Immersive mind’s eye experiences

In the last post we reported an experiment where a mid-career industrial designer was asked to develop his product idea when he was blindfolded. We saw how he successfully solved the design problem; and that too with amazing dexterity. The experiment objectively proved that he completely conceived the idea in his mind’s eye. It revealed the potentials of learning to handle mental imagery in design problem solving.

Mental imagery can potentially offer an effective alternative to sketching. However, such a conclusion would be termed a bit hasty considering that it is based on a single case, particularly because the results did look unbelievable.

This post reports efforts to dispel this doubt through a series of follow-up experiments with same or similar objectives. Later, going beyond, it also explores newer and more adventurous objectives. We will approach the finding in steps. We will start with the unfinished agenda first,

Could successfully conceiving and completing a design when blindfolded be considered freak results?

So, we decided to repeat the experiment. We invited SP again and gave him a different and a little more complex design project. SP was asked to design salt and pepper dispensers and common dinning table crockery; all stacked in a compact stand on the dinning table. This is a common product used by many middle class households in India. While the design task changed, rest of the experimental conditions were deliberately kept identical.

The results confirmed the findings of the first experiment. This time too SP sculpted his ideas using vigorous gestures, though the shape developed was much more complex. He also chose to focus on production using complex injection molding process and managed to completely avoid undercuts. All this, when he was blindfolded! The findings were triangulated as before, using transcripts and further supported by asking other designers to decode the design idea based on transcripts.1

The results of the second experiment unequivocally proves that these results were not freak instances and it is possible to generated design ideas and design details in the mind’s eye.

We invited other industrial designers and gave them same or similar design problems. Almost all of them were able to complete the design task when blindfolded. All of them were mid-career practicing designers in their 40s and above, with lot of product design projects behind them. Only one of them, in his fifties, said he would have preferred to sketch, but did solve the design problem effectively. It did give us sufficient evidence that,

Mind’s eye can serve as an effective substitute to a more popular alternative like sketching. But,

Can the success be explained because these products tend to be small in size and thus could be visualised and sculpted as virtual models in the front?

Could these results be attributed to their extensive experience as designers?

To eliminate these possibilities, we decided to offer similar experimental conditions to those who handle 3D objects, like architects. Again, I was not sure that it would work.

Architectural design problems are a different game

Architectural projects have different nuances. Unlike industrial design problems, the buildings tend to be client specific and are not mass-produced (in India). They tend to be large in size and have to be visualized both from inside as walkthroughs, as well as from outside. Of course new elements entered with architectural projects. A site for the building had to be specified, which they were to remember and recall before the project requirements were given to them. There were additional complexities like terrain conditions, climate and light that needed specifying region as well as north direction. As we will see later, these factors influenced visualization.

We gave two types of projects, like 1] give a site with specific size and site features and ask them to conceive the building and 2] give drawings of an already built space and ask them to develop interior layouts for a specific use along with furniture concepts. We had to make sure that the architects would be familiar with the functions they were asked to house. The building projects often included public spaces like information centers or large or small secluded bungalow on sea front or on a contoured site. The interior projects included crowded, but informal student hangout spaces and cafeteria.

Most of this work has been already published as research papers.2,3 So we plan to only include a short summary here, mainly contrasting it with industrial design project. None of the architects were perturbed by the strange experimental condition of blindfolding. They went on developing building ideas in their mind’s eye.

We realized how selective the mental imagery is. It often displays what is relevant to the context. Typically, the people imagined were actually stereotypes and had specific role to play. These stereotypes performed their assigned role in the spaces created, as if the creator was testing his layouts. Post session interviews confirmed that people were always appropriately dressed to match their defined role, but were as a rule faceless.4 Their dresses were important to establish their roles, but the faces were obviously not relevant to the role or the functions they performed.

Another major difference is the focus on controlling light and creating ambiance using natural as well as artificial lights appropriately. Architects not only work with spaces that are inhabited and used, but plan interesting lighting situations contributing to the ambiance. Creating such experiences is so much part of their routine, that its domination in mental imagery is not at all surprising. Indeed, their images were vivid experiences with detailed ambiance and were populated with people.

Designers, and particularly architects, depended on designs that they have seen and ‘noticed’ earlier and used them as precedents to develop new ideas. Some of these precedents come from their own previous successful works and from works that they have seen in design journals and as well as visited in real life. More popular were precedents that come from their favorite architecture gurus (masters). What they bring in through these precedents are interesting space organizing principles, lighting and ambiance or sometimes specific innovative architectural features of interest. Some of them tended to use analogies and metaphors in working out ideas that gave distinct edge to their solutions. I was taken aback by the ease with which they could handle the constraints of eye mask. Their verbal protocols (descriptions) as well as post-experiment interviews were full of emotions and drama.

Overall ‘seeing’ faceless people using designed spaces, effective use of precedents and creation of ambiance through controlling lighting dominated architect’s visualisations.

This may appear as a short anecdotal deviation. I could not resist blindfolding myself informally. So, I asked a student of mine to frame an architectural design problem and I blindfolded myself. The session lasted for over an hour. The experience was deeply immersive. The spaces I created were visualised in the evening light, which appeared to have been automatically selected. Besides functional layouts; the ambiance and time of the day became the focus. Interestingly, I was not aware of the actual time that I spent in the session, nor the time of the day when the experiment was actually conducted. I was of course careful not to include personal experiences in any of my research writings.

Working with architecture students

Note that the initial experimental work involved architects who were 35 plus, with varying experiences of design practice. (It was more of convenience sampling)

Is it then likely that they performed so effortlessly, because of their professional experience?

To eliminate this possibility, I shifted my focus to working with architectural students in their 3rd year. (age roughly 19 to 21 years), just when a design problem of relevant magnitude is introduced in the school design studios.

To replicate on larger audience of students, I had to change the experimental protocols. Video taping each session independently and analyzing transcripts   was beyond available means at my disposal. Besides, we had sufficient evidence from the earlier experiments that it is possible to design using mind’s eye. We did not have to prove that again.

So, I made student pairs where one of them was blindfolded and the other took notes, but only intervened for clarity when required. There were two conditions that we varied. First was to create pairs with boss and assistant relationship and the second was to establish partnership equality. Pair was separated after the design was declared complete and asked to independently draw the idea that they thought was final. We then compared these final sketches.

Overall, even these young students could effortlessly handle the project in blindfolded condition. (See video 1) There were surprising similarities in the sketches drawn by the pairs. The major deviations were in the scale of the building and the way it fitted on the site. (See figure 1,2) Most students were fluent and could explain their ideas to their partners verbally, often accompanied by gestures and sometime use precedents.

Video 1: Pair with one of the student (girl) blindfolded. The second acted like her equal partner. Watch her gestures and references to her body. Hear the description carefully to look at how the ambiance is emerging.

Figure 1,2: After the design assignment was completed, the pair was separated. The eye mask of the principal designer was removed and both were asked to sketch the design idea that they had mutually agreed on. Figure 1 shows the sketched plans and figure 2 shows the 3D view drawn by the blindfolded and sighted designers. The similarities are difficult to neglect.

Blindfolding the classroom

I became little more adventurous to explore what would happen if I blindfolded the entire architecture classroom (studio).5 There were 17 student pairs with each designer trying to explain his ideas verbally to his partner often with gestures. In most pairs, blindfolded student tried desperate tricks to explain his ideas using whatever means he could think of. (See video 2 and 3) In a closed classroom, with everyone speaking simultaneously, the noise it generated was very high. All of them were so much immersed in the process emotionally, that the commotion around did not disturb any of them. That is how immersive the imagery experiences can be!

Video 2,3: Pairs in immersive state figure out interesting ways to communicate their design ideas. Listen to the background noise. No pair was disturbed by it.

Leading to more adventures with sharing images

In the pair format of the experiment, we discovered new possibilities. These results indicated that the pair could share the mental images of creations, so far considered private. These pointed to exciting possibilities of shared imagery playing a role in teamwork and give the research a new direction. The question that we asked was,

Could pair in a team share a common image? If so, could this open up new collaborative possibilities for designers not too comfortable with sketching?

We started with co-design as our objective. So, in the first experiment, we gave an architectural problem to pair of professional architects, but separated them into adjoining rooms, connected through an audio or a limited video link. Both were not familiar with each other, nor did they have opportunity to meet before the experiment.6 The brief was to develop an information center for a historic monument across Mumbai west coast. They discussed the project over the audio link, discussed solutions and selected the best option. Unlike in the past experiment, there were scheduled pauses where the experimenter asked them the state of the design at those points. These breaks had some surprising points. In one such break, we asked one of them to guess ‘In the evolving space created, where is his design partner?’ He was prompt in his reply and said that ‘His partner is hovering around an indicated place on the site.’ We instantly checked this with the partner, and he confirmed this independently! When they agreed that the design task is complete, they remained separated and were asked to independently sketch out their shared final design idea. It was followed by post experiment interview. We also repeated the experiment pairing with two filmmakers with similar success.7

In this experiment, they could see each other’s sketches over the video link, but not see each other. The discussion was often based on 1] the partner’s reaction to the words used as well as 2] the video link access to each other’s sketches and diagrammes. Idiosyncrasies of the sketches did not hinder discussion. The results are significant for work in participatory design, as it proved that a pair of technologically linked designers could work together on a common project, share a common image and evolve a common solution. We then became bolder in our objectives and decided to investigate,

Is the access to each other’s sketches critical? In other words, was the video link critical?

Using substantially similar experimental protocols, we made a minor but significant change in the next experiment. We cut off the video link. They worked separately and in isolation, but could only discuss over audio link. In a way, they were required to figure out the evolving images in their partner’s mind and influence them with their new ideas till they agreed. Their final sketches showed that they were able to share a substantial part of new design proposal, though they had no opportunity to see what the other architect was sketching. There were of course some variations in the scale of the building.

The experiment did confirm our hunch that they had not only shared a common design idea but the image/s in their mind’s eye, so far considered as personal and private experience.

Anecdotal support

I am listing a few that I encountered in my experimental studies, hoping that others may want to take the idea further. Out of curiosity, we were simultaneously interviewing eminent film set designers and even eminent filmmakers. (We could not have expected them to sit through the elaborate experimental setup) These interviews contain interesting anecdotal information. Indeed, anecdotes do not make good science, but they do give push to newer experiments and ideas.

Most eminent artists seem to depend on mental imagery during creative phase. Not so surprisingly, filmmakers are only conscious of what the viewing frames will contain when the camera moves. They visualize details within a frame and had no idea of what was outside the frame of the camera, nor were they bothered about it. They use lot more precedents from their life in the film ideas that they develop, than what architects do. All of them seem to have library of images that they tend to fallback on for ideas. Interestingly, they do ‘see’ movements in the mind’s eye (shaped as a screen), visualize and hear background music scores and had hunches on who the music director could possibly be!

Another, eminent Indian classical dancer mentioned how, when she is visualizing a new steps for her own performance, she uses a mirror and her bodily actions to test her visualization. This is common. What turned out to be a surprise was when she choreographs for a group dance. She would then imagine a transparent box (roughly proportioned like a stage) in which she visualized her group movements. Surprisingly, she would view this box from a higher line of sight and not from the usual audience angle.

Similarly when asked, an accomplished Jazz musician could hear eminent musician playing a tune in her mind’s ears. Interestingly, when asked to imagine her playing piano while mentally hearing the sound, she said the tune was smoother when mentally playing it. She also felt frustrated that she is not able to reproduce this smoothness, when playing it physically. Interestingly, with no prompt, she imagined the keys of her piano moving up and down on to her tune! This does indicate somewhat autonomous nature of events in the mind’s eye.
Sum up

 In the last post, we reported experiment where a midcareer industrial designer was asked to develop his product idea, when he was blindfolded. We saw how he successfully solved the design problem and that too with amazing dexterity. The experiment objectively proved that he completely conceived the idea in his mind’s eye. It revealed the possibilities of learning to handle mental imagery in design problem solving.

Mental imagery can potentially offer an effective alternative to sketching. However, these conclusions could be termed a bit hasty considering that they would be based on a single case, particularly because the results did look unbelievable. This post reports efforts to dispel this doubt through a series of follow-up experiments with same or similar objectives.

First, to eliminate the possibility of the first results being criticized as freak, we invited the same designer (SP) to work with identical experimental procedures and protocols, but with a different design problem. SP was asked to design salt and pepper dispensers and common dinning table crockery; all stacked in a compact stand on the dinning table. Like in the first experiment, the sketched results were validated through several independent routes. Besides evolving an effective solution, SP concentrated on complex production problems, where he used injection molding in plastic while avoiding undercuts. All this when he was blindfolded! The results unambiguously confirmed the earlier findings of the first experiment.

The post then goes on to explore the next step with newer and more challenging objectives. This was achieved through series of new experiments with allied design professionals, like architects, filmmakers and so on. To begin with, we offered similar experimental conditions to architects tackling an architectural design problem. These problems are qualitatively different from what SP handled. First, the built forms tend to be very large. Second, they have an outside and an inside that is explored through mental walks. Third, architects face two kinds of design problems; creating a new built form and developing interiors in already built spaces. In this series, we tried both types. Lastly, built forms are not always sculptural (except in parts) and could not be shaped by gestures the way SP handled products. At best, only some elements of the building could be sculpted.

In spite of these differences, the architects conceived their built forms and interior spaces effortlessly. However, there were some striking differences. Besides solving spatial layout problems, they spent a lot of time visualizing and controlling lighting conditions and ambiance. Appropriately dressed stereotypical people populated most of the spaces they created, but they were always faceless. They often used precedents and some used metaphors as a design strategy.

Most of them, who participated were practicing architects/designers and were above 35 years of age. To eliminate the possibility of design experience influencing the results, in the next series, we decided to invite younger age group, mainly students in their third year of architecture. None of them had problems completing the design project. The results broadly confirmed our earlier findings.

Becoming little adventurous, we decided to explore blindfolding the entire architecture classroom. Videotaping each pair was beyond our means, nor was it a practical route. So, we altered the experimental protocols to pair two students with the principal designer being blindfolded and the other acted as a junior or an equal partner. They were separated when the idea was completely developed and were asked to independently sketch what the pair had jointly arrived at. These sketches were then compared. The similarity in the sketches presented by the pairs was apparent.

These experiments proved that experience was not an important factor and even at that young age, students could conceive their design ideas in their mind’s eye. Like their seniors, they also focused on creating ambience by controlling the light and landscaping the interiors. The spaces were conceived from outside as well as inside and they often walked through the spaces that they created.

The results confirmed that age and experience does not matter. But it proved something more significant, i.e. it is possible for a pair to share a common image. Realizing that this could have potential impact on work in co-design, we explored this direction further. In the first series, the pair was connected with video and audio link, but in the last one, we cut of the video link. In spite of this, the pair was able to share a common image with reasonable commonalities.

Finally, the post reinforces the findings that design ideas of reasonable complexity can be completely conceived in the mind’s eye. Besides, these efforts proved that the results reported in the earlier post were not freak occurrence.

Preview of the next post

 So far we have conclusively proved the abilities of the architects, designers, filmmakers and even design students in overcoming difficult situations like working with an eye mask and complete the entire or substantial part of design in their mind’s eye. We also looked at how they used gestures in different ways to help them think and reason out ideas. In a way it supported the idea of embodied cognition.

In the next post, we have pushed architects further to explore how they can use body and gestures in solving the design problems. The idea of cornering the architects with new challenges was not a bad one. As you will see in the next post, it did bring out interesting strategies and thinking styles.

Watch young architects using their bodies and movements in thinking of solutions with amazing dexterity!

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Notes and references

  1. Athavankar U., (1997) Learning from the way Designers Model Shapes in their Mind, Cognitive Systems : from Intelligent Systems to Artificial life? J.R. Issac and V. Jindal, Tata McGraw-Hill, New Delhi, pp 221-232
  2. Singh A., (1999) The potential of mental imaging in architectural design process. In: Proceedings of International Conference on Design and Technology Educational Research and Curriculum Development, IDATER 99. University of Loughborough, England, pp 230–236
  3. Athavankar U., Garde A, Kuthiala S (2001) Interventions in the Mental Imagery: Design Process in a Different Perspective. Proceeding of the 5th asian Design Conference, International Syposium on Design Science, Seoul National University, Korea.
  4. It is not that industrial designers do not ‘see’ people using their products. In the first experiment, SP also reported such incidents. However, they largely depended on their own mental simulations to test the ideas.
  5. Athavankar U. & Mukherjee A., (2003). Blindfolded classroom getting design students to use mental imagery Human Behaviour in Design, U. Lindemann (Ed) Springer, 111-120
  6. Athavankar U., Gill N., Deshmukh H., (2000) Imagery as a Private Experience and Architectural Team Work. In: Scrivener S, Ball L J, Woodcock, Springer-Verlag (eds) Collaborative Design. London, pp 223–232
  7. Bhedasgaonkar, M., Jalote A. and Athavankar U., 2000, Co-design: sharing mental Imagery ?: Team Thinking in Filmmaking, Proceedings of CoDesign 20000, Coventry September 11-13, 2000, pp.87-92.