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?


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.


  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. 


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.




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 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.