Thinking sketches: A messy process and messy results

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

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

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

Sketching as a display

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

Sketching as a thinking tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thinking sketches as an end product and a display

Too cryptic that defies rules

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


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

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

Sketch on top of a sketch

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

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

Sketches and ideas are distributed across overlays

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

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

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

2 Thinking sketches as a process

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

Ideas to sketching marks and vice versa

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

Reviews to change track

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

3 Thinking sketches: A retrospective look at the act

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

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

How and why thinking sketches work?

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

MARSJEEPrender r1

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

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

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

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

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

Section 2: Learning to draw thinking sketches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Out-of-the-box learning goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sum up

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

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

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

Notes and references

This post is an abridged as well as updated version of the article published on D’Source. You can directly access the earlier version at

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

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

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

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


Part II : How and why does sketching deliver?

In this post, we begin by revisiting why sketching delivers and explore new dimensions not touched in the last post. Additionally, we focus on designer’s behavior during sketching and attempt explanations of designer’s actions, practices and behavior. This material contains lots of statements. These are based on arguments and not necessarily validated experimentally. I request readers to do fill in gaps and refute statements they consider incorrect as their reactions.

Though we are discussing sketching, we cannot escape discussion on design process and problem solving. We will touch the process issues as a context to the role played by sketching in the early part of the design process when ideas are generated.

Section1: Sketching within the design process

Design process normally is built on the concept of finding design opportunities by interviewing users and other stakeholders, conducting ethno studies, observing how and why people use products, collect literature on market and the available competing product variations. Designers more inclined towards systematic processes rely on this approach. They start searching for solutions as broad answers and then go into details. It is also likely that during systematic collection of data some solution directions may have already emerged and can serve as starting points. (In fact, for most experienced designers, the problem and solutions occur simultaneously, but that is for later discussions)

To expect a single agreed starting point and a linear predefined process is unrealistic in design (as well as in art). Few designers prefer to pick up some aspect of the problem and search for solutions, then move on to the next aspect and so on. These ideas grow independently, often incrementally, till some of them fall into place together as a coherent solution. In both the modes, they tend to rely heavily on sketching driven by internal thoughts initially. Other designers have a very personalized approach to start the act of design. However, in all of these diverse approaches, designer’s actions remain in reactive mode.

Designing is reactively creating a redesigned real world

The actual sketching actions are driven by visualization and thinking that precedes it. In problem solving, both the processes demand that the design approach remains largely reactive to the real world context that the designer had investigated. Such an approach may show creative flashes, but designer reactively creates a redesigned real world. In this process, the role of sketching is to give physicality to the ideas, externalize visualizations and help detail them out.

While such an approach may be appropriate for large number of projects, there are times when you need to be proactive. The process can trap the designer in the study of real world context. This often results in evolutionary mode of product development.

The questions we will address are,

How does designer get out of the trap of reactive mode? And particularly, what role sketching can play in making the design approach move towards being proactive?

While sketching plays its complementary role, thinking and visualization actually drive the sketching actions. So, it will be unfair if all the creative actions and results are attributed exclusively to sketching, nor is it intended. At best we can say that sketching has its share of contributions in the creative process. This post is restricted to how sketching contributes in the creative tasks.1 That is why plan to focus on iterations and the exact role sketching play in them.

We cannot forget that developing a solution is iterative and thus cyclic act. The idea was discussed in the model proposed in Fig. 3.2 in the earlier post ‘Why do designers sketch?’ The model proposes that you ‘see’ the real world context and issues, ‘think and react’, ‘visualize’ and ‘sketch’. Most ideas concretize in incremental steps often over a length of time.

We believe that the iterative actions + sketching combination has lot to do with being proactive. Let us understand this idea. How can we modify the model to incorporate the creative nature of iterations?


Figure 1: Shows how the influence of designer’s sketches increases with he reacting more to the sketched-world than to the real world problem.

Reacting to the sketched-world can be proactive

Once the cycle of iteration and sketching speeds up, the new sketches available as display dominate the subsequent thoughts. So, instead of talking of sketching, we should now talk of pile of sketches created in series of iteration. As the iterations multiply, designer reacts more to the modified ideas and eventually creates an alternate ‘sketched-world’. The sketched-world eventually separates from the real world solutions. We can now understand why it works.

Instead of reacting to the problem, when designer reacts to the ideas in the sketched-world, his reactions are qualitatively different. The first sketch prompts the next and that in turn prompts further sketches. Designer is now engrossed in the sketched-world and only occasionally worries about the real world problems.

Hunches that prompts iterations

It is interesting to look at the nature of thinking that dominates iterations. Keeping the understanding of the problems as a background, designer uses sketching not just to find an adequate solution to the problem, but to privately explore his hunches and fantasies. Sketching scores when hunches are being explored. During sketching, designers raise and answer questions like ‘Why don’t I do X or Y?’ and execute the idea as a quick sketch and then reflect on it, trying to figure out if there are bugs in the idea.2 This is the part that is typically accompanied by designer talking to himself (the sub-vocal speech). We talked about this in the last post.

From grounded reality to rooted fantasy

His understanding of the design problem is rooted in the real world as well as the sketched-world that he created. He has now two lines of thoughts in his mind. He constantly shifts between the sketched-world and the real world of objects, its context and its practices that he had earlier analyzed. Using your own sketches as a resource to react gives him opportunities to willfully get out of the clutches of the reactive approach. It is of course left to the designer how far he wants to stretch, but it does offer him the chance to move into his world of ‘rooted fantasy’! See figure 2.

Diagram 2-01

Figure 2: As the time passes, the design actions fluctuate between the influences of the two. With more sketches to react to, the chances of proactive solution appearing are higher. In real life, the paths 1, 2 and 3 depend on the demands of the problem as much as the abilities and inclinations of the designer.

The designer-created world of sketches has lot to do with moving away from initial reactive mode to being progressively proactive. The sketched-world complements the thinking process and designer’s reactions and reflections on this world can potentially lead to new discoveries and ideas.3

Even during the flight of fantasy, it is not that he is not aware of the real world. He comes back to it intermittently while reflecting on to the sketches in front. Sketching serves at once as a creative as well as an analytical tool.

Thinking sketches

Perhaps now it may be little more clear why these early sketches in the design process were referred to as ‘thinking sketches’. They help clarify thoughts and explore what you are looking for, find bugs and induce the designer to modify the directions of the current thought. There are two reactive states. First, when the sketch is available as a depictive displays to reflect on. This was discussed in the last post extensively. Second, during the process of sketching. The thinking process continues to supports this sketching act. It is likely that halfway through designer abandons the sketch when he realizes the flaws in his line of thoughts.

Working with other forms of representations

We cannot forget that what the section above describes is a property of all forms of representations that allow quick on-the-spot changes. Sketching happens to be on top of my list. To understand why, let us try something funny. All you have to do is to imagine yourself to be a designer in ancient times, when paper and writing instruments were not invented. Imagine now that as a designer you would be required to detail your the idea by etching on stone tablets! Also imagine if you had made a mistake in the etching that was carved out! See how lucky we are that we have soft, pliable tool available in form of sketching on paper!

So far, we addressed the question ‘How and why sketching delivers?’ It is clear that designers get much more out of sketching than what the normally understood functions of the sketching are.

Section 2: Unexplained design behavior

In this section, the story continues to unfold and we now plan to focus on designer’s strange sketching behavior. On the face of it, it appears to defy logic, till we understand how and why it works and often delivers. The rest of the section will deal with designer’s somewhat strange practices and behavior during sketching and attempt explanations of his actions.

Where do I begin?

To imagine that designers have a well laid step-by-step procedure and a clear starting point like in some of the counterpart disciplines, will be far from correct. Similarly, to assume that the designer has a clear visualization of idea in his mind and has to merely sketch it out is far from true. It is not uncommon to see designer starting his sketching with a vague and incomplete visualizations and actually use sketching to search for an idea! Strange are the ways designer seem to work!

Why wait till I understand the problem fully?

Designers tend to use sketching to comprehend design problems! While sketching, when designer’s pencil is moving, the intense thinking that goes on in his mind is often trying to understand and sort out the problem that he is yet to fully comprehend! They use speculative ‘Why don’t I try ‘X’?’ approach, then reflect on the solution. In the process of accepting or rejecting the solution, they develop an understanding of the problem.

Designers believe that some understanding of the problem is good enough to start sketching, but if that understanding is not there it is fine. It will develop through sketching!

It is not uncommon to find designer getting frustrated, often resulting into tearing of paper and throwing them away in the waste paper basket. On subsequent realizations that the idea had a potential that designer did not realize, back comes the paper from the waste paper basket! (Contemporary digital tools have its equivalents.) But it can even get stranger that this!

Blank paper and a blank mind is also a good starting point

We hinted earlier in this blog that designers often do not have a clear visualization of ideas in their mind when they start. It is not uncommon to see designers facing a blank sketchbook patiently waiting for ideas. (Artists too face blank canvas. During practice, some chess grandmasters stare at the blank chessboard in front to project their actions and moves.) All they have is a feeling that it is a good time to start thinking about the problem and solutions!

If designing is an intentional act and a deliberate process, how can it account for what we discussed above? How can it explain apparently aimless looking activity like scribbling and doodling?

Doodling makes sense

Doodling often starts without a tentative or somewhat vague goal/s. The actual goals, patterns and shapes are ‘discovered’ during and after the act of doodling. The concept might sound irrational to many disciplines, but in design and art this is not unusual. So much for the linearity and rational thinking in problem solving! On the face of it, doodling appears to be a strange act. Yet, it has two functions.

Doodling affords serendipitous discoveries

Most of his doodling efforts are based on a belief that something interesting will eventually come out. In a way designer is like a child who picks up something on the road. Ask the child what he wants to do with it, and most likely answer is, ‘I will think of something!’ The designer’s actions share some of these qualities. It is because of this innocence and the hope that the child will be able to come up with something interesting. Designer too hopes to ‘discover patterns’ in groups of marks on the sketchbook, that may lead him to a new direction to pursue, a new idea and so on.

Designer sees and reinterprets the marks on paper with an open mind and hopes to discover unexpected new possibilities and directions to pursue further. The marks on paper, even if they were drawn with different intentions, do suggest new ideas and directions! The doodles as well as the ongoing sketching and doodling activity do ‘tell’ designers (and artists) what to do next. He often discovers new possibilities.

We believe designer has to be an out-and-out optimist. (We don’t see how he can survive if he is not!) Perhaps it could be explained by the fact that he has a problem at the back of his mind when he looks at his doodles. Don’t we see more patterns in the cloud when you are searching for ‘something’ to be identified, than during a free scan of the sky?

Operative words and phrases here seem to be ‘open mind’; ‘innocence’; problem at the ‘back of the mind’ and ‘unrestrained optimism’.

Doodling keeps brain in visual-spatial mode

Doodling keeps the hand moving in readiness to tackle spatial issues. Earlier in this post, we discussed important role that bodily movements in space play in handling visual-spatial problems. Call it scribbling or even doodling, but we suspect that the physical action of doodling serves an important function of retaining the visual–spatial way of thinking in STM.

Initially they may be aimless marks, but these marks form a depictive and somewhat ambiguous display in front to react to. The ambiguity is an asset that is precisely what is exploited. More about it in the next post.

Sum up

Revisiting how and why sketching delivers, we discussed how sketching supports the reactive mode of thinking and fits well with the design process. We then moved on to the reasons and the potentials of sketching contributing to proactive mode of thinking, where you react to your own sketches, thus leading to new thinking directions and more new sketches.

Designer reacting to his own sketched-world can potentially lead to his movement towards being proactive.

In the later part of the post, we focused on designer’s strange sketching behavior, which, on the face of it, appears to defy logic. Designers don’t seem to wait till they understand the problem fully. They make a beginning and get into the act of sketching and use it to understand the design problem! We also looked at how they seem to search for solution through rather aimless activity like doodling and why it actually works.

Designer’s unusual approach is based on operative words and phrases like ‘open mind’; ‘innocence’; unrestrained optimism’ and ability to keep the problem at the ‘back of the mind’, attributes that are naturally associated with art.

Some of these practices appear strange and irrational to other disciplines, but in creative design and in art, these are not unusual. It is worth repeating the point that was made in earlier posts.

Approach, as well as these processes that designer use seem to have clearly inherited from the roots in art. The aspects of the thinking process discussed here is just one small part of this inheritance.

But the story of designer’s strange ways does not end here. More will obviously follow in future posts.


  1. It will be unfair to attribute proactive problem solving actions to sketching alone, nor is it implied. In design problem solving, it is the active and thinking brain that drives the designer to be proactive. Thinking often does change the directions of the thoughts. Similarly, domain knowledge and memory of precedent solutions can also lead to proactive ideas. So does the ability to reframe the problems and drive solutions in new directions.
  2. There are some similarities with Schon’s idea of moves and reflections given in his book ‘The reflective practitioner’. We touched this idea in earlier post too. The topic will come again for discussion in later posts.
  3. During early creative phase, designers rely heavily on sketching. Design research literature does deal with the links between sketching and creative explorations. Surprisingly, effects of sketching or other forms of representations are rarely discussed in literature on creativity.




Acknowledging the roots in art: Part III

Design thinking has borrowed a lot from thinking and methods used in desperately different disciplines, that includes sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences, human factors, business thinking and even operation research and so on. No doubt, it has made design approach richer. In our eagerness to admit ideas, concepts and practices from these areas, are we forgetting the tenets on which the profession was built? Central theme of this post is,

Have we forgotten the roots of design profession in visual art? In fact, the new view that is gaining currency that the influences from art have limited applications in the new age design.

In the first post in this series, we saw how ICSID’s historically changing definitions of design reflected this view. (Shaping of Design Thinking. Nov 17,2016) In the current definition, references to formal issues and aesthetic judgment are totally absent. The fact that this view is steadily gaining ground is reflected in bold statements like “Design has nothing to do with art” by respected design legend Milton Glaser.1 With design thinking catching up as an approach to problem solving in areas other than what is addressed by design professionals, the view that art has only limited influences on design and design thinking is gaining currency in non-traditional application.

Design approach, with part of its focus on form and aesthetics, proposed in the early definitions of design is increasingly treated as ‘traditional’ in the new age design. I attribute it to our misplaced understanding that the influences of art and thinking in art were restricted to form and aesthetics issues. I hope to dispel some of these misconceptions.

Umbilical cord with art

In the later half of nineteenth century Europe, and particularly Britain, the implications of mechanization was a major topic of debates. There were two diverse reactions. First group opposed the mechanization and the industrial products advocated returning to the old art and craft practices. Their efforts to improve the quality and design of products was strongly linked with arts and crafts. Terms like applied arts, industrial arts were common in use in this group. Second group approach accepted machines and explored their potentials to offer new machine aesthetics, eventually leading to modern design approach. The Werkbund movement in the early twentieth century in Germany was in this category. It pleaded to improve production by machines through collaboration of art, industry and the craft.

Pioneering design school Bauhaus in Germany was the most striking example of the later type. The school pioneered a radically different approach. It sought to create a new profession to serve a new kind of society. It maintained strong links with art by inviting artists and craftsmen on the faculty to help improve the standards of products in the industries. There were Avant Garde artists like Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee, Itten and Moholy Nagy, who continued to dominate the approach. Though it was not located in art schools, the link with the art remained strong in Bauhaus. It invited craftsmen along with famous artists to work in a guild kind of environment. It was an independent institution and the artists were the mainstay of their education and remained in dominant position in the Bauhaus philosophy and contributions. 2,3

These debates underscored the need to forge a strong link with art, art schools and artists.

What was undisputable was the need for links with art institutions, either by locating education programmes in visual art institutions, or by inviting artists to participate.

Fascinating account of developments during this period is documented in Vyas’s ‘Design the International Movement, with Indian Parallel’.4 However, the discussion on this topic is avoided here, as it would be distracting us from the main argument.

It is difficult to imagine education of design without its close links to the visual arts. Thinking in visual arts has not only influenced out ideas of aesthetics, but also impacted design thinking, actions, practices and behavioral traits. By neglecting the umbilical cord with the ‘visual arts’, we would be rejecting years of accumulated design experience, associated knowledge and treat past success stories as irrelevant. In analyzing these influences, it is critical to go beyond decisions dealing with aesthetic issues, to include impact on how designers think, react, act and solve problems.

It would be only fair to explore how visual arts thinking explains the past design practices and then pass judgment on the validity of the traditional ‘visual art influenced’ design approach. The design methods movement and even later writings on design thinking, would have been far richer if they had not neglected all that design learnt from visual arts.

Let us start this post with a hypothesis that “The thinking in art has influenced design problem solving”. We will follow an incremental approach. We will start with casual evidence of these roots and get it out of the way before we dive deeper into the nature of these influences.

Studio as a workplace

Influences of traditions from art seem to be more pervasive than what we accept. Look at the way designer’s categorize and label their workplaces. The term ‘studio’ has always been associated with the workplaces of artists, painters and sculptors. Studio is a place connected to creative art/s, where something is experimented with; materials are manipulated and explored, to construct something new. Studios always valued skills and craftsmanship. Designer’s professional authority has roots partly in the skilled control over the tools, whether it is a sketch pen, a mouse or others. Designers not only borrowed the idea of studio from artists, but also inherited the culture of free creative explorations that goes together. That’s why designers prefer to call their workplaces and even classrooms as ‘studios’. 5,6

Even the physical appearances of the workplaces that designers dream are somewhat like artist’s studio. Bit messy in looks, they are full of creative displays and ‘constructive’ activities that are immediately put on the wall. Studios are more hands-on than populated with large machines.

There was one major departure from the idea of studios. Pioneering a new approach, Bauhaus school did create an exception. They had workshops where apprentices (also called journeymen) worked under masters. Artists, craftsmen and student apprentices worked together to search for the new aesthetics of the industrial age.3 In a way, their workshops actually functioned like creative studios.

All this is changed rapidly in the later half of 20th century. Design was also getting more technology intensive. Design schools were becoming part of technology universities.

Studios vs lab culture of the universities

In the later half of twentieth century, design became one of the departments amongst many disciplines of the universities. Consistent with this new linkage, movement towards design sciences started taking roots. They were no more ‘schools’ of design. (Schools often represented a thought process and not a discipline.).

New culture included pursuit of knowledge and more recently, working in the laboratories, where experiments are conducted under controlled conditions and variables are managed to study their effects. No doubt, this has its merits. The benefits of labs in specific areas in design profession must be acknowledged.7 It also created the potential of making design a knowledge driven profession. However, it cannot substitute the spirit of working in the studios and exploring new boundaries. Studios primarily generated creative work.

The idea of experiments has different connotations in design. To the artists experimenting with his work is exploring new ideas. The societies and communities were their laboratories. They exhibited their work in galleries and got live audience responses. Architects and planners work directly with communities and exhibited their master plans, building ideas and got reactions of citizens directly. This is conceptually different from the lab culture of universities, where problems were tamed and studied under controlled conditions, eliminating the bias of the creators of the experiments. Balancing the rational approach of the universities and pursuit of new knowledge with the creative practices in design is a major challenge that design schools/departments struggle with now.

Makers sensory experiences

Artists as well as designers share many things by way of approaches, actions, activities and tasks. Both intentionally and consciously create sensory experiences. It is no wonder that most discussions on art influences are restricted to aesthetic judgment. These influences are direct and visible.

Painters, sculptors and designers deal with similar visual elements. In their long educational experiences they learn to manipulate and control sensory elements like shape, colour, texture and sound and their relationships with each other. In doing that, they use and internalize the principles underlying the aesthetic judgments. They are involved in critical judgment of beauty in their work, though designers are unwilling to acknowledge it directly. So, it is not surprising that artists and designers share the same concepts and terms.8 Most introductory books on design deal with such classical issues as well as aesthetic judgments and often acknowledge the influences of art. At best, the discussions are extended to include meaning, expressions and their ability to evoke emotional reactions. In spite of statements like “Design has nothing to do with art” most designers do acknowledge the role that art played in the way they deal with aesthetic issues.

Haven’t designers learnt more from art other than dealing with aesthetic issues? The influences go far deeper and include the way designers think, approach and solve problems.

Why do designers doodle?

In art as well as in design, apparently aimless doodling is a legitimate way of starting your work. Doodling and back-of-the-envelope sketching is common in design. On the face of it, these actions may look inconsequential, but are actually serious and legitimate. Do artists and designers have ideas in their mind when they doodle?

Designers doodle, sketch and even gesture, to keep the spatio-motor activity running. The hand must remain in motion for spatial ideas to develop. Interestingly, many times designers doodle and sketch without a clear idea of what they are looking for. Doodling and sketching, often treated as making marks on the paper, however aimless it may look, is a critical action. Eventually it turns into meaningful shapes on paper.

Like artist who steps back and looks at his work with a tilted head, designers too naturally do this. This artist-like trait is not a coincidence. Both are in deep, often sub-vocal conversations with their creations. I hope to discuss what we do with sketching act in a separate post later.

Current design thinking is struggling to remain faithful to its roots in art as well as technology, both advocate opposite approaches to problem solving. It is like a pendulum that oscillates between the rational and systematic on one side, and somewhat irrational and creative on the other. Most designers effortlessly shift between creative unstructured explorations and rational thinking. It involves switching between right and the left-brain.

The influences of art on design thinking we discussed so far are just a tip of the iceberg. The similarities don’t end here. In fact they start here. There are deeper issues that I hope to touch now as well as the subsequent posts.

Design minus art?

Artists want people to adopt to a new way of seeing the world, often the world that the artists has seen, reacted to and perceived freshly, from their points of views. They develop a unique way of looking at the world around and want to persuade viewers/readers to see through that. Is not this what poets and authors do? And painters and sculptors do? Art has always encouraged the artists to project his ways of seeing on the viewer/reader.

Design inherited this from art. Designers, particularly masters, precisely do that. There work reflects their unique views. Frank Lloyd Write, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry in architecture, Santiago Calatrava in structures, Charles Eames in furniture, Massimo Vignelli in typography, persuaded people to see their view of how the world should be through their work.


Clockwise: Works of Frank Lloyed Write; Le Corbusier; Zaha Hadid; Frank Gehry; Charles Eames. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It is fashionable to classify this as ‘iconic’ design and suggest that the new business model oriented world of design, technology and teamwork can do without it. The chances are that such a world will again create quality of products that may prompt another arts and craft movement and birth of a new Bauhaus.

What will happen if we create objects without the vision of the world that artists and designers want us to see? Imagine design devoid of passion to change the world.

Cart before the horse?

Most designers work with a conviction that the world is looking forward to them and the community of designers for breakthrough solutions. To offer a solution that is different and unusual is natural in design and it obviously comes from its roots in art. They believe the breakthrough difference will come if I not only complete the brief, but also exceed it. There is this internal motivation to be different. There are innumerable examples that suggest this, but the most illustrative instance is of initial discussion on design of Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Write (FLW).

When Edgar Kaufmann wanted to build weekend home in beer run in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, he invited FLW to show the site where he wanted the house to be built. Taking the stroll around the site, when they were just opposite the waterfall, Kaufmann seems to have suggested to FLW to build the house so that he can see the waterfall all the time. Within seconds FLW replied, I want you to be part of the waterfall. Wasn’t FLW exceeding the brief and extending the boundaries that his client had initially implied? We will return to this example in subsequent posts as it contains many facets of design thinking.

In fact, designers normally tend to probe the outer limits of the boundaries in the clients mind, probe the degree of freedom available and explore potential directions where freedom is possible. To the outsider committed to rational linear process, such flights of imaginations, just when the project brief is being given, may sound strange. Is designer not jumping the guns?

In reality such incidences are not unusual. How do designers handle this? In initial meetings, occasionally even in the first meeting, designers tend to ask questions that may appear unrelated. They make strange observations and think of impromptu solution directions, even before the problem is completely described. At the back of their minds, the contours of speculative concepts start appearing. They play a significant role in the questions asked. Eventually, it contributes to the change the boundaries implied initially, and alter the directions that design ideas take.

Sum up

We started with a hypothesis that “The thinking in art has influenced design problem solving.” To what extend is the statement incorrect?

The current practices and designerly traits seem to suggest that design indeed has borrowed some of the concepts, actions and practices from art. There are overarching similarities which cannot be explained by chance occurrence. We should quickly sum up some of the issues that we identified. We can traces of roots in art to justify our practices like calling our workspaces as studios, assistants as apprentices and educational institutions as schools. Like artists, we are involved in aesthetic judgments, often visual, and seem to judge our creations using the same concepts and terms that the artists use. We doodle, sketch and then view them from a distance to contemplate, hoping that new ideas will appear in the process. They start speculative explorations of ideas even when the project brief is being narrated and is not fully communicated. Like artists, through their work designers persuade people to see the world from their point of view and through their vision.

We are treating design thinking as if it is an iceberg. Have we then explored the depth of the iceberg? Not really. We still need to dive deeper to acknowledge the influences of art on design thinking. Much of the iceberg remains to be explored and described. That is the task for the future posts.

In the next post we will discuss the role of sketching in design thinking. Traditionally, we have treated sketching as integral part of design thinking. We will address this question next.

If we find answer as yes, it is logical to restricted design thinking to design community. But then it contradicts with the idea of design thinking as it is defined today!


Notes and References

1 Quito, Anne. (2016) “Design has nothing to do with art”: Design legend Milton Glaser. See Glaser goes on to explain his views on the difference between design and art.

2 Gillian, N., (1972) The Bauhaus, Studio Vista, London

3 Bayer H., Gropius W., Gropius I., (1979) Bauhaus 1919-1928, The Musium of Modern art, New York

4 Vyas K., (2009) Design the International Movement, with Indian Parallel. SID research cell. CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India

5 Design students value apprenticeship in studios and learn through the project based dialogues with the masters (gurus). The student understand how to think, by watching and even copying the guru. This is not uncommon in visual arts and music, which has always valued guru-shishya parampara. Practice oriented professions like medicine and law too have been focusing on apprenticeship.

6 Even the professional scenario is going through the changes reflecting he changes in the business environments. Designers seem have ‘offices’ and not studios or firms anymore! The term office evokes different kind of connotations and imagery

7 Artists too use their studios for experiments, but they are of a different kind. They tend to be more exploratory and the incident knowledge that they generated is from reflections.

8 Composition, proportions, balance, colour interaction, harmony, contrast, rhythm, figure and ground, and so on.