In David McCullough's just-released biography, The Wright Brothers, there's a passage in Wilbur Wright's notebook from the year 1900 in which Wilbur describes--and rapidly diagrams--the shape of bird wings while birds are in flight. Here's the passage, and I've placed an * to mark the spot where Wilbur diagrammed the wings:

The buzzard which uses the dihedral angle * finds greater difficulty to maintain equilibrium in strong winds than eagles and hawks which hold their wings level. * The hen hawk can rise faster than the buzzard and its motion is steadier. It displays less effort in maintaining its balance.

In the place of the first * Wilbur sketched a wide "V" shape. In the place of the second * Wilbur sketched a lowercase "m" shape, representing a bird with leveled, folded wings in mid-flap.

The idea here is one any innovation or design expert will swear to: Even the simplest sketches add clarity to any point you're trying to explain. "Sketching is cheap, fast, communal, and it's not precious: a whiteboard is made for iteration," says Jon Kolko, vice president of consumer design at Blackboard, a Washington, D.C.-based company focusing on technology that helps students learn. Kolko is also the founder and director of Austin Center for Design.

Applied Design

Moreover, there's evidence that simple sketches can help you and your team iterate until you've honed your breakthrough idea. In a study at the Catholic University in Milan, professors asked volunteers to draw whatever problems they were working on. "The drawings weren't Picassos. Yet the volunteers who drew were far more successful in solving their problems," explains Michael Hollauf in Fast Company.

You can find this thinking in many "design sprint" exercises, including one known as the "6-up." For example, the sketches in the photo below were produced by Faze-1, a Boston-area startup delivering consumer data to its business customers with a mapping interface (all the better for optimizing direct marketing campaigns).

You can see the problem Faze-1 was trying to solve in the pink post-it at the top: Helping sales team members meet quotas by giving them tools and resources leading to potential customers. 

No question, it's a universal problem all sales teams face. The "6-up" sketch beneath it--which, as you can see, is six sketched-out boxes of how an app-based interface might solve this problem--is one of 20 the Faze-1 generated during a recent design sprint. 

Of course, the sketches you initially produce during a design sprint are only a beginning--a jumping-off point from which to test your idea, over and over again, on would-be customers.

The more Faze-1 tested its sketched-out ideas, the more the team realized it needed to spend more time in the trenches with potential customers. All told, the team's design sprint was "a big catalyst for us realizing we needed to spend a lot more time with the clients than we had been," notes co-founder and CEO Marc Guy.

Faze-1 is one of five startups currently in residence at Constant Contact's Small Business Innovation Program. All five participants receive office space at the InnoLoft, 30,000 square feet of lab and test kitchen adjacent to Constant Contact's headquarters in Waltham, Mass. The startups also receive $10,000 for marketing activities and mentorship in activities like design sprints.

C. Todd Lombardo, who leads these design sprints as Constant Contact's innovation architect, champions the 6-up because it "forces you to draw out, not just write, six possibilities in five minutes. It forces your brain to be in a state of generation, not one of judgment, because you don't have the time."

Brainstorming at Its Best

Another benefit, he adds, is that, "once everyone sees the various drawings up on the wall, the room starts to build [ideas] on top of each other, and that momentum leads to creative solutions." 

The concept of one-minute sketches building upon previous one-minute sketches, all culminating in a potential breakthrough, is something creative organizations know well. In fact, at Neoscape, an 85-employee company specializing in branding and marketing for real-estate and architecture clients, the sketch-to-sketch buildup is baked into one of the company's brainstorming games. 

On sketchbooks, employees have one minute to sketch something--anything--in response to a one-word creative prompt, using only a sharpie. Neoscape's Chief Creative Officer Rodrigo Lopez says that the game's prompts and interactions help people "extract ideas they might not have thought about themselves."

In addition, there's a creative spark that occurs when you connect concepts from two seemingly disparate or conflcting spheres of thought or expression, such as words and images. "Strengthening creativity is about triggering and fostering a conflict in your mind," notes Hollauf in Fast Company. 

A prominent example is, of course, Steve Jobs' application of calligraphy's design and visual tenets to the then-clunky world of computers--a pre-Macintosh world in dire need of aesthetic principles. As it turns out, the act of combining concepts from different fields is linked to the birth of many game-changing ideas.

"Some of the most significant ideas come about when someone sees a problem in a new way--often by combining disparate elements that initially seemed unrelated," writes marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark in her new book, Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It.

Achievement Oriented

If there's one takeaway from all this, it's to value speed and completion over perfection and aesthetic merit, when it comes to creating visual representations of your initial designs. This is true for both sketching and prototyping. As Scott D. Anthony, managing partner at Innosight, a global innovation consultancy, likes to point out, an average prototype today is better than a perfect one tomorrow. 

In fact, he suggests founders build what he calls "a MacGyver prototype." This prototype is by no means your ready-for-the-public iteration, your so-called minimal viable product (MVP). Rather, it is homemade and inexpensive. It is not even, strictly speaking, an actual prototype. All you are creating is a physical representation of your idea--something that can be damaged and quickly remade.

This isn't a guitar; it's nails, wood, and rubber bands. It's a layperson's sketch, rather than an artist's rendering. You just want to create an in-the-flesh illustration, so you can more easily explain your idea to others--and so it does not only exist in your head. 

The Wright Brothers themselves knew that visual representations were essential to explaining how a flying machine could soar through the air. In a speech he gave in the fall of 1901, Wilbur Wright told the crowd that verbally explaining how a flying machine could work would take most of the evening. Instead, McCullough writes, "he took a sheet of paper, and, holding it parallel to the floor, let it drop."

Published on: May 7, 2015