Drawing Attention in a Digital World

Drawing Attention in a Digital World

While being forced to live and work electronically these past few weeks, I’ve found both productivity and peace in—of all things—my Blackwing pencil.

I’ve been drawing since I was a kid and, once I picked the pencil up, I never really put it down. Eventually this passion turned into a career. Back when I started in the advertising business, pencil drawings and marker renderings were the only way to communicate ideas to clients. The creative directors I worked with could draw anything. They communicated every idea, thought, and campaign with sketches.

And something magical happened when they put their ideas on paper. It triggered the viewer’s imagination and ultimately led to better work. Even a hurried, down-and-dirty, on-the-fly sketch had the power to make an idea come to life, or at the very least, to open up space for more exploration before limiting the creative options.

With the rise of the machines (aka computers), pencil sketches became artifacts of the creative process. The allure of point-and-click, neat little grids, and shortcuts to precision was seductive. Even I strayed a bit from my love of pencils and sketching. Figuring out how to kern type and retouch images on a computer was just too tempting. But no matter what, when it came to conceptualizing work for clients, I always started with pencil sketches. And I still do.
There are lots of good reasons why—reasons I’ve shared with the SLS design team, most of whom were raised with computers as their primary design tool and considered pencils more like antiques.

Creating on computers lets you go directly to pixels and precision. Do not pass Go. Do not collect your thoughts. Just quickly, meticulously render the exact idea you have in mind. While being precise and perfect is fine in its place, I think it can be dangerous in the early stages of the creative process—when you’re first wrapping your mind around what needs to be created and communicated.

For me, the best creative thinkers start “free-range,” letting ideas mutate and change in unexpected ways before narrowing them down. It prevents the possibility of refining things too soon or overlooking other paths. Sketching before hitting the keyboard keeps a designer focused on exploration instead of execution.

Producing a fully formed computer layout also can give the illusion of completion. Everything looks done and polished, so it must be the right solution. When I’ve presented conceptual ideas in finished form, colleagues and clients often hesitate to be as honest as they would be if they were reacting to sketches. There is something in tightly finished concept work that seems to suggest significant effort was spent in production—leading people to hold back because they want to avoid the additional work needed to make changes. Squiggly pencil lines on paper, however, will never be mistaken for a finished product, so they present no such limitations.

When I make the effort to show clients ideas and concepts as pencil layouts, I find they love feeling like they are being invited into the process at the beginning, not just the end. They are not alienated by looking at finished ads, designs, or thoughts or afraid to contribute freely to the conversation.

Recently, this scenario played out in the Street Level Studio conference room. Representatives from six businesses were trying to put together a co-op print ad to showcase their services. Everyone presented a photo to put in the ad. Everyone wanted to make sure it and their company stood out. And everyone had suggestions for the overall design of the ad.

While the discussion waged, I brought out a pad of tracing paper, a triangle, and my beloved Blackwing pencil and started to sketch. The people in the room began to settle down, watching me sketch what the ad could look like. After about 20 minutes, everyone was looking at three loose sketches of the ad layout.

Just 10 minutes later, there was agreement on a direction. Had I brought a laptop into the room, it would have taken hours of finessing and refining to achieve agreement. With a pencil and paper, we went from confusion to collaboration to consensus in half an hour.

Allowing the client to be in on the concept is one of the best ways to get to the heart of the assignment and further proof the pencil is a powerful communication device. Sharing ideas on paper invites engagement with the concept, without being distracted by the details.

By now you might be thinking, “okay, this makes sense, but why is this guy so obsessed with Blackwing pencils? Isn’t a pencil just a pencil?” Fair question. I believe the tools you use to sketch can influence your unique creative process. For me, a Blackwing is supple enough to let big picture ideas flow and not so precise—like a mechanical pencil—that my focus gets diverted to the details.

My personal devotion to the Blackwing pencil dates to 2010 when California Cedar Products Company revived the brand, which was discontinued in 1998. I was hooked immediately. There is something in the way the graphite flows so smoothly on the paper. The smell of cedarwood after sharpening, not to mention a distinctive flat, never-ending eraser. (It’s one of the few pencils with a replaceable eraser, and the eraser’s unique shape keeps the pencil from rolling off the page!) My hero, animator Chuck Jones of Warner Brothers Cartoon fame, is just one of the many famous artists who were and are devoted to my favorite brand. I’ve given all the designers at Street Level Studio one or two Blackwings. Now, they’re fans, too.

So, despite the inescapability of computers right now, I’m here at home still sketching, still putting concept to paper for our clients’ marketing initiatives, and still firm in the conviction that a Blackwing is my secret weapon for drawing attention in a digital world.

Grogg is Street Level Studio’s Creative Director.