Pen Pals Interview: 29th Drive, Creators of The Inkwell Kit

Pen Pals Interview: 29th Drive, Creators of The Inkwell Kit

An interview series featuring notable people whose lives intersect with the world of pens. Kevin and Gregg of 29th Drive are hoping to create a sketching revolution with their newest product, the Inkwell: a kit specially created for designers!

So tell us a bit about 29th Drive and Inkwell.

29th Drive is design firm; we design user experiences (aka "UX") in the digital space. Simply put, we design the stuff you interact with on screens! Our team at 29th Drive created Inkwell.

In short, Inkwell is a handmade sketch kit created specifically for web and app designers, filled with carefully curated tools and tips.

What’s the design process at Inkwell and 29th Drive like?

Our process is collaborative, iterative, cross-disciplinary, and hopeful. I often compare it to the way improvisational comedic actors are hopeful that no matter what anyone says or does on stage, the story can, will, and must unfold naturally as long as everyone on stage remains in the moment and in tune with the energy of the audience.

Our process is also constantly in a state of change because (A) every project has unique needs and (B) we're always looking to learn, grow and try new things. You may think that there isn't much of a process if the process is always different and in some ways that's true, but even within this state of change there are constants.

We always meet for 10 minutes in the morning to summarize what we did the previous day and what we're doing today. We always work to empathize deeply with the end user. We have a toolbox of methods and techniques that we utilize for every project—not all projects will require the same methods and techniques, so we pick as we move throughout the project’s lifecycle. We also always work in a disciplined way to make sure that our communication amongst the team and with our customers is clear, concise, and timely.

Communication is a huge part of the design process. We always take the extra time to accept ownership of ambiguous situations in emails, on phone calls, in legal contracts, etc. so that we can make these situations less ambiguous for all of those that are involved.

"Communication is a huge part of the design process."

How did the Inkwell kit come to life?

It’s no secret that we love sketching. As we worked internally to develop and strengthen our sketching principles, we began a search for the best pens and sketching tools on the market. As we started to narrow the options down, we quickly realized that other designers could benefit from our research. Not only that, but we couldn’t seem to find the “perfect” carrying case to house our tools.

So, we set out to design a small sketch kit that would allow designers to easily and comfortably carry all of their sketching tools, and step away from their computers to focus solely on ideating on paper. Inkwell was born in March of 2013.

The process began with an internal sketch studio over lunch, where each person on our team sketched their ideal carrying case. As we continued to collaborate, we narrowed down the features to three to four strong ideas. We combined features and created paper prototypes, then made it even smaller, removed some unnecessary features (like the ability to carry a roll of paper!), refined the panels and folds, etc.

The next step was to create a real prototype, so we located a fabricator in Arizona who could bring our vision to life. We tested fabrics, refined corners, folds, stitching... you name it, we tested it. I think there were about a dozen prototypes in all until we finally felt it was ready for production.

It's really fun to step outside of the software design field to design and produce a real, tangible product. The fact that the design industry is loving it and offering so much support is just icing on the cake!

Tell us about your motto, “Pen Before Pixel.”

We believe in sketching with pen and paper before doing any work in digital. There’s just no comparison to the amount of ideas you get from sketching and refining your ideas on paper, and it takes a lot less time. The computer, of course, is a huge tool of our trade, I won’t deny that. However, if you start directly in digital software, you’ll typically only start with one idea and work on refining that one idea.

On the other hand, with sketching you can generate a lot more ideas in a short amount of time, and then refine, combine, and expand them throughout the process. In the end, you have a small group of really great, solid ideas.

While the designer that’s sketching is 20 ideas deep, the digital designer is still trying to refine their one idea.

To come up with something truly great, we must quickly ideate and explore ALL ideas, no matter how crazy or “out there” they are.

So sketching really is at the root of every great idea!

Of course! It's interesting becase we run into people all the time who are terrified to sketch. Customers, developers, you name it. They get stuck on the fact that they’re not “designers” or “artists”. We empathize! Yes, it can be intimidating to enter into a sketch studio with trained designers, but the truth is that anybody with a pen and a piece of paper can sketch.

Some aspects of sketching do take some skill development, such as some of the more finished and colorful presentation sketches you see on the web today. However, the main goal of sketching is to communicate an idea. If you’ve sketched out an idea and are able to communicate the intent to someone else, then you've succeeded.

"To come up with something truly great, we must quickly ideate and explore ALL ideas, no matter how crazy or “out there" they are."

We definitely agree that sketching is great. Why aren’t more website and app designers sketching?

Not many web and app designers sketch because there’s a ton of inertia around digital tools. Our desks are tailored to technology... servant for the big glowing screen in the center. It can be hard to break out of that!

Also, web and app designers collaborate using digital tools (Hangouts, IM, CloudApp) so unless they take a little time to invest in tools (like a USB document camera) that allow them to share analog sketches digitally, then they may be unconsciously driving themselve to create digitally.

Don't get us wrong, digital tools are certainly valuable! However, there can also be a false promise. People may think that because Balsamiq contains pre-drawn UI (user interface) controls, that for some reason it will be faster or less constrained than a pen and paper. I love Balsamiq, but no digital tool will ever be as quick and unconstrained as pen and paper when it comes to rapid ideating.

What are some good UX sketching tricks for web and app designers?

The number one tip I’d give to digital or UX designers (or any designer) is this:

Don’t fall in love with your first idea.

Back in my Industrial Design program, our instructors were ruthless on this topic. We’d set our work boards (sketches) at the front of the studio for review. We had one instructor who’d knock the work to the ground if it had only one possible idea or solution to the problem. He would not even critique the work. He’d just step on it as he walked to the next one in line. The message he was sending was this: If you can’t come up with more than one idea, then you shouldn’t call yourself a designer. So, again, the best bit of advice for sketching is this: create lots of ideas -- not just one idea.

We'd also recommend that people practice by doing a sketch a day for 30 days. By sketching something every day for a month, you’ll start to see your style and skills progress.

What are some of the best tools for your trade?

Well, let me start off with what tool is not for the trade. The most important tactic for UX Sketching is to not use pencils. Pencils smear easily, lack contrast, and most importantly, pencils have an "undo" feature (the eraser) that you don’t have with pen or marker. An important part of the ideation process is to get every idea you have down on paper -- no matter how “out there” it is.

With pencil, it is too easy to dismiss an idea and erase it instead of thinking it through and building up on it. Once you’ve erased it, it’s gone. If you write it down in pen, even if you move the paper aside, you always have the opportunity to go back to it.

Along those same lines, we find that pen forces you think through ideas fully before writing them down. This is because you know it can’t be erased.

From this perspective, you’ll get a more concise idea rather than something that’s half-baked or doesn’t make sense -— although, those ideas are okay, too!

We strongly recommend any designers out there that are still using pencils to switch to pen. It'll force you to think quickly and critically while sketching, and will make your sketches more daring. Plus, pens can be layered with design markers and other pen colors without smearing. You’ll be amazed at how fast you’ll fall in love with them.

The second most important tool of the trade is plain, blank, 8.5x11 printer paper. Don't use grid paper or dot paper or "interface design" paper that has pre-printer browser or mobile viewport outlines -- the grids and dots just make ideas rigid and add unneeded noise to the sketch, particularly when they are photographed or scanned. Pre-printed boxes and guides just get in the way of the very fast flow you intend to enter when sketching.

"The most important tactic for UX Sketching is to not use pencils...Switch to pen, it'll force you to think quickly and critically while sketching, and will make your sketches more daring."

I heard you even have usability test sketches and paper prototypes of apps and sites. How does that work?

We (and many others) do make paper prototypes. Most of the time they’re created for the designer, in order to learn about the app workflows with their hands.

Paper prototypes can be usability tested, too. With paper prototyping, you build the app or web interface out of paper and paper cut outs.

A web page might exist on a 11x17 piece of paper and a pop up box (or drop down menu, or modal dialog, etc.) may exist as a cut out.

You can conduct usability tests of the paper prototype. This topic is much wider than we can go into here, but, the process goes like this:

- Write a test script, e.g. tasks that a user would need to perform
- Build the interface in paper that allows the user to perform the tasks
- Work to recruit the right users to be test participants
- Ask each user to complete the tasks by interacting with the paper while ...
- The test facilitator acts as the computer, shuffling paper and paper cutouts in response to the user’s input.

The idea of paper prototyping software interfaces has been around for a long time. Jared Spool (@jmspool on Twitter) introduced me to paper prototyping in 1999.

Where does the client or stakeholder fit into this design workflow of sketching?

It’s very important to start educating your clients about your process early on, before the work has been approved. We inform clients that pen sketching and rapid ideation, particularly in the early phases of a project, are vital to our process. We tell them that we may move from sketches directly to an xcode, HTML or paper prototype to test early designs, or to wireframes and Photoshop comps.

We’ll even invite our clients to join us during our design studio sessions! While it may sound intimidating or even invasive to have a client in the room during your ideation sessions, it’s invaluable to have them involved in the early phases. They’re able to quickly answer questions and point the team toward the ideas that work better for their business.

While we do our best to learn about a client prior to a design studio session, nobody knows the business better than the client and its stakeholders. Having them involved simply saves time, and gets them on board with the design direction. It also helps build trust and respect for the design team, something that is otherwise hard to earn.

With that said, not every client is a good candidate for design studio participation. Some clients respond better when they see a more defined product. Just as there are clients that we wouldn’t even show wireframes too, we often know early on what clients will respond well to sketching and design studios.

However, this doesn’t mean that sketching and early ideation is skipped altogether. It’s just done internally and the client is only brought in when the design is easier for them to conceptualize. Don’t take this decision lightly. It needs to be made on a client-by-client basis, with expectations set prior to the start of the project.

"It's invaluable to have clients involved in the early phases. They're able to quickly answer questions and point the team toward the ideas that work better for their business."

What has the response been to Inkwell been like?

We launched the first Inkwell in March of 2013. The response has been incredible and really fun. Currently, we're selling Inkwells around the world to all kinds of UX/UI designers. Designers from 22 countries have purchased Inkwells (and we’ve been learning the ins and outs of import tariffs and the economies of shipping physical products!).

UX Designers from small agencies to large enterprises have been buying up Inkwells. The in house designers at Chase.com bought Inkwells. Josh Brewer, the lead designer at Twitter bought an Inkwell. Drew Wilson asked us to present Inkwell at his Valiocon conference earlier this year. We had a recent email from a designer at a large software company ask if we can co-brand a set of Inkwells, and of course we said yes. Now, we’re just waiting to hear back.

At the same time we launched www.Inkwell.io, we started hosting free Pen Before Pixel UX Sketching webinars. We’ve hosted them every 5 weeks since March (the next is November 6th!) and they’ve been a lot of fun as well. We’re really stoked to play a tiny role in the movement of digital designers returning to their roots of pen sketching.

You can find out more about the Inkwell kit over on Inkwell.io.

The complete, curated Inkwell features the following items, but you can customize your Inkwell by filling it with all of your favorite tools!

Inkwell Bag + Tip Cards Inkwell Architectural Tape Dots Inkwell Button Inkwell Stickers Sakura Pigma Micron 0.5 Sharpie Ultra Fine Permanent Marker - Black Sharpie Ultra Fine Permanent Marker - Red Copic Ciao Markers

Ever wonder how artists use JetPens products? JetPens showcases artists every month and interviews them to see what their favorite JetPens tools are. Please send any suggestions for Artist Interviews to penpal(at)jetpens.com!

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