats, finally settling (for now) on a 11×14″ coil sketchpad for my creative journal and a smaller 6×9″ notebook for my separate journal.
  4. Focus on your senses. Observe and analyze in the moment, it is always better than doing the same thing while looking at a magazine tear.
  5. Switch it up. Keep the pages fresh, try to add something new and different so that you are settling into the same creative boundaries. Even the way you record becomes a creative process. Near the front of my current sketchbook, I have a list of possibilities. Add to this list.
  6. Be messy. I’m messy on paper until it comes time to get everything together. I don’t have the time to care about neatness.
  7. You don’t need to finish work. Sometimes, the pressure of just having to complete something hinders your creativity. I have no problem now leaving work undone. This documentation is meant to help your creativity, not to come out necessarily with a book of finished drawings and studies.

I read An Illustrated Life by Danny Gregory, a great book that shows the inner workings of current artists, illustrators, and designers through their private sketchbooks. It was a helpful tool in allowing me to see how unhindered other creatives are. I aspire to that level of committment.

The only way to get good at something is to do it more. People tend to do things more when they are interested, and that is how experts are made. I’m sure that I’ll get better at finding my creativity through my sketchbooks and journals the more I work at it.


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