Out-of-the-box ideas to teach sketching

I had opportunities to teach sketching for over two decades to graduate students; some had joined the programme in design with limited sketching skills. Focus was always on the design related courses and sketching could be spared very little time. I thought I should convert the problem of lack of time into an opportunity. Reflecting on it now, it appears that the way the course evolved was influenced by my interest in cognitive psychology and also little bit in sports training. With the result, number of new ideas entered my teaching. I still miss teaching this course. So, I created a self-learning version of the course on web with assistance from Ms Vineeta Rath. All the course modules and videos are available on D’Source 1 (URL: http://www.dsource.in/course/freehand-sketching)

In this post I plan to touch only few key concepts and ideas with limited support from action videos. For those who are interested in following these ideas, do spend time on the link above.

Structured learning and out-of-the-box methods

We established in the earlier post that thinking sketches are different as end products, as an act, as a process and thus are a category by itself. So, it not only deserves a name of its own, but a different way of teaching and learning.

In the following sections, we hope to prove that it is possible to learn to draw thinking sketches quickly, using out-of-the-box methods. We have divided this section into learning two of the three components that we discussed in the last post, namely 1) The act of visualization and problem solving, and 2) The act of sketching. As mentioned in the last post, the alternative solutions evolve, are visualized and worked on in the mind’s eye. So, the way the article is planned, we will begin with basic concepts of learning visualization, and then proceed to learning the act of sketching and return to visualization. The reasons for these twists and turns will be clear once the reader goes through the article. However, the major issues in visualization and use of mind’s eye, the area I have been researching on for the past two decades, will be covered in details in the future posts.

1 The act of visualization

Within the context limited to sketching we will answer two of the questions listed in the last post. Let us return to first the question,

“How can we expedite learning to visualize ideas in the mind’s eye?”

Visualization, as defined in this article, is ability to generate, hold, operate on and transform images in the mind, in absence of the real image or the object in the front. The sketching in many ways compensates for the visualization ability. It allows you to record on paper the little changes that occur in the evolving images in your mind’s eye, thus increasing your capacity to handle material. To improve visualization, it is important to trick the learner and force him to solve the transformation of images in his mind’s eye. Here are some ideas.

Visualization: Work out what we don’t see

Orthographic drawings are particularly challenging as they force the viewer/reader to visualize from the available 2D information. The advent of 3D modeling on has two ‘side effects’. First, the importance of orthographics (particularly the cross sections) is almost lost. Second, we are loosing the abilities to hold and operate on the visualized images. None of these are focus of design education any more. 2

How do we use it to develop 3D visualization? Give an orthographic drawing that contains multiple objects composed in space. Stick this drawing on their sketching sheet so that student can’t rotate the paper and see it from the other side. Then ask him to draw it from a viewing angle located on the opposite side. This is a simple but interesting problem in visualization. If the student rotates the paper to view the composition from the viewing angle given, he will see the composition in the correct orientation, but see his sketch upside down, because they have opposite orientations. With the result, the students are forced to visualize the compositions in their mind’s eye and draw and thus develop the visualization abilities over a period.

We will return to visualization issues after the discussion on the act of sketching. Let us explore answer to the next two questions,

“How does one learn to sketch as if it is a routine and natural act that demands very little attention and budgeting of mental energy?”

“Can you reduce time and effort to produce this level of competence by planned and structured efforts?”

2 The act of sketching

In the model shown in the figure 3.2 in earlier post, ‘Why do designers sketch?’ explains role that sketching plays in the act of design problem solving. The different nodes of the model had cyclic relationship as shown briefly below. (The numbers in the bracket refer to the nodes in the original figure.)

“Think /solve problem [5] >>> Visualize [2] >>> create instructions for sketching [3] >>> produce the sketch [4] >>> observe the sketch [2] >>> think and react [5] again.”

In the following discussion, the focus is on [3], [4] and [2]. Though these nodes are integral part of the thinking process in design problem solving, they are consciously delinked, to focus on learning to sketch. In fact, the out-of-the-box objective that we plan to move to is to learning to delink the act of sketching from thinking about sketching. It aims to execute sketching in autopilot mode, without making substantial demands on the limited mental energy. This suggests radically different approach like learning to divert attention away from the act of sketching, compensated by the ‘feel’ of body movement monitored internally. Let us expand on this idea further.

When it came to executing these ideas, we borrowed concepts and ideas from sports coaching, particularly from sports that have very short response time and are largely based on developing a ‘feel’ for the actions. The borrowed concepts were transformed to suit sketching or sketching related assignments. Like in sports, we divided the tasks into pre-sketching warm-ups, workouts and specially designed sketching assignments. Warm-ups ensure that the body is ready for action through correctly designed exercises. Each group of workouts has a specific objective/s, which is a component of the total act of sketching. These two cover most of the innovations in teaching sketching. We do not intent to discuss the third task, but interested readers can review them on D’Source.

‘Feel’ the act of sketching

This article adopts an unusual approach to sketching which is so much visual in nature. It includes radical ideas like cutting off the visual feedback, distracting, to moving your body to ‘feel’ what you are drawing. The question it addresses is

“If you close your eyes, ‘What parts of the body can contribute to getting a correct sketch?”

What will be discussed now will deal with how these ideas were converted into series of related course assignments for students.

Distracting the classroom

Shifting attention away from the sketch being drawn is one of the principle goals. When the act becomes near natural, you attend to many other things besides the principle task. We discussed examples like driving where you can engage yourself in conversation with partners. Besides, executing multiple tasks is very much a necessity in the contemporary world. The first step to achieve this is to distract the attention to 1) related, and later 2) unrelated tasks.

Several ways of distracting the eyes away, partially or fully, from the sketching action were explored mainly to exploit classroom format. For example, make student pairs where they stand facing each other. Student A draws a continuous line with a crazy path and at varying speeds. Simultaneously, student B follows his line path and his speed of drawing by copying the line at a fixed distance on the same paper. The execution of such task demands that the student B is forced to divert his visual attention intermittently and yet continue with the act of effortless sketching. Several similar out-of-the-box scenarios are explained in the main article on D’Source.

‘Feel’ where the pencil tip is?

Interestingly, even the act of sketching distracts the person who draws it. While sketching most students are obsessed with continuously seeing what they draw and correcting it. They focus on the pencil tip almost all the time, and the lines are corrected immediately when something goes wrong. So, the eraser is used more often than pencil! This practice is probably fine when sketch itself is an end product to be appreciated, but not when sketching is to be used as a thinking tool. In this article we are concerned with thinking sketches, where the designers match the sketch with what vague ideas in their visualized images. So, the obsession with the pencil point and the act of sketching is a distraction! How do we then get rid of this obsession?

Think about it in a different way. You correct a sketch because you see it and spot a mistake. What if you are prevented from seeing the pencil tip by obstructing his line of sight? The constraint appears strange, but the effects are dramatic. Mount a paper shroud on the wrist. This obstructs immediate vision and areas around the pencil tip, forcing the learner to ‘feel’ the locations of the pencil tip internally as well as act on the basis of distant visual clues from the existing marks on the paper.

  1. Beginners depend on continuous visual tracking of the pencil point and loose the big picture. Is it the fear of pencil going off track?

2. Shroud cuts off the sight line, forcing the learner to develop judgement and ‘feel’ of the     pencil point.

When used for a visual medium the idea appears strange, but the results were completely counterintuitive. Obstructing the line of sight frees the students from the fear of making errors. They are more relaxed, perhaps because they have a valid justification to make mistakes. With some practice almost all students develop a ‘feel’ for correct lines. However, this is not automatic. They also go through other special exercises to develop that ‘feel’. All the students manage to draw reasonably correct lines after some practice. Interestingly, the lines were lot smoother now!

Body can ‘feel’ and ‘see’ the line path

When you can not see the pencil tip while sketching, how does a student know that he is drawing a horizontal, a vertical, an inclined straight or curved lines? And how does he start and end the line at the right points? How does he know that he is drawing a circle? (where the end points must meet) or draw a correct semi-circle or a curved segment that is symmetrical? Normally, the eyes track the path and give a continuous feedback.

Believe me, it is difficult but not an impossible task. Even when you are blindfolded, you know that you have walked straight, or taken a right angle turn. We know if we are correct or wrong by the internal ‘feel’ of the movements of body and its parts. The ‘feel’ makes us survive in sports that have very short response time. Can we then compensate this loss of visual feedback by perceiving the correctness of the line drawn by internal monitoring of the movements of the hand and the body?

Try it out yourself. Draw a straight or a curved line path (about 50 cm long) by closing the eyes. Before you open your eyes, guess where and how much it may have gone wrong.

Normally the use of wrist and forearm restricts the free movements of the hand, making it difficult to draw longer lines freely. To achieve this ‘feel’ the students have to move the entire body hinged around the feet and design complementary body movements for sketching. In this course, the students were asked to deliberately change these hinge points as far away from the pencil tip as possible, so that the body parts will move freely. For instance, drawing a long straight-line by standing and moving the hand from the shoulders and body from the well-anchored feet. Initially, the body movements appear more rigorous than what one uses in normal sketching. Over a period one sees the advantages of moving the body. It contributes to making actions as well as the line paths smoother and fluent irrespective of the lengths of the lines drawn.

There are several exercises that are shown on D’Source. The classroom experience shows that the goals seem achievable by structured training. Here is one example,

3.  Instead of moving the wrist and the hand, the emphasis is on hinging the hand from the shoulder and body from the feet on the ground. Standing while drawing permits these movements. So, for workouts, the learner must stand, move and act.

‘Feel’ of perspective space through body

Drawing perspective lines where they converge on a single or two vanishing points is not easy. Obviously, beginners are overwhelmed by these problems and their attention is diverted to true heights, line alignment, line inclinations and directions to get a correct perspective. Such learning demands that you budget attention and thus mental energy to the task. When the action of perspective sketching and its corrections completely depend on visual feedback and direct attention to the pencil tip, it is bound to divert the mind away from its preoccupation with the design problem solving.

Developing ‘feel’ of 3 D perspective space is important in architecture and 3D design projects. It is more easily said than done. This ‘feel’ needs to be consciously developed. The course insists on use of series of special underlays to draw shapes in perspective with a reasonable accuracy. It ensures that a student can reasonably draw accurate perspective by the time the course is finished. To execute effortless perspective, eventually the underlays must be dispensed with. This is something that only a few students could achieve.

4.  Specially design underlays and exercises help develop sense of perspective space.

“It is critical to develop the ‘feel’ of the perspective space, where a cube (and later several cubes within that space) are drawn sharing common ‘implied’ vanishing point.”

Sketching could become as natural as writing, if we borrow techniques from writing. You never change the grip and the angle in which the pen is held. You don’t always look at the tip of the pen. Writing in running hand ensures that the flow is maintained. It is likely that the normal expected properties of good sketching, like consistency of lines and fluency, could get neglected. We cannot afford this. So, a large number of serially presented workouts focus on these aspects.

Need for control

Imagine quickly drawing a square using continuous line with these school habits? (or more difficult, a cube in perspective with minimum lifts of pencil tip) Most students start with a baggage of habits that they learnt during schooling. The practice of often changing the pencil grip, wrist angles and preferences for drawing line in a favoured direction continue to obstruct smooth sketching. Continuous straight lines are ‘constructed’ by cumulating small marks of pencil and corrected by eraser. Children, and even grownup, rotate the sketchbook to align the line path to a favoured direction of drawing lines. Such school sketching habits make simple task like drawing a square difficult to execute. So, the square is ‘constructed’ in small strokes and by rotating the sketchbook. Any change in these routines affects the quality of the line drawn. Developed early in school, these practices continue even later. They affect the speed and obstruct fluency in sketching that is critical during idea generation phase. Such acrobatics is unimaginable when you want to write, so why should this occur when drawing shapes?

5. Observe the number of times the pencil grip is altered when drawing? We don’t do this when writing. So, why should we change grip when drawing?

6. Learners have a preferred direction for drawing lines. So, the paper is rotated to match the individual preference. Imagine drawing a square quickly, without lifting the pencil? It is almost an impossible task.

7. Most lines are constructed by collection of sequential short strokes. This habit develops because there is a pressure that the line may go wrong. The fluency is sacrificed.

The course has assignments that ensure these habits are left behind. The focus is on maintaining the quality of the line and fluency, irrespective of the direction of the path, the size of the lines, tools used to draw, the quality of paper and the speed of drawing.

8. In order to learn control on movement, the workouts insist that you change the speed of drawing lines within the line path, without changing the quality of the line. This gives control on end points of the line.

Typically, it is easier to maintain uniformity in appearance of the line (thickness, darkness and texture) if it is drawn very fast, but this happens at the cost of control over the path alignment. Draw the line slowly so that the line follows a correct path, but it difficult to retain uniformity. What you need is the ability to willfully control the speed without affecting the uniformity and that requires lot of practice. Several assignments are developed to acquire this control. These assist the students to develop fluency and smooth movements while sketching, even if the speed with which the line is drawn is changed.

3 Back to visualization with a difference

It was planned that we will return to section 1 on visualization and problem solving after the detour. Let us get back to this. If the short-term memory has to focus on solving design problem, we have to ensure that the student’s mind is not occupied with thinking required to execute his sketch. Sketching should be effortless and natural act demanding little mental energy from the student drawing it. His actions should be like writing, where the handwriting appears on the paper almost in autopilot mode, while the author continues to develop his thoughts unhindered. How do we judge that the student’s sketching action have reached this level?

Testing the pudding

There are several assignments in the section above that force the student to occupy his mind with other issues. As a final exam, we developed a really extreme scenario to judge this level of competence. It is based on a question,

“Can we develop abilities of thinking of unrelated things while visualizing and sketching?”

Of course this is difficult and most challenging, but all the same it is necessary to acquire such ability. Using student pairs, we conducted a formal viva in a totally unrelated course, while simultaneously visualizing and sketching a difficult composition.

Student A is asked to draw a composition as if viewing from the opposite side, almost similar to the assignment mentioned in section 1 above. Student B would take A’s viva in an unrelated subject and would fire the questions, while A continued to draw and concurrently answer the questions verbally. The scenario makes sure that A is preoccupied with both unrelated tasks and his thinking is continuously diverted to subject of the viva. He has to think and give answers and draw simultaneously.

exam freehand9.

9. Sketching exam with a viva in an unrelated subject

The scenarios and assignments appear strange, but they have been tried and tested during two decades of teaching sketching. They do lead to routinizing the act of sketching and make it appear like a natural act, with limited expending of mental energy budget.

In this article, there is considerable focus on act of sketching based on ‘feel’. The idea is to make the entire body participate in the act. Is there more to it than what meets the eyes?

Reflections: Does designing/sketching use embodied cognition?

The course continued to evolve through 80s and 90s, till I shifted my teaching focus to other areas. Interestingly, further theoretical underpinning to these ideas comes from recent work on embodied cognition. It proposes that the characteristics and aspects of the physical body shape many features of cognition and their influences have significant causal role in cognitive process beyond the brain. 3 Embodiment assumes that what happens in the mind is depending on properties of the body, such as kinaesthetic properties. Some of the know examples are, where people remember gist of the story better if they physically act it out. Similarly, when students are physically and mentally involved in learning, they retain content better. The idea of using body movement and developing a ‘feel’ of the line path is in principle close to embodied cognition.

Response to music offers a good example to understand this idea of embodied cognition. Embodied approach is based on listening to music with bodily movement (moving hands, head, torso and tapping feet) that contributes to musical meaning formation. Such a perception is based on multi-modal encoding, where perception and actions are mixed. Disembodied approach is based on perception and analysis of musical structure. In the first case, the understanding is corporal; in the second it is celebral. It also suggests that the motor system and cognition could be mutually influencing each other.

This is equally true with production of live music, which integrate the corporal and the celebral acts. Most singers and musician produce accompanying gestures, body movements, handle musical instrument and sing simultaneously. Such an immersive performance is difficult to be perceived as a disembodied act. (Even in radio recording era, the gestures were less conspicuous, but not absent).

Through these sketching workouts, we seem to have attempted to make sketching an embodied cognitive act. If we assume that this immersive state is critical for a creative act as in music, can design problem solving show similar bodily involvement. If not, can it become as immersive as production of songs. Can it use or exploit multi-modal capabilities to the fullest extend, than restricting itself to hand-eye coordination. We seem to have raised new question,

“Can there be embodied design problem solving that integrates solution exploration, visualization and sketching into an immersive act?”

Right now, I have no answer to this question, nor is it easy to find.

Sum up

We defined thinking sketches as a category that not only deserves a name of it own, but a different way of teaching and learning. This post gives glimpses of what is actually covered in the course. It takes off from the goals established for the act of sketching in the earlier post and develops it into a structured learning programme for design, that is effective and quicker.

This post answers several questions that were raised at the end of the last post. They included, ‘How can we expedite learning to visualize ideas in the mind’s eye?’ ‘How does one learn to sketch as if it is a routine and natural act that demands very little attention and budgeting of mental energy?’ and ‘Can you reduce time and effort to produce this level of competence by planned and structured efforts?’ This post deals with answers to the last two questions extensively. It just touches the first one cursorily, but leaves it for extensive treatment in the next post.

The actual course reflects the mix of ideas and concepts borrowed from two desperately diverse sources, like cognitive psychology and sports coaching. The focus is on learning to draw effortlessly, quickly and without too much attention and mental energy. So, the focus is on diverting attention away from the act of sketching. This does appear contradictory, as the learner is asked not to think of what he is learning or had planned to learn! The course is based on resolving this contradiction and that is the reason why it is so different in concepts and execution of assignments.

The influence of practices from sports coaching is evident, because assignments are conceptually treated as warm-ups and workouts, each addressing a specific objective. The focus is on learning to draw by the ‘feel’ of the body in action.

The workouts distract the learner from watching the pencil tip while sketching, by mounting a shroud on the wrist or by distracting him through tasks. However, learning to internally monitor the hand and the body motions to develop the ‘feel’ of the path compensates the loss of feedback. Similar workouts are used to develop a ‘feel’ of the perspective space.

Reflecting back on this work, the article concludes by suggesting how the approach is closely related to the ideas of embodied cognition.

Preview of the next post

In the last few posts, we have discussed the role and nature of representation in design problem solving. We viewed thinking sketches as a separate class of sketching and treated it as a thinking tool. We discussed how it could be learnt through a structured programme.

I started my research with sketching as a focus. I was convinced of its role, but out of curiosity I decided to ask myself

“What if I prevent architects and designers from sketching?”

The experiments I conducted to search for the answers led to interesting findings. More about it in the posts that will follow.

Notes and references

1 This article is an abridge version of the one posted on the D’Source website plus lot of new contents that have come from the recent reflections. While some videos are included here as examples, more videos of each of the techniques developed are included in the course material on this site. The readers may want to refer to it, if they have plans to follow the ideas further.

2 To compensate, I designed series of puzzles based on cards to develop specific abilities of the mind’s eye. We will discuss more about the mind’s eye abilities in the subsequent posts.

3 What is embodied cognition?

Embodied cognition is an alternative to the traditional cognitive model based on symbol manipulation, information input and production of output. It also offers alternative to the computational approach to understanding of brain.

Traditional approach focuses on higher-level strategies like development of concepts, categories, reasoning and judgment and processing symbols. It does not account for the active use of motor system, perceptual system and bodily interaction with the environment.

Thinking sketches: A messy process and messy results

Almost all of us have learnt sketching and drawing in school. At elementary level, schools focus on the correctness and quality of presentation (colouring) of objects given. The initial objectives are to represent real world objects as correctly as possible. Some have special talent and achieve this quickly. (Picasso was known to have achieved very high level of representation standards in his early childhood). It is only later that you learn to express your views of the world through sketches and drawings. Is not this adequate for career art and design? The answer is yes as well as no!

Visual representations are of course an inseparable part of disciplines like architecture, design and visual arts. These disciplines deal with decisions about spatial creations. All of them demand extensive sketching. That is a reason people believe that if you are good at sketching and drawing in school, design is a good career choice for you.

Sketching externalizes what is slowly evolving in the creator’s mind. However, to lump all the sketching activity in a single category may not be fair. Let is explore how we can split this into classes based on its applications and its location in the art and design processes. Looking at it from this viewpoint, we can see two major classes of sketching as separate. They are, sketching as a display and sketching as a thinking tool.

Sketching as a display

This class includes sketches that are also the end products of artistic activity, and are appreciated for this quality. Most of the works in visual arts fall into this class. (like in caricature, character and scene design or even composition of objects being drawn in schools). These sketches express creator’s thinking and emotions. Semiotics of the representation matters and so does signature style of the creator. These are like signed statement and represents authors interpretations. So, they are valued as an end product. Architects and designers too resort to consciously drawn and well-rendered sketches when they want to display their work to clients and to public. Sketching remains only a means to explain the ideas of buildings and products, so that people see and appreciate. Display remains a keyword in such output.

Sketching as a thinking tool

This class includes sketching meant to complement generation of large number of new and yet unseen ideas of objects and buildings.1 This kind of sketching supports the thinking that is focused on design problem solving, particularly during the initial part of the design process. In such exploratory sketching during early creative phase, designer’s hand is driven by the thoughts and visualized images that are evolving in his mind.

The studies of designers in action shows that the early sketching process includes not just representing spatial ideas or concepts, but reacting to them and thus reconsidering and rebuilding them several times. Architects and designers too sketch extensively in this phase, but draw what they partly or fully visualize in their mind, something that is yet to come in the world. Such a representation must necessarily offer a quick feedback to react to, and allow instant and reversible changes. Architects and designers continue to think and mentally focus on the solutions to the design problem at hand and almost simultaneously sketch their ideas. We have called this class of sketching as ‘thinking sketches’.

On the face of it, freehand sketching should meet demands of both kinds of sketching, but in visual arts and in design, this can happen at the cost of neglecting the differences in the objectives and expectations. This article questions the exclusive dependence on art school tradition of sketching in design programmes. Looking at these differences with a magnifying lens, we hope to argue that during the early creative phase in architecture and design, the emphasis should be also on sketching that can be used as a thinking tool. In this article, we hope to convince the readers that,

“Learning to draw thinking sketches goes beyond the art school teaching of sketching and needs an altogether different approach”

We hope to prove that the sketching taught in schools only partially meets the demands in architecture and design careers. The first section of this article deals with how and why thinking sketches are different and the second discusses the goals and objectives for a course in learning to draw these sketches.

Section 1: Thinking sketches as an end product, as a process and as an act

Let us pick up the magnifying lens and look at thinking sketches in three different ways. As an end product, they are messy and ambiguous. As an act, it is iterative and interestingly it helps designer in not just recording, but also clarify his thoughts. It encourages designer to react, explore what he is looking for, find bugs and induce him to modify the directions of the current thoughts. As a process, it is incremental in nature, building the ideas slowly. It involves reacting to the design problem as well as the solutions being thought of and sketched to search for creative opportunities. So, the ‘way’ the thinking sketches are implemented (drawn), they must prompt continued flow of ideas in their formative stages. This explains why they are being referred as ‘thinking sketches’. How and why do differ?

1 Thinking sketches as an end product and a display

Too cryptic that defies rules

Need to quickly record thoughts and ideas on paper prompt the designer to break rules and procedures of representation. The marks that they make on the paper are like shorthand notes. So, as 2D or 3D representations, such sketches are also profusely annotated when it is faster to record decisions scribbled on a note. (See figure 1) The things that designer feels he will remember are never recorded. The rule followed is, the information is just enough for the creator to reconstruct the ideas and access the logic that had driven these ideas. So, it is no wonder that only the creator can make sense of these sketches. (See figure 2)

Scan..0003_1

Figure 1: Architect’s sketches break all rules of representations. They can be full of annotations, calculations, things to do lists, overdrawn figures, plans, sections and 3D views all mixed together on the same paperIMG_0973_new

Figure 2: Car designers exploring what he is looking for through sketching. Only some of the lines represent some aspects of the object, others are extras! However, in spite of its sketchiness, the creator is able to reconstruct the idea in his mind. (Sketches courtesy Vishnu)

Sketch on top of a sketch

Speed in recording the idea is critical here. So, breaking the rules of sketching, the designers tend to draw next alternative imposed directly on the previous. Thus a single ‘thinking sketch’ may contain many ideas superimposed on each other. They have several alternative overlapping lines representing the objects as well as all its variations. The fuzziness of the sketch at this stage reflects the state of mind not satisfied with a line/curve and becomes a reason to explore more.

The designer knows how to mentally separate these lines to read other alternatives and variations. In this sketches, the creator often reads more than what he had thought of before.1 In revisiting these He also knows which lines are the ‘currently’ final and how to reconstruct the original idea and thinking. For an observer, sketches obviously look like a mess.

Sketches and ideas are distributed across overlays

As the idea develops, there is a tendency to add modifications, either superimposed on the same sketch or on an overlay tracing paper. The efforts end up with stack of tracings with incomplete ideas distributed across them. (In new media, the ideas will be distributed across layers. I have no personal experience of this.)

In a nutshell, the cryptic style of representing ideas, sketching on top of the current sketches and ideas distributed across overlays together create a messy and ambiguous appearance. These are inherent characteristics of such sketches and as we will see in a while that they are important part of the idea generation process.

“The thinking sketches excel by breaking most rules of representations”.

2 Thinking sketches as a process

To imagine that the ideas are available as complete one-shot visualizations will be far from correct.1 Sketching often starts with half formed ideas and these are developed along with the production of the sketches. In our earlier posts on design process, we had touched the iterative nature of design actions without explaining the role of sketching. The question that we must address is ”What role does sketching play (or potentially plays) in iterative processes?”

Ideas to sketching marks and vice versa

In this case, the sketching is expected to contribute to the development of ideas that are just emerging and thus are at best only partially formed. Emerging sketch can be looked at as a display of its current level of completion of conception in the mind. Designer reflects on the incomplete display and reacts, adding new marks that either completes the idea or more often leads to another one, leaving the last one incomplete. As you will see later, the incompleteness of the display is important. The ideas are concretized as the sketch develops, and vice versa.1 The process of sketching is intimately meshed with the iterative thinking process. In fact, in the context of this discussion, they are inseparable.

Reviews to change track

When ideas do not lead to anything exciting, there is a need to change the thinking track. It is a common practice in design to keep intermittently revisiting sketches of earlier explored solutions and reflect on them to discover a solution variation and possibly an altogether new solution direction. The designers review or flip through the stacks of previous sketches to explore if these fragments of solutions in the existing sketches have possibilities of combining in other ways. Thus previous sketches are important sources of ideas during iterations and serve the function of a display to react to.

3 Thinking sketches: A retrospective look at the act

Thinking sketches as an end product tend to be messy, ambiguous and incomplete. As a process too, the actions involved are iterative and with explorations based on pursuing vague directions. As an act, sketching appears to be messy. On the other hand, it appears logical that complete, correct and neat sketches would give a useful feedback to the designer to think of modifications and new ideas. Surprisingly, the messiness seems to have a clear advantage. It may sound counterintuitive.

“Thinking sketches, as an end product are ambiguous, incomplete and messy. As an exploratory execution process it has a messy iterative-ness”.

How and why thinking sketches work?

Why do such crowded and messy sketches contribute to new ideas? To find an answer, we could reverse the question. Why do neatly drawn, well-rendered and pretty sketches don’t contribute to creative efforts? There is always a reluctance to intervene or improve a finished and clean creation, whether it is a sketch, a caricature, a poster or even a cooked new recipe! There completeness discourages intervention. Finished sketches do not leave things ambiguous and are unlikely to act as springboards for new ideas.

MARSJEEPrender r1

Figure 3: Incompleteness of the car sketches suggests that it you can intervene and alter. The rendering is too complete and finished to discourage new design interventions. Pictures courtesy Prof. Sugandh Malhotra

On the other hand, the sketches that are messy and ambiguous encourage interventions.1 Design researchers suggest that this vagueness and ambiguity are critical for generating new ideas. Designer giving a fresh look to a group of lines together often prompts new ideas and new interpretations.

To sum up this section, we can conclude that in the early phases in the design process, the act of sketching is so personal that as an end product sketches communicate very little to others on the team. They are executed to support the creator to develop new ideas. So, it is difficult to conclude that the viewer centered art school tradition of representation is helpful in the early ideation phase. Nor is the excellence in sketching and drawing in school adequate to select design career.

Now that we have some understanding of what thinking sketches are and how they work, we can shift our magnifying lens to the next section dealing with the goals and objectives for a course in learning to draw these sketches. Do we then need to change the teaching of sketching in architecture and design schools? If so,

“What would be the goals of a new learning programme in sketching directed to designers and architects?”

Section 2: Learning to draw thinking sketches

The kind of sketching we are look at should help designer generate and develop his ideas, help in iteration and contribute to clarifying designer’s ideas to them and ‘effortlessly’ record the details. Let us look at this bundle of actions as a cognitive act that makes demands from limited mental energy budget. The budgeting of cognitive energy to drive the act of sketching during the early ideation phase can be divided in two broad activities involved in the act of problem solving.

First segment includes supporting the mental processes engaged in solving design problem and visualizing solutions. We will revisit what we discussed on short-term memory in the earlier post ‘Why do designers sketch?’ and take it forward.2 We know that the ideas are driven by the processes in the brain. Iterations in thinking and solving the design problem and visualizing solutions require budgeting of mental energy. We have seen in earlier posts that designers visualize solutions in their short-term memory. We also know that it is effortful to hold material there, and to work on it and transform it is even more effortful. So, it makes sense to avoid the mental overload by committing intermediate results on to a paper, as most designers do by sketching them out. Sketches serve as a means to record ideas as well as develop new ones, but this requires budgeting of mental energy.

The second segment includes the efforts required to create instructions to sketch, review the sketch during the process of making it, and generate instructions to correct it if necessary. This too demands budgeting energy to draw correct sketches quickly. If one encounters problems of corrections, it is sure to demand additional budgeting of more mental energy and it will be at the cost of energy budgeted for design problem solving.

Why should designer be interested in all this? The problem of budgeting energy for these too activities is a tricky one. We discussed the limitations of memory in earlier post. Kahneman explains this act of balancing the different demands when multiple activities are executed and shows that energy budget allotted to these actions is not consciously controllable.3 (Kahneman D., pp 23-40) He uses the analogy of budgeting of mental energy in directing attention. We can decide (and thus control) “What to do? What to attend?” But we have limited control over how much effort each task will actually use. (This is critical as the nature of the tasks and your abilities to handle the task decides how much mental energy it needs.) Imagine if the designer has difficulty sketching his ideas, it will unknowingly extract greater portion of the mental energy budget and that too, at the cost of slowing down the flow of problem solving efforts.

“Is this a lost case for designers who cannot sketch quickly?”

Not really. They can switch between thinking and sketching serially. But there is one danger. When your mind is occupied with problems of sketching, the idea may slip out of your mind. Haven’t we all experienced that sometimes while writing, a good sentence strikes you, but by the time you complete recording the previous sentence, it slips out of the mind!

It is not a lost case however. We can learn a lot from how people who handle multiple tasks (and now multiple windows on the screen) simultaneously. During driving a car, drivers converse effortlessly with a co-passenger on different topics. Humans effortlessly compose and speak prose. They eat, walk, and also think and hold intelligent conversations simultaneously. After all, did not the Eureka movement occur during bathing? Let is ask a different question,

‘How do humans learn to handle multiple tasks simultaneously? And that too effortlessly?’

All these activities look natural and effortless because of extensive practice and learning that has gone into routinizing these actions. When human actions are routinized they appear effortless and natural. These are often referred as actions in ‘autopilot’ mode. If one of the tasks is routinized, the mental energy can now be spared for the other task/s.

It may appear as a contradiction that you have to work hard and expend efforts to make the act natural. (in our case the actions of sketching). This is not unusual. Cricket shots or football kicks may look effortless and natural. Most learners think that they will be able to repeat the act easily. It conceals the fact that extensive practice (and coaching) has gone into making it look so simple and natural. Watch any Asian eat with chopsticks and you think you can repeat this too! It looks so easy! But is it?

It is known that you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer regions of the brain involved. Talent has similar effects.3 So, the way to solve this problem is to develop skills, to make the act of sketching as natural as possible. Can this root be followed to make it a natural act? This will ensure that the brain focuses its limited energy on solving the design problem and not worry about the problems of sketching. To achieve this, what should be the broad learning goals?

1 Out-of-the-box learning goals

To develop competence in sketching to ensure that sketching is executed with minimal mental energy and ‘comes’ to the designer as an effortless natural act. Let us expand the goal. The idea is to convert it into an effortless mental activity, a routine that demands exercising very little attention. It suggests that the process of representation should become quick, effortless, continuous, and routine and demand only a casual attention from the brain. For convenience, we have referred to it as a natural act. How can you make conscious human acts natural and effortless? Will extensive practice help? The learning programme should not only influence the nature of the sketches, but also the process of sketching.

The discussions so far deal with the act of visualization and problem solving and the act of representation of ideas. Both appear to be intimately meshed together. If the act of sketching is routinized to the extent of becoming near natural, we can spend more efforts on design problem solving. It is known that such an expertise can develop with extensive practice that ensures chunking of initial independent instructions for action into a chunk. The questions that we plan to address are,

“How can we expedite learning to visualize ideas in the mind’s eye?”

“How does one learn to sketch as if it is a routine and natural act that demands very little attention and budgeting of mental energy?”

“Can you reduce time and effort to produce this level of competence by planned and structured efforts?”

We will address all these questions over the next few posts. We plan to touch the first question cursorily here and in a limited context of sketching as it will be addressed in depth in the subsequent post. So, the focus in this article is more on the second and the third questions. Routinizing the act through extensive practice is an obvious solution, but to reduce learning time for sketching is becoming critical, considering that teaching institutions prefer to spend more time on development of design concepts and design thinking.

To cater to these strange demands of effortless sketching one needs to look beyond the design domain. The connection may look strange, but out-of-the-box ideas do need such connections. These ideas are based on sports coaching and what coaches do to players. First, the coaches in sports develop specific short exercises to be extensively repeated by each player so that the response to similar situation ‘comes’ naturally to him. Second, this training is also supported by specially defined exercises that develop the right muscles for a given shot or a stroke in swimming. Third, sport coaches know that you have to ready the body for action by warm ups before launching into action. They have warm-ups and workouts followed by the main task.

“How do these concepts from sports help us in learning of sketching?”

The out-of-the-box source like sport coaching gives uniquely different contents, learning techniques and methods that have proven to be effective in my two decades of teaching sketching to design students. This new approach will be expanded in the next post.

Sum up

Sketching is a word used often, even by children in schools. Do they all mean the same thing? The article points out the mistake of treating sketching as a single inclusive act. It does not contribute to understanding the nuances of the word, nor does it throw light on differences in what it refers to. The article argues that sketching as a tool to think and generate ideas is different from sketching that ends in a display or an end product to be viewed and appreciated. The influence of art school teaching of sketching is justified for the latter, but the former, referred as ‘thinking sketches’, needs a separate treatment.

The article develops the idea of thinking sketches to show how the end product of sketching used as a tool can be messy, ambiguous, incomplete and yet useful for generating new ideas. Next, it treats design as a cognitive act consuming mental energy. So, when sketching is used to solve a design problem and visualize a solution, it will demand most of the limited available mental energy. Little is then available to generate instructions for creating a sketch that records that idea. This suggests that sketching can match the pace of flow of thoughts and produced effortlessly to become a natural partner in thinking, only if it is routinized and demands very little from the mental energy budget. The article then lays down new goals and objectives and suggests out-of-the-box techniques to improve effectiveness and reduce the time that is required for learning to sketch.

The latter part of the article addresses the question, ‘Can you create a structured programme to learn how to draw without having to think about it?’ Such an approach to sketching needs a radically different programme to teach sketching. The article sets up the goals of such a programme and recommends using sports coaching as an analogy to learn how to create thinking sketches. This new approach will be expanded in the next post with videos of how different sports techniques were adopted in classroom situation.

Notes and references

This post is an abridged as well as updated version of the article published on D’Source. You can directly access the earlier version at     http://www.dsource.in/course/freehand-sketching

1 These ideas expressed here that are partly or fully based on by Gabriela Goldschmidt’s work, particularly

Goldschmidt G., (1994) On Visual thinking: The vis kids of architecture, Design Studies, vol 15, no 2, April 1994, pp 158- 172.

2 Miller G., (1966) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. In Readings in Perception, Eds. Wertheimer M., (pp 90-114). Van Nostrand, New York.

3 Kahneman D., (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Allen Lane, London. pp 23-40

 

Part II : How and why does sketching deliver?

In this post, we begin by revisiting why sketching delivers and explore new dimensions not touched in the last post. Additionally, we focus on designer’s behavior during sketching and attempt explanations of designer’s actions, practices and behavior. This material contains lots of statements. These are based on arguments and not necessarily validated experimentally. I request readers to do fill in gaps and refute statements they consider incorrect as their reactions.

Though we are discussing sketching, we cannot escape discussion on design process and problem solving. We will touch the process issues as a context to the role played by sketching in the early part of the design process when ideas are generated.

Section1: Sketching within the design process

Design process normally is built on the concept of finding design opportunities by interviewing users and other stakeholders, conducting ethno studies, observing how and why people use products, collect literature on market and the available competing product variations. Designers more inclined towards systematic processes rely on this approach. They start searching for solutions as broad answers and then go into details. It is also likely that during systematic collection of data some solution directions may have already emerged and can serve as starting points. (In fact, for most experienced designers, the problem and solutions occur simultaneously, but that is for later discussions)

To expect a single agreed starting point and a linear predefined process is unrealistic in design (as well as in art). Few designers prefer to pick up some aspect of the problem and search for solutions, then move on to the next aspect and so on. These ideas grow independently, often incrementally, till some of them fall into place together as a coherent solution. In both the modes, they tend to rely heavily on sketching driven by internal thoughts initially. Other designers have a very personalized approach to start the act of design. However, in all of these diverse approaches, designer’s actions remain in reactive mode.

Designing is reactively creating a redesigned real world

The actual sketching actions are driven by visualization and thinking that precedes it. In problem solving, both the processes demand that the design approach remains largely reactive to the real world context that the designer had investigated. Such an approach may show creative flashes, but designer reactively creates a redesigned real world. In this process, the role of sketching is to give physicality to the ideas, externalize visualizations and help detail them out.

While such an approach may be appropriate for large number of projects, there are times when you need to be proactive. The process can trap the designer in the study of real world context. This often results in evolutionary mode of product development.

The questions we will address are,

How does designer get out of the trap of reactive mode? And particularly, what role sketching can play in making the design approach move towards being proactive?

While sketching plays its complementary role, thinking and visualization actually drive the sketching actions. So, it will be unfair if all the creative actions and results are attributed exclusively to sketching, nor is it intended. At best we can say that sketching has its share of contributions in the creative process. This post is restricted to how sketching contributes in the creative tasks.1 That is why plan to focus on iterations and the exact role sketching play in them.

We cannot forget that developing a solution is iterative and thus cyclic act. The idea was discussed in the model proposed in Fig. 3.2 in the earlier post ‘Why do designers sketch?’ The model proposes that you ‘see’ the real world context and issues, ‘think and react’, ‘visualize’ and ‘sketch’. Most ideas concretize in incremental steps often over a length of time.

We believe that the iterative actions + sketching combination has lot to do with being proactive. Let us understand this idea. How can we modify the model to incorporate the creative nature of iterations?

Diagram-01-01-01

Figure 1: Shows how the influence of designer’s sketches increases with he reacting more to the sketched-world than to the real world problem.

Reacting to the sketched-world can be proactive

Once the cycle of iteration and sketching speeds up, the new sketches available as display dominate the subsequent thoughts. So, instead of talking of sketching, we should now talk of pile of sketches created in series of iteration. As the iterations multiply, designer reacts more to the modified ideas and eventually creates an alternate ‘sketched-world’. The sketched-world eventually separates from the real world solutions. We can now understand why it works.

Instead of reacting to the problem, when designer reacts to the ideas in the sketched-world, his reactions are qualitatively different. The first sketch prompts the next and that in turn prompts further sketches. Designer is now engrossed in the sketched-world and only occasionally worries about the real world problems.

Hunches that prompts iterations

It is interesting to look at the nature of thinking that dominates iterations. Keeping the understanding of the problems as a background, designer uses sketching not just to find an adequate solution to the problem, but to privately explore his hunches and fantasies. Sketching scores when hunches are being explored. During sketching, designers raise and answer questions like ‘Why don’t I do X or Y?’ and execute the idea as a quick sketch and then reflect on it, trying to figure out if there are bugs in the idea.2 This is the part that is typically accompanied by designer talking to himself (the sub-vocal speech). We talked about this in the last post.

From grounded reality to rooted fantasy

His understanding of the design problem is rooted in the real world as well as the sketched-world that he created. He has now two lines of thoughts in his mind. He constantly shifts between the sketched-world and the real world of objects, its context and its practices that he had earlier analyzed. Using your own sketches as a resource to react gives him opportunities to willfully get out of the clutches of the reactive approach. It is of course left to the designer how far he wants to stretch, but it does offer him the chance to move into his world of ‘rooted fantasy’! See figure 2.

Diagram 2-01

Figure 2: As the time passes, the design actions fluctuate between the influences of the two. With more sketches to react to, the chances of proactive solution appearing are higher. In real life, the paths 1, 2 and 3 depend on the demands of the problem as much as the abilities and inclinations of the designer.

The designer-created world of sketches has lot to do with moving away from initial reactive mode to being progressively proactive. The sketched-world complements the thinking process and designer’s reactions and reflections on this world can potentially lead to new discoveries and ideas.3

Even during the flight of fantasy, it is not that he is not aware of the real world. He comes back to it intermittently while reflecting on to the sketches in front. Sketching serves at once as a creative as well as an analytical tool.

Thinking sketches

Perhaps now it may be little more clear why these early sketches in the design process were referred to as ‘thinking sketches’. They help clarify thoughts and explore what you are looking for, find bugs and induce the designer to modify the directions of the current thought. There are two reactive states. First, when the sketch is available as a depictive displays to reflect on. This was discussed in the last post extensively. Second, during the process of sketching. The thinking process continues to supports this sketching act. It is likely that halfway through designer abandons the sketch when he realizes the flaws in his line of thoughts.

Working with other forms of representations

We cannot forget that what the section above describes is a property of all forms of representations that allow quick on-the-spot changes. Sketching happens to be on top of my list. To understand why, let us try something funny. All you have to do is to imagine yourself to be a designer in ancient times, when paper and writing instruments were not invented. Imagine now that as a designer you would be required to detail your the idea by etching on stone tablets! Also imagine if you had made a mistake in the etching that was carved out! See how lucky we are that we have soft, pliable tool available in form of sketching on paper!

So far, we addressed the question ‘How and why sketching delivers?’ It is clear that designers get much more out of sketching than what the normally understood functions of the sketching are.

Section 2: Unexplained design behavior

In this section, the story continues to unfold and we now plan to focus on designer’s strange sketching behavior. On the face of it, it appears to defy logic, till we understand how and why it works and often delivers. The rest of the section will deal with designer’s somewhat strange practices and behavior during sketching and attempt explanations of his actions.

Where do I begin?

To imagine that designers have a well laid step-by-step procedure and a clear starting point like in some of the counterpart disciplines, will be far from correct. Similarly, to assume that the designer has a clear visualization of idea in his mind and has to merely sketch it out is far from true. It is not uncommon to see designer starting his sketching with a vague and incomplete visualizations and actually use sketching to search for an idea! Strange are the ways designer seem to work!

Why wait till I understand the problem fully?

Designers tend to use sketching to comprehend design problems! While sketching, when designer’s pencil is moving, the intense thinking that goes on in his mind is often trying to understand and sort out the problem that he is yet to fully comprehend! They use speculative ‘Why don’t I try ‘X’?’ approach, then reflect on the solution. In the process of accepting or rejecting the solution, they develop an understanding of the problem.

Designers believe that some understanding of the problem is good enough to start sketching, but if that understanding is not there it is fine. It will develop through sketching!

It is not uncommon to find designer getting frustrated, often resulting into tearing of paper and throwing them away in the waste paper basket. On subsequent realizations that the idea had a potential that designer did not realize, back comes the paper from the waste paper basket! (Contemporary digital tools have its equivalents.) But it can even get stranger that this!

Blank paper and a blank mind is also a good starting point

We hinted earlier in this blog that designers often do not have a clear visualization of ideas in their mind when they start. It is not uncommon to see designers facing a blank sketchbook patiently waiting for ideas. (Artists too face blank canvas. During practice, some chess grandmasters stare at the blank chessboard in front to project their actions and moves.) All they have is a feeling that it is a good time to start thinking about the problem and solutions!

If designing is an intentional act and a deliberate process, how can it account for what we discussed above? How can it explain apparently aimless looking activity like scribbling and doodling?

Doodling makes sense

Doodling often starts without a tentative or somewhat vague goal/s. The actual goals, patterns and shapes are ‘discovered’ during and after the act of doodling. The concept might sound irrational to many disciplines, but in design and art this is not unusual. So much for the linearity and rational thinking in problem solving! On the face of it, doodling appears to be a strange act. Yet, it has two functions.

Doodling affords serendipitous discoveries

Most of his doodling efforts are based on a belief that something interesting will eventually come out. In a way designer is like a child who picks up something on the road. Ask the child what he wants to do with it, and most likely answer is, ‘I will think of something!’ The designer’s actions share some of these qualities. It is because of this innocence and the hope that the child will be able to come up with something interesting. Designer too hopes to ‘discover patterns’ in groups of marks on the sketchbook, that may lead him to a new direction to pursue, a new idea and so on.

Designer sees and reinterprets the marks on paper with an open mind and hopes to discover unexpected new possibilities and directions to pursue further. The marks on paper, even if they were drawn with different intentions, do suggest new ideas and directions! The doodles as well as the ongoing sketching and doodling activity do ‘tell’ designers (and artists) what to do next. He often discovers new possibilities.

We believe designer has to be an out-and-out optimist. (We don’t see how he can survive if he is not!) Perhaps it could be explained by the fact that he has a problem at the back of his mind when he looks at his doodles. Don’t we see more patterns in the cloud when you are searching for ‘something’ to be identified, than during a free scan of the sky?

Operative words and phrases here seem to be ‘open mind’; ‘innocence’; problem at the ‘back of the mind’ and ‘unrestrained optimism’.

Doodling keeps brain in visual-spatial mode

Doodling keeps the hand moving in readiness to tackle spatial issues. Earlier in this post, we discussed important role that bodily movements in space play in handling visual-spatial problems. Call it scribbling or even doodling, but we suspect that the physical action of doodling serves an important function of retaining the visual–spatial way of thinking in STM.

Initially they may be aimless marks, but these marks form a depictive and somewhat ambiguous display in front to react to. The ambiguity is an asset that is precisely what is exploited. More about it in the next post.

Sum up

Revisiting how and why sketching delivers, we discussed how sketching supports the reactive mode of thinking and fits well with the design process. We then moved on to the reasons and the potentials of sketching contributing to proactive mode of thinking, where you react to your own sketches, thus leading to new thinking directions and more new sketches.

Designer reacting to his own sketched-world can potentially lead to his movement towards being proactive.

In the later part of the post, we focused on designer’s strange sketching behavior, which, on the face of it, appears to defy logic. Designers don’t seem to wait till they understand the problem fully. They make a beginning and get into the act of sketching and use it to understand the design problem! We also looked at how they seem to search for solution through rather aimless activity like doodling and why it actually works.

Designer’s unusual approach is based on operative words and phrases like ‘open mind’; ‘innocence’; unrestrained optimism’ and ability to keep the problem at the ‘back of the mind’, attributes that are naturally associated with art.

Some of these practices appear strange and irrational to other disciplines, but in creative design and in art, these are not unusual. It is worth repeating the point that was made in earlier posts.

Approach, as well as these processes that designer use seem to have clearly inherited from the roots in art. The aspects of the thinking process discussed here is just one small part of this inheritance.

But the story of designer’s strange ways does not end here. More will obviously follow in future posts.

Notes

  1. It will be unfair to attribute proactive problem solving actions to sketching alone, nor is it implied. In design problem solving, it is the active and thinking brain that drives the designer to be proactive. Thinking often does change the directions of the thoughts. Similarly, domain knowledge and memory of precedent solutions can also lead to proactive ideas. So does the ability to reframe the problems and drive solutions in new directions.
  2. There are some similarities with Schon’s idea of moves and reflections given in his book ‘The reflective practitioner’. We touched this idea in earlier post too. The topic will come again for discussion in later posts.
  3. During early creative phase, designers rely heavily on sketching. Design research literature does deal with the links between sketching and creative explorations. Surprisingly, effects of sketching or other forms of representations are rarely discussed in literature on creativity.

 

 

 

Part I : How and why does sketching deliver?

In the last post on ‘Why do designers sketch?’ we referred to design thinking as an intentional and iterative mental activity. This activity transforms thoughts and ideas into visualization and subsequently into external representations of new objects and images. We also saw that the mental activity has to function within the severe limitations imposed by the short-term memory (STM). Sketches are the most common external representations that designers use during early ideation phase in visual disciplines. Sketching effectively supports the visualization iterations and creative thought process. In fact, the designer’s sketchbook functions like an extension of STM. So, it is no wonder that, the artists and designers dealing with visual issues are intensely involved in sketching their ideas.

There are some obvious advantages of sketching. We discussed about sketches functioning as extension of STM. During the early ideation phase, it is not easy to hold flood of ideas in the STM. So, what the designer looks for is a quick way of recording flow of ideas. By not recording it quickly he is likely to loose them. 1

Sketching allows ideas to be shared so that they can be discussed, appreciated, criticized and so on. It encourages others in the team to involved in the creative process. Besides, the sequence of sketches that artists and designers make automatically maintains a record of decisions. It depicts the developing thoughts and ideas. There is no need to store them in LTM, unless the designer wants to. Easy availability of history permits frequent reviews of past decisions and such reviews often yield new ideas and directions. These are known and routine use of most external representations. However,

It would be a gross understatement to say that the primary purpose of sketching is to overcome the limitation of STM and to share and record ideas.

Sketching is a broad term. It refers to many things, from making a marks on the paper, to rough idea sketches, to drawings of scenes, portraits, well-finished renderings, caricatures and so on. A detailed discussion on this is included in the notes to avoid diverting from the focus. For our purpose, we plan to concentrate on the first two, namely making mark on the paper and rough idea sketches. Both capture the intermediate externalization of evolving ideas in designer’s visualization. 2

Thinking sketches and early design explorations

Early sketching functions as an agent to support thinking and ideation. It has little value as a finished product. To give it an identity to this class of sketching, we called them as ‘Thinking sketches’. Designers tend to use thinking sketches as way to 1) maintain the flow of new ideas and 2) record the ideas quickly and in sufficient details, so that they can reconstruct the entire idea later.

Interesting ‘partnership’ exists between the designer and his sketching. Designer’s thinking prompts visualization and in turn sketching, but the opposite is equally true. The sketching in turn prompts new thoughts and visualization. 3, 4 Because of this synergetic relationship, externalizing thinking through sketches on paper (or now on digital pad) still remains as an important component in the act of design.

Interestingly, it is only after early CAD versions entered the scene that researchers realized this synergy. Since then, design researchers have extensively focused on the role that the sketching plays, particularly in early ideation phase. They have published extensively on the nature of early sketches and the way these are implemented. We now have a better understanding of how and why it provides support to creative thinking. So intense is the bond between designers and sketching that researchers believe that it is difficult to stop architects and designers from sketching. Sketching is often treated as a unique designerly behavior. Designers extensively indulge in it and to some extent share this trait with artists. So, it is logical to focus our discussion on sketching, at least in this and the subsequent posts.

Last post explained why sketching is cognitively important, but in fact it is small part of the story. As we proceed, I hope to prove that STM limitations are only a small part of the story! It does not tell us how and why sketching work in supporting designer’s thinking and ideation. We plan to complete the story by focusing on the ‘Thinking sketches’ as a critical component of early creative design efforts.

Sketches on paper are just inanimate entities, but the designers have found interesting ‘affordances’ to use and exploit them. Interestingly, they get much more out of sketching than what the intended functions of the sketching are. That is why they are so inseparable from most design actions. This is the story that is divided in three main sections.

First section addresses the question ‘How and why sketching delivers?’ The answers are unambiguously logical and yet interesting.

Second section looks at sketches as an end product and tries to explore answer to ‘Why some counterintuitive properties in thinking sketches are critical for idea generation?’

Third section focuses again on designer’s behavior during sketching. It attempts explanations to why some designer’s action defy logic?

The real story is far more complex. To make sketching a more effective tool for design thinking, we must explore answers to these three questions. We plan to look at three sections one by one, spread over this as well as next posts. What designers do with their sketching and sketches reflect their ingenious strategies. In this blog we will start with a hypothesis that

sketching delivers because of the way designers handle, use and misuse (?) it.

1 How and why sketching delivers?

So many years of history of sketching is sufficient to prove that sketching does deliver. What we should be interested in is, how and why they deliver. So, let us try to answer ‘how? and why’

1.1 Sketching is close to thinking with hands

Most visual decisions deal with shape, location and relationships of elements in 2D or 3D space. Spatial issues are easier to handle when you use gestures. That is why, while giving directions to the listener on telephone, we gesture and make movements of the body, knowing fully well that the listener is unlikely to see them! It is sometimes fondly referred as ‘thinking with hands’. This is an example of visual-spatial thinking, ability that most designers acquire during their long training, supports such decisions.

It is not at all uncommon to see designers gesturing with hands while thinking. Lot of these gestures represent either some components of design or the tool for the operation that designer wants to perform. Don’t architects use palms to show the location of the walls? They also do this when they are thinking of the idea. Designers assign different meanings and functions to these gestures at different points of time in design problems solving. 5

Hands, body movements and gestures play supportive role in visual-spatial thinking. Motor actions like gestures and body movements actively support visual-spatial thinking, because visual system is linked to the motor system. Compatible motor movements make it easier to deal with decisions in 2D and 3D space. 5

Let us now look at sketching actions through this new angle. Designers use sketching when they are conceptually thinking and working in 2D and 3D space. My guess is that the hand movements in sketching are mapped to compatible movements in space. That is why sketching helps visual-spatial problem solving.

1.2. Depictive sketches afford creative reactions

The limitations on the capacity of STM prompts externalization of ideas as sketches, which now serve as an external depictive display for the creator to react to and manipulate quickly. The new thoughts, ideas or improvisations often come up as a reaction to the sketches displayed in front, which in turn prompt the designer to incrementally make changes and execute them quickly as modified sketches.

In fact, design thinking constitutes seeing and reacting to the continuous updating of the display and this is the major source of creative ideas. New or modified sketches allow the designer to freshly observe them, react, reflect and interact with them to evolve further ideas and variations. Sometimes the new ideas occur even when the first idea is being executed, occasionally forcing the designer to abandon the current sketch. 6 The ideas continue to evolve responding to the reactive, sometimes proactive thought processes.

Depictive display as much as the designers ability to ‘interact’ with it, are the resources for his creative output. Sketches act like fodder for the reaction, new visualizations and fresh ideas.

Quick updating of pliable depictive display is critical for designers to react. At the moment, it is sufficient to remember that if a designer can’t sketch well and quickly, he will either loose the idea or he will be overwhelmed by the attention and processing required to correct what he is drawing. To make this process as natural as walking and eating justifies the idea of sketching in auto-pilot mode. We hope to touch it in later posts.

1.3 Sketches afford conversation

Designers often talk to the sketches! The practice that they seem to have borrowed from the profession’s roots in art. This is how it occurs. To begin with, designer as a creator tries to sketch what he has currently visualized. He quickly sketches the new idea and moment later reflects on it as a somewhat neutral observer. The cycle repeats and he keeps switching roles continuously. He continues to react with an open mind to what he has sketched. But watch him closely.

Most designers are known to use gestures and converse with themselves and the sketches in the front during such period of reflections. 5

The STM is occupied with reacting, conversing and even rejecting the ideas. (There is little cognitive resource available for problems associated with ‘how to draw’ the next reaction.) In the encounter with these sketches, designer often challenges himself by posing questions like “What if I do X?’ and Why not I try Y?’ In exploring answers to these challenges, he either discovers new solution directions or understanding the design problem in greater depth. 7 Often this is accompanied by intimate conversation, mostly in sub-vocal speech. It is somewhat like talking to yourself. The vocal cord moves, but sound is not produced. He gestures too. Why is this a conversation and not a monologue? Because designer is playing a double role; of a creator and a critic.

Designer is like an actor playing a double role, switches roles effortlessly without being conscious of it. He talks to and instructs himself on what to do. Next movement, he reprimands himself for not figuring out the solution before and so on.

It is almost like a performance with all the trappings of a drama in it. The conversation that we referred to earlier flows smoothly and is caused by the switching of the role. Visible and depictive representations, including sketching and even mock-ups act like a setting to the event. They are known to facilitate continuous conversations with self. This is not unusual in art and it is likely that designers inherited such behavior from profession’s roots in art.

Sketches also afford team conversation

The discussion so far, presents a picture of design act where the designer is working alone in relative isolation. Such events are more common in art than in design. More often the designer is likely to work in a team, either with his assistants or with his partners. The prolific sketching continues but this time it serves the additional purpose of communication across the team while the function of supporting his thought process continues.

Designer working in a team thinks, sketches and listens to team member’s talk and maintains his flow of gestures, conversation as well as flow of new ideas. The conversation is mostly mediated through thinking sketches, but now shared by the team. New ideas are also triggered by some words that the team members utter. Imagine the complexity of such simultaneous acts and what STM is required to handle! However, if you witness such an event, it appears almost natural with designers as well as his team handling multiple tasks with ease. This is possible because they are able to sketch their ideas in auto-pilot mode that we will discuss in subsequent posts.

The politics within the team also plays its role. The thinking sketches may have principle contributor, but others may add or suggest variations and explain the thinking behind their idea. So, though there are shared thinking sketches on paper, the thinking that drive them may not belong to an individual. In any case, there is some similarity between the conversation with self and within the team, except that creators and critics are different persons. Instead of designer playing double role, different members of the team play different roles.

1.4 Distancing affords reconsiderations of ideas

The early intense actions of sketching involve emotions and bodily engagement. That is why designers quickly fall in love with the ideas they sketched, but also know that they need to distance themselves from their ideas and react to them dispassionately. Representations like sketching have a distinct advantage here.

As external entities, sketches permit a dispassionate relationship between the representation and the creator/critic. This distancing helps him review his own ideas almost as a third party.

Common distancing strategies used are, 1) Step back and see the sketches, 2) tilt the head and watch the work from a new angle and to be more objective 3) to view it after a lapse of time, often the next morning. It is a common experience that the ideas that appeared hot during eureka moment, typically do not look all that hot the next morning.

We had indeed made a passing reference in earlier post of viewing the sketch from a distance as technique that we learnt from our roots in art. Much of what designer does as listed in this post has its roots in art. What differs is the nature of thinking sketches that we will touch in the next post.

Sum up

We started with a hypothesis that sketching delivers because of the way designers handle, use and misuse it. It appears that designers get much more out of the act of sketching than their planned functions permit. Designers seem to exploit this fully.

When working with spatial problems, the kind that designers encounter, we saw that motoric actions in form of hand and body movements play important role. These actions often manifest in form of accompanying gestures. The act of sketching can be seen as a class of gestures that pins down the designer to 2D and/or 3D space. That is why we treated sketching as planned gestures that help designer think and conceptualize in space.

Sketches also offer a depictive display. Designers treat this display to react, update and interact with them. They treat the displays as soft, pliable and so quickly updatable. Occasionally, designers distance themselves from the sketches to review them dispassionately. Switching the roles between the creator and critic, they even hold meaningful conversation with sketches.

So far we have attributed these potentials to the designer’s abilities to exploit sketching. Designers are not alone in this. Much of this behavior could be traced back to practices in visual arts from which designers seem to have inherited these. In the next post we will change the track. We will look at nature and qualities of sketches that makes these interactions meaningful. 

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to researcher and friend Gabriela Goldschmidt and her extensive work on sketching. I have been following her work for years. I have rather ‘conveniently’ borrowed from several of her research papers and not acknowledge each paper separately.

Note and references

1 This also occurs when you write. During writing you come up with an apt sentence and feel great, but in the process of completing the earlier sentence, you loose it and regret.

2  Types of sketches

Visual representations capture the nuances of the ideas, designs or even expressions of the thinker. In the context of this post, they can be classified into three types.

First type of representations includes ‘work in progress’ sketches, that represent evolving thoughts at different stages to support the flow of creative ideas and images. They are intermediate representations of some potential real world objects or images. We referred to them as thinking sketches. They are not drawn for the viewers, but to support creator’s messy thought process and drive the thoughts forward. So, they afford considerable freedom in the way they are and can be executed. This post is only about the thinking sketches.

Second type of visual representations include those sketches which eventually become the final outcome of creator’s action. Paintings, posters, book covers, photographs, animation characters, caricatures and scenes, are to be viewed and appreciated as end products, either as originals or as reproductions. In semiotic terms, they contain intentionally built signs of what they are meant to represent.

These representations are created with intensity, love and care. In art and design, they involve conscious efforts to add value to the creation. In photographing the objects care is taken in framing the contents, creating background props, arranging lighting and selecting lens. In cartoons and caricatures exaggeration is not uncommon to focus on characteristic features of the object.

Adding value is even more critical in commissioned works like buildings and products. This type of representations are likely to be used to communicate ideas of what designer has in mind to the clients or the teams, mainly to persuade them to accept the proposal. These are most often impressively rendered drawings that vary from photo-realistic presentations to somewhat stylized, often little exaggerated sketches. You tend to make an ordinary object or a building appear dramatic by choice of angle, light position and rendering.

Mixing the two types can be problematic. There is this tendency to apply the techniques used in the second type of sketching to embellish the thought sketches. It can be completely counter productive, if so much time is spend on making them look pretty.

For record, there is a third type too, which is a combination of both. There purpose is to get someone else to work further on them or construct them in 3D later. They use codes that are shared by the team who will later use these representations. So, it may be orthographic, correctly drawn exploded views or perspectives. They have to be more accurate than pretty.

3   This is also true in writing. Most people make drafts and read and refine them further. Perhaps this may be true in music.

4   McKim R. H., (1972) Experiences in visual thinking. Brooks/Cole

5  Athavankar U., (1999) Gestures, mental imagery and spatial reasoning. Preprints of the International Conference on Visual and Spatial Reasoning, MIT, Cambridge, June 15-17

6  With limited time and cognitive resource at hand, it does not make sense to redraw the entire idea with small modification. The traditional practice of using overlays of tracing papers to draw only the modified parts of the idea on the next tracing saved time, efforts and thus spared cognitive resource. Now of course the digital equivalents are in vogue.

7 The concept is similar to Donald Shon’s idea of moves and reflections. We will touch his seminal work ‘Reflective Practitioner’ in later post.

 

 

 

Why do designers sketch?

Art and design, both bring something new in the world through objects and images. Nobody disputes that thinking influences the creations. The creations start as a mental activity, but results deal with real world sensory elements, that you can see, touch, feel and operate. Design thinking often involves composing meaningful physical and visual elements in 2D and 3D space. The thinking leads to intentional actions, so that the resultant ‘composition’ works as a meaningful and effective solution, as close to the original thoughts as possible.1

Such composing is most often accompanied by visualization, but it rarely is a one shot affair. During early creative phase, visualization is base on incremental steps till the clarity emerges. It involves two abilities. First, it deals with working with images in the mind; Second, making them visible in some form. However, these are fragile and are lost if not attended to.

Though visualization can technically remain as a standalone mental activity, it is often supported by some form of dynamic representation/s that keep co-evolving as the thinking explores newer directions.2 In design, initially it is represented in some media and physical form like, notes, diagrams, sketches as well as orthographic drawings, cardboard mockups and so on. See figure 1. Some of these forms of representations are unique to design profession. These actions, and the way they are executed, look like that are natural partners of the thinking process.

1

Figure 1: Examples of how ideas are represented in early creative thinking. 1) Top: Early sketches of car ideas. Courtesy Vishnu. 2) Early thinking in diagrammes and notes,. Courtesy Ameya 3) Diagrammes to architectural design ideas. Courtesy Kamu Iyer, 4) Mockups with different levels of granularity.

Let us ask a question,

Why is there a need to represent the ideas externally? Why and how do representations contribute to the development of ideas?

To find answers to these questions, we must take a short detour and dig into the ideas on how the brain processes information and the role short-term and long-term memories play. We will then return to design thinking.

Overcoming the limitations of Short-Term Memory (STM)

STM plays a critical role in human actions and specifically in problem solving. Miller3 proved that STM suffers from severe capacity limitations. We can only hold seven plus or minus two items in the short-term memory. Miller also showed that the limited cognitive resource has to be rationed between processing efforts and need to temporarily hold information.

Common examples would convince us of these limitations. For example, you experience these limitations when you learn to drive. You don’t enjoy the drive when you are learning, nor can you give a coherent account of what you encountered on the road! It is a same story when you eat Chinese food with chopsticks for the first time. When you are learning, there are too many micro tasks and sequences of actions to be attended to. With practice, you chunk them together as units. Then you don’t have to process them as micro-steps but attend to them as a chunk. The primary activity (like driving or eating with chopsticks for the first time) takes so much of your cognitive resource that you find it difficult to converse with others around. According to Miller, STM has an upper limit on number of things that it can attend to and process simultaneously.

Here is a short exercise to understand the idea. (See figure 2) There is an unfolded flat cube with 6 sides. You have to mentally fold it and decide if the line closes and forms a continuous loop. Now imagine, while busy with the folding task, if a random list of capital cities were to be read out to you by your friend? Will you remember the cities and get the right answer to the cube problem?

Puzzle_withtextFigure 2: Does the line close into a loop when the opened up shape of a paper is mentally folded into a cube?

The contents of the fragile STM decay and vanish quickly unless you make efforts to retain (rehears) them actively. In solving the cube problem, watch yourself doing it. You complete the folding of first two sides and check if the lines meet on the edge. When you move on to other sides of the cube, the folding operations that you performed little while ago are lost! You divide cognitive resource between folding of planes and holding it in the STM and memorizing the list. The limited cognitive resource available in STM is divided between 1) our efforts to hold the content and 2) process them. If processing demands large part of the resource at the cost of holding it actively in STM and vice versa.

Some of the master chess players, when visualizing and simulating the game in the mind prefer to keep an empty chess board in the front to reduce the contents they would have to hold in their STM. We also encounter the limitations of STM all the time in our routine tasks. That’s why we look for quick and handy forms of representations, like we stick ‘Things to do list’ on refrigerators and Post-its on computer screens. (Traditionally, in India women used to tying knots to their pallu as reminders of things to do.) Obviously, the number of things that we can attend to and process are limited.

Representation and the act of design

We now know that external representations are critical because they primarily serve the purpose of extending the limited capacity of the STM. External representations are part of human strategy developed to overcome limitations of the brain, particularly of STM. To conserve resources, one of the most important strategy that humans use is to quickly represent ideas externally. In design, it includes diagrammes, sketches and quick and dirty mockups. We will concentrate more on sketching. We will start with questions,

How do we overcome the limitations on the capabilities of STM in the act of design? How do we ration the cognitive resource while designing?

Why do designers sketch?

The answer to this lies in the way designers use diagramming and sketching as an extension of STM. But the ideas can’t be routinely extended to understand the role of sketching and the act of design. We will attempt to understand this in two stages. Though there is a clear advantage in external representation, you do need cognitive resource to generate sketches. In the first stage, we will focus on the relative use of cognitive resource in different representation problems. In the second stage, will also add problem solving component and see how the resources are reallocated.

Visualizing, sketching and cognitive resources

We will focus first not on designing, but just on the act of representation. Quick sketching is the most common form of representation. The need for cognitive resource is determined by the nature of sketching tasks and the backup logistics that it expects from the STM. Some tasks may demand more than others. The discussion that follows deals with different representation tasks and indicates potential resource demanded by that representations.4

The idea is modeled in figure below. (See figure 3.1) Let us take a simple task like observing a composition of objects in front and drawing it as seen. (task 1) You may need to hold it briefly in STM and keep refreshing it frequently. But you do have to generate instructions for moving your hand and pencil point. This is least demanding. That’s why children are taught this in schools. Now if you remove the objects after sometime, you must rely on memory. (task 2) You now have to visualize the composition in the STM, hold it actively and refresh it continuously to draw it. That is little more taxing.

Suppose you give a task where the composition remains in the front, but you are expected to draw it from opposite side and that too from a specific viewing angle? (task 3) This makes extra demands on processing, as you have to ‘work out’ and then visualize what it will look like. To overcome processing limitations of STM, most observers do this in stages by segmenting the composition. The processing is similarly demanding if you are given orthographic drawings and asked to draw a cross section! (task 4) Most likely, it will be done in segments and each segment is quickly drawn before moving to the next. Remember the folding of the sides of the cube. The cube problem would have been easy if you were allowed sketching in segments as you solve.

Figure 1-01

Figure 3.1 Modeling the act of problem solving and representation.4

Task 1: [->1 -> 3 -> 4]; Task 2: [->1 ->2 ->3 -> 4]; Task 3 & 4: [-> 1 <-> 2 <-> 3 -> 4 -> 1]

Notice that tasks 3 and 4 demand that you ‘work out’ (visualize) the representation by expending resource and then generate instructions to draw. The task is so heavily processing biased that most people resort to visualizing as well as sketching it in parts. Note that all the tasks so far deal with different levels of processing to understand and/or create representations. None of them demanded any design problem to be solved.

These tasks were recorded in ascending order to reflect increased need of cognitive resource demanded by different representational tasks. The first two are simple sketching tasks typically given to children in schools. The third and the forth require resource to visualize representations. They demanded ‘working things out’ in the head, which requires substantial cognitive resource for processing and subsequently generating instructions on how to represent (draw).

Where is the capacity for design thinking?

Now imagine that you have difficulties in visualizing and in making neat and correct sketches quickly. The problems of making a proper sketch and correcting it will take way most of your processing capacity. Remember the earlier examples of learning to drive and eating with chopsticks?

If implementations take all the cognitive resource, how will additional resource be available for the intensive mental activity of solving the problem in design?

That is why the idea of performing representation tasks (in our case sketching) in autopilot mode, where you expend minimum cognitive resource, makes sense. Can you sketch quickly in autopilot mode?

Added complexities of the act of design5,6

The purpose of the act of design is to find a meaningful solution to the problem that the designers are working on. Designers spend time and efforts in understanding the problem, the context and the functional requirements. The Long Term Memory (LTM) also supports the activity by retrieving relevant stored items into STM. These may include accessing knowledge, design precedents and memories.6 It also takes new inputs from the real world. Is not that the reason to fix those mood boards in the front? See figure 3.2.

It is well known that working out the solution to the design problem as well as accompanying visualization is performed in STM. So, the limited STM capacity has to serve us on several fronts. It is well utilized, if it is used for developing solution directions and visualize how they can work out in space, than on problems of drawing and correcting the sketches.

Imagine now that you are working on a design problem. We need to account for activities like solving a problem that make additional demands on STM. Let us plugin a hypothetical process of problem solving in the earlier model.7 Roughly, we can look at ‘design thinking and problem solving’ as primary activities leading to ‘visualizations’ and subsequently to ‘sketching or mock-ups’.

Figure 2-01

Figure 3.2 : Modeling the act of problem solving and representation.

Task 5: Iterative [5 <-> 2 -> 3 -> 4] -> [ 4 -> 1 -> 2 <->5 <-> 2 -> 3 ->  4]

What are the new plugged in activities? The design thinking is now focused on understanding the problem, generating new ideas and evaluating thoughts and ideas. (Task 5) It demands designing and design thinking and might require that we bring in contents from the direct perception of objects and events in the real world or as memories from LTM and handle it actively in STM. This requires substantial cognitive resource to be deployed.

Next, as the ideas develop, they lead to visualizations of arrangements of elements in the fragile STM. But, this is not a one-way flow. (5 <-> 1). It may start with tentative visualization of ideas that are quickly evaluated and altered in the STM. This cyclic back-and-forth flow is likely to lead to incremental development of design ideas. What are its implications?

Imagine if we had decided not to make those quick and messy sketches and notes? It would mean holding the ideas as visualizations in the STM. Either you have to keep rehearsing it to hold it as an active display in STM or allow it to decay. Quicker you record the ideas, the better it is. So, cognitively less demanding quick representations becomes critical. Take an example. In writing, you suddenly get a wonderful sentence in a flash, but you may loose it, because part of your STM is busy instructing the hand to completing the previous sentence. That is why quick and messy form of recording (noting and sketching) is required.

In design, the representations take form of rapid sketches, diagrammes and quick and dirty mock-ups. Once the current ideas are sketched out and are available to the designer as external entities, capacity starved STM is relatively freed; it can now allow 1) new material to enter and 2) new ideas to evolve in STM. One should treat rapidly recording external devices like sketching as extensions of the STM.

It is advantageous to spend some cognitive resource to generate instructions to the hand muscles, to record them as sketching/diagrammes/notes. Even though they are incomplete and ambiguous, they do serve the purpose. So far as they capture the right contents and reflect the intentions of the thinker, it does not matter that they look messy and confused. Besides, the action releases STM of its burden. In short, these external recordings truly act like an extension of STM, relieves it of the efforts needed to hold the ideas and help to overcome the limitations on its capacities.

So, in spite of its limitations, the STM can handle resource hungry problem solving provided the acts of representation (sketching) do not demand too much resource. Else, the main activity of solving a design problem and visualizing new ideas that steer the thinker to an effective solution are starved of cognitive resource. Most creative efforts are process intensive and make heavy demands on severely limited processing capacities of STM.

Sketching, when the designer are executing it, works like a ‘online’ dynamic depictive display unfolding in front of his eyes. The act of observing the display is important, because it serves as a major input for self-criticism and further incremental development of ideas. Of course, the display needs designer’s continuous attention, which entails expending continuous cognitive resource.

Neat and clean process?

The way the process is described, the operations look too clean and sequential to be realistic. While design thinking and visualization process has its eureka moments, it is often not a one shot process. You iteratively reorder, scrap, rebuild and transform elements till the design intentions are met. The advantage of sketching is easier to understand if you treat act of design as a temporal and cyclic event consisting of series of iterative actions that record ideas. The complexities of handling the temporal iterations obviously demand moving contents in and out of these circles shown in figure 3.2. Such operations are even more cognitive resource intensive. But once the external record is available, even if it is only in parts, STM is relieved of its burden to hold them and is free to take up the next problem solving as well as visualization challenge.

Thinking sketches

Designers use sketches as intermediate representations of the ideas evolving in their mind. They can be called as ‘thinking sketches’. They are messy, incomplete and often ambiguous. The value of these sketches as end products is often not important, at least till you become famous and research worthy! In most sketches, they only represent objects that will be produced on different scale, in a different context and in different materials. For them early sketching is a means of supporting the evolving thoughts. This type of sketching should be treated as a different class. Though they are not important as end products, they have a key role in design thinking.8

We saw how quick and messy representations are key to design thinking. But there is much more to designer’s ‘thinking sketches’. We hope to discuss this exclusively in the next post.

Should design career be reserved for those with good drawing skills?

The discussions so far suggest that, sketching is a critical activity in idea generation. This also leads to interesting questions.

Should design be taught to those who already know how to sketch and draw well? Or should we teach ‘thinking sketches’ and drawing to those who are passionate in pursuing design carrier? And lastly,

Considering that design thinking is widely used in different types of problems, which may not have visual component, are there other forms of representations that could compensate?

In my research on representations, I tried to conceptually explore all contradicting possibilities. We hope to discuss these questions over the next few posts.

Programme to learn ‘thinking sketches’

Our roots in visual arts have always influenced the teaching of sketching in design schools. Would the nature of designer’s sketching be different, particularly during the early creative phase in design, if the design profession had emerged independently? This is a hypothetical question, but answer seems to be yes,

How does one learn to draw thinking sketches? How could such programme for sketching be developed?

Design career should be opened to students who show a creative promise and are thinkers, who could then be taught sketching to support their ideation. I tried to develop a course for sketching based on the conviction that early ideation stage need different kind of sketching. Logically it follows that such efforts should shun the art school influences (at least partly). So, I build the course ground up from scratch.

The focus of the course was to minimally depend on use of cognitive resource while sketching. Observe that we walk, swim, eat and even drive in autopilot mode (i.e. with only a cursory use of cognitive resource). So, why can’t we sketch in autopilot mode? It made sense, because during early creative phase, designers sketch to support problem-solving process. So, they must allot their cognitive resources for their problem solving efforts. Wasting this resource on making correct sketches entails depriving the creator from using it for the main task of solving a problem. So, the focus was on ‘How can we make sketching a near natural act, like walking and eating?’

The course ensured that the students learn to draw quick and correct sketches in a short time. The focus was on correctness of the sketches than on style of sketching. It deployed out-of-box ideas to shorten ‘learning to sketch’ duration. It insisted on using the entire body to participate in the process of sketching. So, it focused not only on moving the hand, but also moving the body and assuming correct postures. I plan to discuss this in the next post.

As mentioned earlier, design thinking is being practiced by many, and they are unlikely to be skilled enough in sketching. Are there forms of representations that can effectively substitute sketching? Can other forms of representations support creative thinking and problem solving? We will have quick glimpses at the other options available, but deal with them extensively in later posts.

What if we prevent designers from sketching?

Out of curiosity, I challenged, the notion that sketching is an inevitable form of representation in designerly thinking. In scientifically conducted experimental series, the designers and architects were blindfolded and they were asked to design. When prevented from sketching, designers used their ability to internally represent their creations in their mind’s eye (mental images). These served as an effective depictive display to react to, almost as the way sketches on paper functioned. Designers seem to have amazing abilities to effortlessly generate new images and manipulate them willfully to solve problems. All of them were able to react to their mental images, transform and manipulate them and at times reject what they did not like, almost as if they were working on paper.

Can this be used by students of design thinking? Is it possible to train oneself in use of mental imagery?

 

Generating gestures and word strings

Directions attempted so far, is the use of combination of gestures and word strings to represent objects to their teams as well as to self. Together they contained description of evolving shapes and compositions. We are trying to simulate the early thinking during ideation.

I am now trying to concentrate on exploring forms of representations that can be naturally acquired, easily learnt and do not demand much of cognitive resource to be utilized. It is work in progress, but it is likely to be a mix media communication. If potentials of design thinking have to be explored, this will be a critical step.

There are several indicative examples. Ideas in brainstorming sessions are not necessarily sketched. Many times, in face-to-face conversations, ideas are explained using gestures, with only a marginal support from sketching. It is important to explore other forms of representations that could support creative explorations in non-spatial problems. We will pursue this in later posts.

Sum up

In this post, we were exploring design behavior in the early creative phase and have addressed the questions, ‘While solving a problem, why is there a need to quickly represent the ideas? And subsequently, why a mental activity like design thinking quickly ends up in sketches?

Design thinking often leads to visualization and later to its quick representations. The limited cognitive resource that STM works with demands that we ration it carefully to different mental activities involved in design problem solving. We tried to develop a model of these activities in two stages. We prefer to quickly represent ideas externally to conserve limited cognitive resource, which otherwise would have been expended in holding the ideas in STM and work with them.

External representations, particularly visual representation like notes, diagrammes, sketches and mock-ups work as extensions of STM. They have key role in idea generation. As a prelude to the future posts, we concluded the discussion by touching other possible forms of representation.

It is clear that sketching as a form of representation helps designers to overcome limitations of STM. We referred to them as thinking sketches, which serves many more functions than just conserving cognitive resource. In the next post, we will discuss the nature of thinking sketches and how they work. We will also discuss wonderful things that designers do when sketching, along with my efforts to develop a special course to how to draw thinking sketches.

Notes and references

1 This is true of many creative art efforts. We intentionally compose sequence of words to create prose and poetry. We compose musical notes into a composition with intent.

 2 In most cases, representations appear to be critical, however, the way thoughts are represented is largely discipline specific. Designers sketch, musicians play or write score, authors write or word process their thoughts ….

3 Miller G., (1966) The magical number seven, plus or minus two, in Readings in Perception, ed. Wertheimer M., Van Nestrand, New York

4 In spirit, the figure is somewhat close to the interactive visual imagery diagramme that Mckim proposed, but is developed further to include cognitive perspective. Also see

McKim R. H., (1972) Experiences in visual thinking. Brooks/Cole

5 It is not based on specific research on act of design, but extrapolated from what is known of STM. What is explained here can be considered indicative.

6 Discussion on art thinking is not included here. I did not have the fortune of studying how artists think and the kind of problems they solve. So, the discussion is limited to designer’s work. The model proposed will have to be altered to include art. My limited understanding is that the purpose why artists sketch is to explore and present a personal point of view of seeing the real world. This involves intense initial contemplation and self-searching to get clarity on how he should act. Artists are known to keep gazing at the empty canvas in front till some clarity emerges. Initial intermittent representation actions become more frequent as they advance and the depictive display in the front guides their thoughts.

7 There is no way to figure out the actual information flow in the act of design experimentally and show how it should it be represented.

8 Designers also make well rendered sketches as finished products. They are more presentation heavy and are a different ball game. This post does not deal with such cases.

Acknowledging the roots in art: Part III

Design thinking has borrowed a lot from thinking and methods used in desperately different disciplines, that includes sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences, human factors, business thinking and even operation research and so on. No doubt, it has made design approach richer. In our eagerness to admit ideas, concepts and practices from these areas, are we forgetting the tenets on which the profession was built? Central theme of this post is,

Have we forgotten the roots of design profession in visual art? In fact, the new view that is gaining currency that the influences from art have limited applications in the new age design.

In the first post in this series, we saw how ICSID’s historically changing definitions of design reflected this view. (Shaping of Design Thinking. Nov 17,2016) In the current definition, references to formal issues and aesthetic judgment are totally absent. The fact that this view is steadily gaining ground is reflected in bold statements like “Design has nothing to do with art” by respected design legend Milton Glaser.1 With design thinking catching up as an approach to problem solving in areas other than what is addressed by design professionals, the view that art has only limited influences on design and design thinking is gaining currency in non-traditional application.

Design approach, with part of its focus on form and aesthetics, proposed in the early definitions of design is increasingly treated as ‘traditional’ in the new age design. I attribute it to our misplaced understanding that the influences of art and thinking in art were restricted to form and aesthetics issues. I hope to dispel some of these misconceptions.

Umbilical cord with art

In the later half of nineteenth century Europe, and particularly Britain, the implications of mechanization was a major topic of debates. There were two diverse reactions. First group opposed the mechanization and the industrial products advocated returning to the old art and craft practices. Their efforts to improve the quality and design of products was strongly linked with arts and crafts. Terms like applied arts, industrial arts were common in use in this group. Second group approach accepted machines and explored their potentials to offer new machine aesthetics, eventually leading to modern design approach. The Werkbund movement in the early twentieth century in Germany was in this category. It pleaded to improve production by machines through collaboration of art, industry and the craft.

Pioneering design school Bauhaus in Germany was the most striking example of the later type. The school pioneered a radically different approach. It sought to create a new profession to serve a new kind of society. It maintained strong links with art by inviting artists and craftsmen on the faculty to help improve the standards of products in the industries. There were Avant Garde artists like Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee, Itten and Moholy Nagy, who continued to dominate the approach. Though it was not located in art schools, the link with the art remained strong in Bauhaus. It invited craftsmen along with famous artists to work in a guild kind of environment. It was an independent institution and the artists were the mainstay of their education and remained in dominant position in the Bauhaus philosophy and contributions. 2,3

These debates underscored the need to forge a strong link with art, art schools and artists.

What was undisputable was the need for links with art institutions, either by locating education programmes in visual art institutions, or by inviting artists to participate.

Fascinating account of developments during this period is documented in Vyas’s ‘Design the International Movement, with Indian Parallel’.4 However, the discussion on this topic is avoided here, as it would be distracting us from the main argument.

It is difficult to imagine education of design without its close links to the visual arts. Thinking in visual arts has not only influenced out ideas of aesthetics, but also impacted design thinking, actions, practices and behavioral traits. By neglecting the umbilical cord with the ‘visual arts’, we would be rejecting years of accumulated design experience, associated knowledge and treat past success stories as irrelevant. In analyzing these influences, it is critical to go beyond decisions dealing with aesthetic issues, to include impact on how designers think, react, act and solve problems.

It would be only fair to explore how visual arts thinking explains the past design practices and then pass judgment on the validity of the traditional ‘visual art influenced’ design approach. The design methods movement and even later writings on design thinking, would have been far richer if they had not neglected all that design learnt from visual arts.

Let us start this post with a hypothesis that “The thinking in art has influenced design problem solving”. We will follow an incremental approach. We will start with casual evidence of these roots and get it out of the way before we dive deeper into the nature of these influences.

Studio as a workplace

Influences of traditions from art seem to be more pervasive than what we accept. Look at the way designer’s categorize and label their workplaces. The term ‘studio’ has always been associated with the workplaces of artists, painters and sculptors. Studio is a place connected to creative art/s, where something is experimented with; materials are manipulated and explored, to construct something new. Studios always valued skills and craftsmanship. Designer’s professional authority has roots partly in the skilled control over the tools, whether it is a sketch pen, a mouse or others. Designers not only borrowed the idea of studio from artists, but also inherited the culture of free creative explorations that goes together. That’s why designers prefer to call their workplaces and even classrooms as ‘studios’. 5,6

Even the physical appearances of the workplaces that designers dream are somewhat like artist’s studio. Bit messy in looks, they are full of creative displays and ‘constructive’ activities that are immediately put on the wall. Studios are more hands-on than populated with large machines.

There was one major departure from the idea of studios. Pioneering a new approach, Bauhaus school did create an exception. They had workshops where apprentices (also called journeymen) worked under masters. Artists, craftsmen and student apprentices worked together to search for the new aesthetics of the industrial age.3 In a way, their workshops actually functioned like creative studios.

All this is changed rapidly in the later half of 20th century. Design was also getting more technology intensive. Design schools were becoming part of technology universities.

Studios vs lab culture of the universities

In the later half of twentieth century, design became one of the departments amongst many disciplines of the universities. Consistent with this new linkage, movement towards design sciences started taking roots. They were no more ‘schools’ of design. (Schools often represented a thought process and not a discipline.).

New culture included pursuit of knowledge and more recently, working in the laboratories, where experiments are conducted under controlled conditions and variables are managed to study their effects. No doubt, this has its merits. The benefits of labs in specific areas in design profession must be acknowledged.7 It also created the potential of making design a knowledge driven profession. However, it cannot substitute the spirit of working in the studios and exploring new boundaries. Studios primarily generated creative work.

The idea of experiments has different connotations in design. To the artists experimenting with his work is exploring new ideas. The societies and communities were their laboratories. They exhibited their work in galleries and got live audience responses. Architects and planners work directly with communities and exhibited their master plans, building ideas and got reactions of citizens directly. This is conceptually different from the lab culture of universities, where problems were tamed and studied under controlled conditions, eliminating the bias of the creators of the experiments. Balancing the rational approach of the universities and pursuit of new knowledge with the creative practices in design is a major challenge that design schools/departments struggle with now.

Makers sensory experiences

Artists as well as designers share many things by way of approaches, actions, activities and tasks. Both intentionally and consciously create sensory experiences. It is no wonder that most discussions on art influences are restricted to aesthetic judgment. These influences are direct and visible.

Painters, sculptors and designers deal with similar visual elements. In their long educational experiences they learn to manipulate and control sensory elements like shape, colour, texture and sound and their relationships with each other. In doing that, they use and internalize the principles underlying the aesthetic judgments. They are involved in critical judgment of beauty in their work, though designers are unwilling to acknowledge it directly. So, it is not surprising that artists and designers share the same concepts and terms.8 Most introductory books on design deal with such classical issues as well as aesthetic judgments and often acknowledge the influences of art. At best, the discussions are extended to include meaning, expressions and their ability to evoke emotional reactions. In spite of statements like “Design has nothing to do with art” most designers do acknowledge the role that art played in the way they deal with aesthetic issues.

Haven’t designers learnt more from art other than dealing with aesthetic issues? The influences go far deeper and include the way designers think, approach and solve problems.

Why do designers doodle?

In art as well as in design, apparently aimless doodling is a legitimate way of starting your work. Doodling and back-of-the-envelope sketching is common in design. On the face of it, these actions may look inconsequential, but are actually serious and legitimate. Do artists and designers have ideas in their mind when they doodle?

Designers doodle, sketch and even gesture, to keep the spatio-motor activity running. The hand must remain in motion for spatial ideas to develop. Interestingly, many times designers doodle and sketch without a clear idea of what they are looking for. Doodling and sketching, often treated as making marks on the paper, however aimless it may look, is a critical action. Eventually it turns into meaningful shapes on paper.

Like artist who steps back and looks at his work with a tilted head, designers too naturally do this. This artist-like trait is not a coincidence. Both are in deep, often sub-vocal conversations with their creations. I hope to discuss what we do with sketching act in a separate post later.

Current design thinking is struggling to remain faithful to its roots in art as well as technology, both advocate opposite approaches to problem solving. It is like a pendulum that oscillates between the rational and systematic on one side, and somewhat irrational and creative on the other. Most designers effortlessly shift between creative unstructured explorations and rational thinking. It involves switching between right and the left-brain.

The influences of art on design thinking we discussed so far are just a tip of the iceberg. The similarities don’t end here. In fact they start here. There are deeper issues that I hope to touch now as well as the subsequent posts.

Design minus art?

Artists want people to adopt to a new way of seeing the world, often the world that the artists has seen, reacted to and perceived freshly, from their points of views. They develop a unique way of looking at the world around and want to persuade viewers/readers to see through that. Is not this what poets and authors do? And painters and sculptors do? Art has always encouraged the artists to project his ways of seeing on the viewer/reader.

Design inherited this from art. Designers, particularly masters, precisely do that. There work reflects their unique views. Frank Lloyd Write, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry in architecture, Santiago Calatrava in structures, Charles Eames in furniture, Massimo Vignelli in typography, persuaded people to see their view of how the world should be through their work.

 

Clockwise: Works of Frank Lloyed Write; Le Corbusier; Zaha Hadid; Frank Gehry; Charles Eames. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It is fashionable to classify this as ‘iconic’ design and suggest that the new business model oriented world of design, technology and teamwork can do without it. The chances are that such a world will again create quality of products that may prompt another arts and craft movement and birth of a new Bauhaus.

What will happen if we create objects without the vision of the world that artists and designers want us to see? Imagine design devoid of passion to change the world.

Cart before the horse?

Most designers work with a conviction that the world is looking forward to them and the community of designers for breakthrough solutions. To offer a solution that is different and unusual is natural in design and it obviously comes from its roots in art. They believe the breakthrough difference will come if I not only complete the brief, but also exceed it. There is this internal motivation to be different. There are innumerable examples that suggest this, but the most illustrative instance is of initial discussion on design of Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Write (FLW).

When Edgar Kaufmann wanted to build weekend home in beer run in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, he invited FLW to show the site where he wanted the house to be built. Taking the stroll around the site, when they were just opposite the waterfall, Kaufmann seems to have suggested to FLW to build the house so that he can see the waterfall all the time. Within seconds FLW replied, I want you to be part of the waterfall. Wasn’t FLW exceeding the brief and extending the boundaries that his client had initially implied? We will return to this example in subsequent posts as it contains many facets of design thinking.

In fact, designers normally tend to probe the outer limits of the boundaries in the clients mind, probe the degree of freedom available and explore potential directions where freedom is possible. To the outsider committed to rational linear process, such flights of imaginations, just when the project brief is being given, may sound strange. Is designer not jumping the guns?

In reality such incidences are not unusual. How do designers handle this? In initial meetings, occasionally even in the first meeting, designers tend to ask questions that may appear unrelated. They make strange observations and think of impromptu solution directions, even before the problem is completely described. At the back of their minds, the contours of speculative concepts start appearing. They play a significant role in the questions asked. Eventually, it contributes to the change the boundaries implied initially, and alter the directions that design ideas take.

Sum up

We started with a hypothesis that “The thinking in art has influenced design problem solving.” To what extend is the statement incorrect?

The current practices and designerly traits seem to suggest that design indeed has borrowed some of the concepts, actions and practices from art. There are overarching similarities which cannot be explained by chance occurrence. We should quickly sum up some of the issues that we identified. We can traces of roots in art to justify our practices like calling our workspaces as studios, assistants as apprentices and educational institutions as schools. Like artists, we are involved in aesthetic judgments, often visual, and seem to judge our creations using the same concepts and terms that the artists use. We doodle, sketch and then view them from a distance to contemplate, hoping that new ideas will appear in the process. They start speculative explorations of ideas even when the project brief is being narrated and is not fully communicated. Like artists, through their work designers persuade people to see the world from their point of view and through their vision.

We are treating design thinking as if it is an iceberg. Have we then explored the depth of the iceberg? Not really. We still need to dive deeper to acknowledge the influences of art on design thinking. Much of the iceberg remains to be explored and described. That is the task for the future posts.

In the next post we will discuss the role of sketching in design thinking. Traditionally, we have treated sketching as integral part of design thinking. We will address this question next.

If we find answer as yes, it is logical to restricted design thinking to design community. But then it contradicts with the idea of design thinking as it is defined today!

 

Notes and References

1 Quito, Anne. (2016) “Design has nothing to do with art”: Design legend Milton Glaser. See https://qz.com/823204/graphic-design-legend-milton-glaser-dispels-a-universal-misunderstanding-of-design-and-art/ Glaser goes on to explain his views on the difference between design and art.

2 Gillian, N., (1972) The Bauhaus, Studio Vista, London

3 Bayer H., Gropius W., Gropius I., (1979) Bauhaus 1919-1928, The Musium of Modern art, New York

4 Vyas K., (2009) Design the International Movement, with Indian Parallel. SID research cell. CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India

5 Design students value apprenticeship in studios and learn through the project based dialogues with the masters (gurus). The student understand how to think, by watching and even copying the guru. This is not uncommon in visual arts and music, which has always valued guru-shishya parampara. Practice oriented professions like medicine and law too have been focusing on apprenticeship.

6 Even the professional scenario is going through the changes reflecting he changes in the business environments. Designers seem have ‘offices’ and not studios or firms anymore! The term office evokes different kind of connotations and imagery

7 Artists too use their studios for experiments, but they are of a different kind. They tend to be more exploratory and the incident knowledge that they generated is from reflections.

8 Composition, proportions, balance, colour interaction, harmony, contrast, rhythm, figure and ground, and so on.

 

 

 

Taming design thinking: Part II

This post is largely built on my views. These were developed during my long practice of design as a design professional and shorter stint as an architect. Projects were fortunately varied and allowed varied exposure. Out of academic interest, at one time I kept a record of every little step that I took in the act of design. On other occasions, I had the luxury of reflecting on my decisions after they were taken. Lot of these was only available to me to as memories. Unfortunately I have lost these paper trails.

Lot of my observations are mixed with following external sources. The views were developed by partly drawing on informal observations of professional works of my colleagues in act of designing and the post decision discussions. As a faculty, I also watched students designing. I must concede that lot of it is based on my convictions that were formed over last so many years of practice and teaching of design. This post can be critiqued on several counts. Lot of it is based on individual experiences, my reflections and opinions that could be potentially biased. Some of the statements have not been supported by credible evidence from literature. I fully accept this and I do take the responsibility as well as the blame. I request readers to keep this in mind while going through what follows. I do not expect that readers will agree with the views.

This article may appear too harsh a critic of design methods movements. For a more scholastic and balanced view I suggest that the readers should refer to Cross.1 I know that I am not winning friends here, but I hope to generate discussion on the topic and get readers to post their views.

To begin with, I do acknowledge that design methods movement made important contributions to design thinking and did influence me. We concluded the previous post (Taming of design thinking: Part I) with a question,

“Did the design methods movement succeed in taming the designer and his thinking?”

The straight and short answer would be, that designers picked and chose what they were convinced about and integrated it with ‘their’ approach, but their design process largely remained unaffected. Let us start with what they learnt and accepted from the design methods movement.

Learnings from the logical and rational approach

It made the designer accountable for defining the problem as well as finding solutions that effectively meet the aspirations of stakeholders. It also accepted users as principle stakeholder. When the context and users were local, as in craft design process, this was automatically guaranteed.2 Proximity ensured that the users were well integrated in the design process and no conscious efforts were required to give them a special role in the process. Things changed eventually with industrialization and mass production. The goods created large inventories and to search markets outside the geographies became critical. During colonization, the markets and aspirations of the industries had become global. In this new context, designers could not be close to the users (customers) anymore. Accepting the changed design context, design methods movement made it important that user’s role in the design process be expressly stated. The seeds of later work on user studies, ‘user first’ movement and concepts like empathy could be faintly traced back to the design methods movement.

Methods movement insisted that design decisions should be driven by data and analysis to bring in accountability and transparency in decision-making. Multi-disciplinary nature of most solutions also demanded transparency. Systematic and methods driven approach became essential also because of the high cost of error and large financial stakes. Most large projects needed to exercise abandoned caution by anticipating all eventualities. In a way, it established that designing is knowledge and data driven. (and perhaps not art driven!) Lot of this was indisputably accepted, at least when the stakes were high.3

“With this changed context in its favor, why did the movement not fully affect the design approach?”

Responding to the changed context

There were far too many changes in the context that conflicted with the ideas propagated by the design methods movement. Creativity had become a buzzword and proposed methods that defined linear approach. Rapidly developing technologies had started occupying driver’s seat in new product development. Business thinking had to evolve to meet the changing competitive market environments. Besides, there was a clearer understanding of the nature of design problem including understanding of wicked problems. Most of these conflicted with some of the broad statements on which the design methods movement was built. The sections that follow, we will deal with each of them separately.

Creativity and messiness of the approach

Design methods movement conflicted with the ongoing work on creativity. Brainstorming had become popular. Bono’s books on lateral thinking had enormous coverage.4 Lateral thinking became a coffee table term, even outside the design community. Supporting this, there were annual workshops and seminars on creativity in Buffalo try to spread creativity techniques. Gorden’s Synectics based on analogies and metaphors continued to maintain the mysteries of the creative processes.5 All this caught the imagination of many, particularly the design community. The crazy creative processes were closer to their ways of thinking and they could identify with it.

Creativity techniques encouraged non-linear thinking, insisted on connecting the unconnected, fantasizing and acknowledging the role of intuition. All this was inconsistent with what design methods movement was trying to propose. None of this could have been explained as a distinct and defined step that can be called as ‘creative leap’. The inherent messiness of the process was difficult to explain or accept.

With my design approach rooted in systematic design process, I had hard time reconciling the two conflicting and somewhat opposing approaches. The conflict prompted me to reflect on how I took design decisions. So, in ongoing professional design projects, I used to keep a record of every decision with time stamp and review it later. (We will return to it in subsequent parts)

Design methods move towards design science, was in direct conflict with the ideas and approaches proposed by proponents of creative approach.

Solutions in search of problems: Technology as a driver

Changed technology intensive product development was not compatible with the systematic linear approach. With rapidly emerging technologies from labs, the new product development scenario was transforming. Technologies could prompt product ideas that users could never have imagined. When the ideas are way beyond what users are able to anticipate or visualize, they are unlikely to imagine its implications. Only when such product ideas are introduced in the market, that the users realize that, they would be better off using it. The real world situation shows that once the new idea is available and accessible, people either recognize that they need it and/or are willing to be persuaded to buy it. Integrating camera with cell phone was not an expressed need, but now it is impossible to sell a cell phone without it. In fact people look for two cameras now. It is also true with several other features that are integrated with cell phone.

The systematic linear approach is unlikely gel with a rapidly changing technology environment unless you turn the process on its head. Now we need a proactive approach, a new normal, where product ideas search for target markets, at least for technology driven product categories. It is not without some indirect support from literature. In business literature, these are often referred as latent needs. Hamel and Prahalad also proposed a somewhat similar idea using a simple analogy.6 He suggested that we treat the market as an unexplored jungle. Instead of studying the features of the jungle to look for clues to locate the prey and then study the prey, shoot several arrows in different directions. His arrows could represent different ideas or strategies. If one of them hits the target, you discover the target and also where it is, what it is like.

The changed technology environment demanded that the normal product development process be turned upside down. The new mantra was, watch technology development, imagine an innovative product offering and later explore and establish the target segment and then measure it.

As we will see it later, design thinking intuitively has been following this line of thoughts, rather than the systematic linear processes. More about it later.

The idea of product differentiation

Another major changed that is worth taking note of is the developing business approach that expanded the idea of product as a bundle of values offered and established the critical role that product differentiation plays in business.7 Companies, to maintain their leadership role, look for is a well-differentiated product offering that can capture the imagination of the potential customers and users. In already crowded market place, it is always an important business requirement to get a competitive edge through product differentiation.

In my practice, I found that systematic study of stakeholder and particularly user requirements do not automatically lead to ideas that can create visible product differentiation. Even when they do, such differentiations tend to be marginal. What you need is something that users have not expected or anticipated. How will then such ideas come from users? And that too, through systematic logical steps?

This is a challenge that systematic approach finds not so easy to handle. It does give a fair and accurate understanding of the problem, but often does not give a clue to creating differentiation in product offering that will delight the customer. When all competitors have similar data and similar understanding of the problem, they tend to land up with solutions that are often similar. No wonder, products in most categories tend to have similar designs. All you have to do is to go to a popular shopping site, type in a popular product category and compare how similar the products are.

How do you then create differentiated product? Instead of using a more expensive route of altering technical specifications, it is often easier to change non-technical aspects, like focusing on unique user experience, adding new user functions, delightful product form, creating features for convenience, comfort and interesting packaging.

In a competitive market environment, new product development needs to focus on creating differentiating features that would persuade customer away form what the competitors offer. To create such differentiation with the well defined problem space is too restrictive. The tighter the boundaries are, less is the freedom to differentiate the core product offer. So, it is good idea to accept the problem space defined by systematic studies as a minimum definition of the problem. (See figure 1) The focus should be to go beyond the defined problem boundaries to find opportunities to create differentiating feature/s that will necessarily appeal to potential user. To make this possible, we need to find ways to explore and cross the boundaries of the problem space defined earlier through systematic study.

area-01

Figure 1: a) Bounded problem space shown as dark red; b) Extending the boundary and the problem space by challenging it. (Textured red areas)

It is by extending the boundaries of the problem that you can find a feature that will delight the customer. Besides, the idea of creating a unique product proposition comes to the designer naturally. It is built into his education. Designers anyway have an urge to be different and dream of creating a signature product. So, it works well for both the parties.

Design can offer a visible differentiation in products and route to search for such product features are often not through rational and linear thinking. Need for differentiation is one of the real reasons why designers are invited to be on the team.

Problems with the design problems

This section contains collections of related issues that directly or indirectly conflicted with the ideas propagated by the design methods movement. The movement was based on the assumption that rational approach will discover the real and complete understanding of the problem. How correct is this assumption?

The understanding of the problem is most likely to be incomplete, can be claimed by two independent arguments.

The first argument is based on the question, ‘Are all problems equal?’ The idea of ill-defined problems has just started emerging then. Rittel and Webber, in the context of planning, suggested that most real world problems tend to be ill-defined. A theorist in design science, he called them as wicked problems.8 Most design problems, where users and their aspirations play a major role, tend to be wicked. How does it matter to us? According to Rittel, when investigating such problems, information is hard to get without the orientation of solution concept. When handling such problems, one cannot first understand, analyze and then solve them. The similarity with the upside down process of handling the latent needs and technology driven products may be marginal. But these concepts resonate with each other.

This process of handling the wicked problems is in direct conflict with the systematic and linear studies. It is difficult to reconcile to the opposing views.

Let us now understand the second argument. Design methods movement was based on the assumption that by studying the stakeholders and context, it is possible to define the boundaries of the problem and thus create bounded problem space in which the solutions must fall. So, rational approach insisted on design driven by context and data from stakeholders.

To argue this, we must search for answers to series of related questions. ‘When can we consider the understanding of the problem complete? Is the objective of complete understanding and description of all the design problems at all possible? And how do we know that the description is complete? Is there a stopping rule?

None of these are easy to answer. In contemporary world, the context keeps changing all the time. At best you can move closer to the understanding, but there is no way of knowing where you actually stand. Besides, you never know how much of the problem is unknown. In most real world commercial design problems, it is the availability of time and hours paid for that defines the limits of understanding.

Dorst shows how parts of the problem tend to be underdetermined and/or undetermined. He also shows how understanding of the design problem must account for design expertise that gives the designer his own ways of looking at the problem.9 To achieve near complete understanding of the problem, you need to find a way of taming the problem by using artificial boundaries and expert can do this effortlessly.

Looking back …

Except for the logical arguments, the design methods movement could offer little credible evidence to prove that the alternative processes are useful to solve different kinds of problems and at different stages of the design process. The design methods movement appears to have left large gaps. It had vary little to offer by way of solving creative visual problems, till Sanoff came with his book much later.10 These are not the only conflicts that design methods movement had to answer to. Subsequent parts of this series will take these arguments further by focusing on key areas.

The authors of the movement perhaps could have looked at existing success stories of the designers and investigated why they consistently offered creative and effective solutions. Looking back now, it appears to be a serious oversight. Consistent creative results would have been impossible if designers did not have a process in place, even if at that time, it appeared messy and unarticulated. The research on design thinking in decades that followed was dominated not by ‘How they ought to solve the problems’, but by ‘How designer’s think and solve problems?’ This huge body of work has revealed many deeper facets of design thinking. We will touch some of this research eventually, but we have another important area that we should cover first i.e. rediscovering the roots of design thinking.

Rediscovering the lost roots

The next part will deal with the lost roots. Not many have traced the full complexities of influences that art education had on design thinking. Most have even shunned this idea. It is difficult to forget that traditionally, most design schools were located in fine arts institutions. Design approach to formal and aesthetics issues had of course influences of fine art traditions. But the roots are far deeper than that. As we will see in the next part, restricting it to issues to aesthetics would be unfair. We will primarily focus on roots in arts and the influences it had on the thinking.

Notes and references

1 For a more balanced and scholastic discussion refer

Cross, N. (2001) Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science, Design Issues 17, 3

2 Jones, J. C. (1970) Design Methods: seeds of human futures, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

3 Current situation is worth noting. With free markets and booming global trade and marketing through internet across geographies and cultures, the disconnect between designers and users is increasing further. This is leading to approaches like ‘User first’, ‘User Centric Design’, ‘Empathy’ and so on. We have yet to explore techniques where we understand and derive insights from online stakeholder data. With the action shifting online, I feel that this will become a key issue in the near future.

4 Bono, E. de. (1971) The use of lateral thinking. Pelican book London

5 Gorden, W. J. J. (1961) Synectic: The development of creative capacity. Harper, England

6 Hamel. G, Prahalad CK. 1(991 Jul-Aug) Corporate imagination and expeditionary marketing. Harvard Business Review, 69, pp 81-92

7 Companies tend to depend on other forms of differentiations (like price, augmentation etc.), when core product is undifferentiated. Core product is the primary level of differentiation and companies can always depend of other forms of differentiation later during the different stages of product life cycle. See

Levitt, Theodore. (1980, Jan-Feb) Marketing Success Through Differentiation- of Anything. Harvard Business Review, pp 83-91

8 Rittel, H., Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning, Political Sciences 4, 155-169

9 The design methods movement also neglected the idea of expertise as well as dissimilarities in the level of definition of the design problem. See

Dorst, K. (2003) The problem of design problems, Expertise in design, 135-147

10 Sanoff, H. (1991) Visual research methods in design, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York

Taming design thinking: Part I

In this post, it is planned to depart from the discussions on definition of design and its relationship with design thinking. Design thinking as a phrase refers to the way designers think and solve problems. This thinking process has evolved accepting influences from different sources. Designers themselves prefer to call it more appropriately as ‘designerly thinking’. Of late, the phrase has acquired new meaning. It now refers to application of this thinking process to solve problems in other fields. (like education, healthcare, government etc.) Yet, the roots remain in design problem solving. This article starts with pre1970 developments in the thinking process and the way it evolved then.

The views on design thinking, and particularly this section on design methods movement, should be seen in a particular context. The movement almost coincided with author’s impressionable years, when he studied Architecture and later, Industrial Design and practiced both. The author has implemented some of the ideas in his practice and taught them in his courses on design. Books like Notes on Synthesis of form’ 1, Design methods for designers 2 and Design methods: seeds of human future 3 and many others parallel writings influenced authors design approach then. Much has flown after this. This post is part of reflecting back on views then, sometimes through the lens of the current thinking on design.

What preceded the design methods movement

It is easier to understand the emergence of design methods movement, if what preceded the movement is reviewed. Industrialization and mass productions was already accepted as a way of reducing cost and making them accessible to people without compromising quality of products. Large investments were necessary in creating product inventories before customers make any commitments to buy the products. New methods were required to anticipate customer needs and aspirations with reasonable accuracy. It changed the very nature of business and the risk. With high volumes in production, markets had to be developed across geographies, addressing unfamiliar users and cultures. Colonization ensured access to these markets, but not necessarily to peoples’ mind.

In product design, industrialization was acknowledged as a way delivering consistently good quality, standardized products at reasonable prices. Designers had to team up with counterparts in technology. They had to understand engineering, production and standardization of components. Post World War I, designers looked at it as an opportunity to understand machines and explore machine aesthetics. Modern movement and Bauhaus thinking had started taking its roots in design schools.

In design, Bauhaus pioneered the way towards development of new design thinking. Post Bauhaus, to depart from the past practices in design and move towards rational approach was very much there in the air. In 50s, Ulm school had already taken steps in that direction. 1960s saw emergence of another turning point in design thinking. In 60s and early 70s, several eminent thinkers working in the area of design process and design methods made concerted efforts to influence designer’s thinking process. The focus of the design methods movement was on developing logical, cautious, step-by-step design approach and systematic design methods to understand and solve complex problems.

Foundations of the new design methods

The belief that answers could be found in science and through logical and rational thinking had already found its roots in many fields. The new approach was driven by the urge to be scientific, based on rationality, rigor and intellectual culture. The idea of approach based on objectivity and rationality to produce the work of art and design was in the air. 4 In design, Christopher Jones and Bruce Archer wrote extensively to convince designers and architects to abandon intuitive traditional ways of solving the problems and adopt systematic design process. Series of conferences ensured that the idea spread rapidly.

The foundations of the design methods movement were based on positivist thinking. It assumes that a person lives in an objective world, which can be known through his/her senses; the sensory data is then structured by an internal processing system. It follows that such a world can be then studied dispassionately using scientific methods. It is then possible to view design as a rational search process, where the design problem defines the ‘problem space’ that can be reasonably determined to search of a design solution. 5

Why change the thinking process?

The arguments why designers should change their somewhat intuitive and mysterious ways of solving problems and adopt a systematic design process were convincing. To list a few,

The nature of design projects were rapidly changing in size and the level of complexity. Projects like airports, metro junctions, large housing schemes were either functionally complex or very large in size or both. Conceptualization of such complex systems with interconnected products was a different ball game. Such enormous design challenges were difficult using the intuitive thinking process, which essentially evolved from developing single standalone objects. It was often suggested that the conventional methods were too outdated to handle these challenges.

Need for systematic documentation of decisions and recording of logic also found its support from other sources. Such problems demanded multi-disciplinary team efforts, which needed transparency, so that others on the team can participate and if necessary, intervene in the process. Members in the team had to logically defend their ideas and remain accountable for the ideas they suggest. Designers had to become accountable to the actions that they take. Systematic methods allowed tracking the responsibilities back to the decisions taken so that repetition of error could be avoided. Increased costs of error further demanded that responsibilities of errors be fixed. Besides, emerging consumer liability laws were based on fixing responsibilities. Discourses on all these issues in fact peaked during 60s and early 70s.

There were clear benefits of this approach. It helped designers refine the analytical tools. It increased their knowledge of the context as well as the design problem they were solving. The traditional intuition based design process was seen as outdated for handling issues faced by the modern world, its technologically complex problems and legal frameworks. Businesses had multinational presence that demanded addressing new users across cultures. Intense competition in the markets put pressure on pricing, efficiency and investment returns and risk tolerance. All these collectively influenced design thinking. In this new world designers had to be not only logical, but appear logical.

Decoding the design process

The design problem solving was projected as a series of logical sequential steps. There were some variations in the steps proposed by different authors, but attempt is made to capture these as generic steps. The design process that was recommended often started with observation/s of a gap or sometimes even a casual identification of a problem. The first task was to challenge the initial casual understanding of the problem to ensure that the description of the problem as seen, is valid and complete. This was done in the subsequent steps by collection of data (Step 1), followed by rigorous analysis (Step 2). It is worth noting that time and resources were allotted to analyze, understand and agree on to the new redefinition or reframing of the problem, before committing resources to find solutions. Thus the responsibilities of the design team included understanding the complexities and nuances of the problem and defending it, before search for solutions is started. These first two steps were useful to blur the initial understanding, which is assumed to be incomplete and biased. These steps are often referred as ‘divergence’ phase of the design process.

These steps led to the next, restating or redefining the problem that all the stakeholders agree to (Step 3). The next step was synthesis (Step 4). This was the creative phase that included searching for large number of alternative solutions, keeping the new (re) definition of the problem in mind. It included evaluating these ideas and narrowing down to a single most appropriate solution. This is often referred as a ‘convergence’ phase.

Minor variations exist in the way steps are delineated. Some thinkers have described design process as a two-step process, divergence and convergence. Some others have combined data collection and analysis into a common step, because they share the same objectives. Others have separated synthesizing from evaluation. Generic representation is shown in the accompanying figure 1.

design-process-01

Key features of the new design process

Few observations are worth noting here. First, there was clear separation between the analytical phase (step 1 to 3) and creative phase (Step 4). In fact it was insisted that solution alternatives should not be thought of till the design problem is clearly defined and validated by data and analysis. The approach may look logical, but was definitely not consistent with the way human mind handles problems. More about it will be discussed in later posts.

Second, the systematic design process involving the linear nature reflected in the flow was projected as scientific approach. However, in practice, the act of design was visibly iterative and non-linear, which the linear process could not account for. Iteration was not a commonly used term then, nor did it fit in well with the idea of linearity and flow of the design process. It was accommodated as feedback loops that permitted going back and forth within the linear process. (See accompanying figure 2) In practice, the feedback loops tended to be lot more vigorous. So, the design process could still be represented as series of clean sequential steps. (Interestingly, the influence of language associated with computer programming in 70s is clearly visible in the way the process was projected.)

feedback-loops-01

Support for the design methods movement

The idea was projected as a logical, objective, linear, transparent and scientific process that benefitted all. It got support from many other related events. The new trend of setting up design schools in technology universities had also started around this time. These schools were more comfortable with the idea of moving in the direction of design science. This work and approach looked scientific enough to be referred as design science in some universities later.

Computing becoming powerful and accessible (then as mainframes) indirectly motivated work on understanding, developing and if possible standardizing the design process. Computational methods needed defined and transparent processes. This fitted in well with the design methods movement. Design methods movement and work on computational approach helped each other.

Alexander’s ‘Synthesis of form’, a pioneering book, proposed a refreshing new approach based on computation. It was seen as a way forward. (Alexander later refuted these perceptions.) Researchers were exploring computerization of design process using other approaches. Computer Aided Design (CAD) was beginning to be popular in engineering fields with which designers often teamed up. Engineering had standard design process in place and problem solving could be converted into number crunching. It met the requirements of modern world that demanded objectivity and elimination of personal bias in problem solving. So, the pressure to develop a computational approach to design was very high. Post eighties it did show application in downstream design process, where the idea is developed into manufacture worthy products. In this segment of the process, CAD showed dramatic results. Yet, early part of the design process, where most of the creative decisions were taken, CAD was not making any headway. Computational approach in this segment of the process has remained a major challenge. However, the new artificial intelligence initiatives suggest that it may to take off in future.

Impact on design/er

The convictions of the people who proposed this approach came out clearly in their writings and had its positive effects on design community and on design thinking. Designers were impressed with the arguments that supported need to be systematic and logical. The design process and the new methods proposed were in place. What designers learnt was the greater responsibility to the users and stakeholders. Researching the design problem with rigorous analytical methods ensured effective understanding that was easy to logically explain and defend. Process driven logical approach continues to dominate design in technology and engineering field. In large projects, it is possible now to separate analytical phase from the synthesis and different teams can handle these phases. So it made lot of sense.

It is also common in very large software industries for three reasons. First, they work across geographies and time zones. Their analysis (requirement gathering), design and technology development teams are rarely co-located. Second, they collectively handle large number of projects, which will be impossible to control if the transparent processes are not in place. Third, they have high staff attrition rates as well as staff movements across teams. This demands that uniform standardized processes are followed. The idea clearly seems have benefitted them in some ways.

Though all this looks positive, did different industries and contexts shared the same enthusiasm to adopt the new process?

Did the design methods movement succeeded in taming the designer and his thinking?

These questions will be addressed in the next post.

 References

1 Alexander, C. (1964) Notes on Synthesis of form. Harvard Univ. press, Cambridge MA

2 Archer. B. (1965) Systematic Method for Designers. Council of Industrial Design, H.M.S.O

3 Jones, J. C. (1970) Design Methods: seeds of human futures, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.,

4 Cross, N. (2001) Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science, Design Issues 17, 3

5 Simon, H. (1970) The science of the artificial, MIT press

Shaping of Design Thinking: Connecting dots

Shaping of Design Thinking: Connecting dots

ICSID’s definition of design and literature on design thinking, both are of recent origin. I had expected that there would be considerable overlap in the areas they focus on. However, as you will see later in this article, the reality seems to be somewhat different. Yet, I plan to continue comparing them and search for commonalities, or lack of them, between the two. However, sticking to the current literature on design thinking and definition can be restrictive. I plan to use this discussion only as a backdrop to understand the nature of design problem solving and thinking that supports it. Later, I will free myself from comparing and move on to explore lots of dots that deal in design thinking, but have remained unconnected.

Design thinking &/vs definition of design: Part II

The attempts in the 60s and 70s focused on creating a more precise and somewhat narrow definition of design, and that was influenced mainly by experiences of designing tangible artefacts. The current definition includes intangibles like designing services, systems and experiences. This was in many ways inevitable to capture the new opportunities in the digital world.

The nature of problems that industrial designers are expected to handle have indeed changed. The new definition has confronted the digital world head-on by making the idea of artefacts more inclusive. The digital world has now created completely new kind of artefacts, where interactions with these artefacts are key to its use and effectiveness. Lots of the artefacts have complete or part dematerialized existence and are accessed and operated through standard hardware (like laptops, tablets and mobile phones with apps). So the actual role of tangible artefacts in these applications is general in nature. The assessment of the effectiveness of these new digital objects is based on user’s experiences of interaction, often on screens. Experience design has become another area for the designers to explore.

The online digital world demands that artefacts work as part of online networks. As a component of the larger system, they embrace new capabilities that stand-alone artefacts could not. They are increasingly seen as parts of services and networks. It does not seem appropriate to look at artefacts in isolation anymore.

In spite of these radical changes in the environment that the current definition of design elegantly embraces, the literature on design thinking has somewhat remained rooted in the earlier era of tangible artefacts. Design thinking is a more recent phrase and should encompass new opportunities head-on. The only major exceptions are new areas like experience design and references to agile design process that has roots in software design.

In the current definition, design has attempted to position itself as a strategic problem-solving act, leading to innovation and business. It is now closely meshed with corporate environment. So, new product development includes innovation in business models as well. Design thinking literature also confronts some of this head-on. Has the new focus changed the scope and in doing that, neglected areas that were traditionally part of design thinking?

Definition and beyond

Some issues have received considerable attention in design thinking. These include focusing on users and empathy, iterative nature of problem solving, need for multi-disciplinary approach and to a limited extent, accepting that ‘no best or optimum solution’ exists. On the other hand, the literature sidetracks the messiness of the design thinking process. It is glossed over by need to appear logical and transparent. Similarly, the role of designer as a form giver is completely under-emphasized. Let us take each issue one by one.

User and empathy

Traditionally, field research on users was always considered critical to develop qualitative understanding of the potential customers and users. So, design thinking has rightly focused on systematic observations, interviews and sometimes ethnography. The research ensures that when customers buy and use the artefact, they would ‘feel’ the value that the field research has helped generate. Designers develop their vision based on insights from the field studies. In fact they consider real world communities and human settlements as their laboratories. Some even prefer to work directly with the users and co-create whenever possible.

Earlier definitions of design also had a clear position on need to understand users. The design process respected the needs and aspirations of users. By referring to the better quality of life, the new definition is somewhat indirect on these issues. On the other hand, literature on design thinking is over-obsessed with these issues. Design thinking visualizes responsibility towards the users as a foundation stone of design approach. Most of the literature on design thinking directly records the responsibilities to users and focuses on empathy and even promotes tools to analyse users systematically. (Except that the discussion on the future challenges that the digital world and its products will pose in understanding of users is absent). Surprisingly, references to this responsibility are indirect in the definition. Thus, there is a complete divide between the latest definition and the focus of design thinking.

Iterative nature of problem solving

Design thinking is also full of praise of the iterative problem solving 1, where you keep going back in cycles of understanding (analysis), ideation (synthesis and prototyping) and user testing (evaluation). The feedback and constant iterations are not just conversational. They deal with quick prototyping to get user as well as team feedback. This is of course an essential step in the process. However, design thinking does not discuss the level of granularity of these prototypes. It has also accepted agile model of design process that the digital world is comfortable with. But handling such a process for intangible artefacts is a story that has remained ambiguous.

Design thinking literature hardly explains, how and why the iterative process actually helps generate new ideas except through reactive actions like learn, persuade and test.1 There are number of questions that we need to seek answers to. What motivates the cyclic repetitions, when a single designer is working on creative phase. Is there a chance that it can lead to reactive ideas, which may become a trap to prevent radical solutions? How do you distinguish effective iteration from mere trial and error and mindless iterations? Is there a chance that you land up with a mess while iterating? How do you prevent such a catastrophe? How do you distinguish between tinkering (a common buzz word) and iterations? And lastly, is there a stopping rule that tells designer, go no further?

It is surprising that most of the current design thinking literature does not talk of the role of sketching that often precedes physical prototyping.1 For most designers, diagrams, thumbnails and quick sketches (almost like cryptic writing) are thinking tools. During the creative synthesis phase, while sketching, designers often converse with themselves (and occasionally use gestures too). It is a way to overcome the limitations of short-term memory. Once the idea is out of STM, it permits new ideas to develop. It lets them see and review their own decisions as a third party and react. It is not unusual to find designers excitedly sketching out an idea and feeling disillusioned with it the next day morning, when he looks at his own idea dispassionately. That is why, sketching (as well as prototyping) are essential tools to support thinking and development of ideas.

There is no reason to include these operational aspects in the definition of design, but the current literature is expected to include the role of sketching along with prototyping as a part of creative process. This leads to interesting questions to brood on. Design thinking is now seen as useful to many fields other than what the designer traditionally touched. The people in these fields are unlikely to be conversant with sketching and prototyping of ideas. Would they be at a disadvantage then? If these representations are considered as essential components of the design thinking process, and I think they very much qualify, what form should the forms of representations take when non-designers use it? Is it possible to go up a step above and treat the act of design as a cognitive act? If we look at cognitive role that representations play in designing, we would be able to explore alternatives such as rich enacted descriptions. Neglecting the idea of representation altogether or forcing the current forms of representations on everybody is unfair. In later write ups, I plan to discuss design thinking from this perspective.

There is ‘no best solution’

Optimisation is a common terminology in disciplines other than design. When the behaviour of the elements is predictable and measurable, optimisation is probably a good route. Because concrete and steel behaves predictably you can search for the optimum solution to the problem of designing a building structure. This raises two pertinent questions. Do all real world problems have optimum solutions? And when the elements include unpredictable humans, is optimisation the right direction?

With systematic observations of user behaviour and responding to them creatively, designers come up with new ideas. But in real life, the user reactions and interactions to newly altered object also change, when they see one! Most problems that designers often handle, can not be fully described and are best treated as wicked problems.2

When problems are ill defined, design thinking promotes the idea that there is no best solution. Instead, the solution must offer a best fit within the context. Besides, design permits personal points of view to reflect on the way the problem is understood, as well as the solutions are developed. Lots of artefacts are treated as signature creations. They reflect personal style, vocabulary and preferences of the creators. We will return to this for a more in-depth discussion on this topic in later write ups. The concept of best fit does allow the flexibility that creative efforts need.

Being logical and transparent vs being messy

If you go by the new definition, Industrial design profession is clearly looking for aligning itself with management and technology areas. In this new positioning, it is important to show design thinking as a logical and transparent process. It is also essential for team participation, when others in the team come from management, engineering and science backgrounds. These disciplines demand transparent logic, objectivity and well-documented sequences in the decision processes.

Earlier efforts during 60s and 70s to promote logical and step-by-step sequence for design problem solving have met with limited success. There is a realization that, however messy it may appear to others, the thinking that precedes design as well as aesthetic decisions is based on unique processes, partly inherited from roots of design in art. Little was discussed on unique desingerly ways of thinking, till researcher confronted some of these issues in the last three decades. To hide this messy thinking to project transparency is like putting a clean cover on things, so that nobody finds out what is inside. Design thinking needs to be proud of the messiness in the thinking process, propagate it and in fact focus further research efforts on it.

Designers effortlessly continue to shift goals and reframe problems. The decision processes are inherently messy, iterative and in fact thrive on ambiguity. They also develop the ability to intuitively take subjective decisions. Design thinking is unlikely to work unless it is supported by passion. The designer’s extensive and long learning in dealing with design decisions is backed by a well developed thinking processes, behaviour traits and the ways of solving problems, though they may not be well articulated. It is even more ambiguous when dealing with decisions on form and aesthetics qualities. All these are important elements of creative efforts and very much a part of design thinking and have roots in art.

The articulation of the sequence and the decision process that the partner disciplines demand, is not easy, nor fair. In looking for acceptability by partner disciplines, are we loosing some important aspects of design thinking? Most literature on design thinking does not confront this head-on. Being comfortable with uncertainties, lack of clarity and unclear goals are not seen as a positive quality.

In these new efforts to position designer as being a ‘problem solver’ and ‘business strategist’ following rational processes, there is a danger that we may disown our roots in art. Besides, by not dealing with these issues, we seem to assume that these are not important parts of decision-making in design and need not be part of design thinking. Instead, we should unambiguously acknowledge some of the roots of design profession in art. I have no doubts that the partner disciplines in the team will gain a lot from understanding how designers think. I hope to touch this area extensively in later write-ups.

Designer as a form giver

All the earlier definitions of industrial design included direct references to designer’s special capabilities to solve problems, develop ideas and come up with endearing object forms. Designers have been willingly taking the responsibilities of the formal qualities as well as building internal coherent unity in the artefacts. There are clear references to these in all earlier definitions. The pedagogy in Bauhaus and post-Bauhaus design schools embraced this and considered it as the designer’s very special expertise. Has this need to sculpt a form of the object in response to the needs suddenly vanished? Let us visualize the extreme opposite. Can you imagine the future cars that will populate the expressways? Can you imagine yourself comfortably handling a cell phone that looks like a contraption? And watch televisions that look like technological monsters. Can you imagine future remake of start war, where the spaceships look like machines to live in?

Industrial designers are known for their visual sensibility and this was traditionally the reason they were approached. Now there is an increasing tendency to underplay formal qualities. This is manifested in terms like ‘form factor’ and ‘look and feel’, commonly used in discourses on design. If at all, concessions are made by giving special status to select artefacts, and treat them as iconic objects, where aesthetics is expected to play an important role. I am not inclined to agree with this approach.

Is it the need for compactness that prompted dropping references to responsibilities of developing appropriate object form in new definition? But, even the extended definition does not refer to designer’s role as creator of effective and endearing object forms! Is it that the new breed of designers, visualized as strategist problem solvers, should leave this work to lesser mortals trained in the design tradition? We will never know what prompted this, but we can only speculate.

As mentioned in the earlier section, it can be explained by the fact that design thinking now refers to the idea of using this approach to solve problems considered conventionally outside the sphere of activities of designers. The idea was to explore its potentials to solve problems in management, engineering, government, health, education as well as in industry. It clearly focused on ‘others’. It is possible that the kind of problems design thinking is expected to handle in these applications may not need dealing with formal qualities. So, the issues dealing with aesthetics became secondary.

Is aesthetics only related to external appearance of the objects? Maldonado’s definition deals with the idea of ‘coherent unity’, a concept lot broader. I quote from his definition,

These formal qualities are not only the external features but are principally those structural and functional relationships which convert a system to a coherent unity both from the point of view of the producer and the user.3

You see this coherent unity in an elegant shot in sports, dive in swimming, elegant equation, elegant actions and even elegant strategies. This obviously goes beyond just solving the problem effectively. How do you understand aesthetics and concepts like elegance, freed from its usual connection with the objects?

There is another important reason why it is necessary to deal with formal issues. The thinking that leads to form decisions is uniquely different and there is much that ‘others’ can learn from this thinking process, if not from the output of that thinking. Underplaying form issues will leave our understanding of design thinking incomplete and weak. We will never be able to access the unique thinking processes that lead to form decisions. The vary disciplines that currently criticize messiness of design thinking for not being transparent and process driven can learn a lot from the somewhat messy thinking that dictates creative approach.

To sum up this issue, the role designer can play in business success is clearly spelt out in the latest definition as well as in literature on design thinking. Design community is trying to reposition design and along with that, the designer’s role as a strategists in the new definition. This no doubt is laudable, but it does not explain why the core issue of dealing with messiness of design thinking is left out. Perhaps these decisions may be considered too tactical to be included at strategic level. Design managers and, sometimes even design community, does not seem to think that visual language and artifact related form and aesthetic decisions complement strategic decisions. 4 This remains a major gap in discourse on design thinking.

Summing up

The new focus on design thinking has made a good beginning. It is a good sign that emphasis on user needs, empathy and iterative approach are getting accepted in ‘other’ fields. But, this work has shied away from issues like messiness of the process, somewhat intuitive approach to formal issues and many other topics. These are currently excluded from the scope of design thinking.

Perhaps the decision to exclude such a discussion is dictated by the new need to make it relevant to other areas like management, healthcare, education and so on. This new context also explains why definition of design as well as design thinking has focused on strategy, innovation and problem solving approach. It appears that pick-and-choose selectivity is based on individual perceptions of the authors/experts who used their best judgment to choose areas in design thinking that they considered relevant when they were exploring application of these ideas to ‘others’. Such context dependent interpretations of design thinking have prevented fuller and richer understanding of the scope of design thinking.

This is typical of most new words and phrases coming into circulation in natural languages. Initially they come up through spontaneous usage. ‘Design thinking’ as a phrase seems to have emerged similarly in response to need to promote this idea in ‘other’ non-design disciplines. It is through the usage and popularity that it has been accepted and acquired meaning. Design thinking, the way it is used now, has a limited scope and leaves number of dots unconnected. If current trend continues, it will remain associated with designerly actions in non-design areas and not with all actions of the design community. This would be unfortunate.

Missing dots and connections

There are many other issues that design thinking should touch. Most of the literature on design thinking does not clearly acknowledge the elements of the thinking processes that it has inherited from art. We have not even tried to establish what design has learnt from the thinking processes in these creative areas. We have not looked at several other abilities and skill sets that support design thinking. Serious work in area like ‘How designers think?’ and how they use ‘moves and reflections’ effectively is not even touched. Discussions on design thinking get mixed with discussion on creativity and creative problem solving. These aspects are either missed or referred in passing. Its extended usage to ‘others’ is trying to constrain its meaning. We need to broaden the scope of design thinking currently focused on ‘others’, to include designers.

There are several reasons, why deeper understanding of how designers think, solve problems and deal with issues they confront in the practice of design, is important. Design thinking has the potential to make valuable contributions to our knowledge and understanding of act of design, and in doing that, demystifying design and influencing future pedagogy. Such efforts would contribute to theorizing as well. Besides, if we want to progress towards automation of design actions in future, we need to revisit design thinking with greater depth. Finally, we also need a more nuanced understanding of what ‘others’ may need to borrow from design thinking, if they plan to explore it themselves. Design community and researchers should see this as a new opportunity.

In order that the design thinking as an area develops further, we need to find out if there are important dots missing and connect them. For a much richer understanding, we need to recognise some unique designerly thinking traits. If we don’t, a good beginning made in design thinking may get trivialized.

I hope that the opinions expressed by everyone on this blog would be reflected in the way we understand the scope of design thinking in future and collectively seek answers to them. These are some of the aspects I plan to take up in near future hoping that the readers will contribute their ideas.

References

1 Liedtka J., (2015). Perspective: Linking Design Thinking with Innovation Outcomes through Cognitive Bias Reduction, The Journal of Product Innovation Management. 32, 6, 2015, 925-938

2 Rittel H., Weber M. (1973). Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning, Policy Science 4, 155-169

3 Source for definitions of industrial design : http://www.icsid.org/about/definition/industrial-design-definition-history/

4 Athavankar, U., (2009). “From product Semantics to Generative Methods.” IASDR’09,. 59-68.
http://www.iasdr2009.or.kr/Papers/Orally%20Presented%20Papers/Aesthetics/From%20Product%20Semantics%20to%20Generative%20Methods.pdf

Shaping of Design Thinking

I am intrigued by the sudden popularity of design thinking. Lot of invitations expect me to explain the idea of design thinking through workshops and lectures. Even in literature, design thinking as a term often referred to ‘things’ that other disciplines can use. These ‘things’ developed in practice. So, it is natural that these invitations are from people who are not involved in design. Not many design schools deal with design thinking as a course for design students. They seem to assume that design students will come to know it during their long exposure to the school pedagogy. Is design thinking only for ‘others’?

This is a series trying to explore the conceptions and misconceptions on design thinking. The idea is to provoke practicing designers and students to think on this topic and contribute to the blog, while I continue to express my views through periodic seed articles. Eventually, it could lead to developing a book that crystalizes crowd-sourced ideas.

Design thinking &/vs definition of design: Part I

When I was toying with these ideas in my mind, it occurred to me that it might be possible to understand design thinking and its scope through the way we view and define design. The questions and idea I was grappling with include ‘Do they mirrors to each other? Or the relationship is more be flexible and they merely influence each other?’ It is worth an attempt, but definitely not easy because of the breadth of the activities that designers seem to cover.

Bauhas was the foundation of integrated approach to modern design with focus on artifacts that included all tangible materials like objects, communication material (posters, films), crafts and architecture. The idea of modern design was initially artifact centered. The school also included visual and performing arts. Through its practices and teachings, school strived to create a new (visual) language and tools that reflected rapidly industrializing modern world. In spite of the variety in the manifested Bauhas outputs under one roof, there was a common vision, thinking and approach that these areas shared.

We have to face the facts that such vast scope of design activities makes the problem of precisely defining design a difficult task. More inclusive is the field, more difficult it is to articulate definition that cover all legitimate activities and exclude those, which fall outside its purview. Different disciplines within design seem to be united by Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. So, it is little easier to capture definition of design within limited sub-disciplines, with each sharing different features or elements with others, without the entire category ‘design’ sharing something common. This idea is worth exploring, but it will shift our current focus on the relationship with design thinking.

I plan to focus on one of the disciplines I am familiar with, industrial design, knowing fully well that allied disciplines may share some issues and differ on others. With the holistic approach to design that we started with, it is difficult to justify this limited view. Let us accept this merely as a starting point. First attempt to define industrial design by ICSID1 in 1959. It shows how it evolved over time, responding to the changes in the context. ICSID’s struggle to redefine the scope of design activities and relevance continues even now.

Let me present the first definition of industrial design attempted in 1959. It reads as follows 2

“An industrial designer is one who is qualified by training, technical knowledge, experience and visual sensibility to determine the materials, mechanisms, shape, colour, surface finishes and decoration of objects which are reproduced in quantity by industrial processes. The industrial designer may, at different times, be concerned with all or only some of these aspects of an industrially produced object.

The industrial designer may also be concerned with the problems of packaging, advertising, exhibiting and marketing when the resolution of such problems requires visual appreciation in addition to technical knowledge and experience.

The designer for craft based industries or trades, where hand processes are used for production, is deemed to be an industrial designer when the works which are produced to his drawings or models are of a commercial nature, are made in batches or otherwise in quantity, and are not personal works of the artist craftsman.”

First definition is largely an artifact-centered understanding. Its key focuses include, mainly the artifact qualities and industrial processes. It also considered designer as an arbitrator of visual decision about the artifact and other artifact related materials and actions. In dealing with craft objects, it allowed exceptions with a riders like commercial nature and boundaries like ‘not a work of art’. While number of design schools continue to flourish in the faculty of visual art, it appears to see these as two separate activities.

In 1960, the definition became little more inclusive and added services that the artifact rendered. Note that his function was to give form to the object, but in the context of the positive impact on human life. The focus on artifact continued, but there was also a vague acceptance of technology. The 1960 definition reads as follows,

“The function of an industrial designer is to give such form to objects and services that they render the conduct of human life efficient and satisfying. The sphere of activity of an industrial designer at the present embraces practically every type of human artifact, especially those that are mass produced and mechanically actuated.”

In 1969, the definition was revisited. The new definition proposed by Tomas Maldonado was adopted. It reads as follows,

Industrial design is a creative activity whose aims is to determine the formal qualities of objects produced by industry. These formal qualities are not only the external features but are principally those structural and functional relationships which convert a system to a coherent unity both from the point of view of the producer and the user. Industrial design extends to embrace all the aspects of human environment, which are conditioned by industrial production.”

Three points are worth noting in the above definition. First, it broadened the scope to include all aspect of human environment, provided the artifacts were conditioned by industrial production. Second, it expressly referred to creating formal qualities. Third, the formal qualities were seen as part of internal coherent unity of the artifacts, thus making sure that it is separated from styling and superficial treatments.

Designing focused on creating ‘tangible’ artifacts, making them efficient, convenient, safer, cost effective, delightful and in some cases memorable. Continuing the Bauhas tradition, design approach covered a range of design outputs. These included new products, machines, packaging, advertisements, industrially produced architectural creations and so on. The difficulties in defining design that can include range that designers produced persisted. Continued reference to the designer’s responsibilities for formal qualities of their output remained but challenged the porous boundary between art and design.

Though ICSID dropped the definition subsequently and did without it for several decades, the struggle to redefine the scope of industrial design has been reemerging in the recent past. Digital world was creating new challenges prompting redefinition of design. We will touch this topic later in this article, but discuss it in-depth in future articles.

Latest definition reads as follows,

“Industrial Design is a strategic problem-solving process that drives innovation, builds business success and leads to a better quality of life through innovative products, systems, services and experiences”.

Key points of the latest definition include the following. First, it focuses on phrases like ‘strategic’, ‘driving innovation’ and its relationship with ‘business successes’. In doing that, it expresses the needs of the industry and businesses, making design relevant to them. Second, references to artifacts continue but also include intangible creations like ‘systems and services’ as well as ‘experiences’, no doubt prompted by new opportunities that the digital world offers.

Do concepts in design thinking and the definition of design overlap?

Let is return to the central question that we started with. Is there a close relationship between design thinking (and its scope) and the way we view and define design? Do they mirror and influence each other? When I started thinking about it, I had intuitive feeling that they would overlap, coevolve and influence each other. It turned out to right, at least partially. The new definition as well as the literature on design thinking, both see the new role of designer as a strategic problem solver. Both accept the new challenges thrown by the digital world by extending the scope to include user experiences and need to deal with system and networked services in its stride. Clearly, both seem to have coevolved. (A word of caution. We looked at this from a limited lens of industrial design. It is likely that the conclusion may alter a little, if we look at the other design disciplines.)

A closer look reveals that the connection between design thinking and definition of industrial design appears somewhat loose. Let me explain this. The phrase design thinking is coined recently and seems to have emerged through informal usage. It was meant to propagate design approach to ‘other’ disciplines. Design philosophies, processes and actions dealing with tangible artifacts understandably influenced the initial work on design thinking. The practitioners and teachers of design thinking picked and chose what they considered generic, appropriate and useful to the context of use. Lot of it dealt with the obvious; the user, empathy, iterative process, prototyping, business models and so on. In trying to refer to multiple activities that the designers normally cover, latest definition has become so compact that it has lost this direct focus on user, empathy and many other common practices in design. To discover them, one has to read between the lines. On the other hand, even a cursory look at literature on design thinking shows that it is over-obsessed with user orientation and empathy. Even more surprising is dropping references to formal qualities in the new definition. Is it because, ‘others’ did not need it?

In the context in which the phrase design thinking is used, it has yielded results and nobody questions this. While this propagation should continue, design thinking should also further develop as a full discipline. I plan to continue comparing design thinking and design definitions in part II of this article and explore overlaps or lack of them. We will ask wider and deeper questions to ourselves, to explore answers together.

References

1 An apex body of societies called International Council of Societies of Industrial Designers (ICSID)

2 Source for definitions of industrial design : http://www.icsid.org/about/definition/industrial-design-definition-history/