Designers imagine, touch and walk the talk

This post is third in the series three posts that explores potentials of mind’s eye by blindfolding designers and architects and asking them to develop their design proposals, completely relying on internal resources and visualizing in the mind’s eye. They extensively used gestures while solving the design problem. On the other hand, in my earlier posts on teaching sketching for designers, I had focused extensively in getting the whole body involved in the act. I was interested in the relationship between the body movement and the thoughts.

Leaving the architects standing

To broaden the scope, I treated hand gestures as only a part of the larger aspect like conscious moving of body. I decided to refocus on the role that the body can play in solving design problem. In all my previous experiments, architects sat on a chair and then they where blindfolded. This had actually constrained their movement of the body. In these experiment, they were then blindfolded and left standing in a middle of a large empty hall, wearing a wireless collar mike in. I had hypothesized that they will move around and use their movements in some constructive ways.

Experiment design

This time we invited four architect volunteers with two/three years experience after graduation to participate. They were given a site plan with no indication of what functions to accommodate. Site given was rectangular, with one curved corner along the access road. It had gentle contours. The plan indicated trees (some to be preserved) and location of existing storm water drainage. The architects were asked to remember these features and verbally recalled them before they were given project requirements.

The design problem given was a hangout space with a cafeteria for student community on the campus. It also had a space that could be used by the students to display outcomes of their hobbies. The detailed account of the experiment and the results were published.1,2

The questions addressed were,

Will the freedom of movement impact visualization strategies?

Will the architects move their body to ‘feel’ the space that they develop in their mind’s eye?

If yes, can these movements be mapped to the spaces that they develop?

The design of the experiment ensured that the architects had to completely depend on their mental imagery and internal resources. We were exploring how the architects would use the freedom to move constructively and take advantage of the space in the hall. We were also looking for changes that may occur because the built spaces were much larger than their body and they have to be designed from inside as well as from outside.

Indeed there were visible changes in the strategies that architects used in visualization and in solving the design problem. They constructed a site in their visualization intervened in it creating architectural spaces around them, even walked around in the spaces created and when necessary altered them. Looking back, it seems like a peculiar interaction. The use of gestures was differed from the way Industrial designer used them. The difference is that the built spaces were too large to be physically sculpted! Their gestures and movements had different functions now. There were differences in the way four architect approached the idea of using the space. The visualization strategies also differed. We plan to discuss some key observations like 1] their presence on the virtual site that they visualized; 2] the strategies that they evolved to visualize the spaces and details; and 3] the way they interacted with their creations. The interested readers could refer to a detailed paper on this experiment.3

‘Presence’ on the site: Virtual or physical?

The video suggests that all the four architects were also seeing themselves virtually standing on the site, visualizing built spaces around them. How can a person be on a virtual site? This might sound strange, but it is true. Yet it needed to be proved beyond doubt by relying on concrete visible evidence of the designer was bodily present on the virtual site. The proof came from several sources in the video data and the transcripts.

We analyzed the transcripts to locate words and phrases that contained frequent references to self, such as ‘I am’, ‘on both sides of me’, ‘front of me, left side of me’, ‘on my right side’. (See figure 1) Surprisingly, most architects dropped references to north and referred everything with respect to the body, its location and orientation. In all four transcripts, there is only a single isolated reference to the North direction. (See video 1) In practice, North direction is critical in architectural practice and comes up often in conversations. Similarly, heat gain, ventilation and rain directions are worked out with North in mind.


Figure 1: Shows how concurrent speech that reveals the architect being on the virtual site


Video 1: There is only one reference to North direction in the four case studies is unusual. Their virtual presence on the visualized site was so dominating that most of them did not refer to North.

Occasionally the architect was asked a question ‘Where are you now?’ When declaring their location, they relied on the virtual space. They declared their locations with references to the features of the site or of new design that they were developing in their mind’s eye. (See video 2,3) Besides, when asked to go back to a specific feature or a location in the proposed design (like entrance), they made finer adjustments in their movements to reach almost the exact spot in the physical world! (See video 4) Such events further supported the idea of presence on the site. The boundaries between the physical world and virtual world seem to have blurred.


Video 2, 3: The architects were asked during the blindfolded session “Where are you now?” Observe the answers. All the architects were on the virtual site that they visualized and they were clear where they were located on it. (Architect in video 1 also ‘knows’ where he is.)

Video 4: Watch the architect making finer adjustments in his locations, before finally declaring where he is.

This presented sufficient evidence of the architects being on the virtual sites that they visualized in his mind’s eye. But we still need answers to the question,

Why were the architects on the virtual site? And how did it contribute to design decisions?

Beyond presence

It was not a mere static presence that could be observed. They walked up and down; exploring the site and conceptualizing built spaces around them. They seem to be imagining themselves constructing and using the spaces that they constructed. Most started with developing a built space from inside first but when required, they came out of the building to see what they had created. (See video 5)

Video 5: When working on the outside of the built space, architect steps out spontaneously.

How does one get valid clues to what they were seeing and experiencing? We mapped the combinations of gestures, body part movements and speech strings from the transcripts, second by second, and plotted the contents with respect to the site plan. (See earlier figure 1) The combined rich descriptions typically indicated site landmarks and new built features. On the other hand, simultaneous gestures, hand, neck and body movements showed the locations of these features. (See figure 2) This helped us reconstruct and map what they were seeing at that a given point of time and how it transformed. (See video 6)

Figure 2: Shows how concurrent speech with gestures and movements recorded and later mapped to reconstruct experiences.


Video 6: Watch how the site moves as the architect turns. With the site, all the built features also turn.

Virtually being on the site allowed him to operate in the ‘virtual’ space that he could build on, alter and experience from inside and outside. This was lot quicker than if had chosen the normal path of sketching these out and altering them. Watch the videos carefully. Their visualizations were far quicker to generate, lot more pliable and could match the speed of the evolving thoughts, ideas and fantasies.

Visualization strategies

The architects had to adapt to the unfamiliar situation spontaneously. So, to imagine consistency in the visualization strategies used by the four architects looked unrealistic. Nobody had any training in handling mental imagery. (Unlike sketching, the pedagogic implications of use of mental imagery have not been explored and so it had never been a part of any design curricula) Most often, it accompanies thoughts spontaneously and remains a very personal experience. The architects had to adapt to the new of ways on the spot. So, instead of searching for consistency in visualization strategy, we decided to look for differences between architects.

Architects moved on the virtual site as well as in the physical space, but the speed and the vigour of the movements and lengths covered were different. At times even the purposes of the movements seem to be different. The strategies could be grouped into three classes. Each architect treated one of the strategies as primary, but switched occasionally to other strategies when they found it convenient.

Strategy 1: Visualizing, working and moving in-situ

Two of the architects built the virtual building spaces and layouts around them and comfortably moved within it. (See video 7) They created the spaces and walked into them and altered them if necessary. The distances and spaces around were very ‘real’ to them. When asked to sum up their design, they were able to walk into the virtual built space that they created almost without error. The results clearly show that the two architects had developed a bodily feel for the virtual spaces that they built and oriented their body within these spaces. (See video 8)

Video 7: Architect created a virtual site and built the spaces around him, while pacing up and down. He is clearly developing his ideas by being inside the built spaces.

Video 8: Architects were uncomfortable if they miscalculated the body orientation and corrected it. Video shows one such example.

The visualization, particularly when in-situ, was very accurate. In summing up the design, when the architects were asked to sum up is design ideas, he could walk the same spaces with surprising accuracy. So accurate was this movement, that in spite of the eye mask, when asked to go back to the entrance, the architect carefully moved back and adjusted his steps to reach the correct location in the physical space! (See video 9)

Video 9: Watch architect going back to the exact location that she had planned as entrance. The last bit of adjustment showed surprising accuracy in the bodily feel.

When asked to describe elevation of the built space, one of them stepped out of the virtual space, to ‘see’ the building elevation and the entrance and reworked on it. (See video 10) Incidentally, these are the only gestures that sculpted the shape of the entrance interactively.

Video 10: Architect steps out and sculpts the entrance to the cafeteria. It appears as if she was developing the ideas in-situ.

Strategy 2: Carrying site on the shoulder

Two of the four architects moved into an in-situ space. Other two moved, but not with the same purpose and vigour. Their moving was a free wheeling movement. It had no direct relationship with the visualized space around. It appears that when they moved, they always had site with them. It appeared as if they were carrying the site with them as if it was attached to their body. So, the site moved and rotated, when they moved and turned. How does one prove such a strange conclusion?

Using the combination of concurrent speech strings, with gestures, neck and body movements, we could map their image that they were seeing in their mind’s eye. These dynamic map shows that when the architect moved or turned, the site also moved and turned, as if they were carrying it with them. (See video 6 shown earlier) It is not clear what was the advantage of this strategy to the designer, but they do look comfortable. Perhaps they were not aware of their own strategy of site moving with them.

Strategy 3: Shift over to a scale model

Some of the architects occasionally shifted to another strategy. From the body movements, gestures and speech, it appeared as if they were working on a scale model. They were outside the site now and perhaps viewed it from the top and created built spaces. Their hand gestures either showed location of the spaces or described shapes (often site contours, structure, roof) Gestures suggest that they are perhaps working on a small-scale model floating in the air, at a short distance from the body. (See video 11) This is closest to the earlier discussion on industrial designer (SP) working on a virtual model in front of him.

Video 11: The gestures suggest that the architect is working on a model close to her body.

General Observations

By allowing the architects to move around, we made the canvas larger. It revealed many new things. We derived three major visualization strategies from the data. For most, though one of the visualization strategies remained as a primary strategy, they were able to effortlessly switch to the other strategies when required. In spite of differences in strategies, all of them were able to solve the problem effectively.

With the broader canvas, the body movements and gestures were used to perform newer functions. They pointed out locations and directions of features that designers was conceiving or referring to. They indicated shapes and in rare case, they even sculpted the shape and the contours.

We also realized that the concurrent gesture + speech combination is so rich in information that it was possible to map what they were seeing in their mind’s eye using their body as a reference. This material acquired richness and revealed lot more of what was going on in the designer’s mind and what he was visualizing. The speech + gesture combination clearly revealed that the architect built spaces, while imagining a virtual site in his mind’s eye. He also used his body as a reference to locate things around.

In my earlier writings, I attributed this to ‘thinking with body’. Reflecting back now I found new explanations that closely match how and why architects and designers performed the way they did. It would be worth going to these areas by considering all the findings of the three articles together. We plan to do this in the next post.

I have come to believe that one of the important characteristics of designerly thinking is the inner urge to solve problems through the design expertise. The attitude can be captured as ‘whether there is a client or not, I want to, and need to solve the problem’. Designerly thinking is based on ambition as well as the excitement solving the problem, a point that writings on design methods miss completely. So, the constraints, like not allowing usual processes like sketching, blindfolding or left standing in the middle of the hall, don’t seem to bother them. None of them complained about the constraints imposed. They took the challenges in their stride, and in fact adapt to them, by spring back with spontaneous alternative strategies and approaches.

Sum up

This article is third in a series of posts that presented findings of the experiments on designers and architects, when they were blindfolded and asked to design. Sufficient evidence was presented in the previous two posts to conclude the most of them were able to handle design problems and come up with solutions and that too with amazing dexterity. This post focuses on the next objective, the role that body and its deliberate actions can potentially play in supporting visualization.

This time four architects were given a design problem and were let into a large hall. They were blindfolded, wore a cordless collar mike and were asked to work on an architectural project. The experiments were video taped and all the speech strings were transcribed for detailed analysis. The expectation was that they might use the freedom to move around while thinking of the solutions and this might impact their visualization. Indeed, they spontaneously responded to the new situation with different visualization strategies.

There was sufficient evidence in their speech as well as in the body movement and gestures to show that they were present on the site visualized in their mind’s eye. When asked, they would declare their location in the built form that they were developing. So, it is not surprising that they located everything around them with respect to their current location and orientation on the virtual site. The way they operated, even this virtual presence looked almost real to them!

Some of them used a strategy where they built the site in their mind’s eye, developed their ideas as virtual built forms, manipulated them in their visualization, but actually moved and interacted with their creations through actual physical movements in the real world. So accurate was their mapping between the virtual and real world that, when asked, they could physically walk back to the exact location in the built form and it would also tally with the physical location in the hall!

Another popular strategy was when they moved they carried the site with them. The site turned when they turned. Though the physical movement did not impact visualization, it was probably required to keep them active in the 3D space on the virtual site. Last, and perhaps the least used, was a conventional strategy of working on a small-scale model like situation. The fact that it was rarely used is surprising; as most of them are used to working with the scaled versions of their creation all the time, and that is how they are taught to develop ideas.

This data showed that body movements were far more pronounced and gestures played a supporting role. There were rare occasions when the gestures were used as tools to model the idea. Perhaps, the bigger size of the built form and the fact they had worked primarily from inside the spaces may have made it difficult to use gestures as shaping tools, the way industrial designers could.

The post concludes by listing the architects’ actions, visualizations and particularly the movements in the physical world. In the next post, we will review the findings of all the three articles in this series through the theoretical framework of spatial intelligence and embodied design.

Preview of the next post

The next post will take a bird’s eye view of experiments on imagery. We will address following questions.

While visualizing, how do designers benefit by use of body movements and gestures?

Why do they feel it necessary to move the body?

Does it support spatial decisions and design thinking?

The theoretical support for the mental events in this series come from work on forms of human intelligence and from findings in cognitive psychology. We will touch areas like 1] Spatial intelligence as well as; 2] Embodied cognition (We touched this in earlier post “out-of-box ideas to teach sketching”) as well as its spin-offs like embodied design and imagination.

Notes and references.

1 Athavankar. U. (2008) Exploring the boundaries of spatial intelligence, Conference on Research and Training in Spatial Intelligence, Evanston.
2 Athavankar. U., Prasad B., Guruprasad.K., Patsute R. and Sharma S. (2008) Reaching out in the mind’s space, In Design Computing and Cognition ’08, Eds. Goel A., Gero J, 321-340. Springer.
3 Athavankar, U., (1999) Gestures, mental imagery and spatial reasoning, In Visual and Spatial Reasoning, MIT, Eds Garo and Barbara Tversky. 103-128. MIT




One thought on “Designers imagine, touch and walk the talk

  1. Professor Uday Athavankar draws significant and deep insights on gestures and the role of movement in the design process. Gestures and role playing have origins in stage performances and this should be studied further by experimenting with dancers and dramatists (particularly Broadway dancers) to seek parallels and draw insights one step higher, on the “creative” process. Dancers “design in space”.
    Athavankar brings to our notice the theory of embodied cognition. Indeed a superb term and very broad as well as deep subject to delve into. I must bring to your attention an art form known as “performance art” where, say, a nude artist, covers her body with ink, then proceeds to make marks on a large paper spread out on the floor, her canvas. Each mark, each stroke is made consciously to create a certain “effect” and the marks are done in sequence. The result is combinatory – some of what she intends to produce and some that is caused by her movement on the paper. Some of it free-flowing, some of it not so free-flowing.
    Some future experimental procedures can include such “art performances”. When, during the performance, does the artist make a decision about using her body to put a stroke down on the paper? Just before she actually does it? Or does she already have an idea in her mind about what she “intends” to put on paper? How does one stroke lead to the other? Or does it not? Is she really “conscious” all the time throughout her exercise? What is HER experience of “imagery”?
    Very very thought provoking paper, which sits very firmly on further possibilities of research.



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