#btconf Düsseldorf, Germany 08 - 09 Nov 2021

Eva-Lotta Lamm

Eva-Lotta Lamm is a designer, author and visual thinker. After a 15-year-long career as a UX / digital product designer working in Paris and London for Google, Skype, and Yahoo!, she shifted her professional focus to her life-long passion of visual thinking.

She is now based in Berlin, running her own business designing (physical and digital) products that teach a global audience to use sketching as a tool for understanding, thinking and communicating more efficiently. Her mission is to empower people to make the complex problems they face in their work and daily life visual so they can ‘see’ them from a fresh perspective and solve them with more confidence, creativity and clarity.

Eva-Lotta is a sought after expert in her field. She is regularly speaking at international design conferences on the topics sketching, sketchnoting and visual thinking and has been teaching her craft both in-peron and online for over a decade.

In her spare time, Eva-Lotta practices yoga and improvisation, loves travelling, languages and learning new things. These passions have inspired several of her books capturing her experiences in the form of rich visual notes.

Want to watch this video on YouTube directly? This way, please.

Pragmatic Sketching

You might have heard the sentence that sketching is all about expressing ideas, not about making art. Right on, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. How do we move away from the artistic approach we have been taught in school (if at all) and actually sketch in a pragmatic way, making quick but clear visuals that support our thinking?

Sketching is a decision making process. Good sketches are the results of a series of good choices we make with every mark we put on the paper (or whiteboard). With each stroke we need to answer a series of questions in our mind: How can I draw this? What is the shape? Where should I place my mark? How big should this part be? Which details should I leave out? Where should I start? How do I get the proportions right? How do I make this look clearer? How do I emphasise the important parts? …

In her talk Eva-Lotta will share some foundational principles of sketching pragmatically that will help you answer these questions (or at least some of them) with your pen. She’ll share practical tips that will make your sketches clearer – on a formal, structural and conceptual level.

And because showing is more powerful than telling, this talk will be drawn live. If you’re curious and courageous you are invited to sketch along straight away to not only see, but also experience what sketching pragmatically is about.



[Audience applause]

Eva-Lotta Lamm: Um, yeah. Hello, everybody. I have to admit I’m a little bit nervous. You know I’ve been doing this thing online for two years, so you’re the first real crowd in a real room that I speak in front of, so I need to breathe.

When people ask me what I do... [Laughter] The screen goes black.

And I usually tell them, I teach people how to draw to solve problems. I call this approach Pragmatic Sketching because I want to make it really clear that it’s not necessarily about artistic talents or anything because people get really weirded out and scared about drawing and sketching because they say, “Oh, I don’t have any artistic talent, and I can’t possibly do that.”

But when you look at it from a pragmatic point of view, it’s a little bit like learning how to write. It is a cultural technique that you can unlock for yourself that is really useful for everything. Being able to write opens up the whole realm from shopping lists to Shakespeare-style plays that you can write. The same is true for drawing and for sketching, and I want to give you a little insight into this approach that I call Pragmatic Sketching, a little bit of the philosophy, and the applied practice.

If you do have pen and paper or notebook, you are very much invited to sketch along with me because that’s usually more fun. But you can also just watch.

All right. [Laughter] Phew! Okay.

When we look at the words ‘pragmatic sketching,’ it is made up of two parts. The first part is pragmatic.

Actually, when I talk about pragmatic, I always talk about it’s for a purpose. We are not drawing just for drawing sake or for sketching sake, but we always think about why do we draw - a little bit like our North Star that is guiding us. Why am I drawing in the first place? What is the problem that I want to solve? What is the thing that I want to think about?

Usually, when I sketch, I do it for several reasons. This is me here with a big nose. Usually, I use sketching--

I’m biased. I use it all the time. I use it for thinking about things when I have things in my head that I want to get out into the world. The first step is to get them out on paper.

Then I can also develop my thoughts because that’s beautiful. The first thought is not always the best thought, but iterating, developing your thoughts.

And I can also use it to actually get in contact with other people and start to explain my thoughts and the development. I can do that all at the same time (alone or with a group of people, which is really nice), and so this is always for a purpose.

The other thing, the other word that we’ve got in here is the sketching part. Sometimes the sketching part is a little bit difficult because we always say sketching is a really quick technique. That is great because you don’t need to fire up a computer. You don’t need any software. And it is really quick.

I’m going to represent it with a little icon. I’m going to draw a little bunny rabbit like this. Doop. Boom. It’s just super quick going beep-beep-beep-beep with a little, you know--

Here’s my little bunny rabbit, so the sketching needs to be quick. But on the other hand--

I don’t know what’s going on with my screen, but you know. Little black moments are fine as well.

But at the same time, it doesn’t only need to be quick but something that is super important for me that I always harp on about, it also needs to be clear. My little icon for clarity, I like to draw a little diamond, which is basically a triangle with three triangles on top, and then you connect them.

You know it’s nice because you can look through it, but it’s also a prism. It refracts the light. It shows you the colors inside of the light and more information. That’s my little icon for clarity.

It is a quick technique, but it also has the possibility to make things clearer. When we look at what we do with sketching, it’s interesting because sketching is a little decision-making process.

What I do when I sketch is I make a series of choices. The question is, what do I need to draw? Where do I put it on the page? What are the different shapes? What is the color that I use? What is the size that I do these things in?

It is all about making all these choices in real-time. When we want to get quicker at sketching and clearer at sketching, it’s all about, first, for getting quicker, we want to make these choices faster. We can make faster choices when we have experience, when we made choices before, and when we know where we have done things before. We can make these decisions and these choices faster.

For getting clearer, we want to make better choices. How do I make something clearer? What is a better choice when I’m sketching? What do I draw? What do I leave out? How big do I make things? Which things do I simplify and which things do I need to put onto the page?

I’m going to run through a few of the principles that I apply when I sketch, and I’m going to focus on the clarity because that’s the important thing. That’s, for me, the purpose why draw (to make things clearer), not necessarily to add a pretty cherry on top of the icing of the cake, but to make a really good cake. It’s about the substance. It’s about the clarity.

I’d like to introduce you to the very non-scientific clarity model that I developed for myself. It just comes out of my head, so it has no scientific backup at all. But it helps me to evaluate my own work and get clearer, so I’m going to do my little diamond here again.


Every line actually does have a sound. Usually, you can’t hear it because you’re not close enough, but I’m just amplifying it for you.

All right. [Laughter]

In my word, there are three layers to clarity. That doesn’t only apply to sketching, but to every form of communication or thinking - I think.

The first layer I call formal clarity. What I mean by that is that you can see the form. When I draw a rectangle, I want to see that it’s a rectangle. It’s like pronouncing your words properly that you can hear what people are saying.

Sometimes, when we get really fast, you know, especially when pressure is applied, then sometimes this happens and it’s like you don’t know if this is a rectangle or an accident. So, it is about reducing the visual noise, you know, and enhance the signal-to-noise ratio. Reducing the visual noise and having -- I like to call it -- clear articulation, like you have in language as well.

The biggest enemy of formal clarity is pressure - usually, time pressure. When you think, “Oh, you have to get quick,” then all of a sudden -- blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah -- it’s gibberish like this. Or if the stakes are high, like if people are watching, like you are watching me now, you know, I have to really try hard to keep my formal clarity up.

What you can do to enhance the formal clarity is just practice. You want to get the formal clarity into your so that you don’t have to think about it anymore.

I just want to give you a few pointers about very simple things that you can do, and it might sound a little esoteric to you, but when we just talk about lines for a second, going back to the foundations.

When you draw a line, a line is a good story. A line actually does have a beginning. It has a middle. And it has an end. This is not as esoteric as it seems because when you want to draw a line, you should stay with your awareness from the beginning, through the middle, to the end that this line actually stands on the page confidently and clearly.

Sometimes, when the pressure is high and when the timing pressure gets high, what happens then sometimes is we’re doing this. We start drawing, and then we go, “Oh, yeah, and then this and this and there are these things, you know. And then blah.”

Here you can see your awareness was with the line in the beginning because you started somewhere roughly the direction you’re going in. But by the time you finish, you just shot it into space and your mind is already somewhere different.

This is getting really busy and really noisy. It’s like somebody who is talking really fast and using a lot of ums and ahs. You just get nervous looking at this, like you get nervous when somebody just speaks in a hectic way.

We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to shoot our lines into space. We want a beginning, middle, and end and just be with our lines. Take a breath.

Also, sketching is not a fast technique because you move your hand incredibly fast around the paper. It is because you’re economical with your strokes. You make good choices that make you faster.

We can take lines and put them together into shapes. I also suggest to you that when you draw shapes, lift your pen after each stroke when you make a shape. Like that, you have beginning, middle, end, beginning, middle, end, and it’s very clear that this is a rectangle.

If the corners overlap, that’s fine, but sometimes when you get really under pressure--

This is now getting really annoying, isn’t it? This contact thing? I don’t know what it is. I’m very sorry about it.

Okay, so sometimes when you’re just doing it in one, then it can quickly get like you’re just cutting the corners and doing weird things. Lifting your pen after each stroke is a really good idea to make clear shapes. You can make triangles. You can make rectangles. You can make octagons. You can make any shape. But lifting your pen after each stroke is a good idea.

The other thing that I’d like to encourage is close your shapes. If the corners overlap, it’s okay, but closing the shape actually indicates that this is one shape.

Our visual perception is amazing. When you read a little bit about visual perception and come across Gestalt theory, which talks about a lot of laws of visual perception, there is the law of closure. That says that when we perceive things, we always try to see the simplest shape possible. Although I drew four lines here, our visual perception closes that for us and sees a rectangle because that is built-in object recognition - blah-blah-blah.

This takes a tiny amount of brainpower that takes away from using the brainpower for solving the problem. Be nice to yourself and to your viewers and close the shapes for them so they don’t have to do it with their perception.

Also, it becomes clear when we draw more than one object and layer them is that we can then use gaps with intention because now this gap is not just there by accident because I forgot to close it. But when I have intentional gaps, I can show that things are layered behind each other. Each choice we are making is a conscious choice to make the things clearer and be very deliberate about how we communicate.

Of course, the important thing is to keep breathing. If in doubt, slow down when you are drawing because it will make things clearer.

This is formal clarity. It’s practice. It’s slowing down. It’s being intentional with our lines.

The second aspect of clarity, I call it structural clarity. This is the information architect in me coming through. I love structure. I love logic. I love taking things apart, putting them back together, and seeing the different categories.

Structural clarity is all about what are the different elements of the thing that I’m drawing and what is their relationship to each other. This could be in a very big diagram, what are all the nodes and how are they related to each other? But when I draw an object, for example when I draw a house, it’s like the house as the building. The house has got a roof, maybe it has a door, maybe it has a chimney, and maybe it has windows - hopefully.

What are all the elements and how do they sit in relation to each other? That is structural clarity, and this is a very different question from how do I move my hand across the page. This now is more about observation and what are the shapes, what are the proportions, what are the connections, all these kinds of things. A very different question from just the hand movement and the clear hand movement that I do.

If you have seen one of my talks before, you have probably seen that I construct things out of super simple shapes. If I want to draw a lightbulb, it is a basic shape, a circle connected to a rectangle. Then a few lines. Then my favorite shape, a rollercoaster.


Then the visual equivalent of “Ta-da!” the light is on.

If you want to make something special, you just do these lines around. That is basically the ta-da moment without having to do the sound effects. It’s just in a visual way.

Or you could draw a coffee cup with half a circle and a line and another line and another C shape. If you have some waves, then the coffee even is hot, so you are lucky.

It is basically putting things together from simple shapes. Sometimes, this can be a little bit difficult, especially when we’re drawing something that we’ve never drawn.

There’s a little process that I go through when I develop new icons. I’m going to want to show that with the example of a car because I find drawing cars really difficult. I never owned a car in my life. I drive very rarely, so I don’t have a personal connection for cars.

The first step when I try to figure out a new object is what are the parts. It’s like with a recipe. You want to get all the ingredients and just get them roughly out there.

Start with how Anne Lamott puts it. She wrote a book about writing. She calls the first thing that you do a shitty first draft. I like that for drawing as well because the expectation that everything comes out perfect straightaway is just - throw that in the bin. It’s not going to happen.

We’re going to make a shitty first draft of just brainstorming what a car is made out of. What do I know about cars? I know a car is kind of a big metal box that I sit in to roll around.

Here’s my metal box that I sit in. Then I said I’m rolling around, so it has wheels. Also, starting with the biggest part first is good.

I also can draw over and through. That’s totally fine. I’m just making my shitty first draft here.

I also need some space for my head because I do have one and I want to look out of it, so I have another box that is kind of here. A space for my head and for the other passengers. Usually, I have a window in the front and a window in the back.

Look at my beautiful car. This looks like a kindergarten car. When I show up to a client drawing this, maybe it’s a little bit embarrassing. But this is my shitty first draft, and this is just my structural sketch. It’s just the ingredients: the parts and the relationships.

Now, we can get serious. Now it’s like, how do I go from here?

The first thing when you do a sketch and it looks dodgy, the most important thing that is probably wrong that you want to look at and try out is to look at the proportions and fix the proportions because very often that is what makes a difference.

When I look at this, this is kind of too high. I think it’s called a chassis. It’s too high. This is not long enough, and so I’m going to fix the proportions.

I’m going to make my car a little bit more slender and longer. Then this is going to be a little bit lower as well. Then I put this in, and then the wheels are also a little bit smaller.

Ah! Ooh! This -- when it comes back -- ta-da! [Laughter] It looks a little bit less childish, I think. This looks more like a grown-up car.

I could then play around with the proportions and think, ah, maybe I’ll make the hood a little bit longer, and I put this thing a little bit more to the left. I like this version as well.

Or maybe I do more of a city car, you know, like a smart or something that is maybe a little bit shorter and a little bit higher. I can play around with the proportions and find something that I like.

I think this middle one is the one that I really like.

Now I can get one step more subtle if that is not quite good enough for me yet. It probably is for me, but if I wanted to get a little bit more subtle.

Now I can look at refining the shapes. Not everything is a perfect rectangle or a perfect circle. Maybe when I have my car, instead of just being a rectangle, I can taper it a bit. I can make it a little bit thinner in the front than it is in the back.

Maybe I could also round the corners a bit. A lot of cars actually are not like in the ‘70s, like boxes anymore, but they actually have rounded shapes.

I can play around with the shapes and bend them a bit or round the corners and see what happens. This is actually my next step to refining my sketch.

This is already good enough - or I could angle the sides.

The last step is then thinking about, do I want to add some details? There are not many details that I need to add. Maybe I could add some door handles or I could also start doing different types of cars.

Maybe if it’s a taxi, I could just put a taxi sign on top. There, I have a taxi. Or I could now go into playing around and trying out different details.

If what I’m drawing is actually about CO2 and the emission, I might want to add the detail of an exhaust pipe because it’s important for the story. I can then tell the story of the CO2 and all the other things that come out.

Details, we remember it’s always for a purpose. Depending on what your story is and what the purpose is, you decide which details you need. The ones that you don’t need, you don’t put.

This is my approach for quickly refining something from a very childish version that you might feel uncomfortable sketching in a serious meeting to relatively quickly getting to something which is totally acceptable to communicate.

That was layer two of clarity, and we come to the last layer of clarity. You can see there’s a space left that I have planned here, and that is -- I call it--

You will see it in a second -- conceptual clarity. If I want to put an icon to that, maybe I just put a thought bubble because that is all about the thinking behind what you’re communicating.

This is not about how your hand moves and what the shapes and proportions are. But this is all about what you know, who are you communicating with, and also about what you can listen to other people. It has a lot to do with knowing and listening to your audience.

The questions here are not what are the elements and relationships, but the questions here are basically (the big question is) what is key? Why am I communicating? Why am I thinking about it? What is my message? Who is my audience? What is the context that I’m actually communicating or thinking that in? What does the audience already know? What don’t they know? What do I need to communicate?

You can have a perfectly formally clear drawing with a sound structure, but if you’re pitching something to a CEO and you have prepared that to actually talk technical detail to a developer, you don’t have the right message. It can be totally structurally sound but not the right clarity for the right person.

In my opinion, we need all these three elements to contribute to the clarity. I want to give a little bit of an example for the conceptual clarity as well, how we can enhance our sketches, especially with the help of conceptually looking at the content of what we’re drawing.

I had this example of cars. Sometimes, we draw something and it might not be super clear. I draw something. Maybe I drew something like this. This is maybe a really bad sketch and the question is, what is this thing? Is it a car or is it a UFO? What is it?

If you look at what you’re drawing, there are actually three ways you can enhance the clarity of what you’re drawing. The first one, we looked at in the last step. The first one is going for more iconic shape, trying to refine the shape - what we did. This is a very abstract kind of version of a car. What we did before, if you make the shape more specific, then this is more recognizably a car because it’s an iconic silhouette.

Sometimes, nowadays, we have a problem with that because most of our technology doesn’t have iconic silhouettes anymore. Most of our technology looks like this. It is basically a rectangle or a black rectangle. This could be anything.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to make an iconic shape of something that is basically a rectangle and then question, what is it? There are other strategies that you can use as well. One strategy--

I’m just not going to move. Then this is not going to move. Okay. [Laughter]

The other strategy, this is what we naturally gravitate to. This is, if in doubt, I’ll just add detail. Here I did my shitty sketch of my car and somebody says, “What is this?”

It’s like, “Ah, you know, there’s the driver in there, and the driver is here. Then it has doors, the exhaust, the wheels, and stuff like that.”

It’s always the thing where it’s really hard to stop. You add detail and you think you add more clarity, but you also add a lot of visual noise. It is a good strategy, so you are adding features of the object or maybe textures - totally fine. But there is a more powerful way of clarifying what you’re doing that helps in a lot of cases.

If adding detail is all about zooming in and getting closer, showing more detailed things about the object, we can also, of course, do the opposite.

Roar -- zoom out.

If you translate that to a concept, this is adding context. Adding context is really powerful because, if I have my shitty little object there that I drew -- this is my shitty little object -- if I add some context to it, like for example a road and maybe another little shitty object, then it becomes a little bit clearer that it might be a car.

If I add a little cityscape and here are my skyscrapers that are here and a little house or something, then it becomes clear that this is a car. This is usually how we first recognize objects. We recognize something from the context that it’s in, how it’s used or where we can see it.

If we talk about technology, if this is the mobile phone, if I wanted to draw it with more detail, I could maybe. I don’t know. For a while, I drew the home button, but most of our devices don’t have home buttons anymore, so detail isn’t getting me anywhere.

If I do context and say, well, actually, when I have a mobile phone, and I show this rectangle in context, I have a hand holding the phone in this very iconic way--how I hold a phone--then it’s probably clear that this is a phone because other rectangular objects, I would probably hold in a different way. So, context is great.

You can also manipulate the context. If I then decide that my shitty drawn object is not a car but I was right in the first place when I was thinking about the aliens attacking us and beaming up our cows and things like that, then I can turn my shitty draft into lots of other things. It is actually a really wonderful way of bending things and, through context, you can tell different stories.

These are just three strategies. I would encourage you to explore this because this is very under-explored. Very often we forget it. But it is a super-powerful technique to up the clarity of what you’re drawing, of a concept that you’re drawing.

If in doubt, if all of this is still difficult and, if in doubt, then the easiest way of adding context is just to add a label because words and images, it’s not about shifting everything to images and then making people guess what you mean.

I always say that words and images are like Batman and Robin. Here is Batman, and here is Robin. Robin has a little quiff thing like this. This is my Robin. Choo-choo-choo-choo.

And Batman looks like this, so together they are a dynamic duo. Together, they are better. They have more skills when they actually work together, so I don’t know if Batman is the words and Robin is the images.

You can also insert your power couple of choice, you know, Kanye West and Beyonce or whoever. Have they split up? I don’t know. [Laughter]

You choose. I saw Batman and Robin because I like the visual side effects they had in the ‘60s, like the Ka-Pow and things, which is visual thinking as well.

Labels are your friend. Labels are great. They are not a copout. They actually work super well together.

There is also some science behind this. There is something called the Dual Coding Theory. This looked at how we perceive words and images and how we learn things.

When we have something dually coded, so if we have a word and a picture, we can remember more things and for longer. That is superior to just images or just words. Some redundancy is okay.

Then we can also be pretty simple with our vocabulary. This is then a bus. Then some other things with wheels, this is our scooter. We can just develop.

Once we define our vocabulary once, we can just use it because we are really good at now knowing, oh, this thing is a car. The advantage of images is that the recognition is super-fast.

We can recognize images must faster than we can read because they have distinct shapes. Letters are all very similar. That’s why we use icons on websites. It’s not for explaining the concept but for fast scanning through the page and recognizing an object.

Images have the advantage that they’re super-fast to recognize. The other thing that is great about images--and we already heard that when we talked about the car--they say something about the relationship between things.

When I say verbally a car has a chassis, has wheels, and it has a windscreen, then it doesn’t tell me anything about the relationship of where the chassis is in relation to the wheels and how far the wheels are apart, so visuals are great also to show relationships between things.

These can be spatial relationships, but these can also be conceptual relationships. Also, when you have an organigram and I have a person here, this is the boss. They have a team of people working for them. Then there’s another team that is working on a similar project. Maybe some of these people work on the same project. You can show it spatially, and you can show relationships between things, which are much more complicated to say in words because words are linear and not spatial.

Images are great for fast recognition and for showing relationships. Of course, this was Robin. Very good with that. Batman also has a purpose, so the words are great to give context, as I said. This is the fastest way of giving context.

This is the context of urban transportation. I already know which space I am in, and I can recognize these things easier.

Words are great for giving context, and the other thing words are great in, especially for me as a German, details and precision. Yes. Yes, because if you want to know if this car actually fits into the parking gap, you want to know that this car is 4 meters 20, and you also want to know that this car is maybe 180 high so that you can fit into the parking garage. You can say that the motor is here and the windscreen is here, so you can use labels to precisely add information that you couldn’t see or that wouldn’t be worth drawing.

It wouldn’t be worth trying to draw the car exactly at scale. Then when I look at it, I couldn’t measure it with my eyes that it’s 4 meters 20 long.

Words are great to add context and to add precision. Together, images and words are the best friends, I would say, like Batman and Robin.

Or Beyonce and her partner, whoever that is right now.

[Audience laughs]

Eva-Lotta: I’m not up-to-date.

Okay, the last thing that I want to say, like my final tip after we went through this clarity model, is draw before you know what you are drawing and what it’s going to look like.

I’m going to write it down because I find it really important. Draw before you know it.

Drawing is a tool for generating knowledge through experience, through seeing what you put on the page and then reacting to it. Seeing, “Oh, this is too big. I should make it smaller,” or “Woo! Something is missing. I should put it on there.”

Draw before you know, and this can be really scary because, what if you do something wrong and then it turns out to be different? It doesn’t matter.

There is a wonderful quote by Otl Aicher, who was a graphic designer who designed typefaces. Some people liked them, some people not. He said something really clever. He said, “The making influences the thinking.” That sounds pretty much like agile to me.

You have to make shit in order to generate experience and knowledge about what you’re making and if it’s good and if it’s working or if it’s not working. The sooner you start making, the sooner you will evolve your thinking. Sketching is a very cheap and quick way to start making stuff without coding, without making prototypes. Just with you and a piece of paper or with colleagues and a whiteboard. I encourage you to do that.

It’s not about what exactly you are drawing and how exactly. You will figure it out while you’re doing it.

Some people always think you have to have it all figured out and then you just draw it, like you put out a perfect piece of art. I just want to encourage you to start drawing before you know. It will feel uncomfortable, but it’s all right. It’s like a shitty first draft.

The cool thing is once you start putting things out, if they are good or if they are right, you can cross them out. People could say, “Oh, actually, this topic is much bigger. We should make it this big, and there are some side topics that you can add to it.”

People can also point to things, which is amazing because, when you speak words, you speak them, and then the words are gone. The paper is still empty.

If you start making traces on the paper, you build an externalized, common memory that people can point to and add to where they feel heard. They can see their ideas. They can see it in relation to other things. This is, in my opinion, super valuable.

With this, I want to say I hope you found this little introduction to a more pragmatic approach to sketching really interesting. If you want to learn more about this, or if you want to get in touch with me, my name is @evalottchen on any social media, which means little if a lot, because the chen in German makes everything small. In Greek, it would be evalottaki because, in Greek, it’s aki that makes everything small. [Laughter]

I also put together a little website with some resources and a few videos that also talk about this and talk about a few other things in-depth, more in-depth, that might be interesting for you. You can find it at evalotta.net/btconf.

I do have six months left on the clock, so I would take questions or request for things to draw. I can completely embarrass myself in front of an audience. Thank you.

[Audience applause]