Thumbnails, useful or useless?


Hi. I hope this turns out into a little research for all people who are interested in this topic. My intention is to spark debate, learn and not insult whatever method you use.

Kicking off the disclaimer…
Back at college I had a class just to learn a set of archetypes of techniques that felt really alien to me. Brainstorming, Design thinking, Brainwriting, Moodboards… so on, so forth.
With time, I started taking some into account and reverence to use it in my own process, like Moodboards and Storyboards, which I really felt useful to click on a style, set a value, trend, aesthetic.

Nearly all tutorials and courses with entertainment design and concept art I see online, stress the use of thumbnails, which, to be honest I feel really close to useless, and I want to explore this subject, see if others agree… it may even be a matter of personal taste, like I love doing moodboards, other people may not be so found of them.

Not long ago, what really made it the last drop, was to check a few interviews with my favorite director, Chris Cunningham, who claims making storyboards just as a ‘comfort blanket’, that he only follows like 50% of them and just wings the rest, and goes with whatever the flow is at the moment… and his work turns out brilliant, transcends time and trends… has an edge.
In nearly all his interviews where he was inquired about a video he directed and another, and another, he’d often start with:

  • ‘There was this idea I had in my head for a while’ or
  • 'I had an experience like so and such as a kid so listening to this soundtrack made me feel like that one time…;
  • ‘When I was thinking of the brief, there was one idea that came to my mind…’

Something like the concept art crowd would just be like pulling hairs out and asking… well where is the thumbnailing on that? the sweat and blood?
Which I ultimately feel like it’s not how much blood your nails bleed against the paper for pages and pages of thumbnail sprees… but more like how you feel it? Emotion > Methodical tools?

I still find thumbnails extremely useful, when I’m coming up with a form language or designing shapes, but for an idea… I feel like it’s not so useful, or not as much as just laying on my back and listening to a soundtrack until it connects to a particular world.

It may be that C.Cunningham has his own design strategy going on, he is more of an artist, and he makes the process of being inspired on a song to make something, as if it was his own design lineage, what he thinks is good art and design, he applies it to the work and the work shows what the artist stands for.

One teacher once told me, in a graphic design class, that my work was too literal, I used too many rulers and guides, I thought too much, and the work was shy, anxious (in a bad way), claustrophobic.
One day I started a project without thinking, and with a mind set to never use backspace or ctrl+z, (that would show him!) the result was violent and he loved it. So there it dawned on me… ‘violent and mental-fast’ is a legit way to design.

So I rest this case by asking, is there such thing as a bad process to make art and design? Be it with design thinking or with something else? Anyone else dislikes thumbnails and uses something else?


It really depends on the person, and on the workflow required by the production.

First of all, Chris Cunningham is a director, not a concept artist. He sees imagery in his mind’s eye and wants to translate them into moving pictures with sound. He is not responsible for coming up with all kinds of concept art that details how everything in the project is supposed to look. He’s also calling the shots being the director, so he gets to change his mind as he sees fit, while concept artists must answer to producers, creative directors, art directors, game designers, etc.

Thumbnail sketches are very useful because it allows you to generate rough visual design ideas very quickly without getting bogged down with unnecessary minute details. You can also come up with variations quickly and compare them to see which one works best. There’s nothing else artists can do to generate different visual design ideas very quickly and compare them, which is why thumbnail sketches is still the best approach.

As for generating “ideas” in the context of visual narrative/storytelling and not purely visual design, then yes, you’re right in that simply doing thumbnail sketches isn’t as useful. Visual storytelling ideas come mostly from within our mind’s eye as our imagination fires and our mind wanders into daydreaming territory. Listening to music is great for generating imagery in your mind’s eye, but once you have that basic premise and narrative, you’ll have to do thumbnail sketches to turn them into actual images. Also, pure storytelling can come from anywhere, such as inspired by a news article you read, or events that happened in your life, or a dream you had, or themes you’re fascinated by and wants to explore (such as sociopolitical or philosophical ideas), or anything else that you’re exposed to and experienced in your life. The stories you come up with will then become the basis for your artworks, and that’s when thumbnail sketches come in–when you need to do concept art or illustrations for your story ideas.


The usual question is “where do you come up with your ideas” not “how do you develop your ideas”. Your CC story sounds like he was addressing that point. There may be an aspect of self promotion; I don’t know the guy. But “heroic creator of genius ideas” is a better image than “slogging refiner of ideas.” It is possible that he does just spring ideas, start working them and make big changes mid-course. He could be a creative genius with a great intuition. But that would be rare. If it exists it could be because he’s just a genius. Or it could be that the moves we see are backed by experience and skill.

It is worth asking (again, I don’t know his work but I’d make a student pursue this angle) what kind of brilliant transcendence his work has. To put it possibly too crudely, is it shock of the new or really well made. Not that each can’t be appreciated. The first electric guitar is legend. It’s also ugly and maybe sounded crap.

At school we emphasize “the iterative process”. With a very heavy hand we emphasize it. We, as the tutorials you mention, are gearing towards generic noobs. Will this particular student be a mad genius. Maybe, but probably not and even Picasso was an excellent draftsman before he started drawing noses funny.

We figure that your first idea isn’t going to be perfect and will benefit from refinement. Thumbnails help with that refinement. It’s generally hard to just work in your head. Have an idea, bounce it off a piece of paper so you can stand outside of it and critique it / test it, then refine and move through another iteration.

What interests me most about he CC interview is the claim to use “storyboards as a comfort blanket.” How so? What does he mean? Maybe he does them because people tell him he should so the doing makes the nagging voices in his head shut up. Maybe he does them because it really does help to bounce an idea off paper and he puts them down and is able to say “yeah, okay, it looks like it does work. Cool.” (That’s my guess.) If I take your word that his work is very good then the implication is that he can design in his head. I’m skeptical that he just has a brilliant idea and implements it without any testing and refinement. Not that it can’t be done, just that it seems unlikely. It could be that he sucks at thinking critically about his work so when he draws a storyboard all he’s doing is confirming “yup, that’s the story I was thinking of” and never sees the opportunities for improvement. But that doesn’t match with your assessment of the quality of his work. That he makes mid-course changes implies that he does iterate his designs. Or maybe the comfort blanket isn’t for him, but for the people around him who need the tangible reference and find blindly trusting his mad skillz to be unsettling.

Executive summary - Thumbnails are a good generic tool for testing. CC probably does some kind of design loop and probably doesn’t just have perfect ideas spring fully formed in his head. Thumbnails may not suit everybody but it’s how we start everybody off and let them refine their process.

I’m wondering if your instructor’s reaction of “loving it” was not a case of the design itself being superior, but rather he loved the changes in you, or even merely your willingness to branch out. He wanted to get you to change your process, you changed your process, he loved the changing. It is possible that the resulting design was crap but that didn’t matter.

Or it could be that he merely wanted your designs to be more like his and the change made your designs more like his so now your work was “right/good”. Instructors can be a mixed lot. I prefer the first option as the instructor is better and the student learned something useful.

Rereading your post, I feel that there’s two things being discussed “where do ideas come from” and “how do you turn those ideas into product.”

Ideas come from where ideas come from. Ideas are turned into product by testing and refining them.

ONE way to test and refine is through thumbnailing. Thumbnailing is useful because for most of us testing means getting the idea out of our head so we can look at it and thumbnails are fast.

You don’t say why you find thumbnails useless. You do say why they are extremely useful - for design iteration. You contrast useless thumbnails with other idea generation techniques. So maybe you find them useless for idea generation. I can see that. “What is this a thumbnail of?” “I don’t know, I haven’t had the idea yet.” So that could be frustrating. How do you know what to draw if you don’t know what you want to draw? But maybe other people use them in a more doodling way. Like free writing; free drawing. Just little capsules that are of whatever and are constrained by space so they don’t get to involved (I’d maybe even use a standard “fine” Sharpie just to force detail away) yet may be a springboard “Oh wait, this is compelling, it makes me think of this and this”. If we accept that ideas come from “somewhere” then if you doodle a thumbnail there is somewhere from where the idea can come. It gets the brain juices flowing (mm… brains). If you just sit there staring at the wall in silent reverie, then where do the ideas come from. You mention listening to music, mood boards. These are essentially gathered third party stimuli. Something to give the brain something to chew on, to evoke images and feelings. Thumbnails could do that just that you have to MAKE them rather than find them. Making can be a different enough process that it doesn’t pair well with ideating. I tell kids to just use lorem ipsum when designing pages because moving pictures on a page and structuring the flow of a book is different enough from writing that for a lot of us going back and forth is just too clumsy and laying out a book at the same time as writing just doesn’t work.

I think the usefulness here will depend on how you think, how you ideate, how you draw. I think it’s worth trying to develop. I think it’s worth not getting hung up on and discarding when you decide it doesn’t work for you.


Art is such a subjective thing, there’s no bad process just as much as there’s no bad art. But as a commercial artist/freelancer we use the term “art” so loosely, I won’t go into the whole debate on whether what we’re doing is art or not, that’s a whole other issue.

The point is, in Production, when there’s a large team that needs to be herded towards a singular goal, we have to take the abstraction of Art out of the equation (or just sneak it in where we can). And similarly, when your job is produce art on a consistent basis, possibly every single day, and you’re not exploring your own ideas, only those of the client, I find it extremely useful to try to find a process that can be used over and over again to ensure I can deliver a “product” (painting) consistently.

The advantage of a thumbnail is not so much to flesh out the idea, but more to work out the “math”. by not focusing on light or color or making something pretty, you can specifically focus on the questions like “where do I want to put the focal point” and “how do I want to guide the eye to that focal point”, while quickly iterating. Once you’ve laid out your road map, you can move forward to figure out the remaining questions of light, color, details etc with a clear pathway to the most important objectives (where should someone look, and how do they get there)

Personally, I never share my thumbnails with clients, they’re purely for me to explore several equations. Everyone has their own process, this is just how I see them as being usefull



The thread is a bit old, I just stumbled over it.
Being a commercial artist and storyboarder makes me a bit biased, but I feel the urge to throw in my 2 cent.

A film is a collaboartive work and will usually suffer if communication between the people executing the many tasks do not communicate well.
It does not really matter how good a director is at visualizing a movie in his head, what matters is the part of this vision that can be communicated to the people executing it.
Often these then can even enhance the vision (or have to tone it down because of production limitations).

Is it true that a movie can be done without a visual design process (thumbnails, then storyboards, then previz where it makes sense)?
Can this movie look stunning? Yes, if you have a very good director of photography and are able to communicate well with him , sure.

Will this also work for movies with special effects and complex compositing or expensive sets?
No way, it will be a highway to hell. You absolutely need proper planning for stuff like that, and that means the director and director of photography have to decide how they want to break down a scene carefully before actual production, unless they are on an unlimited budget and nobody cares about production value (HaHa).

It is absolutely OK and desired to “carpe diem” when shooting and improvise where it makes sense. You have to adjust to the actors, to weather, animals and to many other factors constanly when making a movie so this cannot be avoided anyway. Sometimes a better idea springs up, sometimes you are forced to change because something does not work as planned.

Films that are bascially talking heads will work without a storyboard at all, provided the director of photograpy is experienced and the communication with the director is good.
But in international productions, possibly with second teams shooting simultaneously in different locations, with non-native english speaking staff …everything needs to match later and a careful storyboard (and/or previz) is not only a good idea but necessary to ensure that continuity will work and there is no misunderstanding. When doing FX shots it is absolutely vital.

So–Are thumbnails useful?
How could they not be?
If you can communicate by drawing (as a director) then they are the fastest way to pitch a visual idea to others with a lot less risk of misunderstanding then pure words.

Ridley Scott and his famous “Ridleygrams” are a perfect example how this can communicate a directors vision to the visual specialists.

Of course, if you cannot draw you can also let the storyboard artist handle the thumbnails, that is totally normal. Tell him what you want, let him draw thumbnails for the sequence, change it until it matches your director vision, then the storyboard artist can later work on the more detailed storyboard with a lot less changes.
Also do not underestimate the influence a good storyboard artist can have on the visual storytelling of a film. Experienced Storyboarders can add interesting visual ideas if you ask them for input.
Of course, as said, I am biased :slight_smile:

Personally I find thumbnails to be the most useful tool of them all, for storytelling as well as for design, because they force you to concentrate on the basic visual concept before getting lost in the details. Direct brain to paper, if you are a routined artist an almost subconcious automatic act.