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.
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.
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.