Bum Wad, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Trace

!{border:1px solid black;}http://boboroshi.com/assets/2007/7/12/trace_top.jpg (Trace with Overlay! YAY!)!

(This article is part two in a multi-part series on design process, which started with my article on Why?!)

For those of you who have seen Chasing Amy you’re aware of the famous line delivered by Jason Lee: “Tracer? Your Mother’s a tracer!!!” This follows taunting by a comic book fan that he’s not really doing anything creative.

The taunter was totally wrong.

Towards A New Paradigm

I went to Architecture school. Not information architecture, but the “we make buildings and stuff” variety. One of the big tenets of the program I attended was that one should not be using a computer unless they already knew how to do the traditional technique. The computer is simply a digital version of the drawing tool or a different tool that needs to be integrated into a set of traditional tools. How can you draw in a computer if you don’t know how to draw in the first place?

The rationale behind this is easy. Computers are finite, sketching is representational. When in CAD, it’s a very precise line length, angle, color, etc. Paper can be as simple as a parti diagram (just showing the basic line strokes of a design) or can be super shaded and detailed. But regardless, at the end of the day, it is not finite. It is a representation of an idea.

Take this story from my college interning days. I was working for a small design/build shop in Newport News and I had the opportunity to design sketch a small addition. I came up with two different ideas and the owner asked me to present them to the client. So I drove over and sat down at the table with them in their house and showed them what we had come up with. They weren’t sold on either completely and did a typical client move: “We like this from A and that from B.” Okay. I whipped out a role of trace and drew that with them right there and asked “something like this?” They were ecstatic and joined into the creative process and I left the house with a finalized design.

This works very well for web work, whether it is within a team or with a client, this rapid sketch process gets everyone to a shared understanding (and buy-in) very quickly.

Sketching for Web

Currently, when one starts designing a product (web app) or web site, most will start with either a database model in Visio or OmniGraffle (if they are a programmer) or a look/feel comp in Photoshop, Fireworks, or Illustrator (if they tend to the design mentality). These are far too detailed approaches when you know not what you are trying to accomplish. So let’s go with that age old adage of everything you need to know you learned in Kindergarten.

This is what is so great about this approach. EVERYONE on the team: Designer, programmer, client, business owner, investor, heck, even your accountant, can all be part of this process. It can happen on a white board, post-it notes, an easel, printer paper, a sketchbook, and even pen tablet systems (but again, computer wants things precise).

This isn’t a new idea. Jakob Neilsen sang the praises of paper prototyping in 2003:

With a paper prototype, you can user test early design ideas at an extremely low cost. Doing so lets you fix usability problems before you waste money implementing something that doesn’t work.

Ryan Singer, of 37Signals, also uses an extremely high-level paper prototyping system (which he discusses in Getting Real). They even scribble the text and then jump straight into HTML, using a graphics program only to create needed graphics. This obviously doesn’t work for everyone, but the core concept is simple: get the idea of the interaction that occurs designed very simply. Then start plugging and chugging it into your framework.

So, we have a theoretical system, paper prototyping, that allows us to get ideas developed quickly. But why should you use trace paper?

Why Trace?

When an architect is designing a building, trace comes in handy. First off, revisions. Floor plans change. Secondly, repetition. There are core elements that stay the same, such as the exterior walls and stairwells, but individual floors have different elements. Trace facilitates rapid copying of elements from other already completed layouts.

Now let’s apply that to a website.

The global elements, such as a header, a footer, navigation, and the basic framework (e.g. two vs three column) typically stay the same. The body content changes.

In real world practice, we used the trace process on two sites recently: CityCliq’s redesign and the initial design for Gourmet Library. In both cases, a large amount of high level design was accomplished very quickly by using trace paper. Once we kicked into a flow, a new page could be completed in 15 to 30 minutes. With CityCliq, we were doing product design/redesign and finished 24 wireframes in two relatively relaxed days at their offices in Jacksonville, FL.

Scan and upload to our Basecamp account? Bam.

“But I Can Do That in [Visio|OmniGraffle|Illustrator|Indesign] Faster!”

Well, in a production sense of making edits, etc. sure you could. But it’s the wrong tool. You’re trying to imply pixel perfection to an idea. You are spending time on the wrong thing (how things exactly line up) versus the important idea of what that page or that piece of interaction is. You get the important user experience information on paper and discuss how things flow. Then you can start dialing down into other tools. I personally go from paper to Photoshop. Ryan Singer at 37Signals goes from paper to HTML (or so he did when I attended the Getting Real workshop in Chicago in 2005).

So break out an index card, a post-it note, a roll of trace, a sketchbook, or a sketch-a-doodle even. As Michael Buffington twittered as I finished this article: paper prototyping turns out to be a lot like Kindergarten.

Let’s break out the finger paints.

Further Reading

Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox on Paper Prototyping
Paper Prototyping (The website to accompany the book)


12" x 150ft. Creme Trace paper
Staedtler Lumocolor Pens (I prefer the 318-9 Black Fine point)

  1. Grace says:

    Oh John, I've been dying to read something like this!

    I was using Axure and Visio to make wire frames but I often make a paper prototype first. I must make them in Axure/Visio because sometimes I am not making the design (the staff of the company is), so I need the pixel perfection to be sure they'll the 'right thing'. Mostly because they are not (web)designers and don't realize how design for web really works.

    I loved to read about your design process! I hope you continue this "multi-part series" =D

    Hugs from Brazil, cousin! (:

  2. Sunay says:

    Most of the pros I know use Epson with Epson Inks and Papers, they are formulated splicifalcy for eachother, though the same can be said of HP and Canon. I would suggest going to your local professional photo shop and ask to see samples of what they use. You'll need a big budget to be able to match what they do especially if you want to go larger than 13 19. There's no substitute for seeing first hand the results before making a choice like this. HP have an entry level printer that will do 24 wide starting at $1200 (US) other brands a closer to $2000 for entry level large format. To get the Art quality you seek the printer will need more than the typical 3 or 4 nozzels of most inkjets, the pro ones have 6 or more to get the full range of colour tones and grays.

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