Thumbnail Sketches

The first stage of logo design.

Thumbnail sketching is the very first stage when creating a logo. It’s when you get to explore as many ideas as possible without any filter. You don’t have to worry about if it’s the right direction yet, just focus on getting the thought onto the page.


Step Away from the Computer and Go Analog

Even though you may want to sit down in front of your computer and start working on your ideas in Illustrator, you need to start tactile medium. Moving a mouse around and placing anchor points takes a lot of time and it doesn’t allow you to sketch. Yes, you may be more precise, but that’s not the objective at this stage.

When you’re trying to get ideas out of your head, there’s nothing better than a pen and paper.

Using a pen instead of a pencil forces you to be loose and accepting that your sketches might not come out perfect. It forces you to jot down an idea and move on without erasing. If you feel uncomfortable using a pen, go ahead and use a pencil. It will allow you to apply shading and apply various pressure for darker and lighter strokes as well as erase anything if you need to. As you get more comfortable with your sketches, try switching over to pen to challenge your sketching skills and force yourself to keep moving without focusing on the details. As for the writing surface, a great advantage about using a sketchbook is you can take it wherever you go (I’ll talk more about this in a moment). Regular 20# paper is also great if you just want a blank canvas, but using a dot grid Moleskine sketchbook, like I listed in my [Logo Designer Tools]() post, is very helpful for drawing straight lines and symmetry quickly and accurately.

Take Your Time

In this exploration stage, you might feel the need to rush into getting a fully detailed and completed piece of work. If you rush yourself, you’ll miss this important – and very fun – part of the process! For you to discover the best solution for your client, you need to take the time to explore as many ideas as possible. Taking your time doesn’t mean sketching out a handful of ideas in an hour and moving on to the computer. I mean, spend a few days, even a week or longer, in the thumbnailing and exploration stage. This will give you enough time to truly explore the project and allow your subconscious to work on it even when you aren’t sitting down with your sketchbook and a pen. That’s the greatest thing about giving yourself time. As you’re going about your day, your brain will be working out other designs ideas without you being aware of it. The next thing you know, you have a new direction that you want to explore (which is why you should always carry around a cashier journal with you).

No Idea is Too Crazy

I’m serious about this. Even if a though comes to mind that you know you won’t use, put it down it anyway. Removing the filter will allow your brain to keep exercising and brainstorming for new ideas and better solutions. Don’t be afraid to sketch anything out right now. No idea is wrong at this stage. The more you explore, the more ideas you’ll have to work with and the better solution you will be able to provide for your client.

Overcoming Creative Block

It happens to all of us. You’re sketching out some ideas and all of the sudden you come to a halt. There aren’t any more ideas but the ones you have just don’t hit the mark yet. It doesn’t mean you’re done coming up with ideas, you just need to allow your brain to process a bit more. This is why giving yourself enough time to explore is important.

  • Consider the complete opposite of what your client needs – Thinking of the wrong direction will help you get clarity for the right solution.
  • Change your scenery – Grab a pen and your sketchbook and get out of the office. Go to the park, or a coffee shop, or have a pint at the pub. Changing your environment will get those creative juices flowing again.
  • Take a break – Another reason why you need to give yourself some time. Work on something else and let your subconscious work it out for a little while.


As the name suggests, these sketches tend to be literal to their name – thumbnail-size. This is, of course, just a guideline. You can make them larger, but try not to make them too big. The idea is to have a size that allows you to get your idea down quickly without concern for details. In a Moleskine sketchbook, try fitting about 20 sketches on one side of a sheet. This will keep them about the size of postage stamp – just the right size to get your idea out without too much detail.

How to know when you have the right solution

Determining when you have the best solution can be a challenge. You don’t want to find yourself sketching thumbnails for the rest of your life. At some point, you need to move on to the next stage and create a logo. So how do you determine when you have found a good path? Remember the goals of the project. If they’re a little foggy, go back and review them.

  • What does your client need?
  • What are you trying to communicate through the logo?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • How are you going to get them to want to interact with your client?

Once you remember the objectives of the project, look through your sketches and pick out the ones that are on track to achieving those goals. If you find that they are missing the objective just slightly, do a few more sketches until you really nail it. You need to have a clear idea of what direction you’re going to go before moving on to the drawing stage. That means having a clear vision not only in your head, but a sketch of the idea as well for visual reference. Once you have found the best direction for your logo, it’s time to move on to the next step: drawing the initial rough draft of your logo. I will be discussing that topic in the next post.

What challenges do you find with thumbnail sketches? Trying to focus on the details too quickly? Not sure where to start? Let me know below.

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