Part V: Explaining designer’s nontrivial actions

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

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

What does linking involve?

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

Linked memory traces?

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

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

Common encoding theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

About this post

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

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

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

  1. Digging deeper in cognition

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

  1. Other related issues

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

Let us start with the first group.

Think aloud effect?

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

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

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

Recency effect

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

We will now turn our attention to the second group,

Availability of decision logic

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

Redundancy from internal consistency

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

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

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

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

Why gesture?

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

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

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

Immersive Experience

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

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

Are gestures critical for 2D conceptualization?

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

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

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

Pedagogic implications

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

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

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

Summing up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preview of the next post

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

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

The question this post addresses is

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

The later posts will address questions like,

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

Notes and references

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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)


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

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


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.