One step up from doodling

After reading about Michael Bierut’s sketchbooks, I was compelled to find the blank-page composition books the prolific designer extolled. Sure enough, the local office supply store didn’t have them, but I was able to find composition books with graph paper.

Getting my hands on one, I could see how any creative person could latch on to these. The saddle stitching makes for pages that open easily and lay flat. Best of all, they are tremendously cheap. The low price means you don’t feel guilty about filling in the pages. Any idea is worth putting down.

Discussing his own sketchbooks, Frank Chimero emphasized the importance of thrift:

For sketching, I have a three-ring binder with hole-punched copier paper. Cheap, awesome. And, you don’t feel bad documenting your bad ideas, because, c’mon. It’s cheap paper. Getting the first, awful ideas out of the way is crucial for me, and if I document them on paper, I feel like I’ve acknowledged it and can move on to better things. If I had nice paper and a nice sketchbook, I’d be paralyzed to make the first idea good or great.

I feel you there, Frank. I have plenty of unfinished and empty Moleskines sitting around to back up his statement.

For now, I’m pretty happy with working on the graph paper for sketching. My wanderlust handwriting desperately needs the guidance of the horizontal rules. The grid lends itself to wire-framing websites. If the illustration adheres to the grid, it can be quickly reproduced digitally. Using the graph paper also facilitates the creative thought process. Instead of facing the intimidation of a completely blank page, I am encouraged to work within the grid. So there are less design decisions to worry about. Each shape or proportion makes sense as long as it fits on the graph paper.

I break out the sketchbook at lunch break and during down times. The simple act of putting pen to paper is a sort of meditation. I think of it as a more sophisticated form of connect-the-dots. It’s mindless and easy, just one step up from doodling.

The graph paper has reignited an interest with FontStruct, a web app to create modular fonts. Oddly enough, it takes me longer to sketch out the letters on graph paper, than it does to create the same font block-by-block with FontStruct. But I’ve discovered that drawing the letters has opened up new ideas for characters and styles.

These experiments in typography result in ugly, awkward letterforms. For now, I try using only circular curves and straight lines. By keeping the shapes simple, I don’t worry about making the ideal typeface. I’m not trying to make the next Gotham. It just feels good to draw something.