Design Zen: How Drawing Can Boost Your Creativity & Happiness


On the heels of the Presidential election and with major holidays approaching, many of us are stressed out. To make things worse, access to the 24/7 digital-universe drives us to distraction.

Look no further for relief. I’m here with the remedy. Draw.

Recent scientific studies have confirmed what a lot of visual artists have known all along. Making art—sketching, painting, sculpting, weaving, calligraphy, etc.—is beneficial for your mind and body.

It’s groovy.

I just dated myself, but it’s true. Drawing allows you to disappear into the act of creation. Like meditation, drawing is a contemplative practice. Scientific evidence points to the mental health benefits of such practices.

Drawing elicits what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls, “flow,” a state of being completely absorbed in an activity, especially one depending upon creative thinking.

Csikszentmihalyi found evidence that people find satisfaction in a state of flow. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi writes,

“…the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can be enjoyable… The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”


The great Milton Glaser was known to doodle during meetings. Steven Heller collected some of his doodles here

It’s calming.

Drawing is engaging. When we draw for ourselves, for self-expression, it’s pleasurable. (Most likely, sketching is enjoyable even if it’s under a design director’s or client’s watchful eyes.)

When you draw you focus. You suspend any other activity—texting, talking, checking FB or email. Sustained focus while drawing acts to quiet any internal noise and fosters a relaxed state of mind.

Researchers have found connections between making art and healing. Making art can be a refuge from emotions associated with illness. For example, studies indicate such outcomes as reduced cortisol levels and better vital signs.

Nikita Prokhorov, who specialized in creating ambigrams, sketches out several options before creating the complete ambigram. Learn how he does it here.

It’s a natural high.

When you draw, dopamine is produced in the brainstem but released in your brain’s cortex region, the part that we use to create ideas, make decisions, and plan our actions. According to James E. Zull, professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University and author of The Art of Changing the Brain,

“…we feel rewarded when we create new objects or actions. And since creativity is based on the decisions made by the creator, the reward system kicks in when we are in control and inventing things that we have thought of ourselves. Freedom and ownership are part and parcel of the neurochemistry of the arts.”


Try it Yourself: Drawing Exercises to Inspire You

If I’ve convinced you but a blank page or screen keeps you from drawing, grab your pencil or stylus. Here are some prompts to use as a kick-start from my books, Draw! The Guided Sketchbook That Teaches You How to Draw and Take A Line For a Walk.

  • If you have a leafy plant or bicycle, draw the shapes between the leaves or parts.
  • Sketch a spiral or rotating column that looks like a tornado.
  • Drop a bit of coffee on a page. Use that shape made by chance as your starting point.
  • Create a linear flow of movement that leads from bottom to top or from corner to corner.
  • Find two keys or two objects with interesting silhouettes. Position them on a tabletop and draw the negative spaces between them.
  • Start by drawing a continuous line around a page that intersects itself at several points. The intersections will divide the page into sections. Create a palette of patterns, one used in each section. For example, one pattern could be based on triangles, another on a checkerboard pattern, another on hatched lines, and another on bricks.
  • Scribble the image of the first thing that pops into your mind. Make it really messy.
  • Make marks on the page so the page seems to transform. For example, using lines of varying widths and distances apart you could create the illusion of a warped surface.
  • Look for an interesting shadow pattern and draw it.

Before drawing, mindful observation helps you focus too.

Try this: Look straight ahead at an object in the actual room space in front of you. As you are looking straight ahead, consider how the space moves beyond your focus into the outer part of your field of vision, into your peripheral vision. The boundaries of your vision aren’t hard and fast but instead go on beyond your focus.

Now try this: Focus intently on one object. That focus keeps you from moving to the periphery of your vision.

Although collapsing on your sofa to watch a vid might be the only activity you can manage some times, on another day, have a cup of tea and then take a line for a walk.

Need more ideas? Click each image to download and print these drawing exercises from Robin Landa’s books, Draw! The Guided Sketchbook That Teaches You How to Draw and Take A Line For a Walk:

1. Cross Contour


Download this exercise as a PDF here.

2. Dangling Letterform


Download this exercise as a PDF here.

3. Take a Line for a Walk


Download this exercise as a PDF here.