10 steps to improving your quick on-site sketches

By Bob Sauls

Posted on Friday, December 30th, 2022

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Quick on-site sketches can establish rapport with our prospect by gaining their confidence in our skills and by proving our interest in the project. When we demonstrate our talents, we can actually help bring the client closer to a “yes” decision. Quick sketches are also a way of savoring the gift of drawing itself. So share it, as it belongs to others as well.

A quick sketch is simply any loose sketch or drawn idea that confirms a direction for us as we create a finished design. Sometimes it even enables us to move right to the sign itself. In any case, a quick sketch helps establish a solid platform for asking for a budget or even a deposit, right on the spot. It is the ultimate sign sales tool: artful because of our expertise, but never intended for primetime.

What follows is the basis of my technique, honed over three decades of practical application. It’s how I approach the on-site sketch, but it’s certainly not the only way. You’ll find your own methods and techniques and will become comfortable in your own approach.

All of us have had the experience of assembling simple gadgets or pieces of furniture—we open the instruction sheet and are instantly overwhelmed. What’s before us looks like rocket science. That’s because written explanations often feel excessive when compared to the reality of doing. What follows may impress you as overwhelming, even an encumbrance to your creativity. One of the harsh realities of life is even the simplest of things are amazingly complex when analyzed. Remember to trust your pen. It will find its way as you fly through your sketch, done your own way.

My medium of choice is a black, medium-tipped ballpoint pen on spiral notebook or grid paper. I apologize if you were expecting something more exotic. The utilization of tried-and-true design principles will suffice as the “artsy” part of this article. By the way, there are many good books on the principles of design. My favorite is Mastering Layout by Mike Stevens. He masterfully applies these principles to sign layout and removes much of the mystery from the process.

1. The line

The line is the skeleton of all drawing and your sketch will be silly with them. Keep guidelines light and draw text and graphics right over them. Avoid timid, amateurish lines, as they testify to a lack of confidence. My ballpoint lays down a pretty consistent width line. Applying pressure can give only minimal variation; so drawing over a line repeatedly to increase line value is necessary and encouraged. Varying the line value will add pop to any layout.

2. Format

The shape of your panel or working area is as much a part of the layout as the text. I am amazed at how often the importance of format is neglected. It is the foundational design element as it applies to sign making. All of the graphics included on your quick sketch should be in harmony with the sign’s format. Breaking this rule will produce text and graphics that look out-of-sync with your working area.

3. Architectural features

Look for unusual architectural features and make note of the colors of the building. Often their shape can be incorporated as the sign shape or as an element within. Be sure to point this out as you present the sketch. Watch for creative ways to implement non-rectangular panels, too.

4. Text

Your ability to edit text and prioritize your message is more important than drawing perfect letters and logos. The main message should be the dominant graphic element. There are several design tools we can use to achieve this, including line value, contrast, size, arrangement and detail or interesting graphic treatments such as colors, drop shadows, outlines and so on.

Keep in mind that the graphic center of a panel is centered horizontally and just above center vertically. Generally, this is the best place for the primary copy or graphic. As you place text on the quick sketch, simply indicate the letters—not necessarily the specific font, unless the client has stated a preference and it is suitable. If he does indicate interest in a particular letter style, he’s just given you a selling point. Indication of thick and thin strokes, serifs, kerning, line value and condensed or extended typestyles do come into play. Learn which side of the character has the thick stroke. Maybe it’s something only we sign designers care about, but the customer will sense something is off if you get it wrong.

5. Grouping of elements

Let’s open a can of not-so-common sense. If you have three dots on a page and two are closer together than the one remaining, we will assume the two share a relationship that the third does not. Apply this to multiple messages on a sign. Group text into logical thought blocks when sketching. Now for part two of the same lesson: all your text and graphics should relate more to each other than to the edge of the panel. So give the graphics and the edge plenty of breathing room by not placing them too closely together.

6. Movement

We can carefully arrange text, graphics and dingbats, directing the eye through a layout but hopefully never out of it. Free-flowing lines can also create movement through your sketch.

7. Color

Our on-site quick sketch will typically be rendered in black and white. You may wish to label where you intend a color to fall, or just write a list of hues on the page. I encourage you to be creative in the naming of your palette. Would you prefer your sign professional to say “blue” or “Williamsburg Blue?” “Red” or “Brick Red?” “Orange” or “Sunset Orange?” Be descriptive. Familiarize yourself with the names on some paint chips from your paint store. Some expert went to great lengths choosing names; knowing and using them will evoke a positive response from your client.

8. Contrast

Since our sketch will not be rendered in color, the comparative use of light and dark is no small matter. Watch your line value and assign darks and lights wisely. Careful on this point: our page is going to be light in value. This means our graphics will be rendered darker. Actually rendering a panel with a dark background is not advantageous, as we would have to literally draw around our graphics. We are producing quick sketches here and we must never overwork them. Keep it light and airy.

9. Textures and environs

I have warned against filling in backgrounds to avoid drawing all the life out of the sketch. This admonition is similar. I do recognize that leaving a clean background on a sketch for a vertical grained sandblasted sign or a stone column just goes against our nature. You should practice sketching wood grain and various textures. Varied length lines and dashes, even cross-hatching, pen-and-ink style can work here.

This limited use of filling can frame or contain eye movement within the layout. Use it strategically and sparingly on the quick sketch. It really is amazing how much you can leave to the client’s imagination. Corners, edges and unplanned negative spaces within our layouts scream for a touch of this textured treatment. If you are adventurous, go ahead and place your sign in an environment.

Practice adding trees, plants and clouds to your arsenal of quick sketch tools. A few loose diagonal clouds behind your sign add an appealing flow throughout your entire sketch, giving it a dramatic flair. But remember: easy does it, there, Picasso.

10. Construction

Familiarize yourself with a few finials for rendering post tops. Memorize several scroll designs for arm brackets. Know several methods of mounting panels to posts. Make some advanced observation of laid stone, brick and tile. The ability to have this knowledge at your pen tip will come in handy when rendering. Our clients have called upon us for our expertise; let us not disappoint them.


Evolution of a quick sketch

Here are a few step-by-step images showing how one of my quick sketches evolves. This sketch was drawn in 10 minutes.

Lightly rough in the format, it is the backbone of the sketch and everything else will hang upon it. Then give yourself a faint indication of how the letters will fall. You will use this as a kerning guide for the next step.

Flesh in the body or weight of your letters, paying attention to your kerning and centering within the panel. Use an offset contour of the letter grouping as our final panel shape here.

Indicate letters for a sandblasted panel by beefing-up outlines and borders. That will help trap some of the texture fill-in for the next step. Indication of structure is added now as well.

Using crosshatched lines, add some texture and dimension to your panel. Add a bit more under the border’s edge than above it, which creates the shadows our eye naturally looks for. Do the same with top bricks, finial and under the plants. Carefully fill in the post and bracket, paying attention to your line direction. This adds a cylindrical feeling to the post. Finally, label your drawing with colors and specs, as they will be your talking points as you present the sketch to the client.

Bob Sauls’ shop, Sauls Signs & Designs, is in Tallahassee, Florida. For more on the benefits and power of the sales sketches, see his article, The wonderful onsite quick sketch.