Thinking sketches: A messy process and messy results

Almost all of us have learnt sketching and drawing in school. At elementary level, schools focus on the correctness and quality of presentation (colouring) of objects given. The initial objectives are to represent real world objects as correctly as possible. Some have special talent and achieve this quickly. (Picasso was known to have achieved very high level of representation standards in his early childhood). It is only later that you learn to express your views of the world through sketches and drawings. Is not this adequate for career art and design? The answer is yes as well as no!

Visual representations are of course an inseparable part of disciplines like architecture, design and visual arts. These disciplines deal with decisions about spatial creations. All of them demand extensive sketching. That is a reason people believe that if you are good at sketching and drawing in school, design is a good career choice for you.

Sketching externalizes what is slowly evolving in the creator’s mind. However, to lump all the sketching activity in a single category may not be fair. Let is explore how we can split this into classes based on its applications and its location in the art and design processes. Looking at it from this viewpoint, we can see two major classes of sketching as separate. They are, sketching as a display and sketching as a thinking tool.

Sketching as a display

This class includes sketches that are also the end products of artistic activity, and are appreciated for this quality. Most of the works in visual arts fall into this class. (like in caricature, character and scene design or even composition of objects being drawn in schools). These sketches express creator’s thinking and emotions. Semiotics of the representation matters and so does signature style of the creator. These are like signed statement and represents authors interpretations. So, they are valued as an end product. Architects and designers too resort to consciously drawn and well-rendered sketches when they want to display their work to clients and to public. Sketching remains only a means to explain the ideas of buildings and products, so that people see and appreciate. Display remains a keyword in such output.

Sketching as a thinking tool

This class includes sketching meant to complement generation of large number of new and yet unseen ideas of objects and buildings.1 This kind of sketching supports the thinking that is focused on design problem solving, particularly during the initial part of the design process. In such exploratory sketching during early creative phase, designer’s hand is driven by the thoughts and visualized images that are evolving in his mind.

The studies of designers in action shows that the early sketching process includes not just representing spatial ideas or concepts, but reacting to them and thus reconsidering and rebuilding them several times. Architects and designers too sketch extensively in this phase, but draw what they partly or fully visualize in their mind, something that is yet to come in the world. Such a representation must necessarily offer a quick feedback to react to, and allow instant and reversible changes. Architects and designers continue to think and mentally focus on the solutions to the design problem at hand and almost simultaneously sketch their ideas. We have called this class of sketching as ‘thinking sketches’.

On the face of it, freehand sketching should meet demands of both kinds of sketching, but in visual arts and in design, this can happen at the cost of neglecting the differences in the objectives and expectations. This article questions the exclusive dependence on art school tradition of sketching in design programmes. Looking at these differences with a magnifying lens, we hope to argue that during the early creative phase in architecture and design, the emphasis should be also on sketching that can be used as a thinking tool. In this article, we hope to convince the readers that,

“Learning to draw thinking sketches goes beyond the art school teaching of sketching and needs an altogether different approach”

We hope to prove that the sketching taught in schools only partially meets the demands in architecture and design careers. The first section of this article deals with how and why thinking sketches are different and the second discusses the goals and objectives for a course in learning to draw these sketches.

Section 1: Thinking sketches as an end product, as a process and as an act

Let us pick up the magnifying lens and look at thinking sketches in three different ways. As an end product, they are messy and ambiguous. As an act, it is iterative and interestingly it helps designer in not just recording, but also clarify his thoughts. It encourages designer to react, explore what he is looking for, find bugs and induce him to modify the directions of the current thoughts. As a process, it is incremental in nature, building the ideas slowly. It involves reacting to the design problem as well as the solutions being thought of and sketched to search for creative opportunities. So, the ‘way’ the thinking sketches are implemented (drawn), they must prompt continued flow of ideas in their formative stages. This explains why they are being referred as ‘thinking sketches’. How and why do differ?

1 Thinking sketches as an end product and a display

Too cryptic that defies rules

Need to quickly record thoughts and ideas on paper prompt the designer to break rules and procedures of representation. The marks that they make on the paper are like shorthand notes. So, as 2D or 3D representations, such sketches are also profusely annotated when it is faster to record decisions scribbled on a note. (See figure 1) The things that designer feels he will remember are never recorded. The rule followed is, the information is just enough for the creator to reconstruct the ideas and access the logic that had driven these ideas. So, it is no wonder that only the creator can make sense of these sketches. (See figure 2)

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Figure 1: Architect’s sketches break all rules of representations. They can be full of annotations, calculations, things to do lists, overdrawn figures, plans, sections and 3D views all mixed together on the same paperIMG_0973_new

Figure 2: Car designers exploring what he is looking for through sketching. Only some of the lines represent some aspects of the object, others are extras! However, in spite of its sketchiness, the creator is able to reconstruct the idea in his mind. (Sketches courtesy Vishnu)

Sketch on top of a sketch

Speed in recording the idea is critical here. So, breaking the rules of sketching, the designers tend to draw next alternative imposed directly on the previous. Thus a single ‘thinking sketch’ may contain many ideas superimposed on each other. They have several alternative overlapping lines representing the objects as well as all its variations. The fuzziness of the sketch at this stage reflects the state of mind not satisfied with a line/curve and becomes a reason to explore more.

The designer knows how to mentally separate these lines to read other alternatives and variations. In this sketches, the creator often reads more than what he had thought of before.1 In revisiting these He also knows which lines are the ‘currently’ final and how to reconstruct the original idea and thinking. For an observer, sketches obviously look like a mess.

Sketches and ideas are distributed across overlays

As the idea develops, there is a tendency to add modifications, either superimposed on the same sketch or on an overlay tracing paper. The efforts end up with stack of tracings with incomplete ideas distributed across them. (In new media, the ideas will be distributed across layers. I have no personal experience of this.)

In a nutshell, the cryptic style of representing ideas, sketching on top of the current sketches and ideas distributed across overlays together create a messy and ambiguous appearance. These are inherent characteristics of such sketches and as we will see in a while that they are important part of the idea generation process.

“The thinking sketches excel by breaking most rules of representations”.

2 Thinking sketches as a process

To imagine that the ideas are available as complete one-shot visualizations will be far from correct.1 Sketching often starts with half formed ideas and these are developed along with the production of the sketches. In our earlier posts on design process, we had touched the iterative nature of design actions without explaining the role of sketching. The question that we must address is ”What role does sketching play (or potentially plays) in iterative processes?”

Ideas to sketching marks and vice versa

In this case, the sketching is expected to contribute to the development of ideas that are just emerging and thus are at best only partially formed. Emerging sketch can be looked at as a display of its current level of completion of conception in the mind. Designer reflects on the incomplete display and reacts, adding new marks that either completes the idea or more often leads to another one, leaving the last one incomplete. As you will see later, the incompleteness of the display is important. The ideas are concretized as the sketch develops, and vice versa.1 The process of sketching is intimately meshed with the iterative thinking process. In fact, in the context of this discussion, they are inseparable.

Reviews to change track

When ideas do not lead to anything exciting, there is a need to change the thinking track. It is a common practice in design to keep intermittently revisiting sketches of earlier explored solutions and reflect on them to discover a solution variation and possibly an altogether new solution direction. The designers review or flip through the stacks of previous sketches to explore if these fragments of solutions in the existing sketches have possibilities of combining in other ways. Thus previous sketches are important sources of ideas during iterations and serve the function of a display to react to.

3 Thinking sketches: A retrospective look at the act

Thinking sketches as an end product tend to be messy, ambiguous and incomplete. As a process too, the actions involved are iterative and with explorations based on pursuing vague directions. As an act, sketching appears to be messy. On the other hand, it appears logical that complete, correct and neat sketches would give a useful feedback to the designer to think of modifications and new ideas. Surprisingly, the messiness seems to have a clear advantage. It may sound counterintuitive.

“Thinking sketches, as an end product are ambiguous, incomplete and messy. As an exploratory execution process it has a messy iterative-ness”.

How and why thinking sketches work?

Why do such crowded and messy sketches contribute to new ideas? To find an answer, we could reverse the question. Why do neatly drawn, well-rendered and pretty sketches don’t contribute to creative efforts? There is always a reluctance to intervene or improve a finished and clean creation, whether it is a sketch, a caricature, a poster or even a cooked new recipe! There completeness discourages intervention. Finished sketches do not leave things ambiguous and are unlikely to act as springboards for new ideas.

MARSJEEPrender r1

Figure 3: Incompleteness of the car sketches suggests that it you can intervene and alter. The rendering is too complete and finished to discourage new design interventions. Pictures courtesy Prof. Sugandh Malhotra

On the other hand, the sketches that are messy and ambiguous encourage interventions.1 Design researchers suggest that this vagueness and ambiguity are critical for generating new ideas. Designer giving a fresh look to a group of lines together often prompts new ideas and new interpretations.

To sum up this section, we can conclude that in the early phases in the design process, the act of sketching is so personal that as an end product sketches communicate very little to others on the team. They are executed to support the creator to develop new ideas. So, it is difficult to conclude that the viewer centered art school tradition of representation is helpful in the early ideation phase. Nor is the excellence in sketching and drawing in school adequate to select design career.

Now that we have some understanding of what thinking sketches are and how they work, we can shift our magnifying lens to the next section dealing with the goals and objectives for a course in learning to draw these sketches. Do we then need to change the teaching of sketching in architecture and design schools? If so,

“What would be the goals of a new learning programme in sketching directed to designers and architects?”

Section 2: Learning to draw thinking sketches

The kind of sketching we are look at should help designer generate and develop his ideas, help in iteration and contribute to clarifying designer’s ideas to them and ‘effortlessly’ record the details. Let us look at this bundle of actions as a cognitive act that makes demands from limited mental energy budget. The budgeting of cognitive energy to drive the act of sketching during the early ideation phase can be divided in two broad activities involved in the act of problem solving.

First segment includes supporting the mental processes engaged in solving design problem and visualizing solutions. We will revisit what we discussed on short-term memory in the earlier post ‘Why do designers sketch?’ and take it forward.2 We know that the ideas are driven by the processes in the brain. Iterations in thinking and solving the design problem and visualizing solutions require budgeting of mental energy. We have seen in earlier posts that designers visualize solutions in their short-term memory. We also know that it is effortful to hold material there, and to work on it and transform it is even more effortful. So, it makes sense to avoid the mental overload by committing intermediate results on to a paper, as most designers do by sketching them out. Sketches serve as a means to record ideas as well as develop new ones, but this requires budgeting of mental energy.

The second segment includes the efforts required to create instructions to sketch, review the sketch during the process of making it, and generate instructions to correct it if necessary. This too demands budgeting energy to draw correct sketches quickly. If one encounters problems of corrections, it is sure to demand additional budgeting of more mental energy and it will be at the cost of energy budgeted for design problem solving.

Why should designer be interested in all this? The problem of budgeting energy for these too activities is a tricky one. We discussed the limitations of memory in earlier post. Kahneman explains this act of balancing the different demands when multiple activities are executed and shows that energy budget allotted to these actions is not consciously controllable.3 (Kahneman D., pp 23-40) He uses the analogy of budgeting of mental energy in directing attention. We can decide (and thus control) “What to do? What to attend?” But we have limited control over how much effort each task will actually use. (This is critical as the nature of the tasks and your abilities to handle the task decides how much mental energy it needs.) Imagine if the designer has difficulty sketching his ideas, it will unknowingly extract greater portion of the mental energy budget and that too, at the cost of slowing down the flow of problem solving efforts.

“Is this a lost case for designers who cannot sketch quickly?”

Not really. They can switch between thinking and sketching serially. But there is one danger. When your mind is occupied with problems of sketching, the idea may slip out of your mind. Haven’t we all experienced that sometimes while writing, a good sentence strikes you, but by the time you complete recording the previous sentence, it slips out of the mind!

It is not a lost case however. We can learn a lot from how people who handle multiple tasks (and now multiple windows on the screen) simultaneously. During driving a car, drivers converse effortlessly with a co-passenger on different topics. Humans effortlessly compose and speak prose. They eat, walk, and also think and hold intelligent conversations simultaneously. After all, did not the Eureka movement occur during bathing? Let is ask a different question,

‘How do humans learn to handle multiple tasks simultaneously? And that too effortlessly?’

All these activities look natural and effortless because of extensive practice and learning that has gone into routinizing these actions. When human actions are routinized they appear effortless and natural. These are often referred as actions in ‘autopilot’ mode. If one of the tasks is routinized, the mental energy can now be spared for the other task/s.

It may appear as a contradiction that you have to work hard and expend efforts to make the act natural. (in our case the actions of sketching). This is not unusual. Cricket shots or football kicks may look effortless and natural. Most learners think that they will be able to repeat the act easily. It conceals the fact that extensive practice (and coaching) has gone into making it look so simple and natural. Watch any Asian eat with chopsticks and you think you can repeat this too! It looks so easy! But is it?

It is known that you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer regions of the brain involved. Talent has similar effects.3 So, the way to solve this problem is to develop skills, to make the act of sketching as natural as possible. Can this root be followed to make it a natural act? This will ensure that the brain focuses its limited energy on solving the design problem and not worry about the problems of sketching. To achieve this, what should be the broad learning goals?

1 Out-of-the-box learning goals

To develop competence in sketching to ensure that sketching is executed with minimal mental energy and ‘comes’ to the designer as an effortless natural act. Let us expand the goal. The idea is to convert it into an effortless mental activity, a routine that demands exercising very little attention. It suggests that the process of representation should become quick, effortless, continuous, and routine and demand only a casual attention from the brain. For convenience, we have referred to it as a natural act. How can you make conscious human acts natural and effortless? Will extensive practice help? The learning programme should not only influence the nature of the sketches, but also the process of sketching.

The discussions so far deal with the act of visualization and problem solving and the act of representation of ideas. Both appear to be intimately meshed together. If the act of sketching is routinized to the extent of becoming near natural, we can spend more efforts on design problem solving. It is known that such an expertise can develop with extensive practice that ensures chunking of initial independent instructions for action into a chunk. The questions that we plan to address are,

“How can we expedite learning to visualize ideas in the mind’s eye?”

“How does one learn to sketch as if it is a routine and natural act that demands very little attention and budgeting of mental energy?”

“Can you reduce time and effort to produce this level of competence by planned and structured efforts?”

We will address all these questions over the next few posts. We plan to touch the first question cursorily here and in a limited context of sketching as it will be addressed in depth in the subsequent post. So, the focus in this article is more on the second and the third questions. Routinizing the act through extensive practice is an obvious solution, but to reduce learning time for sketching is becoming critical, considering that teaching institutions prefer to spend more time on development of design concepts and design thinking.

To cater to these strange demands of effortless sketching one needs to look beyond the design domain. The connection may look strange, but out-of-the-box ideas do need such connections. These ideas are based on sports coaching and what coaches do to players. First, the coaches in sports develop specific short exercises to be extensively repeated by each player so that the response to similar situation ‘comes’ naturally to him. Second, this training is also supported by specially defined exercises that develop the right muscles for a given shot or a stroke in swimming. Third, sport coaches know that you have to ready the body for action by warm ups before launching into action. They have warm-ups and workouts followed by the main task.

“How do these concepts from sports help us in learning of sketching?”

The out-of-the-box source like sport coaching gives uniquely different contents, learning techniques and methods that have proven to be effective in my two decades of teaching sketching to design students. This new approach will be expanded in the next post.

Sum up

Sketching is a word used often, even by children in schools. Do they all mean the same thing? The article points out the mistake of treating sketching as a single inclusive act. It does not contribute to understanding the nuances of the word, nor does it throw light on differences in what it refers to. The article argues that sketching as a tool to think and generate ideas is different from sketching that ends in a display or an end product to be viewed and appreciated. The influence of art school teaching of sketching is justified for the latter, but the former, referred as ‘thinking sketches’, needs a separate treatment.

The article develops the idea of thinking sketches to show how the end product of sketching used as a tool can be messy, ambiguous, incomplete and yet useful for generating new ideas. Next, it treats design as a cognitive act consuming mental energy. So, when sketching is used to solve a design problem and visualize a solution, it will demand most of the limited available mental energy. Little is then available to generate instructions for creating a sketch that records that idea. This suggests that sketching can match the pace of flow of thoughts and produced effortlessly to become a natural partner in thinking, only if it is routinized and demands very little from the mental energy budget. The article then lays down new goals and objectives and suggests out-of-the-box techniques to improve effectiveness and reduce the time that is required for learning to sketch.

The latter part of the article addresses the question, ‘Can you create a structured programme to learn how to draw without having to think about it?’ Such an approach to sketching needs a radically different programme to teach sketching. The article sets up the goals of such a programme and recommends using sports coaching as an analogy to learn how to create thinking sketches. This new approach will be expanded in the next post with videos of how different sports techniques were adopted in classroom situation.

Notes and references

This post is an abridged as well as updated version of the article published on D’Source. You can directly access the earlier version at     http://www.dsource.in/course/freehand-sketching

1 These ideas expressed here that are partly or fully based on by Gabriela Goldschmidt’s work, particularly

Goldschmidt G., (1994) On Visual thinking: The vis kids of architecture, Design Studies, vol 15, no 2, April 1994, pp 158- 172.

2 Miller G., (1966) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. In Readings in Perception, Eds. Wertheimer M., (pp 90-114). Van Nostrand, New York.

3 Kahneman D., (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Allen Lane, London. pp 23-40

 

Why do designers sketch?

Art and design, both bring something new in the world through objects and images. Nobody disputes that thinking influences the creations. The creations start as a mental activity, but results deal with real world sensory elements, that you can see, touch, feel and operate. Design thinking often involves composing meaningful physical and visual elements in 2D and 3D space. The thinking leads to intentional actions, so that the resultant ‘composition’ works as a meaningful and effective solution, as close to the original thoughts as possible.1

Such composing is most often accompanied by visualization, but it rarely is a one shot affair. During early creative phase, visualization is base on incremental steps till the clarity emerges. It involves two abilities. First, it deals with working with images in the mind; Second, making them visible in some form. However, these are fragile and are lost if not attended to.

Though visualization can technically remain as a standalone mental activity, it is often supported by some form of dynamic representation/s that keep co-evolving as the thinking explores newer directions.2 In design, initially it is represented in some media and physical form like, notes, diagrams, sketches as well as orthographic drawings, cardboard mockups and so on. See figure 1. Some of these forms of representations are unique to design profession. These actions, and the way they are executed, look like that are natural partners of the thinking process.

1

Figure 1: Examples of how ideas are represented in early creative thinking. 1) Top: Early sketches of car ideas. Courtesy Vishnu. 2) Early thinking in diagrammes and notes,. Courtesy Ameya 3) Diagrammes to architectural design ideas. Courtesy Kamu Iyer, 4) Mockups with different levels of granularity.

Let us ask a question,

Why is there a need to represent the ideas externally? Why and how do representations contribute to the development of ideas?

To find answers to these questions, we must take a short detour and dig into the ideas on how the brain processes information and the role short-term and long-term memories play. We will then return to design thinking.

Overcoming the limitations of Short-Term Memory (STM)

STM plays a critical role in human actions and specifically in problem solving. Miller3 proved that STM suffers from severe capacity limitations. We can only hold seven plus or minus two items in the short-term memory. Miller also showed that the limited cognitive resource has to be rationed between processing efforts and need to temporarily hold information.

Common examples would convince us of these limitations. For example, you experience these limitations when you learn to drive. You don’t enjoy the drive when you are learning, nor can you give a coherent account of what you encountered on the road! It is a same story when you eat Chinese food with chopsticks for the first time. When you are learning, there are too many micro tasks and sequences of actions to be attended to. With practice, you chunk them together as units. Then you don’t have to process them as micro-steps but attend to them as a chunk. The primary activity (like driving or eating with chopsticks for the first time) takes so much of your cognitive resource that you find it difficult to converse with others around. According to Miller, STM has an upper limit on number of things that it can attend to and process simultaneously.

Here is a short exercise to understand the idea. (See figure 2) There is an unfolded flat cube with 6 sides. You have to mentally fold it and decide if the line closes and forms a continuous loop. Now imagine, while busy with the folding task, if a random list of capital cities were to be read out to you by your friend? Will you remember the cities and get the right answer to the cube problem?

Puzzle_withtextFigure 2: Does the line close into a loop when the opened up shape of a paper is mentally folded into a cube?

The contents of the fragile STM decay and vanish quickly unless you make efforts to retain (rehears) them actively. In solving the cube problem, watch yourself doing it. You complete the folding of first two sides and check if the lines meet on the edge. When you move on to other sides of the cube, the folding operations that you performed little while ago are lost! You divide cognitive resource between folding of planes and holding it in the STM and memorizing the list. The limited cognitive resource available in STM is divided between 1) our efforts to hold the content and 2) process them. If processing demands large part of the resource at the cost of holding it actively in STM and vice versa.

Some of the master chess players, when visualizing and simulating the game in the mind prefer to keep an empty chess board in the front to reduce the contents they would have to hold in their STM. We also encounter the limitations of STM all the time in our routine tasks. That’s why we look for quick and handy forms of representations, like we stick ‘Things to do list’ on refrigerators and Post-its on computer screens. (Traditionally, in India women used to tying knots to their pallu as reminders of things to do.) Obviously, the number of things that we can attend to and process are limited.

Representation and the act of design

We now know that external representations are critical because they primarily serve the purpose of extending the limited capacity of the STM. External representations are part of human strategy developed to overcome limitations of the brain, particularly of STM. To conserve resources, one of the most important strategy that humans use is to quickly represent ideas externally. In design, it includes diagrammes, sketches and quick and dirty mockups. We will concentrate more on sketching. We will start with questions,

How do we overcome the limitations on the capabilities of STM in the act of design? How do we ration the cognitive resource while designing?

Why do designers sketch?

The answer to this lies in the way designers use diagramming and sketching as an extension of STM. But the ideas can’t be routinely extended to understand the role of sketching and the act of design. We will attempt to understand this in two stages. Though there is a clear advantage in external representation, you do need cognitive resource to generate sketches. In the first stage, we will focus on the relative use of cognitive resource in different representation problems. In the second stage, will also add problem solving component and see how the resources are reallocated.

Visualizing, sketching and cognitive resources

We will focus first not on designing, but just on the act of representation. Quick sketching is the most common form of representation. The need for cognitive resource is determined by the nature of sketching tasks and the backup logistics that it expects from the STM. Some tasks may demand more than others. The discussion that follows deals with different representation tasks and indicates potential resource demanded by that representations.4

The idea is modeled in figure below. (See figure 3.1) Let us take a simple task like observing a composition of objects in front and drawing it as seen. (task 1) You may need to hold it briefly in STM and keep refreshing it frequently. But you do have to generate instructions for moving your hand and pencil point. This is least demanding. That’s why children are taught this in schools. Now if you remove the objects after sometime, you must rely on memory. (task 2) You now have to visualize the composition in the STM, hold it actively and refresh it continuously to draw it. That is little more taxing.

Suppose you give a task where the composition remains in the front, but you are expected to draw it from opposite side and that too from a specific viewing angle? (task 3) This makes extra demands on processing, as you have to ‘work out’ and then visualize what it will look like. To overcome processing limitations of STM, most observers do this in stages by segmenting the composition. The processing is similarly demanding if you are given orthographic drawings and asked to draw a cross section! (task 4) Most likely, it will be done in segments and each segment is quickly drawn before moving to the next. Remember the folding of the sides of the cube. The cube problem would have been easy if you were allowed sketching in segments as you solve.

Figure 1-01

Figure 3.1 Modeling the act of problem solving and representation.4

Task 1: [->1 -> 3 -> 4]; Task 2: [->1 ->2 ->3 -> 4]; Task 3 & 4: [-> 1 <-> 2 <-> 3 -> 4 -> 1]

Notice that tasks 3 and 4 demand that you ‘work out’ (visualize) the representation by expending resource and then generate instructions to draw. The task is so heavily processing biased that most people resort to visualizing as well as sketching it in parts. Note that all the tasks so far deal with different levels of processing to understand and/or create representations. None of them demanded any design problem to be solved.

These tasks were recorded in ascending order to reflect increased need of cognitive resource demanded by different representational tasks. The first two are simple sketching tasks typically given to children in schools. The third and the forth require resource to visualize representations. They demanded ‘working things out’ in the head, which requires substantial cognitive resource for processing and subsequently generating instructions on how to represent (draw).

Where is the capacity for design thinking?

Now imagine that you have difficulties in visualizing and in making neat and correct sketches quickly. The problems of making a proper sketch and correcting it will take way most of your processing capacity. Remember the earlier examples of learning to drive and eating with chopsticks?

If implementations take all the cognitive resource, how will additional resource be available for the intensive mental activity of solving the problem in design?

That is why the idea of performing representation tasks (in our case sketching) in autopilot mode, where you expend minimum cognitive resource, makes sense. Can you sketch quickly in autopilot mode?

Added complexities of the act of design5,6

The purpose of the act of design is to find a meaningful solution to the problem that the designers are working on. Designers spend time and efforts in understanding the problem, the context and the functional requirements. The Long Term Memory (LTM) also supports the activity by retrieving relevant stored items into STM. These may include accessing knowledge, design precedents and memories.6 It also takes new inputs from the real world. Is not that the reason to fix those mood boards in the front? See figure 3.2.

It is well known that working out the solution to the design problem as well as accompanying visualization is performed in STM. So, the limited STM capacity has to serve us on several fronts. It is well utilized, if it is used for developing solution directions and visualize how they can work out in space, than on problems of drawing and correcting the sketches.

Imagine now that you are working on a design problem. We need to account for activities like solving a problem that make additional demands on STM. Let us plugin a hypothetical process of problem solving in the earlier model.7 Roughly, we can look at ‘design thinking and problem solving’ as primary activities leading to ‘visualizations’ and subsequently to ‘sketching or mock-ups’.

Figure 2-01

Figure 3.2 : Modeling the act of problem solving and representation.

Task 5: Iterative [5 <-> 2 -> 3 -> 4] -> [ 4 -> 1 -> 2 <->5 <-> 2 -> 3 ->  4]

What are the new plugged in activities? The design thinking is now focused on understanding the problem, generating new ideas and evaluating thoughts and ideas. (Task 5) It demands designing and design thinking and might require that we bring in contents from the direct perception of objects and events in the real world or as memories from LTM and handle it actively in STM. This requires substantial cognitive resource to be deployed.

Next, as the ideas develop, they lead to visualizations of arrangements of elements in the fragile STM. But, this is not a one-way flow. (5 <-> 1). It may start with tentative visualization of ideas that are quickly evaluated and altered in the STM. This cyclic back-and-forth flow is likely to lead to incremental development of design ideas. What are its implications?

Imagine if we had decided not to make those quick and messy sketches and notes? It would mean holding the ideas as visualizations in the STM. Either you have to keep rehearsing it to hold it as an active display in STM or allow it to decay. Quicker you record the ideas, the better it is. So, cognitively less demanding quick representations becomes critical. Take an example. In writing, you suddenly get a wonderful sentence in a flash, but you may loose it, because part of your STM is busy instructing the hand to completing the previous sentence. That is why quick and messy form of recording (noting and sketching) is required.

In design, the representations take form of rapid sketches, diagrammes and quick and dirty mock-ups. Once the current ideas are sketched out and are available to the designer as external entities, capacity starved STM is relatively freed; it can now allow 1) new material to enter and 2) new ideas to evolve in STM. One should treat rapidly recording external devices like sketching as extensions of the STM.

It is advantageous to spend some cognitive resource to generate instructions to the hand muscles, to record them as sketching/diagrammes/notes. Even though they are incomplete and ambiguous, they do serve the purpose. So far as they capture the right contents and reflect the intentions of the thinker, it does not matter that they look messy and confused. Besides, the action releases STM of its burden. In short, these external recordings truly act like an extension of STM, relieves it of the efforts needed to hold the ideas and help to overcome the limitations on its capacities.

So, in spite of its limitations, the STM can handle resource hungry problem solving provided the acts of representation (sketching) do not demand too much resource. Else, the main activity of solving a design problem and visualizing new ideas that steer the thinker to an effective solution are starved of cognitive resource. Most creative efforts are process intensive and make heavy demands on severely limited processing capacities of STM.

Sketching, when the designer are executing it, works like a ‘online’ dynamic depictive display unfolding in front of his eyes. The act of observing the display is important, because it serves as a major input for self-criticism and further incremental development of ideas. Of course, the display needs designer’s continuous attention, which entails expending continuous cognitive resource.

Neat and clean process?

The way the process is described, the operations look too clean and sequential to be realistic. While design thinking and visualization process has its eureka moments, it is often not a one shot process. You iteratively reorder, scrap, rebuild and transform elements till the design intentions are met. The advantage of sketching is easier to understand if you treat act of design as a temporal and cyclic event consisting of series of iterative actions that record ideas. The complexities of handling the temporal iterations obviously demand moving contents in and out of these circles shown in figure 3.2. Such operations are even more cognitive resource intensive. But once the external record is available, even if it is only in parts, STM is relieved of its burden to hold them and is free to take up the next problem solving as well as visualization challenge.

Thinking sketches

Designers use sketches as intermediate representations of the ideas evolving in their mind. They can be called as ‘thinking sketches’. They are messy, incomplete and often ambiguous. The value of these sketches as end products is often not important, at least till you become famous and research worthy! In most sketches, they only represent objects that will be produced on different scale, in a different context and in different materials. For them early sketching is a means of supporting the evolving thoughts. This type of sketching should be treated as a different class. Though they are not important as end products, they have a key role in design thinking.8

We saw how quick and messy representations are key to design thinking. But there is much more to designer’s ‘thinking sketches’. We hope to discuss this exclusively in the next post.

Should design career be reserved for those with good drawing skills?

The discussions so far suggest that, sketching is a critical activity in idea generation. This also leads to interesting questions.

Should design be taught to those who already know how to sketch and draw well? Or should we teach ‘thinking sketches’ and drawing to those who are passionate in pursuing design carrier? And lastly,

Considering that design thinking is widely used in different types of problems, which may not have visual component, are there other forms of representations that could compensate?

In my research on representations, I tried to conceptually explore all contradicting possibilities. We hope to discuss these questions over the next few posts.

Programme to learn ‘thinking sketches’

Our roots in visual arts have always influenced the teaching of sketching in design schools. Would the nature of designer’s sketching be different, particularly during the early creative phase in design, if the design profession had emerged independently? This is a hypothetical question, but answer seems to be yes,

How does one learn to draw thinking sketches? How could such programme for sketching be developed?

Design career should be opened to students who show a creative promise and are thinkers, who could then be taught sketching to support their ideation. I tried to develop a course for sketching based on the conviction that early ideation stage need different kind of sketching. Logically it follows that such efforts should shun the art school influences (at least partly). So, I build the course ground up from scratch.

The focus of the course was to minimally depend on use of cognitive resource while sketching. Observe that we walk, swim, eat and even drive in autopilot mode (i.e. with only a cursory use of cognitive resource). So, why can’t we sketch in autopilot mode? It made sense, because during early creative phase, designers sketch to support problem-solving process. So, they must allot their cognitive resources for their problem solving efforts. Wasting this resource on making correct sketches entails depriving the creator from using it for the main task of solving a problem. So, the focus was on ‘How can we make sketching a near natural act, like walking and eating?’

The course ensured that the students learn to draw quick and correct sketches in a short time. The focus was on correctness of the sketches than on style of sketching. It deployed out-of-box ideas to shorten ‘learning to sketch’ duration. It insisted on using the entire body to participate in the process of sketching. So, it focused not only on moving the hand, but also moving the body and assuming correct postures. I plan to discuss this in the next post.

As mentioned earlier, design thinking is being practiced by many, and they are unlikely to be skilled enough in sketching. Are there forms of representations that can effectively substitute sketching? Can other forms of representations support creative thinking and problem solving? We will have quick glimpses at the other options available, but deal with them extensively in later posts.

What if we prevent designers from sketching?

Out of curiosity, I challenged, the notion that sketching is an inevitable form of representation in designerly thinking. In scientifically conducted experimental series, the designers and architects were blindfolded and they were asked to design. When prevented from sketching, designers used their ability to internally represent their creations in their mind’s eye (mental images). These served as an effective depictive display to react to, almost as the way sketches on paper functioned. Designers seem to have amazing abilities to effortlessly generate new images and manipulate them willfully to solve problems. All of them were able to react to their mental images, transform and manipulate them and at times reject what they did not like, almost as if they were working on paper.

Can this be used by students of design thinking? Is it possible to train oneself in use of mental imagery?

 

Generating gestures and word strings

Directions attempted so far, is the use of combination of gestures and word strings to represent objects to their teams as well as to self. Together they contained description of evolving shapes and compositions. We are trying to simulate the early thinking during ideation.

I am now trying to concentrate on exploring forms of representations that can be naturally acquired, easily learnt and do not demand much of cognitive resource to be utilized. It is work in progress, but it is likely to be a mix media communication. If potentials of design thinking have to be explored, this will be a critical step.

There are several indicative examples. Ideas in brainstorming sessions are not necessarily sketched. Many times, in face-to-face conversations, ideas are explained using gestures, with only a marginal support from sketching. It is important to explore other forms of representations that could support creative explorations in non-spatial problems. We will pursue this in later posts.

Sum up

In this post, we were exploring design behavior in the early creative phase and have addressed the questions, ‘While solving a problem, why is there a need to quickly represent the ideas? And subsequently, why a mental activity like design thinking quickly ends up in sketches?

Design thinking often leads to visualization and later to its quick representations. The limited cognitive resource that STM works with demands that we ration it carefully to different mental activities involved in design problem solving. We tried to develop a model of these activities in two stages. We prefer to quickly represent ideas externally to conserve limited cognitive resource, which otherwise would have been expended in holding the ideas in STM and work with them.

External representations, particularly visual representation like notes, diagrammes, sketches and mock-ups work as extensions of STM. They have key role in idea generation. As a prelude to the future posts, we concluded the discussion by touching other possible forms of representation.

It is clear that sketching as a form of representation helps designers to overcome limitations of STM. We referred to them as thinking sketches, which serves many more functions than just conserving cognitive resource. In the next post, we will discuss the nature of thinking sketches and how they work. We will also discuss wonderful things that designers do when sketching, along with my efforts to develop a special course to how to draw thinking sketches.

Notes and references

1 This is true of many creative art efforts. We intentionally compose sequence of words to create prose and poetry. We compose musical notes into a composition with intent.

 2 In most cases, representations appear to be critical, however, the way thoughts are represented is largely discipline specific. Designers sketch, musicians play or write score, authors write or word process their thoughts ….

3 Miller G., (1966) The magical number seven, plus or minus two, in Readings in Perception, ed. Wertheimer M., Van Nestrand, New York

4 In spirit, the figure is somewhat close to the interactive visual imagery diagramme that Mckim proposed, but is developed further to include cognitive perspective. Also see

McKim R. H., (1972) Experiences in visual thinking. Brooks/Cole

5 It is not based on specific research on act of design, but extrapolated from what is known of STM. What is explained here can be considered indicative.

6 Discussion on art thinking is not included here. I did not have the fortune of studying how artists think and the kind of problems they solve. So, the discussion is limited to designer’s work. The model proposed will have to be altered to include art. My limited understanding is that the purpose why artists sketch is to explore and present a personal point of view of seeing the real world. This involves intense initial contemplation and self-searching to get clarity on how he should act. Artists are known to keep gazing at the empty canvas in front till some clarity emerges. Initial intermittent representation actions become more frequent as they advance and the depictive display in the front guides their thoughts.

7 There is no way to figure out the actual information flow in the act of design experimentally and show how it should it be represented.

8 Designers also make well rendered sketches as finished products. They are more presentation heavy and are a different ball game. This post does not deal with such cases.