I love stories. One of my favorites is the legend of how James Cameron pitched his idea for Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien—an example I always hoped was true until Lynda Obst confirmed its authenticity in her book Hello, He Lied.

Even though it grossed over $100 million at the box office—on a measly $11 million budget—Alien wasn’t seen as a super financial success (it was certainly no Star Wars). But somehow it still took nearly seven years for a sequel opportunity to develop, an unthinkably long gap today. Coming off the success of 1984’s The Terminator, James Cameron got an opportunity to pitch his next project, with an understanding that Alien 2 was not on the table.

The story goes that he walked into a room full of executives, strolled up to a chalkboard, and wrote the word “alien” in large capital letters. And the room was quiet. Then he added an S to the end, and all the suits perked up a little. Finally, he drew two vertical lines through the S, turned around, and grinned. Pitch over. Dramatic applause. A budget of $18 million was green-lit that day without anyone reading a treatment.

End of story.

Aside from this being the greatest movie pitch in the history of movie pitches (for an example of a really bad one, check out Key & Peele’s take on “Gremlins 2” with The Hollywood Sequel Doctor), I often use this story to illustrate to my students how the most simple and powerful creative ideas are the ones that can be pitched visually.

Proof of concept

Put your art director shoes on, and imagine you’ve got a great idea for an ad campaign that you’ve been thinking about for weeks. You walk in to pitch that idea to your client verbally or through a creative brief, and they just can’t picture it well.

It’s not easy to align on an idea that exists solely in someone’s brain.

We often get burned by things that “sound good on paper” for two reasons: Either the client rejects your idea because they can’t visualize it the way you do, or your idea is misinterpreted through lack of clarity and the client walks away with an alternative expectation of your idea (which is now more likely their idea). The root problem is that it’s not easy to align on an idea that exists solely in someone’s brain. In 99% of scenarios, it’s more than just turning letters into dollar signs.

When abstract ideas lack concrete presentation: Game over. That’s why I use rudimentary artifacts like pencil and paper (or a trusty whiteboard) and force encourage my students to spend time sketching their ideas on paper to iterate and refine them before moving on to the magic computer machine.

For websites and mobile apps, I do all of my planning on paper to make sure the content structure and flow feel right before I ever open up the software. Photos courtesy of the author.

Sketching = Visual Thinking

Getting people to sketch is your main hurdle. When I first introduce an assignment where the initial deliverable includes sketches, I’m met with a mixed reaction of horror, confusion, and lots of raised hands. “I can’t draw” is a typical reaction. And that’s understandable. But sketching is a functional process that doesn’t need artistic proficiency to be successful. Visual thinking and idea generation can be done well even if it’s ugly.

We’ve been spoiled by computer software creating the false impression that these digital tools are the only method of creative execution. I remember, years ago, when I was working at an in-house agency, a student interested in design came in for a studio tour. As she sat with one of my coworkers, he showed her some layout sketches he was working on for a publication, and I shit you not, the following words came out of her mouth: “So you take all of this and put it in the computer, and that makes it look pretty?”

Author’s note: We can fall victim to this over-reliance on digital tools at any point in our career, and I’ve worked with designers 10, 15 years into their journey who resist even simple sketching for planning purposes.

There’s no tool more adept at creative output than the human brain and body. While we today rely on digital software for the final execution of design ideas, computers lack the creativity to generate those thoughts and certainly don’t allow for quick iteration and exploration the way a good, old-fashioned pencil-to-paper (or not-so-old-fashioned stylus-to-tablet) method does.

When prepping for a logo design, I throw out a ton of ideas on paper. This process usually includes lots of simple shapes (for icon exploration) and even goes as far as planning out letterform shape and layout. (Image credit: author)

Iterating ideas quickly

Sketching aids in both rapid idea generation and refinement. It’s the first step in testing and validating our ideas. Olly Moss—famous for his alternative movie poster designs and other popular culture work—employs a thought-process-heavy approach to his work. Moss says, “I want to pitch you the weird thing. I will send you a sketch that will take me eight hours to think of and five minutes to do.” Now keep in mind that he’s talking about a single idea.

The sketching process allows you to build on this idea and explore alternative ways to execute. By exploring alternatives quickly, we can separate strong compositions from weak ones, practical from impractical, and reveal potential issues that don’t translate from thought to execution.

I’ve often considered explanatory sketching—the ability to quickly convey ideas in a simple way that others can understand—as an indispensable skill set for effective creative directors. When you aren’t afraid to table judgment and let the ideas flow in a loose format, you foster an environment that is open to creative exploration, discussion, and, finally, refinement.

These sketches were used to explain my ideas for Amazon-enhanced branded content illustrations for a pet bed. When someone else has to execute on your ideas, sketches are a perfect way to communicate. (Image credit: author)

Generating discussion

Overall, sketches give us the power to talk about our ideas in a concrete way and allow others to become invested and provide valuable feedback. The less refined they are, the more likely they’ll invite commentary. Loose sketches are perfect for a creative team’s internal dialogue; client-facing sketches call for a higher level of fidelity and refinement.

Sketching is a functional process that doesn’t need artistic proficiency to be successful.

Sketches are inviting in a way that solidified designs can’t be. They invite us to challenge them and make them better. Marks on paper are disposable, changeable ideas. Refined designs imply effort and confidence and drive feedback on the execution of the idea rather than the idea itself. If the latter isn’t solid, then the former doesn’t matter.

When I first sit down with a client to discuss a mobile application, I take visual notes and capture features both textually and visually. It may not be pretty, but it makes sense to me! (Image credit: author)

At the heart of the story, I opened with lies simplistic logic behind an otherwise grand idea: One alien < More aliens. More aliens = More money. More money = Happier studio executives. No storyboards. No character descriptions. Just a big idea presented in a few lines of chalk. Cameron knew what motivated his clients, so he took the approach best suited to sell his idea.

Give it a shot

Practice and keep it simple. Try to develop a routine. Whether you’re kicking off a design sprint or doing research for brand development, sketching should be your logical starting point.

Whiteboards and Post-it notes work just fine. My go-to tools are Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, ultra-fine-tip Sharpies, Field Notes, and Moleskine Cahier Journals (where all these images came from), and I keep them on me at all times. Not everyone can draw, but anyone can sketch a great solution to a problem. Give it a shot.

Proof that I’m not a liar. (Image credit: author)