Part V: Explaining designer’s nontrivial actions

To effortlessly perform these non-trivial actions at different points of time in the design process is a surprising fit. This was discussed in detail in the last post. These experiments were performed on several designers and architects, with varying levels of design experience and with different design problems. To perform these actions and movements spontaneously and effortlessly is not easy.

In the preceding post we attributed this performance to potential linking of the two information channels, the visual and the motor. We referred to this as linked-memory traces. We have tried to attribute stability of the otherwise fragile mind’s eye images to the linking and partnership of visual and motor information channel.

What does linking involve?

This is often referred to as common encoding in literature on cognition. We will briefly touch these ideas in this post. This could perhaps explain why architects and designers were able to perform nontrivial tasks effortlessly.

Linked memory traces?

The fact that the designers repeat identical gestures when returning to earlier decisions of form or layouts suggests that these sequences of gestures were processed as relatively independent motor information channel, similar to the visual information channel, that dealt with the status of the image. It is plausible that these were linked and were readily available for independent as well as simultaneous access again. That is why, on several occasions in the transcripts when discussing any element, SP is seen to be moving his hands exactly in the same contoured paths, coinciding with the path taken earlier. Similarly, some of the architects were able to go back to the indicated locations effortlessly. The conceptualizing and maintaining of the shape/layout in the mind, perhaps used visual as well as motion systems to encode this as separate and yet interlinked information.

We have so far referred to this as linked actions, where two channels, in this case visual and motor information channels, work in sync. Using gestures and movements that mimic the shapes and layouts are examples of visual and motor systems working in close partnership and possibly creating a stable entity in the mind. Though speculative, plausible explanation could be the idea of common encoding creating stable representation that they could recall anytime later.

Common encoding theory

Common encoding, because it is grounded in perception, is close to the idea of embodied cognition. The theory is based on connecting what we see and hear with our motor action. The shared common code links perceptions and actions in a cycle, which is considered as fundamental logic of the nervous system. What is relevant to us is how this close partnership facilitates the events that we encountered in our experiments. It shows that seeing an event activates the action associated with that event. The inverse is also true. Performing an action activates the associated perceptual event.1 We represent observed, executed and imagined actions in a manner that allows us to make predictions. So, for a given action, it supports prediction and anticipation of action outcomes, giving us control on the actions planned. When you conceive the action, you learn what the movements will lead to.

Could we attribute the accuracy in the generation and regeneration of the shapes and layouts during different stages of the design process to common encoding?

The intricate ways the motor actions are linked to visual system appears to suggest that whatever SP and the architects created had the advantage of common encoding. This seems to have also aided later recall of shapes and spaces, when finally describing their creations. We suspect that such an encoding allowed SP and the architects to interact accurately with the objects and spaces during conceptualization.

With the data that we have, this does offer a plausible, though somewhat speculative explanation to creating stable regeneration of ideas and explains the accuracy of designers’ interaction with physically non-existent virtual objects and spaces. Perhaps we should wait for a firmer answer from the cognitive scientists.

The questions that we plan to address in this post are,

Can you attribute the performance in these non-trivial tasks exclusively to common encoding? Or are there also other factors in these actions at play? And finally, what else accounts for the consistency in the performance?

About this post

In this post, we plan to explore other plausible explanations of how these nontrivial tasks could have been achieved and why such a performance was possible? The use of word explore is deliberate. Based on the evidence before us, we can at best come up with some conjectures. With limited current experimental data available to us, we can never be sure.

It is planned to end this argument discussing the question, ‘Was the performance natural and spontaneous?’ or was it because of the influence of the way the experiment was designed? The post will conclude with the pedagogic influence of the findings.

Let us return to the core issue of explaining the nontrivial performance. The explanations are divided into two groups.

  1. Digging deeper in cognition

This group of explanations explores roots in literature 0n cognition. None of these were apparent when the experiments were conceived. However data post facto indicates these possibilities. The group include, think aloud effect? and recency effects in memory.

  1. Other related issues

The group consists of collection of other reasons that have roots more in the way experiment was conceived, designed and unfolded in implementation. It includes, availability of decision logic and redundancy due to internal consistency.

Let us start with the first group.

Think aloud effect?

All of the designer’s actions are accompanied by think aloud protocols as part of experiment design. The effects of think aloud on the results are difficult to see in isolation. It is possible that articulation of designer’s logic as speech strings may be acting as an additional channel assisting image recall and accurate reconstruction. There is some evidence that point to this possibility.

Speech strings (Words), visual information (image), and body movement information (including gestures) are processed individually along different channels and are represented separately.2 But in recall, any one of the channels can be activated independently or both can be activated simultaneously. The concept is referred as duel encoding in cognition. (It differs from common encoding touch earlier)

The chances of recalling a stored item is higher because of the ability to code input in two different Channels. Several examples support the superiority of the duel encoding used in mental representation. Most commonly used example is use of multimedia presentations, which require both spatial and verbal working memory, but aid in superior recall later. Duel encoding has also found support in studies based on PET and fMRI. It seems to have been validated in range of circumstances, if not all.3

Recency effect

As defined in the experimental protocols, all the participants, in a single uninterrupted session, always completed the design. In most cases, sessions were completed in less than an hour. It is likely that the recency effects of the memory would have played a role in aiding the accuracy of recall and somehow contributed to interaction with the nonexistent objects easier.4

We will now turn our attention to the second group,

Availability of decision logic

The evolving thought process motivated all the decisions as well as the interactions. Uninterrupted sessions ensured that the decision logic that generated the physical configurations was always accessible to them to fall back on. They did not have to rely on memory extensively for recall. Known and articulated logic may have assisted in regenerating the shapes/spaces if needed.5 So, it is likely that the fragile images could be regenerated on demand.

Redundancy from internal consistency

Though gestures were produced spontaneously (not overtly planned), they could be understood and decoded by a third party. This would not have been possible without substantial internal consistency in their deployment. These rules were formed impromptu during the session by each individual participant. So, their individual style would have reflected in their actions. However, in each individual performance, there is extensive internal consistency in the way they mesh the visual and motor actions together.

Look at it from information theory perspective. Any rule formation creates redundancy and aids understanding and communication.6 In our experiments, actions in the visual system were supported by mimicking of physical characteristics of the shapes and movement, by hands gestures in casserole design, and by the body movements in architectural layouts. We suspect that the internal consistency used in individual rule-making for production of gestures and movements, may have created redundancy.

Rules create structures, and in this case correlational structure, accompanying the synchronicity and interlinking of visual and motor actions, thus leading to redundancy. Such structures are known to compensate for incompleteness or absence of one of the channel of information, without affecting the performance.7

Some of these explanations could be the sources of accuracy of designer’s interactions with the physically non-existent virtual objects while creating the shapes and the spaces. As mentioned earlier, these are conjectures based on what the data points out. They appear logical, but need a different experimental design and further testing rigor.

Why gesture?

Why did the architects and designers used gestures? There are several possibilities that cannot be ruled out. Could the accompanying corporal actions be because of the creators’ efforts to communicate with the experimenter directly or through the recording? Has think-aloud prompted corporal responses? Is the emphasis on gestures more than usual? None of these questions have easy answers. These are legitimate questions. Let us attempt to address them.

None of the participants were told to use gestures. When they began, they were only asked to design and simultaneously think aloud. After they declared that their respective designs were complete, they were asked and describe and/or sketch their ideas at the end. After they completed the session, the experimenter asked most of the participants ‘why they used gestures? Answers are interesting.

Few said, ‘we just started designing and were not aware of the bodily actions.’ This is not unusual with spontaneous speaking gestures. Some reflected that ‘we could have done without it too’, without assigning specific reasons. In fact, in earlier experiments when architects were seated while designing, one architect sat with no movements of his hands. (The details were reported in the preceding post.) Lastly, only one of them said, ‘I decided to use gestures so that the experimenter will know what is going on in my mind.’

Immersive Experience

Were they conscious of the fact that they were performing? Of course they were aware that the sessions are being video taped, at least for the first few minutes.

Because of the immersive nature of design in blindfolded condition, almost all of them were in the private world of their own. There is enough evidence of their presence in the environment that they created. The designers were fully ‘into’ this environment. Naturalness in their behavior suggests that they had forgotten that they are being recorded. This rules out the deliberateness in their action.

Are gestures critical for 2D conceptualization?

Some of the readers had commented that these findings seem valid mainly when dealing with 3D creations. Do gestures and body movements have advantage in 2D conceptualization?

Frankly, I do not know yet. I did not have the opportunity to work with visual communication professionals. So, it is not easy to give a clear answer to the question. Closest I came to them was when I worked with filmmakers who were asked to develop advertising clips for social messages. These are not exactly 2D creations, at least when conceptualizing the ideas. Besides film-makers, I did some work with ‘designers’ of temporal creations, like musicians, dancers and choreographers.

It will be nice if someone actually works with graphic designers by blindfolding them. I am sure something new and useful would be discovered. It will add to the knowledge base, if it challenges some of these finding.

Pedagogic implications

The ideas indicate potential influence on the pedagogy. Because design involves taking spatial decisions, gestures and movements have tremendous potentials to offer instantaneous support to the evolving creative thoughts during the act of design. Another positive outcome is that these movements help link visual and motor information channels and make them work synergistically.

Duel encoding and common encoding could compensate for the incompleteness/loss of information in the visual system or motor system in some ways. It also tells us, that if some one has a greater control over the visual system and has the ability to focus fully on the visual events, they can exclusively rely on it. For others, depending on both would be a better option.

There are several cultures that discourage use of gestures and body movements. Are they loosing on the spontaneity of gestures available as an ideal opportunity? Perhaps, yes. Else, they would have to learn to focus more on the visual system.

Summing up

The preceding post discussed how architects and designers effortlessly perform non-trivial actions at different points of time in the design process. These included repeatedly interacting with a physically nonexistent objects/spaces, with accuracy through gestures and body movements. To explain such a performance, the idea of partnership and linking of visual and motor information was introduced in the preceding post. The stability to the otherwise fragile mind’s eye images during these interactions was also attributed to this partnership.

This post takes the next step. It answers to ’Why such a performance was possible?’ It explores explanations of how these nontrivial tasks could have been achieved. The post tries to explore roots of such a performance in literature on cognition.

The idea of linking of the visual and motor system and their synchronous operations were explained though common encoding. Not restricting explanations to common encoding, the post then moves on to find other plausible issues that would have bearing on the performance. At the moment it best to treat these explanations as informed speculations. The experiments were never designed with these intentions and so; the data is not adequate to come up with firm conclusions. At best these can be treated as conjectures. These explanations are divided into two groups.

The first group of explanations digs deeper in literature in cognition. In spite of known limitations of short-term memory, how were they able to achieve non-trivial tasks? The post lists some possibilities.

1] Think aloud during designing was part of the experiment design. This in some ways articulated the thinking that drives design, and in turn the gestures and body movements.

Seen from a cognitive perspective, think aloud speech strings (language information), images (visual information) and body movements (motor information) are processed individually as different channels and are represented separately. This is referred as duel encoding and it may have contributed to the nontrivial results obtained or it least in making the task easier. Could they have assisted each other? It is known that the chances of recalling a stored item is higher because of our ability to encode input in two different Channels.

2] By design the experimental session were necessarily uninterrupted, the result could be possibly explained through recency effects in memory. The items are known to be more easily accessed because of there recent origin.

These two factors contributing to the results, at least partially, cannot be denied. None of these were apparent when the experiments were conceived. However post facto, the data indicates these possibilities.

The second group consists of reasons that have roots more in the way experiment was conceived, designed and conducted in implementation. It includes the following.

3] The decision logic was always available to the creator. This would have allowed the creators to regenerate shapes at will, without depending too much on visual memory.

4] The recall tasks also would have been facilitated by the redundancy. The internal consistency in the spontaneous gestures and movements of each creator suggests that they have developed rules for production of gestures and movements. Even though they may be unique to individuals, such consistency based on rules is known to create redundancy making such tasks manageable.

The post concludes these arguments by addressing the question, ‘Was it possible that the gestures and movements were a deliberate act by the designers?’ The answer relies on the short and direct post experiment discussion on respondents’ views on this. Their views substantially rule out this possibility. Besides, of the immersive nature of the sessions rules it out further. There is enough evidence of their presence in the environment that they created. The respondents were fully ‘into’ this environment. This rules out the idea of deliberate action even more.

The post ends with a short discussion on the pedagogic implications of these findings.

Preview of the next post

The next post will take an overall view the design act. By keeping the focus on visio-spatial decisions in design, it traces its roots to the pioneering work on visual thinking by Robert McKim in 1970s.

The post treats designer as a information processor, and tries to model the design act as information flow and actions. In this ‘in the head’ framework, designer can only ‘work with’ and ‘work on’ internal representation, manipulating it to get new solutions. The focus is on the cognitive actions and operations on the internal representations.

The question this post addresses is

‘As an information processor, what is the competence required for the designer to be effective? How does a designer learn these competencies?’

The later posts will address questions like,

‘Are there alternatives routes to consciously develop these competencies? Can this learning be fun?’

Notes and references

1 In the three stage classical approach, perception is linked to action through cognition. Common coding approach is built on directly linking perception and action. In common coding theory perceptual representation like seeing, hearing are directly linked to motor actions by a common code. The theory proposes that there is a shared common code for perception and action. That is why seeing an event activates the associated actions and performing actions activate associated perceptual event.

2 The word chair, as well as the visual image/s of a chair/s associated with it, are stored as separate information channels. Activation of one channel may be sufficient to recall the information in the other channel. Hearing the word chair can activate a picture of that object and vice versa.

3 Author does not have a formal background in cognitive psychology. So, to hazard a guess on the differences between common encoding and duel encoding is difficult. In most examples cited in common encoding, one of the channels deals with verbal information and the other with visual information. This may not be always correct. Note that the post is based on limited understanding of these issues.

4 There is a simple way of understanding recency effect in the long-term memory. More recent events are more easily and quickly accessed than the event from the past.

5 Athavankar, U., (1997) Mental Imagery as a Design Tool, Cybernetics and Systems, Vol 28, No 1, Jan-Feb, pp 25-42

6 Garner, W.R., Uncertainty and Structure as Psychological Concepts, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, p.145.

7 Most common examples of redundancy by correlational structure are traffic signals. In stop sign, the colour red, round shape and location on top correlate. I go sign, green colour, arrow and locations correlate. That is how even colour-blind can navigate effortlessly.