Out-of-the-box ideas to teach sketching

I had opportunities to teach sketching for over two decades to graduate students; some had joined the programme in design with limited sketching skills. Focus was always on the design related courses and sketching could be spared very little time. I thought I should convert the problem of lack of time into an opportunity. Reflecting on it now, it appears that the way the course evolved was influenced by my interest in cognitive psychology and also little bit in sports training. With the result, number of new ideas entered my teaching. I still miss teaching this course. So, I created a self-learning version of the course on web with assistance from Ms Vineeta Rath. All the course modules and videos are available on D’Source 1 (URL: http://www.dsource.in/course/freehand-sketching)

In this post I plan to touch only few key concepts and ideas with limited support from action videos. For those who are interested in following these ideas, do spend time on the link above.

Structured learning and out-of-the-box methods

We established in the earlier post that thinking sketches are different as end products, as an act, as a process and thus are a category by itself. So, it not only deserves a name of its own, but a different way of teaching and learning.

In the following sections, we hope to prove that it is possible to learn to draw thinking sketches quickly, using out-of-the-box methods. We have divided this section into learning two of the three components that we discussed in the last post, namely 1) The act of visualization and problem solving, and 2) The act of sketching. As mentioned in the last post, the alternative solutions evolve, are visualized and worked on in the mind’s eye. So, the way the article is planned, we will begin with basic concepts of learning visualization, and then proceed to learning the act of sketching and return to visualization. The reasons for these twists and turns will be clear once the reader goes through the article. However, the major issues in visualization and use of mind’s eye, the area I have been researching on for the past two decades, will be covered in details in the future posts.

1 The act of visualization

Within the context limited to sketching we will answer two of the questions listed in the last post. Let us return to first the question,

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

Visualization, as defined in this article, is ability to generate, hold, operate on and transform images in the mind, in absence of the real image or the object in the front. The sketching in many ways compensates for the visualization ability. It allows you to record on paper the little changes that occur in the evolving images in your mind’s eye, thus increasing your capacity to handle material. To improve visualization, it is important to trick the learner and force him to solve the transformation of images in his mind’s eye. Here are some ideas.

Visualization: Work out what we don’t see

Orthographic drawings are particularly challenging as they force the viewer/reader to visualize from the available 2D information. The advent of 3D modeling on has two ‘side effects’. First, the importance of orthographics (particularly the cross sections) is almost lost. Second, we are loosing the abilities to hold and operate on the visualized images. None of these are focus of design education any more. 2

How do we use it to develop 3D visualization? Give an orthographic drawing that contains multiple objects composed in space. Stick this drawing on their sketching sheet so that student can’t rotate the paper and see it from the other side. Then ask him to draw it from a viewing angle located on the opposite side. This is a simple but interesting problem in visualization. If the student rotates the paper to view the composition from the viewing angle given, he will see the composition in the correct orientation, but see his sketch upside down, because they have opposite orientations. With the result, the students are forced to visualize the compositions in their mind’s eye and draw and thus develop the visualization abilities over a period.

We will return to visualization issues after the discussion on the act of sketching. Let us explore answer to the next two questions,

“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?”

2 The act of sketching

In the model shown in the figure 3.2 in earlier post, ‘Why do designers sketch?’ explains role that sketching plays in the act of design problem solving. The different nodes of the model had cyclic relationship as shown briefly below. (The numbers in the bracket refer to the nodes in the original figure.)

“Think /solve problem [5] >>> Visualize [2] >>> create instructions for sketching [3] >>> produce the sketch [4] >>> observe the sketch [2] >>> think and react [5] again.”

In the following discussion, the focus is on [3], [4] and [2]. Though these nodes are integral part of the thinking process in design problem solving, they are consciously delinked, to focus on learning to sketch. In fact, the out-of-the-box objective that we plan to move to is to learning to delink the act of sketching from thinking about sketching. It aims to execute sketching in autopilot mode, without making substantial demands on the limited mental energy. This suggests radically different approach like learning to divert attention away from the act of sketching, compensated by the ‘feel’ of body movement monitored internally. Let us expand on this idea further.

When it came to executing these ideas, we borrowed concepts and ideas from sports coaching, particularly from sports that have very short response time and are largely based on developing a ‘feel’ for the actions. The borrowed concepts were transformed to suit sketching or sketching related assignments. Like in sports, we divided the tasks into pre-sketching warm-ups, workouts and specially designed sketching assignments. Warm-ups ensure that the body is ready for action through correctly designed exercises. Each group of workouts has a specific objective/s, which is a component of the total act of sketching. These two cover most of the innovations in teaching sketching. We do not intent to discuss the third task, but interested readers can review them on D’Source.

‘Feel’ the act of sketching

This article adopts an unusual approach to sketching which is so much visual in nature. It includes radical ideas like cutting off the visual feedback, distracting, to moving your body to ‘feel’ what you are drawing. The question it addresses is

“If you close your eyes, ‘What parts of the body can contribute to getting a correct sketch?”

What will be discussed now will deal with how these ideas were converted into series of related course assignments for students.

Distracting the classroom

Shifting attention away from the sketch being drawn is one of the principle goals. When the act becomes near natural, you attend to many other things besides the principle task. We discussed examples like driving where you can engage yourself in conversation with partners. Besides, executing multiple tasks is very much a necessity in the contemporary world. The first step to achieve this is to distract the attention to 1) related, and later 2) unrelated tasks.

Several ways of distracting the eyes away, partially or fully, from the sketching action were explored mainly to exploit classroom format. For example, make student pairs where they stand facing each other. Student A draws a continuous line with a crazy path and at varying speeds. Simultaneously, student B follows his line path and his speed of drawing by copying the line at a fixed distance on the same paper. The execution of such task demands that the student B is forced to divert his visual attention intermittently and yet continue with the act of effortless sketching. Several similar out-of-the-box scenarios are explained in the main article on D’Source.

‘Feel’ where the pencil tip is?

Interestingly, even the act of sketching distracts the person who draws it. While sketching most students are obsessed with continuously seeing what they draw and correcting it. They focus on the pencil tip almost all the time, and the lines are corrected immediately when something goes wrong. So, the eraser is used more often than pencil! This practice is probably fine when sketch itself is an end product to be appreciated, but not when sketching is to be used as a thinking tool. In this article we are concerned with thinking sketches, where the designers match the sketch with what vague ideas in their visualized images. So, the obsession with the pencil point and the act of sketching is a distraction! How do we then get rid of this obsession?

Think about it in a different way. You correct a sketch because you see it and spot a mistake. What if you are prevented from seeing the pencil tip by obstructing his line of sight? The constraint appears strange, but the effects are dramatic. Mount a paper shroud on the wrist. This obstructs immediate vision and areas around the pencil tip, forcing the learner to ‘feel’ the locations of the pencil tip internally as well as act on the basis of distant visual clues from the existing marks on the paper.

  1. Beginners depend on continuous visual tracking of the pencil point and loose the big picture. Is it the fear of pencil going off track?

2. Shroud cuts off the sight line, forcing the learner to develop judgement and ‘feel’ of the     pencil point.

When used for a visual medium the idea appears strange, but the results were completely counterintuitive. Obstructing the line of sight frees the students from the fear of making errors. They are more relaxed, perhaps because they have a valid justification to make mistakes. With some practice almost all students develop a ‘feel’ for correct lines. However, this is not automatic. They also go through other special exercises to develop that ‘feel’. All the students manage to draw reasonably correct lines after some practice. Interestingly, the lines were lot smoother now!

Body can ‘feel’ and ‘see’ the line path

When you can not see the pencil tip while sketching, how does a student know that he is drawing a horizontal, a vertical, an inclined straight or curved lines? And how does he start and end the line at the right points? How does he know that he is drawing a circle? (where the end points must meet) or draw a correct semi-circle or a curved segment that is symmetrical? Normally, the eyes track the path and give a continuous feedback.

Believe me, it is difficult but not an impossible task. Even when you are blindfolded, you know that you have walked straight, or taken a right angle turn. We know if we are correct or wrong by the internal ‘feel’ of the movements of body and its parts. The ‘feel’ makes us survive in sports that have very short response time. Can we then compensate this loss of visual feedback by perceiving the correctness of the line drawn by internal monitoring of the movements of the hand and the body?

Try it out yourself. Draw a straight or a curved line path (about 50 cm long) by closing the eyes. Before you open your eyes, guess where and how much it may have gone wrong.

Normally the use of wrist and forearm restricts the free movements of the hand, making it difficult to draw longer lines freely. To achieve this ‘feel’ the students have to move the entire body hinged around the feet and design complementary body movements for sketching. In this course, the students were asked to deliberately change these hinge points as far away from the pencil tip as possible, so that the body parts will move freely. For instance, drawing a long straight-line by standing and moving the hand from the shoulders and body from the well-anchored feet. Initially, the body movements appear more rigorous than what one uses in normal sketching. Over a period one sees the advantages of moving the body. It contributes to making actions as well as the line paths smoother and fluent irrespective of the lengths of the lines drawn.

There are several exercises that are shown on D’Source. The classroom experience shows that the goals seem achievable by structured training. Here is one example,

3.  Instead of moving the wrist and the hand, the emphasis is on hinging the hand from the shoulder and body from the feet on the ground. Standing while drawing permits these movements. So, for workouts, the learner must stand, move and act.

‘Feel’ of perspective space through body

Drawing perspective lines where they converge on a single or two vanishing points is not easy. Obviously, beginners are overwhelmed by these problems and their attention is diverted to true heights, line alignment, line inclinations and directions to get a correct perspective. Such learning demands that you budget attention and thus mental energy to the task. When the action of perspective sketching and its corrections completely depend on visual feedback and direct attention to the pencil tip, it is bound to divert the mind away from its preoccupation with the design problem solving.

Developing ‘feel’ of 3 D perspective space is important in architecture and 3D design projects. It is more easily said than done. This ‘feel’ needs to be consciously developed. The course insists on use of series of special underlays to draw shapes in perspective with a reasonable accuracy. It ensures that a student can reasonably draw accurate perspective by the time the course is finished. To execute effortless perspective, eventually the underlays must be dispensed with. This is something that only a few students could achieve.

4.  Specially design underlays and exercises help develop sense of perspective space.

“It is critical to develop the ‘feel’ of the perspective space, where a cube (and later several cubes within that space) are drawn sharing common ‘implied’ vanishing point.”

Sketching could become as natural as writing, if we borrow techniques from writing. You never change the grip and the angle in which the pen is held. You don’t always look at the tip of the pen. Writing in running hand ensures that the flow is maintained. It is likely that the normal expected properties of good sketching, like consistency of lines and fluency, could get neglected. We cannot afford this. So, a large number of serially presented workouts focus on these aspects.

Need for control

Imagine quickly drawing a square using continuous line with these school habits? (or more difficult, a cube in perspective with minimum lifts of pencil tip) Most students start with a baggage of habits that they learnt during schooling. The practice of often changing the pencil grip, wrist angles and preferences for drawing line in a favoured direction continue to obstruct smooth sketching. Continuous straight lines are ‘constructed’ by cumulating small marks of pencil and corrected by eraser. Children, and even grownup, rotate the sketchbook to align the line path to a favoured direction of drawing lines. Such school sketching habits make simple task like drawing a square difficult to execute. So, the square is ‘constructed’ in small strokes and by rotating the sketchbook. Any change in these routines affects the quality of the line drawn. Developed early in school, these practices continue even later. They affect the speed and obstruct fluency in sketching that is critical during idea generation phase. Such acrobatics is unimaginable when you want to write, so why should this occur when drawing shapes?

5. Observe the number of times the pencil grip is altered when drawing? We don’t do this when writing. So, why should we change grip when drawing?

6. Learners have a preferred direction for drawing lines. So, the paper is rotated to match the individual preference. Imagine drawing a square quickly, without lifting the pencil? It is almost an impossible task.

7. Most lines are constructed by collection of sequential short strokes. This habit develops because there is a pressure that the line may go wrong. The fluency is sacrificed.

The course has assignments that ensure these habits are left behind. The focus is on maintaining the quality of the line and fluency, irrespective of the direction of the path, the size of the lines, tools used to draw, the quality of paper and the speed of drawing.

8. In order to learn control on movement, the workouts insist that you change the speed of drawing lines within the line path, without changing the quality of the line. This gives control on end points of the line.

Typically, it is easier to maintain uniformity in appearance of the line (thickness, darkness and texture) if it is drawn very fast, but this happens at the cost of control over the path alignment. Draw the line slowly so that the line follows a correct path, but it difficult to retain uniformity. What you need is the ability to willfully control the speed without affecting the uniformity and that requires lot of practice. Several assignments are developed to acquire this control. These assist the students to develop fluency and smooth movements while sketching, even if the speed with which the line is drawn is changed.

3 Back to visualization with a difference

It was planned that we will return to section 1 on visualization and problem solving after the detour. Let us get back to this. If the short-term memory has to focus on solving design problem, we have to ensure that the student’s mind is not occupied with thinking required to execute his sketch. Sketching should be effortless and natural act demanding little mental energy from the student drawing it. His actions should be like writing, where the handwriting appears on the paper almost in autopilot mode, while the author continues to develop his thoughts unhindered. How do we judge that the student’s sketching action have reached this level?

Testing the pudding

There are several assignments in the section above that force the student to occupy his mind with other issues. As a final exam, we developed a really extreme scenario to judge this level of competence. It is based on a question,

“Can we develop abilities of thinking of unrelated things while visualizing and sketching?”

Of course this is difficult and most challenging, but all the same it is necessary to acquire such ability. Using student pairs, we conducted a formal viva in a totally unrelated course, while simultaneously visualizing and sketching a difficult composition.

Student A is asked to draw a composition as if viewing from the opposite side, almost similar to the assignment mentioned in section 1 above. Student B would take A’s viva in an unrelated subject and would fire the questions, while A continued to draw and concurrently answer the questions verbally. The scenario makes sure that A is preoccupied with both unrelated tasks and his thinking is continuously diverted to subject of the viva. He has to think and give answers and draw simultaneously.

exam freehand9.

9. Sketching exam with a viva in an unrelated subject

The scenarios and assignments appear strange, but they have been tried and tested during two decades of teaching sketching. They do lead to routinizing the act of sketching and make it appear like a natural act, with limited expending of mental energy budget.

In this article, there is considerable focus on act of sketching based on ‘feel’. The idea is to make the entire body participate in the act. Is there more to it than what meets the eyes?

Reflections: Does designing/sketching use embodied cognition?

The course continued to evolve through 80s and 90s, till I shifted my teaching focus to other areas. Interestingly, further theoretical underpinning to these ideas comes from recent work on embodied cognition. It proposes that the characteristics and aspects of the physical body shape many features of cognition and their influences have significant causal role in cognitive process beyond the brain. 3 Embodiment assumes that what happens in the mind is depending on properties of the body, such as kinaesthetic properties. Some of the know examples are, where people remember gist of the story better if they physically act it out. Similarly, when students are physically and mentally involved in learning, they retain content better. The idea of using body movement and developing a ‘feel’ of the line path is in principle close to embodied cognition.

Response to music offers a good example to understand this idea of embodied cognition. Embodied approach is based on listening to music with bodily movement (moving hands, head, torso and tapping feet) that contributes to musical meaning formation. Such a perception is based on multi-modal encoding, where perception and actions are mixed. Disembodied approach is based on perception and analysis of musical structure. In the first case, the understanding is corporal; in the second it is celebral. It also suggests that the motor system and cognition could be mutually influencing each other.

This is equally true with production of live music, which integrate the corporal and the celebral acts. Most singers and musician produce accompanying gestures, body movements, handle musical instrument and sing simultaneously. Such an immersive performance is difficult to be perceived as a disembodied act. (Even in radio recording era, the gestures were less conspicuous, but not absent).

Through these sketching workouts, we seem to have attempted to make sketching an embodied cognitive act. If we assume that this immersive state is critical for a creative act as in music, can design problem solving show similar bodily involvement. If not, can it become as immersive as production of songs. Can it use or exploit multi-modal capabilities to the fullest extend, than restricting itself to hand-eye coordination. We seem to have raised new question,

“Can there be embodied design problem solving that integrates solution exploration, visualization and sketching into an immersive act?”

Right now, I have no answer to this question, nor is it easy to find.

Sum up

We defined thinking sketches as a category that not only deserves a name of it own, but a different way of teaching and learning. This post gives glimpses of what is actually covered in the course. It takes off from the goals established for the act of sketching in the earlier post and develops it into a structured learning programme for design, that is effective and quicker.

This post answers several questions that were raised at the end of the last post. They included, ‘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?’ and ‘Can you reduce time and effort to produce this level of competence by planned and structured efforts?’ This post deals with answers to the last two questions extensively. It just touches the first one cursorily, but leaves it for extensive treatment in the next post.

The actual course reflects the mix of ideas and concepts borrowed from two desperately diverse sources, like cognitive psychology and sports coaching. The focus is on learning to draw effortlessly, quickly and without too much attention and mental energy. So, the focus is on diverting attention away from the act of sketching. This does appear contradictory, as the learner is asked not to think of what he is learning or had planned to learn! The course is based on resolving this contradiction and that is the reason why it is so different in concepts and execution of assignments.

The influence of practices from sports coaching is evident, because assignments are conceptually treated as warm-ups and workouts, each addressing a specific objective. The focus is on learning to draw by the ‘feel’ of the body in action.

The workouts distract the learner from watching the pencil tip while sketching, by mounting a shroud on the wrist or by distracting him through tasks. However, learning to internally monitor the hand and the body motions to develop the ‘feel’ of the path compensates the loss of feedback. Similar workouts are used to develop a ‘feel’ of the perspective space.

Reflecting back on this work, the article concludes by suggesting how the approach is closely related to the ideas of embodied cognition.

Preview of the next post

In the last few posts, we have discussed the role and nature of representation in design problem solving. We viewed thinking sketches as a separate class of sketching and treated it as a thinking tool. We discussed how it could be learnt through a structured programme.

I started my research with sketching as a focus. I was convinced of its role, but out of curiosity I decided to ask myself

“What if I prevent architects and designers from sketching?”

The experiments I conducted to search for the answers led to interesting findings. More about it in the posts that will follow.

Notes and references

1 This article is an abridge version of the one posted on the D’Source website plus lot of new contents that have come from the recent reflections. While some videos are included here as examples, more videos of each of the techniques developed are included in the course material on this site. The readers may want to refer to it, if they have plans to follow the ideas further.

2 To compensate, I designed series of puzzles based on cards to develop specific abilities of the mind’s eye. We will discuss more about the mind’s eye abilities in the subsequent posts.

3 What is embodied cognition?

Embodied cognition is an alternative to the traditional cognitive model based on symbol manipulation, information input and production of output. It also offers alternative to the computational approach to understanding of brain.

Traditional approach focuses on higher-level strategies like development of concepts, categories, reasoning and judgment and processing symbols. It does not account for the active use of motor system, perceptual system and bodily interaction with the environment.

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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)

Scan..0003_1

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

 

Part I : How and why does sketching deliver?

In the last post on ‘Why do designers sketch?’ we referred to design thinking as an intentional and iterative mental activity. This activity transforms thoughts and ideas into visualization and subsequently into external representations of new objects and images. We also saw that the mental activity has to function within the severe limitations imposed by the short-term memory (STM). Sketches are the most common external representations that designers use during early ideation phase in visual disciplines. Sketching effectively supports the visualization iterations and creative thought process. In fact, the designer’s sketchbook functions like an extension of STM. So, it is no wonder that, the artists and designers dealing with visual issues are intensely involved in sketching their ideas.

There are some obvious advantages of sketching. We discussed about sketches functioning as extension of STM. During the early ideation phase, it is not easy to hold flood of ideas in the STM. So, what the designer looks for is a quick way of recording flow of ideas. By not recording it quickly he is likely to loose them. 1

Sketching allows ideas to be shared so that they can be discussed, appreciated, criticized and so on. It encourages others in the team to involved in the creative process. Besides, the sequence of sketches that artists and designers make automatically maintains a record of decisions. It depicts the developing thoughts and ideas. There is no need to store them in LTM, unless the designer wants to. Easy availability of history permits frequent reviews of past decisions and such reviews often yield new ideas and directions. These are known and routine use of most external representations. However,

It would be a gross understatement to say that the primary purpose of sketching is to overcome the limitation of STM and to share and record ideas.

Sketching is a broad term. It refers to many things, from making a marks on the paper, to rough idea sketches, to drawings of scenes, portraits, well-finished renderings, caricatures and so on. A detailed discussion on this is included in the notes to avoid diverting from the focus. For our purpose, we plan to concentrate on the first two, namely making mark on the paper and rough idea sketches. Both capture the intermediate externalization of evolving ideas in designer’s visualization. 2

Thinking sketches and early design explorations

Early sketching functions as an agent to support thinking and ideation. It has little value as a finished product. To give it an identity to this class of sketching, we called them as ‘Thinking sketches’. Designers tend to use thinking sketches as way to 1) maintain the flow of new ideas and 2) record the ideas quickly and in sufficient details, so that they can reconstruct the entire idea later.

Interesting ‘partnership’ exists between the designer and his sketching. Designer’s thinking prompts visualization and in turn sketching, but the opposite is equally true. The sketching in turn prompts new thoughts and visualization. 3, 4 Because of this synergetic relationship, externalizing thinking through sketches on paper (or now on digital pad) still remains as an important component in the act of design.

Interestingly, it is only after early CAD versions entered the scene that researchers realized this synergy. Since then, design researchers have extensively focused on the role that the sketching plays, particularly in early ideation phase. They have published extensively on the nature of early sketches and the way these are implemented. We now have a better understanding of how and why it provides support to creative thinking. So intense is the bond between designers and sketching that researchers believe that it is difficult to stop architects and designers from sketching. Sketching is often treated as a unique designerly behavior. Designers extensively indulge in it and to some extent share this trait with artists. So, it is logical to focus our discussion on sketching, at least in this and the subsequent posts.

Last post explained why sketching is cognitively important, but in fact it is small part of the story. As we proceed, I hope to prove that STM limitations are only a small part of the story! It does not tell us how and why sketching work in supporting designer’s thinking and ideation. We plan to complete the story by focusing on the ‘Thinking sketches’ as a critical component of early creative design efforts.

Sketches on paper are just inanimate entities, but the designers have found interesting ‘affordances’ to use and exploit them. Interestingly, they get much more out of sketching than what the intended functions of the sketching are. That is why they are so inseparable from most design actions. This is the story that is divided in three main sections.

First section addresses the question ‘How and why sketching delivers?’ The answers are unambiguously logical and yet interesting.

Second section looks at sketches as an end product and tries to explore answer to ‘Why some counterintuitive properties in thinking sketches are critical for idea generation?’

Third section focuses again on designer’s behavior during sketching. It attempts explanations to why some designer’s action defy logic?

The real story is far more complex. To make sketching a more effective tool for design thinking, we must explore answers to these three questions. We plan to look at three sections one by one, spread over this as well as next posts. What designers do with their sketching and sketches reflect their ingenious strategies. In this blog we will start with a hypothesis that

sketching delivers because of the way designers handle, use and misuse (?) it.

1 How and why sketching delivers?

So many years of history of sketching is sufficient to prove that sketching does deliver. What we should be interested in is, how and why they deliver. So, let us try to answer ‘how? and why’

1.1 Sketching is close to thinking with hands

Most visual decisions deal with shape, location and relationships of elements in 2D or 3D space. Spatial issues are easier to handle when you use gestures. That is why, while giving directions to the listener on telephone, we gesture and make movements of the body, knowing fully well that the listener is unlikely to see them! It is sometimes fondly referred as ‘thinking with hands’. This is an example of visual-spatial thinking, ability that most designers acquire during their long training, supports such decisions.

It is not at all uncommon to see designers gesturing with hands while thinking. Lot of these gestures represent either some components of design or the tool for the operation that designer wants to perform. Don’t architects use palms to show the location of the walls? They also do this when they are thinking of the idea. Designers assign different meanings and functions to these gestures at different points of time in design problems solving. 5

Hands, body movements and gestures play supportive role in visual-spatial thinking. Motor actions like gestures and body movements actively support visual-spatial thinking, because visual system is linked to the motor system. Compatible motor movements make it easier to deal with decisions in 2D and 3D space. 5

Let us now look at sketching actions through this new angle. Designers use sketching when they are conceptually thinking and working in 2D and 3D space. My guess is that the hand movements in sketching are mapped to compatible movements in space. That is why sketching helps visual-spatial problem solving.

1.2. Depictive sketches afford creative reactions

The limitations on the capacity of STM prompts externalization of ideas as sketches, which now serve as an external depictive display for the creator to react to and manipulate quickly. The new thoughts, ideas or improvisations often come up as a reaction to the sketches displayed in front, which in turn prompt the designer to incrementally make changes and execute them quickly as modified sketches.

In fact, design thinking constitutes seeing and reacting to the continuous updating of the display and this is the major source of creative ideas. New or modified sketches allow the designer to freshly observe them, react, reflect and interact with them to evolve further ideas and variations. Sometimes the new ideas occur even when the first idea is being executed, occasionally forcing the designer to abandon the current sketch. 6 The ideas continue to evolve responding to the reactive, sometimes proactive thought processes.

Depictive display as much as the designers ability to ‘interact’ with it, are the resources for his creative output. Sketches act like fodder for the reaction, new visualizations and fresh ideas.

Quick updating of pliable depictive display is critical for designers to react. At the moment, it is sufficient to remember that if a designer can’t sketch well and quickly, he will either loose the idea or he will be overwhelmed by the attention and processing required to correct what he is drawing. To make this process as natural as walking and eating justifies the idea of sketching in auto-pilot mode. We hope to touch it in later posts.

1.3 Sketches afford conversation

Designers often talk to the sketches! The practice that they seem to have borrowed from the profession’s roots in art. This is how it occurs. To begin with, designer as a creator tries to sketch what he has currently visualized. He quickly sketches the new idea and moment later reflects on it as a somewhat neutral observer. The cycle repeats and he keeps switching roles continuously. He continues to react with an open mind to what he has sketched. But watch him closely.

Most designers are known to use gestures and converse with themselves and the sketches in the front during such period of reflections. 5

The STM is occupied with reacting, conversing and even rejecting the ideas. (There is little cognitive resource available for problems associated with ‘how to draw’ the next reaction.) In the encounter with these sketches, designer often challenges himself by posing questions like “What if I do X?’ and Why not I try Y?’ In exploring answers to these challenges, he either discovers new solution directions or understanding the design problem in greater depth. 7 Often this is accompanied by intimate conversation, mostly in sub-vocal speech. It is somewhat like talking to yourself. The vocal cord moves, but sound is not produced. He gestures too. Why is this a conversation and not a monologue? Because designer is playing a double role; of a creator and a critic.

Designer is like an actor playing a double role, switches roles effortlessly without being conscious of it. He talks to and instructs himself on what to do. Next movement, he reprimands himself for not figuring out the solution before and so on.

It is almost like a performance with all the trappings of a drama in it. The conversation that we referred to earlier flows smoothly and is caused by the switching of the role. Visible and depictive representations, including sketching and even mock-ups act like a setting to the event. They are known to facilitate continuous conversations with self. This is not unusual in art and it is likely that designers inherited such behavior from profession’s roots in art.

Sketches also afford team conversation

The discussion so far, presents a picture of design act where the designer is working alone in relative isolation. Such events are more common in art than in design. More often the designer is likely to work in a team, either with his assistants or with his partners. The prolific sketching continues but this time it serves the additional purpose of communication across the team while the function of supporting his thought process continues.

Designer working in a team thinks, sketches and listens to team member’s talk and maintains his flow of gestures, conversation as well as flow of new ideas. The conversation is mostly mediated through thinking sketches, but now shared by the team. New ideas are also triggered by some words that the team members utter. Imagine the complexity of such simultaneous acts and what STM is required to handle! However, if you witness such an event, it appears almost natural with designers as well as his team handling multiple tasks with ease. This is possible because they are able to sketch their ideas in auto-pilot mode that we will discuss in subsequent posts.

The politics within the team also plays its role. The thinking sketches may have principle contributor, but others may add or suggest variations and explain the thinking behind their idea. So, though there are shared thinking sketches on paper, the thinking that drive them may not belong to an individual. In any case, there is some similarity between the conversation with self and within the team, except that creators and critics are different persons. Instead of designer playing double role, different members of the team play different roles.

1.4 Distancing affords reconsiderations of ideas

The early intense actions of sketching involve emotions and bodily engagement. That is why designers quickly fall in love with the ideas they sketched, but also know that they need to distance themselves from their ideas and react to them dispassionately. Representations like sketching have a distinct advantage here.

As external entities, sketches permit a dispassionate relationship between the representation and the creator/critic. This distancing helps him review his own ideas almost as a third party.

Common distancing strategies used are, 1) Step back and see the sketches, 2) tilt the head and watch the work from a new angle and to be more objective 3) to view it after a lapse of time, often the next morning. It is a common experience that the ideas that appeared hot during eureka moment, typically do not look all that hot the next morning.

We had indeed made a passing reference in earlier post of viewing the sketch from a distance as technique that we learnt from our roots in art. Much of what designer does as listed in this post has its roots in art. What differs is the nature of thinking sketches that we will touch in the next post.

Sum up

We started with a hypothesis that sketching delivers because of the way designers handle, use and misuse it. It appears that designers get much more out of the act of sketching than their planned functions permit. Designers seem to exploit this fully.

When working with spatial problems, the kind that designers encounter, we saw that motoric actions in form of hand and body movements play important role. These actions often manifest in form of accompanying gestures. The act of sketching can be seen as a class of gestures that pins down the designer to 2D and/or 3D space. That is why we treated sketching as planned gestures that help designer think and conceptualize in space.

Sketches also offer a depictive display. Designers treat this display to react, update and interact with them. They treat the displays as soft, pliable and so quickly updatable. Occasionally, designers distance themselves from the sketches to review them dispassionately. Switching the roles between the creator and critic, they even hold meaningful conversation with sketches.

So far we have attributed these potentials to the designer’s abilities to exploit sketching. Designers are not alone in this. Much of this behavior could be traced back to practices in visual arts from which designers seem to have inherited these. In the next post we will change the track. We will look at nature and qualities of sketches that makes these interactions meaningful. 

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to researcher and friend Gabriela Goldschmidt and her extensive work on sketching. I have been following her work for years. I have rather ‘conveniently’ borrowed from several of her research papers and not acknowledge each paper separately.

Note and references

1 This also occurs when you write. During writing you come up with an apt sentence and feel great, but in the process of completing the earlier sentence, you loose it and regret.

2  Types of sketches

Visual representations capture the nuances of the ideas, designs or even expressions of the thinker. In the context of this post, they can be classified into three types.

First type of representations includes ‘work in progress’ sketches, that represent evolving thoughts at different stages to support the flow of creative ideas and images. They are intermediate representations of some potential real world objects or images. We referred to them as thinking sketches. They are not drawn for the viewers, but to support creator’s messy thought process and drive the thoughts forward. So, they afford considerable freedom in the way they are and can be executed. This post is only about the thinking sketches.

Second type of visual representations include those sketches which eventually become the final outcome of creator’s action. Paintings, posters, book covers, photographs, animation characters, caricatures and scenes, are to be viewed and appreciated as end products, either as originals or as reproductions. In semiotic terms, they contain intentionally built signs of what they are meant to represent.

These representations are created with intensity, love and care. In art and design, they involve conscious efforts to add value to the creation. In photographing the objects care is taken in framing the contents, creating background props, arranging lighting and selecting lens. In cartoons and caricatures exaggeration is not uncommon to focus on characteristic features of the object.

Adding value is even more critical in commissioned works like buildings and products. This type of representations are likely to be used to communicate ideas of what designer has in mind to the clients or the teams, mainly to persuade them to accept the proposal. These are most often impressively rendered drawings that vary from photo-realistic presentations to somewhat stylized, often little exaggerated sketches. You tend to make an ordinary object or a building appear dramatic by choice of angle, light position and rendering.

Mixing the two types can be problematic. There is this tendency to apply the techniques used in the second type of sketching to embellish the thought sketches. It can be completely counter productive, if so much time is spend on making them look pretty.

For record, there is a third type too, which is a combination of both. There purpose is to get someone else to work further on them or construct them in 3D later. They use codes that are shared by the team who will later use these representations. So, it may be orthographic, correctly drawn exploded views or perspectives. They have to be more accurate than pretty.

3   This is also true in writing. Most people make drafts and read and refine them further. Perhaps this may be true in music.

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

5  Athavankar U., (1999) Gestures, mental imagery and spatial reasoning. Preprints of the International Conference on Visual and Spatial Reasoning, MIT, Cambridge, June 15-17

6  With limited time and cognitive resource at hand, it does not make sense to redraw the entire idea with small modification. The traditional practice of using overlays of tracing papers to draw only the modified parts of the idea on the next tracing saved time, efforts and thus spared cognitive resource. Now of course the digital equivalents are in vogue.

7 The concept is similar to Donald Shon’s idea of moves and reflections. We will touch his seminal work ‘Reflective Practitioner’ in later post.

 

 

 

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.