Scope Your Sketch

Once you start weaving drawings and diagrams into your work, a dangerous trap sometimes opens up: the feeling that you have to sketch out everything. Every interesting idea from that podcast you’re listening to. Every good quote from the book you’re reading. Every insightful remark from your conversation over coffee with a friend.

But as a visual thinker, our job is the opposite of everything. Our job is to focus on the essential. That’s what we capture on the page in a visual way, with the goal of making something useful for ourselves or others.

So, how do you get there? How do you move from everything to the essential?

You focus on purpose.

I’ve recently been reading Stuck? Diagrams Help. by Abby Covert, and I appreciate the three elements of purpose that she identifies. The first two were familiar, but the third felt like a missing piece to the purpose puzzle.

After identifying your intention for the sketch (why you’re creating it) as well as the audience (who you’re making it for) you get to consider the scope of your sketch. Here you ask the question: how much of the topic that I’m exploring do I actually need to sketch out on the page?

“We need boundaries on our assignment so we don’t try to accidentally boil the diagrammatic ocean.” – Abby Covert, Stuck? Diagrams Help.

Identifying the right scope is kind of like blowing up a balloon. Think of the tank of air as the visuals that you sketch out on the page. The scope of your sketch represents how full that balloon becomes.

Inflate it too little and you don’t have enough interestingness to work with.

Inflate it too much and you run the risk of popping the balloon, of overwhelming your audience (who might just be future you) with the number of ideas that you’re trying to present on the page.

You’re looking for that sweet spot where you’ve included enough of the topic to meet your intention, but not so much that the viewer becomes overwhelmed as opposed to informed.

An example of a wide scope is The Map of Mathematics from the Domain of Science YouTube channel:

What makes that wide scope work is that throughout the video we get to hear the creator talk through each element of the map as it is introduced.

An example of a narrow scope is this contour map of a property overlaid with water management, housing, and livestock plans for a homestead in Portugal:

One of my favorite YouTube rabbit holes to go down is on the topic of food forests – I hope to start my own in the coming years, and I imagine that diagrams similar to the one above, plus many others to capture the core ideas of permaculture, will play an important role in that next stage of life.

The next time you sketch out your own drawing or diagram, ask yourself these questions:

  • What would it look like to expand the scope of your sketch and include more material?
  • What would it look like to contract your scope and embrace a more narrow focus?
  • Which of those (or the third option of not changing your scope) best fits with the intention you have for the sketch?

If things start to feel cluttered, don’t be afraid to tell yourself “that’s beyond the scope of this sketch!

Because here’s the good news: once you finish the sketch in front of you, you can always grab a blank sheet of paper, shift the scope, and get to sketching again.



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