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)


Today, meet the graphic designer & illustrator behind Fried Cactus Studio. The talented Aron Leah joins us to chat about how he found his unique style and client-base, and why it’s so important for creatives to step away from the computer, slow down, and work smarter.

Hello, my name is Aron and I’m a freelance commercial artist from Bournemouth, UK with a passion for the coffee and the outdoors. I freelance under Fried Cactus Studio where I am able to work with a wide variety of lifestyle clothing brands and businesses within the food and beverage industry.



  3. Eat Happy

Tell us about yourself and where you work. How did you get started in design?

I currently work in my studio above a coffee shop just a short bike ride from where I live. I moved in very recently and I’ve tried to keep the studio fairly simple and free of too much clutter. It’s also on the third floor and is quiet, which I like.

I’m completely self-taught, and couldn’t be prouder of that. Having always been heavily influenced by music and the BMX/surf/skate industry, I found myself immersed in this lifestyle and took an interest in the brands within that culture. I also spent a long time working in the coffee industry and traveling to warmer climates during the winter.

I began working as a graphic artist for a lifestyle clothing brand where I honed my skills as a designer. This is where I learned the importance of how my illustrations could help form a really thoughtful product. I started getting requests for logo design and became obsessed with learning the rules and etiquette of logo and brand identity design.

I started Fried Cactus Studio as a way to tip the scales from 9-5 to full-time creative freelancer.

What helped me develop my own style was taking inspiration from personal experiences, finding ways to strip those ideas back to give them more meaning, and working with the constraints of design and application. As my client list grew, so did the projects, and I started working with various brands on full collections. It was a truly collaborative effort which made the process all the more enjoyable.

I started Fried Cactus Studio as a way to tip the scales from 9-5 to full-time creative freelancer. It has now allowed me to collaborate with different businesses, mostly in the food and beverage industry and this opened me up to working on full brand identities. The studio continues to grow and I couldn’t be happier and more grateful to everyone who has supported me and the awesome people I get to collaborate with.

  1. Happy new year dribbblers


  3. UTAH

  4. Happy Days

  5. Brand identity for Olero Surfboards


  7. LOT 54 GOODS

  8. Mindful Reminders

  9. Mighty Wieners

What project(s) are you currently working on?

The most enjoyable part for me is that every project is different and I get to really understand the client’s life journey up until the point we connect. Then, the aim is to craft something that they really connect with and ultimately their audience will connect with.

Most recently, I have been working with clothing brands on full season collections. This is so great for a couple of reasons: One being that there is always way more drawing involved. Secondly, I get to think more about how my work forms the collection and how it can be used on different garments and applications. I’m proud to have some work dropping soon with New Era which both the client and I are really happy with.

I also focus on logo design which is great because I get to really simplify my work and think about how design functions in different locations. Currently, I’m working on an identity for a coastal based coffee roaster in the UK.

What else are you passionate about outside design? How does it influence your work?

I’ve always been an advocate for keeping both the mind and body healthy. It’s definitely been a personal struggle of mine and freelance design tends to make it a little more difficult to maintain. So, I try to keep things simple. In between client projects, I try to work on personal illustrations with messages about positivity and taking life a little bit slower.

Surfing is really important to me, it’s one of those sports that you can’t do all the time. The conditions have to be right but it’s always worth the wait and it really lets you be present in the moment. I also recently picked up bike packing. Going on long bike rides and brewing up coffee in the middle of nowhere is such a great feeling. Sometimes I draw when I’m there and sometimes I don’t.

In between client projects, I work on personal illustrations with messages about positivity and taking life a little bit slower.

Everything I like to do is a form of physical activity, in a quiet environment…usually with a coffee. Again, just keeping it simple, and I apply this to my work. I try to think about ways to strip the work back to its simplest form in order to say as much as possible with as little as possible. Naturally, these interests impact my work and the clients I collaborate with. This combination of ideas and passion helps to create work I can be proud of.


Tell us about a favorite piece of advice you’ve received as a creative. Why does it resonate with you?

“Say no and take personal time.”

It’s really easy to get into that routine of saying ‘Yes’ to everything. You take on more than you can handle and you start sacrificing personal time to hit deadlines. Working every hour available has good intentions for the short term but is detrimental to the long term.

Communicate where you’re at with people in terms of your schedule and workload. If the project is meant to be, it’ll happen. If not, something will catch you.

Working smart is scary and difficult to do but taking personal time will make you more effective and keeps the creative fire burning. If you are faced with a problem that is taking more than a couple of hours to solve, put down the tools and go indulge in something you enjoy. Come back to the problem and smash it out of the park!

Shout-out: Who is another Dribbble designer you admire?

I’d love to shout out my buddy Dan Blessing of Design Shark.

Dan has great ideas, loves what he does and puts a huge amount of passion into his work. Check out his recent personal project the Zodiac Football League.

A big thank you to Dribbble for asking me to take part in this interview.

Want to keep up with Aron? Find him on Dribbble, Instagram, and at

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