Part V: Explaining designer’s nontrivial actions

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

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

What does linking involve?

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

Linked memory traces?

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

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

Common encoding theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

About this post

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

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

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

  1. Digging deeper in cognition

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

  1. Other related issues

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

Let us start with the first group.

Think aloud effect?

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

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

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

Recency effect

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

We will now turn our attention to the second group,

Availability of decision logic

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

Redundancy from internal consistency

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

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

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

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

Why gesture?

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

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

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

Immersive Experience

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

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

Are gestures critical for 2D conceptualization?

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

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

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

Pedagogic implications

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

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

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

Summing up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preview of the next post

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

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

The question this post addresses is

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

The later posts will address questions like,

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

Notes and references

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Part II: Reflecting on gestures as design behavior

Problem solving is often treated as a cognitive act and problem solver as an information processor. This is also extended to design problem solving. Yet the act of design, standing on the fence between art and science, has different nuances. So, there is much to learn from how designers solve problems. Like all cognitive acts, designer’s internal information processing remains invisible. However, designers in the act of design display unique design(erly) behaviour. The clues to what goes on his head are through observing designer the visible results or overt actions in the act of problem solving,

As the designer progresses towards solutions, the spatial issues dominate his thinking. At that stage in the design process, design can be limitedly defined as act of resolving spatial issues to achieve predefined goals. Designer’s decisions involve designing elements and their specifications as well as arranging, composing and iteratively manipulating them in space to achieve stated goals. At this stage need to support the evolving thoughts through sketching or 3D representations becomes critical. Such design(erly) behavior includes, think aloud transcripts, mental imagery, gestures and body movements when working in blindfolded mode (in normal circumstances sketching and models produced).

These are the traits we have been decoding all along. In all our experiments we have tried to capture these and treated them as a focus of our analysis. Though we have treated them as separate external manifestations of what goes on the in the mind, the experiments suggest that they are closely interwoven with the thought processes. So, we have used visible clues as a ladder to understand how, why and when they assisted the thoughts that drove the decisions.

What does visible design(erly) behaviour tell us about the act of design? This is a continuation of the discussion started in the last post “Sketch or not to sketch? That is the question”. It ended with following questions,

Why do designers use gestures and movements of the body when they solve problems? Do these support spatial decisions, visualization and design(erly) thinking? And if so, how? When should they prefer gestures and body movements?

We have yet to find explanation to why designers and architects used gestures and physically move their body through mental spaces that they created and interacted with them.

So far we have referred to gestures and body movements as one entity, there are qualitative differences within and between them. A more detailed analysis of the classification of gestures and movements and the roles they play is available in my earlier papers.1,2 In answering the above question, we will only touch some of the key gestures and body movements that seem to have a role in understanding, thinking, conceptualizing and representing the creations. We will also focus on how and why they may have contributed to the evolving thoughts.

Plan of the discussion

We plan to look at external traits of design(erly) behavior in different experimental conditions and discuss their effectiveness in design problem solving. We will also compare the two modes, when using sketching and when blindfolded. Note that it deals with limited part of the design process, when designer is grappling with spatial issues.

It is conceived as a four part series. This post (Part II) primarily explains the role of gestures and body movements and tries to explore spatial intelligence as a theoretical framework to understand and explain the design(erly) behavior. In the next post we will focus on embodied cognition as a framework and the third will include the other special features.

Overview of the theoretical frameworks

We hope to find support in two key theories that come close to explaining this design(erly) behaviour. In this Part II, we will start with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.3 This theory relies on the computational capacity, activated by external or internal information and is consistent with our treatment of designing as a cerebral act. We would be particularly focusing on the two relevant areas in intelligence; 1] spatial intelligence and 2] bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

In the subsequent post (Part III), we will seek support in the emerging theory that deals with embodied cognition. The concepts propose that many features of cognition are shaped by the characteristics and aspects of the physical body and these influences have significant causal role in cognitive process beyond the brain. It accounts for the active use of motor system, perceptual system and bodily interaction with the environment. It treats design as a corporal act.

Cognitive embodiment and spatial intelligence theories are built on different theoretical bases. The first relies on computational approach and thus treats problem solving as a cerebral act. The second argues for the role of bodily actions. It believes that thinking is also corporal in nature, at least in specific disciplines. In spite of their opposite theoretical stands, there is lot that can be learnt from these theories in understanding design(erly) behavior during problem solving.

A quick review of the experiments

In trying to find logical explanations we plan to discuss results keeping in mind all the experiments in this series. Participants in these experiments were industrial designers and architects solving problems typical to their disciplines. A quick overview of the series of experiments and the differences between them will offer the context for the discussions that follows.

Industrial design project

SP worked on a casserole project, a small tabletop domestic product. The findings of this experiment were discussed earlier in posts starting with ‘Can we prevent designers from sketching?” Short videos clips showed some of SP’s design actions. The readers could always revisit this material to refresh their memories. In this post, I plan to only briefly review the findings of these series taking into account the entire video records of the sessions .4

Let us start with a quick recap of the events in this experiment. The subject ‘SP’ was given a brief to design a casserole for domestic use. The project brief also demanded submitting designs of matching bowl set. Table 1.1 captures the set up. SP incrementally built the idea of the box, starting with fixing the volume and proportions of the rectilinear shape. It appeared as if he was shaping the volume with his hands moving in the air in front of him. He could manage this effectively as the actual size of the product was within his grasp. Most of these gestures were purposeful and were contributing to develop the casserole and bowl shapes. As he progressed in design, he started sculpting the shape and fine-tuned it. (refer Video 1) He assigned colour, transparency, textures and even finalized the product graphics. Some of his gestures simulated actions of the use of these products. He even simulated assembling of the components in manufacture. (Refer Video 2.) (Closest visualization of the scene would be to imagine musician acting as if he is playing an instrument in creating music without the instrument being there.)

Condition no. Design project Experimental condition and description

1

Industrial design project.

Table-top domestic products as projects.

Casserole, Salt-n-paper container etc.

Designer blindfolded

Designer sitting in an office chair and matching environment.

Small size, table-top product, Free flowing form.

Table 1.1. Designer was blindfolded and sat in a chair and solved the design problem

Video 1: The industrial designer shaping a virtual object in front of him as if it was real.

Video 2: The designer simulating assembly of parts

We deliberately changed conditions, where the architects solved a typical architectural problem. In condition 2, the architects were ushered in an office like environment, asked to sit and were given the site plan to see and recall. Then site plan was withdrawn and they were blindfolded. So, they had to develop the 3D representation image/s of the virtual site in their mind and worked with it. In condition 3 the procedure remained same, except that they were left standing in the middle of an empty hall, obviously without access to any sketching or modeling tools. Table 1.2 captures this.

Condition no. Design project Experimental condition and description

2

Architectural project Mid-size built space.

Student cafeteria with constrained site.

Designer blindfolded,

Designing while sitting in office like environment,

Mid-size site, Body enveloping spaces,

Constraints of construction.

3

Architectural project Mid-size built space,

Student cafeteria with constrained site.

Designer blindfolded,

Let in to large hall, can move if the designer chooses.

Mid-size site, Body enveloping built spaces.

Constraints of construction.

Table 1.2: Architects solving a problem. The differences in the conditions 2 and 3 are mainly in the working posture.

It is interesting to watch the full videos of the architects performing and ask ‘Why did the used gestures and movements?’ In this part we will rely on concepts like multiple intelligence and its subset, spatial intelligence to explain gestures. In part II, we will use embodied cognition as a theoretical framework. Both seem to offer new and credible explanations.

Treating design as a cerebral act

Designer is learning all the time by studying the problem and from the world that he lives in. He reacts to what he sees, understands and learns. The information that he absorbs and manipulates contributes to the thoughts and ideas. It influences the way he thinks and takes design decisions. The design actions are not just trial and error acts. They obviously involve intelligence. Thoughts during designing are driven by information and intentions. So, in this framework the designer is seen as information processor and design primarily as a cerebral act.

Traditional approach to cognition focuses on higher-level strategies like development of concepts, categories, reasoning and judgment. It is based on information processing and symbol manipulation resulting in production of output. Brain is an information processor and its actions are explained by computational approach.

Over the years the information processing act of design has evolved into a somewhat structured process. The design process followed ensures consistency in performance over time and projects and yet allows sufficient freedom to explore uncharted paths. It is reasonable to assume that the different stages of the process will demand different classes of information. It follows that these steps will demand specific forms of intelligence as well as unique skills. In the discussion that follows, we hope to identify some of the dimensions of spatial intelligence visible in these experiments, particularly in different segments of the design process. We hope to explain design(erly) behavior too.

Spatial intelligence is spatial reasoning and judgment

Driven by designer’s reactive thoughts, the new ideas are continuously generated, often as images. They are conceived and converted into sketches or seen in the minds eye. They are compared and judged. These images continue to evolve through designer’s reactive actions and interventions. The study of the entire process and the accompanying transcripts reveal the creative moves and reflections that SP generated throughout. (Refer Video 3)

Video 3: Industrial designer making move and reflecting on it. This continued throughout the initial part of the session.

When designers handle tasks like making effective design changes, developing alternative spatial layouts is obviously not a process-based on trial and error. To create and judge different alternatives demands reasoning, intelligence and considered judgment. It is a cerebral act. Design problem solving demands spatial judgment and spatial intelligence. All the solutions that SP developed, accepted and rejected during the session support the idea that design is a cerebral act. (condition 1)

This is also visible in conditions 2 and 3, where the architects thought, created and built the idea virtually, grasp and react to it and then alter it again. The architects too were visibly engage in modifying their ideas and trying to grasp them and figure out the implications. This involves anticipating the consequences of changes. Comparing and judging the ideas mentally needs intelligence and these cases spatial intelligence.

In blindfolded conditions 2 and 3, these steps were lot more difficult, because the dynamic events occur in the images in the mind’s eye, which are known to be extremely fragile. They had to hold these images as dynamic displays that they could react to, which demanded budgeting additional mental energy, over and above the energy spent on thinking of new ideas that keep the images in the state of flux.

Spatial intelligence in visualization to drawing

During the later stages of the design process, thoughts and ideas lead to some form of spatialization. Initially it often takes a form of mental image. Capabilities vary in simple tasks like depicting an image as ‘seen’ into these external forms. So, designers do need the ability to convert their mental images into series of sketching strokes, or in case of a model, actions on a clay block. Even more challenging is the tasks where the ideas are half-formed and designers expect the assistance from externalization efforts to concretize his ideas. These are not trivial tasks. The subsequent post (Part III) will touch this aspect in details.

How do we explain the architects exploiting the opportunities? They ‘walked’ the built spaces that designed. What explains the need for these movements?

Within this framework, attempt is made to explain gestures and movements as manifestations of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. To be mobile in the space (navigating) to understand space and chasing dynamic changes are dimensions of spatial intelligence that emerged clearly in these studies.

Spatial intelligence and navigation

Architect’s navigating through the site to understand and create spaces is conspicuously visible in condition 3, where the architects were allowed to move after they were blindfolded. In condition 2 they seem to virtually move on the site though in real world they were sitting.

Normally the architects would move on the actual site exploring the features. It involves learning spatial arrangement by exposure to the available space by navigating back n forth. It needs spatial intelligence to learning about the spaces by walking or navigating i.e. by being mobile in that space and then connecting these pieces into a coherent mental model of the site in the mind. Don’t we develop notions of terrain maps by driving through it multiple times and then connecting the short segments together?

It is common to navigate in the space to understand it. In normal circumstances, to avoid mental energy required to maintain the evolving ‘things’ in the mind’s eye, architects and designers convert these perceptions in to a plan and add their notes.

In condition 2 they paced the virtually created site, going back n forth, turning and built spaces around their bodies. (Refer video 4 and 5) When allowed they physically moved in the hall, treating it as a virtual site. (refer Video 6) They were trying to absorb the features and spaces on the site and also constructing on it actively and interactively. (Refer to Video 6) Both the actions were almost simultaneous.

Video 4: Evidence of creation of virtual site in the mind’s eye

Video 5: Evidence of creation of the site in the mind’s eye

Video 6: Designer actively interacting with the shape created in the mind’s eye, treating it as if it is real.

Watching the video and listening to their think-aloud transcripts during the design action suggest that the architects moved on the virtual site from location to location. In condition 2, the navigation and movements were essentially on a virtual site in their mind. The navigation and movements were essentially virtual.

For architects, virtual and physical navigation on the site remained the most popular strategy to understand the current state as well as for conceptualizing the idea. The self-navigation ensured that the processes of sensing information remained lot more active and under designer’s control.

Spatial intelligence and chasing change

They virtually built spaces around them and changed them, reacted to their own decisions as a result of their evolving thought process. Spatial intelligence demands the ability to quickly grasp a rapidly changing environment. Chasing changes and handling rapidly changing situation is common also in architectural assignments.

The designer’s actions and behavior do find explanations in the theory of spatial intelligence. A more exhaustive study across different design disciplines and levels of expertise is sure to reveal more about the different dimensions of spatial intelligence.

Yet, it does not explain fully the natural urge to use gestures and body movements. For that it is necessary to turn to embodied cognition. Let us treat designing as a corporal act. More about it in the next post.

Summing up

These four posts will take an overview of the entire series of experiments that were conducted over a decade. Revisiting the experiments was refreshing in several ways. It allowed reflecting back on the objectives of the experiments. To find reasons for the consistencies in findings was a challenging task. Besides, the findings could be now explained with new theoretical frameworks. The discussion here is restricted only to part II.

These experiments differ in several ways. Industrial designers were given a typical design of small tabletop objects. Architects were given mid-size architectural projects like designing individual detached residential or commercial buildings on a defined site. In the later case, the conditions were further varied. In first case, the architects sat in an office like environment and in the second, they were left standing in a large hall. Because all were blindfolded, they could not have used sketching as handy representations. They spontaneously resorted to gestures and/or body movements to develop the ideas, thus revealing some new dimensions of design(erly) behavior.

The protocols of the sessions clearly show a close partnership between the designer’s evolving thoughts and the process of externalization. In this case, there is extensive dependence on gestures and body movements during conceptualization of new ideas. These posts are an attempt to explore answers the question,

Why do designers use gestures and movements of the body when they solve problems?

The design problem solving is viewed through two theoretical frameworks. Part II (this part) treats design as a cerebral act and considers designer as an information processor. It shows how intelligence, and this particular case visio-spatial intelligence, play role in problem solving and explain the need for use of gestures and movements.

Gardener’s multiple intelligence framework explains part of the design behavior and decisions through the idea of spatial intelligence. The protocols show how spatial intelligence, reasoning and judgment play a role in developing, comparing and selecting ideas and taking them forward.

In absence of external representations like sketching, the ideas were represented internally as fragile mind’s eye images. Yet, designer’s managed to overcome this limitation by supporting the ideas through sequential gestures. The sessions also bring forth another dimension of spatial intelligence involved in the process of creating drawings from visualization. As we will see later in part III, this is not a trivial act.

Attempt is made to explain gestures and movements through bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. To be mobile in the space to understand its nuances is a dimension of spatial intelligence has emerged clearly in these studies. The data showed how architects continued to navigate on the site virtually, to explore the features of the site as well as the spaces that they built by shifting their locations continuously.

What was more surprising was that they reacted to and altered what they created. They could quickly grasp the rapidly altered environment. Spatial intelligence is also chasing change in perception. The bodily actions and gestures were used to not only understand the configurations of object or spaces, but also for altering them.

The sessions clearly showed different ways in which designers deploy spatial intelligence. The post explains this through several events that occurred in the design sessions. Do see this as work in progress, till the next two parts are uploaded.

Preview of the next post

Are there more effective explanations to gestures and body movements?

Part III, the next part, will treat design as a corporal act using embodied cognition framework. This theory draws observations from many fields like sports and music, to present more convincing answers to why designers used gestures and body movements.

The post will also argue that the choice to use gestures is with the designer and his decision is influenced by contribution that movements make to the evolving thoughts. Both the theories show advantages of getting the body involved while thinking, particularly when innovations are spatial in nature.

Notes and reference

  1. Athavankar U. A., (1999) Gestures, Imagery and Spatial Reasoning. In: Garo JS, Tversky B (eds) Visual and Spatial Reasoning. Preprints of the International Conference on visual and spatial Reasoning, (VR 99) MIT, Cambridge, June 15–17, 1999, pp 103–128.
  2. Athavankar, U.A., Bokil, P., Guruprasad, K., Patsute, R., Sharma, S.: (2008) Reaching Out in the Mind’s Space. In: Design Computing and Cognition 2008, pp. 321–340
  3. The discussion here is based on Howard Gardner’s famous theory of ‘Multiple intelligences’
  4. The videos of the sessions, each lasting over one hour are not included for obvious reasons, though there are references to it. Also the videos included in this post have been shown in earlier posts. They are repeated here for readers who may not have seen them before.

 

Part I: To sketch or not to sketch? That is the question

As mentioned in the last post, this post was to deal with role that gestures and movement of the body play in spatialization of design ideas as sketches or images in the mind’s eye. We are deviating from that sequence. It was felt that an overview of the series would be more relevant before we move on to the complex role that gestures and movements play in design thinking.

Let us look back at several findings presented in the last seven uploads starting from ‘Why do designers sketch?’ We plan to take a bird’s eye view of the findings and reflect on them in this post. Now that we know the role sketching and mental imagery play in design problem solving, we can now reflect on the series.

Designing as resolving spatial issues

The designer’s decision making seem to be similar to most often-cited example; being in a room and working out alternative furniture arrangements to get the most effective layout at the end. Whether you use sketching or imagery most design problems are typically resolved through spatial decisions and spatial manipulations of elements (in this case furniture pieces). For this part of the discussion, let us treat designing as resolving spatial issues to achieve pre-determined functional goals through design actions. So, whether you are creating a space (layout problem) or a smaller object, what designer’s handle/create are the spatial elements and their locations in space. In part II, we will revisit these issues through the lens of design thinking.

There are two ways to handle such an assignment. In both approaches, actions are in this ‘real’ space, which becomes a context for situated cognitive activity. Whether you use sketching or decide to work it out in the mind’s eye, the process involves perception and monitoring of representations that are being continuously created and altered by reactive design actions. Most reactions typically result in yet another new representation.

Let us focus on each of the two ways to handle spatial issues.

Sketching as a medium for conceptualizing of objects

Though this series does not directly report research on sketching, the author had worked on the role of sketching prior to exploring mental imagery. Some of the statements rely on author’s earlier research in sketching.1, 2

The first approach is to use sketching pad and pen, if handy. The designer draws the room and thinks of new locations and/or orientations of furniture pieces, then quickly draws the new layout. Looking at the sketch he reviews the new idea for its effectiveness. He will often see and react to what he has sketched and come out with a new alternative to be executed as yet another new sketch. You can capture the process as iterative cycles that involves –

“Think -> Act (sketch) -> Review -> Transform -> Think again”

till he feels that he has met the demands made by the design problem. He may take a holistic approach or take one element or one function at a time and handle complexity incrementally.

If the designer has mastered sketching, this process is cognitively less taxing. There are several reasons. First, it also allows starting with a tentative idea and incrementally moving to a more complete and complex state. In the earlier post “Thinking through the messy sketches” we discussed this approach. Second, designer does not have to budget excessive mental energy to handle the actions of sketching. Third, when he creates a record in a media outside of his body (i.e. as sketches), he does not have to budget energy to memorize and recall his past action and decision. So, if he is quick and good at sketching, it is still a cognitively economical option.

Willful control on the act of sketching, particularly in representing objects in perspective, is a critical issue when implementing a sketch. Sketching is a learnt action and is often taught in a structured way in most design schools. There is enough literature on learning to sketch. My own work on control on sketching is available on D’Source. 2

If designer is bad at sketching, this approach can be counter-productive. He needs to budget more mental energy for the act of sketching, but this is at the cost of mental energy required to come up with new ideas. (Refer to earlier post ‘Why do designer’s sketch?’) Designer’s additional efforts to judge the correctness of the sketch can demand energy budget that could interfere with the ongoing thinking of the design problem. So, designer needs ability to sketch quickly and effortlessly, as if it is a routine and natural act.

That is why in the earlier post, “Out-of-the-box ideas for teaching sketching”, focus was on learning to draw with a ‘feel’ of the line drawn via kinesthetic feedback and by diverting attention away from the pencil tip. Reducing the need to depend too much on visual feedback while sketching, allows you to budget the mental energy saved to attend to the demands of design problem solving. Several ideas were presented to explain how the entire body could participate in the act of sketching. The kinesthetic feedback generated by sketching actions can be used to ‘feel’ the correctness of the sketch being executed. It is critical to learn to sketch effortlessly and with natural actions.

The external display that sketching creates reduces the effortful activity of holding the ideas in your memory. However, the mental imagery is not completely eliminated. You have to mentally decide the new location of a furniture piece first, try to review it and quickly sketch what you have imagined. Thus you avoid spending mental energy on holding ideas in his mind and comparing them later. In short, competent sketching ability helps him conserve mental energy so that he can concentrate on developing the next idea.

There is another way to solve the problem of room layout. Imagine now that designer does not have the paper and pen or chooses not to use it. After all, the

Eureka movements may not occur when you have paper and pencil in your hand. Indeed with Archimedes, it occurred in the bathtub!

Designer will have to then depend on his visualization abilities.

Mental imagery as a medium for conceptualizing of objects

For most people it is so natural to see images in their mind’s eye, that many times they are not even aware of it. So, it is difficult to talk of mental imagery. We see images in our dreams too. Like a dreamer, the blindfolded designer also believes that he is in a ‘real’ environment and is awake.

What is the difference in the images that designers’ see when they are designing blindfolded and what everyone sees in dreams?

Unlike in dreams, the blindfolded designer is indeed awake. More important to note that the designer mostly experiences ‘constructed as well as work in progress’ images that he conceives, modifies and builds in time and space. The site that the architects visualized was ‘real’ space that experienced by walking in and out. It is a highly immersive experience that designers choose to willfully enter in.

It is important to view intentionally constructed images as unique experiences and as ‘work in progress’. This continues till the designer decides to artificially stop. Ideas through images continue to evolve, sometime even when the designer is not consciously working on it. Remember Archimedes?

What is critical is the ability to willfully control image generation and transformation operations in response to the thoughts that drive these operations.

This is why the experiences of imagery during design sessions are different from what happens in dreams. The willful control is needed to handle the unique operations that designer performs. Interestingly, he learns to do this without any formal learning programme.

Designing and the mind’s eye

Let us return to the furniture layout problem, but this time designer does not have a sketchbook with him. Thoughts of the designer continue to drive new solutions and prompt new ideas. He can try out alternatives by physically shifting the furniture pieces around, but that will be not only time consuming but also strenuous. So, the designer would have to solve the room layout problem by relying extensively on his internal resource and working out solutions in their mind’s eye.

Designer could move the furniture pieces around, reorient them, think of creating alternatives mentally. He could view them and compare the alternative solutions. All along, he has to view the current state in the mind’s eye, if necessary bring back the earlier ideas from memory and react to this internal display creatively to generate even newer ideas. He has to hold all of them in memory and compare and contrast them. No doubt a mentally stressful task.

These operations are far more taxing than recalling of the images seen earlier. You can clearly see that the visualization actions obviously go far beyond just recalling the images and inspecting them. Obviously, designer needs more complex capabilities for such a creative use of mind’s eye.

We knew so little about how designers willfully control mental imagery event. By blindfolding the designers in our experiments we forced a situation, so that these capabilities could be studied. The series is biased towards a detailed treatment of mental imagery because, unlike sketching, we were ignorant of the issues involved. If this ability to willfully perform and control operations on the images in the mind’s eye is critical for new ideas,

Should we not identify the operations that designers perform and/or learn to perform?

Fortunately, some of the operations that can be performed on mental images have been identified in cognitive studies. Most well studied operation is mental rotation of objects along three axes.3 Further, Kosslyn identified three broad operations. They included, holding the image and inspecting it (Image inspection technically referred as scanning), generating the image (image generation) and lastly transforming the images (image transform). Last one is a powerful operation and includes several types of transformations.4

Most of these operations are clearly visible in our experiments. The videos clearly show that designers and architects iteratively switch between image inspection, image generation and image transformation. They cyclically inspect the results in their mind’s eye and reflect on these images. We will take these operations one by one.

Image Inspection (Scanning)

This operation usually deals with inspecting the recalled image from the memory (LTM and sometimes STM). Ideal examples of image recalls were when SP as well as the architects were asked to describe their final design after they declared that they have finished designing. The object seem to be virtually there in front of them (SP) or in case of architects, built space enveloping them. When they described, they appeared to be ‘seeing’ in their mind’s eye and ‘reading off’ the images. Similarly, architects occasionally recalled the site plan that they were given to memorize, but subsequently these drawings were often transformed into a 3D view with all its features to see in their mind’s eye.

These designers also recalled images that are part of their memories and use them as precedents. In our case, such images dealt with previously seen, and perhaps liked, examples of objects or built spaces or their features. For instance, in student pair experiments, there is a clear evidence of pergola roof, deck, Japanese garden and water fountain as precedents brought in as images from the memory. Needless to say that these precedents and features get transformed creatively to suit the new context, when they are used in design.

Obviously, the designers are able to hold their images in their mind’s eye, inspect (or scan) them and react to them as they work with the image. They would often inspect images to make judgments, spot inconsistencies, search for opportunities to alter and manipulate elements within the image. It serves the same function that sketches as display serve. It allows designer to review his ideas, creatively react to them and iterate. What exists as current, gradually move towards effective solution incrementally. This is similar to what occurs when sketching is used. Image inspection leads to spatial judgments and all design tasks are based on these judgments.

Yet, there are logical differences because of the nature of the media, in this case the sketchbook and the mind’s eye in which the display occurs. Mental images are fragile and fadeout if you are not attending to them actively. Cognitively, to hold and inspect an image is an active process that demands budgeting of mental energy, more so, when it is done purposefully.

Because designers and architects are involved in creating new objects and built forms, they tend to often inspect what they created and then manipulate it. So, most examples of inspection are part of the process of image generation and transformations.

Image generation

If you watch the video of SP in action in casserole experiment, it shows sufficient evidence of SP’s logic, ideas and thoughts directing his design actions and gestures. These often result in generating images of the object that he was developing. He develops the shape from scratch, builds it up step-by-step as an image. SP choses to ‘treat’ the overall image of the object as ‘real’ and even physically shapes it, making changes interactively as he goes ahead!

Most of SP’s actions in image generation were incremental and became more detailed as the time passed. Observe SP working with a virtual object in the front. See video 1 below.

Video 1: The designer created a virtual object in front of him and shaped it as if it was real for the entire period when he was designing.

As he advances with his design, he fondly sculpts and alters the shape. Similarly, when the architects were blindfolded and let into a big hall, they first create a gross layouts, detail them and as they go ahead, build the 3D spaces around them.

It is common to see the cyclic process that starts with generation of the image, then inspecting it, reacting and implementing changes in their mind’s eye. That explains the incremental nature of the development of the ideas. Note that there is little change in the design process as in both cases. There is only a change in the media used for displaying the current state of design.

Most of these videos have short pauses of few seconds when they are silent. Pauses seem to be useful to judge the current state of design idea. Pauses longer than three seconds were purposeful. They are used for inspections of the images in the mind’s eye and reflecting on it. You can clearly see this in video 1. They appear to be part of spatial judgment efforts and end in actions and decisions immediately after. Typically, they end up with flurry of activity, often resulting in a new idea or a modification that had existed as an earlier idea. SP pauses several times to ‘see’ the object in his mind’s eye and then reflects on it. He ‘looks’ around to inspect what he had created and pass judgment after a pause. After one such pause midway through the casserole session, SP sculpts the shape, pauses and comments like ‘That will look interesting’. See this in video 1 above.

Image transforms

Image transformation is a critical operation on the images. It is also the most often used operation to quickly alter the contents of the image seen. Most surprising finding was that in implementing the operation, designers physically interacted with their creations in the mind’s eye. In fact such interactions were at their best in image transformation. For example, while thinking of support to the casserole body, SP’s palms represented the folding legs of the casserole and movements of the palms simulate the leg movements.5

There are several complex transformations of objects or spaces that architects and designers seem to comfortably deploy while designing. For instance, SP’s casserole video has several examples of the shape or some element of it being reshaped, chopped, moved, flipped, rotated and so on. See this in video 2 and 3 below.

Video 2: Observe designer exploring the shaping (curving) of the bottom of the casserole.

Video 3: Observe designer shifting from shaping of the lid to folding legs.

These videos include actions like selectively moving the objects or elements, manipulating proportions and compositions, changing sizes, altering colours, exploring different backgrounds and even creating exploded structure. They appear to use more than one operation, often in continuous sequences, and that too with amazing ease. The gestures come handy in the process of working with it and on it. More about gestures in part II in the next post.

While modifying their ideas and exploring alternatives, architects too performed different transformations of the images. Architects however use gestures more often to indicate and locate than to shape the spaces, perhaps because of the scale of these spaces. Earlier posts do to indicate few examples of use of gestures in shaping some parts of the building. For instance, see video 4 below. However, these instances are fewer in numbers.

Video 4: See designer shaping the entrance with hands. 

The purpose of most of the transformations is to improve the effectiveness of the solution at hand. It is typically followed by image inspection, where the designer would try to assess the implications of the changes they had just made. The use is similar to the way the sketch is reviewed, except when working with mental imagery, it is lot more difficult.

These changing mental events are available in form of fragile images in their mind. They have to hold these static as well as sometimes-dynamic images in their mind’s eye, which demand budgeting mental energy. Additional energy is required for reacting to them, altering the image with new intentions and hold on to the new image.

What does the series reveal?

The discussion so far has also helped us separate two forms of representations that almost serve similar function. Most discourses on designing focus on the first form i.e. sketching, and do not acknowledge mental imagery as serious contender as a form of representation. It is understandable. Indeed, there are no capturable external representations to write about or comment on, when working with mental imagery. One of the contributions of this series is to discover methods that give access to the actions that occur in the mind’s eye.

The series argues that sketching as well as mental imagery serve similar role but deserve to be treated as separate acts.

We hope that this separation will remove the bias towards sketching and studies in understanding the role of mental imagery in design(erly) thinking will get the attention it deserves. It is hoped that the shift of spotlight will balance the studies of role of representations.

Why is attention to the mental imagery critical?

It is known that this ability is directly correlated with creative efforts. To willfully change, transform or manipulate the image or some of the elements of the image selectively to intentions, distinguish creative people from others. Artists, dancers, architects, designers and some scientists can willfully control what happens in the mind’s eye. Einstein was known to create events in his mind’s eye that he often referred as thought experiments. Mozart was known to compose his orchestra entirely in his mind’s ears, an audio equivalent of mind’s eye. He was also able to hear and follow each instrument in isolation. There is enough scientific evidence to suggest that the ability to handle events in the mind’s eye and creative work are closely related. Finke has spent several years researching the role of mental imagery in inventions using cognitive science framework.6

Understanding nuances of visualization

We now have a clearer understanding of the term visualization and what it means to design community. It is not just externalizing ideas in a sketchbook or on a computer screen. It should include perception and manipulation of representations in the mind’s eye.

Visualization is much used and abused word. At the simplest level, it can be defined as ‘seeing the object when it is withdrawn and is no more available to be perceived.’ We are then asked to recall what it looked like. Can we restrict visualization to just recalling and inspecting the image in the mind’s eye?

Ability to recall or generate an image is not unusual. Most people are able to recall and view images. Dreams also involve recall of images. Dreamers are convinced that they are in a real environment, are awake and are experiencing a real event in time and space. Situation is somewhat similar when the designers were blindfolded, except that they were actually awake. Besides recalling, lots of people generate and see new elements in their images in dreams (also under hallucination) that they have never seen before.

Learning to willfully control mental imagery

The major difference is in the ability to willfully control the events in the mind’s eye. Architects, designers and artists are able to perform several cognitive operations on the images in the pursuit of the creative work. However, unlike sketching which is systematically taught to them, they learn to handle mental imagery with no formal training.

Can we learn to willfully control events during visualization without design training?

To handle mental imagery, at least till this time, there is no structured training available. It is perhaps partly a natural talent and partly perfected on job through practice. We have little knowledge of how willful control on imagery can be taught through training.

The focus leaning towards sketching as a preferred representation could change in future as designers learn the advantages of mental imagery as a creative thinking tool and find strategies to develop educational material for everyone. I saw the absence of training as an opportunity to convert my understanding of controlling mental events by developing visual puzzles that can be solved by use of some of the cognitive operations that we discussed. I hope to present these games and visual puzzles in some later post.

Who else can benefit from such training? There are lots of people who are involved in design but are not competent in drawing. Their creative energies could be harnessed if they could be trained to be comfortable with mental imagery.

Learning to handle sketching

Sketching does come handy when the complexity of the design project is very high. However, it demands rigourous and systematic learning to model 3D ideas as 2D sketches and draw them skillfully. I personally believe that initial training in orthographic drawing trains your mind to switch between 2D and 3D effortlessly. It has long learning period. Obviously, only few professions need it and go through such training.

To think, model ideas in mind and simultaneously sketch them is a task that needs systematic learning and practice. The focus on drawing by feel and by kinesthetic feedback and not by sight has its roots in this idea.

Note that there are other forms of representations including verbal descriptions that are used in communication. Most people use language descriptions accompanied by gestures to explain design ideas. In fact, they are effectively used in brainstorming. I tried to study gestures with minimal use of language with some success.7 But discussion on these topics are outside the scope of this series.

Sum up

This post is an overview of what was presented in the several earlier posts on sketching and mental imagery. It argues that 1] sketching and mental imagery should be recognized as two separate forms of representations. 2] The representations are a critical constituent of design(erly) thinking, 3] Both act like mediums for conceptualizing design ideas, 4] Both of these forms serve similar functions. So, technically, they can substitute one another. The post also compares sketching and mental imagery from the point of expending of mental energy. It suggests necessity of removing the current bias towards studying sketching and treat studies in imagery on par.

Focusing on mental imagery, it identifies the three broad cognitive operations, Image inspection, Image generation and Image transformation, that can be performed on the imagery. These are explained through examples taken from the experiments cited before. It argues that the understanding of visualization in the context of design should necessarily include learning to willfully control cognitive operations in response to the designer’s intention.

At a broader level, the design process has commonalities irrespective of the forms of representations used. What differ are the cognitive operations when working with sketching or exclusively in mind’s eye.

To sketch or not to sketch?

We started our discussion by exploring the role that sketching and mental imagery play as conceptualization tool. Both the forms have their merits and demerits. The choice should depend on designer’s comfort level with these two forms of representations. To be able to competently and skillfully handle both forms of representation would be an ideal situation. The complexity would not trouble the designer. The design response would be quicker. As one of the participant said in the context of use of imagery, and I quote

“I carry my problem with me all the time now”

 

Preview of the next post

We have restricted the above discussion to the implications of production and modification of display through sketching or through use of mental imagery. However, our discussion does not explain why the architects moved, walked and used the spaces they created, nor does it explain the deeper role that gestures play. In part II, will address questions like,

Why do designers use gestures and movements of the body when they solve problems? Does it support spatial decisions, visualization and design(erly) thinking? And if so, how?

Next post will discuss how these two forms of representation affect design(erly) thinking and why in spite apparent similarities, they are conceptually different.

Notes and references

  1. Athavankar U., (1992) Rediscovery the Act of Sketching: Implication of its Support to the Creative Thought Process, Design Recherche, No. 2, pp 45-60
  2. Discussion on freehand drawing http://www.dsource.in/search/content/Freehand%20Sketching Dec 21,2017
  3. Shepard, R.N., Metzler, J., (1971) Mental rotation of three-dimensional objects. Science 171, 701–703
  4. Kosslyn S., (1983) Ghosts in the Mind’s Machine: Creating and Using Images in the Brain. Norton, New York
  5. Athavankar, U. A. (1999). Gestures, Imagery and Spatial Reasoning. In: Garo, J. S. & Tversky, B. (Eds) Visual and Spatial Reasoning. Preprints of the International Conference on visual and spatial Reasoning, (VR 99) MIT, Cambridge, pp 103-128.
  6. Finke R., (1990) Creative imagery: Discoveries and Inventions in Visualisation. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey
  7. Varshney, S., 1998, Castles in air: A Strategy to model shapes in a computer, in proceedings of the conference ‘Third Asia Pacific Computer Human Interaction (APCHI ’98), Japan, July 1998, 350-355

Can we prevent designer from sketching?

Blindfolded designer in action

So far, we discussed how sketching contributes to the design problem solving and partners with the evolving thought. It externalizes thought, but surprisingly also contributes to clarification of the emerging thoughts. Sketching works as partner in the creative process, support unobtrusively and ideally should demand little expending of mental energy. With their unique role, we characterized such sketches as a thinking tool, a class by themselves. We also divided the act into smaller actions and modeled them as a cognitive act. We looked at how budgeting of mental energy needs to be balanced between problem solving and creating instructions for sketching the idea.

The thinking sketches look like inevitable partner in design thinking and design problem solving. There are no reasons to doubt these statements. However, it automatically implies that you need quick and effortless sketching abilities, if you want to choose design or architecture as a career. There is more than adequate support to such a statement. There are lots of examples of great architects and designers being extremely good at sketching. (and even drafting) FLW is a good example of this. This justifies out effort listed in the last post that documents innovative ways of how sketching can be taught to students who may not necessarily start with good sketching. But

“Can such a statement be generalized. Should careers in design be restricted to those who are already good in sketching?”

Some books on great designers do list their sketching abilities. There is not doubt that sketching is a good skill to have. This has also been a subject research and documentation. (i.e. Leonardo’s sketches) However, why all books on great designers do not discuss their sketching abilities nor show their sketching samples? Should we interpret this silence, as ‘They do not have great sketching skills to talk about’ and yet they have succeeded?

To investigate this, it was possible to study sketches of all great names in design, but this was beyond my reach and means. Besides, there are several creative people connected with art and design, who do not use sketching. I intuitively felt that it was not fair to expect everyone to be competent in sketching. So, I decided to look at

“Is there an alternative route to sketching? What will happen if you stop an architect or a design from sketching?”

I decided to pursue this alternative route to discover answers through properly designed experiments in which designers participated. This led to series of studies and experiments that I conducted between 1995 and 2008 AD. The results inform us of the untapped capabilities of human mind and special abilities used by designers and architects in solving design problems. Reflecting back, I thing it was fortunate that I asked this question to myself. Else we would never have known the hidden capabilities would have remained unreported.

The primary research questions that we address were,

“Would the designer solve a design problem when blindfolded and thus prevented from sketching? If yes, how?”

Capturing designer in action

This demanded developing a strange scenario and a new experimental protocol, where the design process was captured live when the designer is solving a typical design problem.

Design problem

The design project was taken from local company manufacturing range of Thermowares as consumer durable and gift sets. Their range included insulated containers, food boxes and vacuum flasks used in households. The problem selected was to design a casserole that can retain food temperature. It should be used to store as well as serve hot/cold food item and can be offered as a gift item. One of the leading local industrial designer voluntarily participated in it. He is referred to as SP.

Challenge

We needed to develop experiment protocols to ensure beyond doubt that the actual visualization of the solutions and design actions are completed when the designer is not allowed to sketch.

SP was given a written brief to read and it was cross-checked that he remembered it thoroughly. He was then told that he will wear an eye mask and will develop design in blindfolded conditions. He was asked to concurrently speak-aloud whatever is passing through his mind.1 All the steps in the session were video recorded. When he was satisfied with his creation, he was told to verbally sum up the final design solution. Then, the eye mask was removed and he was asked to sketch his ideas as quickly as he can and not add new ideas during sketching.

Watching design action

Few general observations before we move on to surprises. SP was comfortable with the think-aloud process and finished designing in 56.5 minutes, after reading and recalling the project brief. Further, he took 7 to finish sketching his idea at the end. The session was fully recorded on video with a front and a top camera.

What happened was far beyond what we expected. SP developed alternatives for every design feature, evaluated them by simulating its use mentally and selected the most effective design approach to proceed. (See video 1) He played with different features, manipulated their locations in space to explore the most effective configuration. Halfway through, while simulating the use of design in his mind, he discovered a major functional mistake and reconfigured the new solution quickly, all this in his mind! A quick glimpse at the entire video record showed that throughout the session SP meticulously and mentally sculpted the shape and made sure that he responded to all functional and even production issues. (See video 2 & 3)

Video 1: SP developed features keeping function in mind, evaluated them by simulating its use mentally and selected the most effective design approach to proceed

Video 2: Watch SP as if he is sculpting the shape with his hands, as if he interacting with something real in front of him

SP 3, SP 5

 

Video 3, 5: Watch SP anticipating even production related issues. Later he assembled the product components with his hands.

He was comfortable taking decisions based on aesthetic judgment, decided on colour and product graphics before he declared that he has completed the design assignment. (See video 4) The detailed account of the session has been published in a paper earlier.2 The only visible difference was that he appeared to be developing the shape, features as well as manipulating and assembling the parts in his mind using hand gestures! The videos bear this out.

SP 4

 

Video 4: Watch SP take form decisions and refer to product graphics.

Let us return to some of the questions that we started with.

How do we make sure that SP completed the entire design in his mind when he was blindfolded?

How do we make sure that he did not add new ideas during the 7 minutes, when he sketched the final solution? After all, sketching does prompt ideas!

That he was not given enough time to add new ideas during sketching is not sufficient to prove the hypothesis scientifically. To ensure this, the video recording of the session was completely transcribed and later systematically coded. We then listed all the features in his final sketch and matched them with descriptions and references to each feature in the transcripts during the blindfolded conditions. To doubly make sure, we also checked references to features and descriptions in the final summing-up part of the transcripts. Results were surprising. Ninety-five percent of the features in the final sketch had unambiguous matching descriptions in the transcriptions. Obviously, SP had visualized all details in the mind’s eye.

Going beyond doubt

To make it triply sure (validity through triangulation), we asked two new designers to look at SP’s video after the final solutions were edited out. Based on his recorded think-aloud and the gestures, they were asked to reconstruct and sketch the final solution that SP had in his mind. Sketches that both the designers produced were very close to what SP had sketched.3

In the earlier posts, we had emphasized the role that sketching plays as an act, process and as a display in design problem solving. The obvious question that needed to be answered was,

What compensated for the sketching and the lack of visible display?

Is it likely that SP used his mental imagery capabilities to visualize and detail the ideas? For most designers this is not a question worth brooding on. When visualizing, they routinely develop and see their ideas in their mind. It is referred as seeing in the mind’s eye.

Mind’s eye in action

So common is the use of mind’s eye and so real are their experiences, that nobody in the design community ever discusses it, unless someone shows an exceptionally high standard. So, it is not surprising that design literature does list anecdotal evidence on use of mental imagery by the gifted designers. Frank Lloyd Write is known to have visualized the entire idea and details of his famous building ‘Falling water’ in his mind and was able to quickly draft it when Kaufman decided to visit his studio at a short notice. McKim mentions how inventors like Tesla and James watt developed their complete ideas in their mind.4 Mozart had the ability to hear his orchestra and every instrument in his mind’s ear and wrote his final score directly.

Anecdotes and experiences don’t make good science. Besides, there are no accounts of not so gifted designers and creators and their visualization abilities. For this, we need to take a short detour to understand how we use mental imagery and the way mind’s eye works.

On mental imagery and the mind’s eye

Experience of mental image is defined as ‘seeing in the absence of actual visual input in front of you’. To the person experiencing this, the image looks real. (Most convincing and yet difficult to prove example would be experience of dreams) Mental images were not studied because they could not be measured till Shepard and Metzler showed how this could be done.5 Subsequently, there are many studies of mental imagery capabilities. Kosslyn studied mental imagery extensively and listed its characteristics (Fragility, density …) as well as the operations that you can perform on it, like image scanning, image generation and transformations.6, 7 There is also literature that shows how creativity and mental imagery work in synergy.8 With these theoretical back ups the idea of mind’s eye has acquired greater acceptance.

Let us return to the experiment that we started with. Most of the videos above show how SP was continuously using hand gestures to shape an invisible object in front of him. He was obviously working in his mind’s eye. Its virtual-ness turned out to useful, because such a model was quick to manipulate and the change could be ‘observed’ instantly. He interacted with the model with his hand gestures, shaped it, felt the shape and the curves and used the shapes to test if they would work. He used his hand gestures as if he was sculpting a virtual product shape in front of him. (See earlier videos) All these gestural interactions with the virtual model were as real as it would have been with a physical model that he would have created under normal conditions. The gestures were used as much to think and manipulate the virtual object as for communicating the idea.

There is sufficient evidence in research literature to show that there is interrelationship between motor experiences and high-level spatial reasoning. For example, when presented with spatial problems such as mental rotation tasks those who use motor actions (like moving and tilting hands) perform better than those who exclusively depend on visual processes like handling the task in the minds eye. (Ref) That explains surprising accuracy of his gestures and hand movement was surprising. So, when this recording (Audio+video) was shown to two new industrial designers, they could reconstruct the final idea with a fair accuracy. We will focus on the role of gestures and body movements in the future posts.

The structure of the experiment also raised other related questions,

Was the designer’s thinking hampered when he was blindfolded? Was he forced to deviate from the normal design process?

It is difficult to come to a conclusive answer, without comparing this process with the normal process accompanied by sketching. But the transcriptions show that all the typical traits associated with creative problem solving were visible. For example, He systematically identified and tackled all the functional problems one by one. He continued to use ‘moves and reflections’. His moves displayed non-linear shifts, in that he shifted from feature to feature and returned to them again. He iterated extensively, revisiting his earlier decisions several times. His creative explorations remained non-linear.

For most of the ideas that he generated, he simulated its use in his mind’s eye and identified potential problems, and even modified his solutions.

What compensated lack of sketching?

Mind’s eye offered a display that could quickly generate and regenerate image display. It served as a pliable model that he could quickly manipulate in response to his evolving thoughts. It is fast to change, but is fragile and would normally demand budgeting of mental energy to retain and regenerate it. If this is so,

Why the energy budget was not an issue here?

There is no clear answer to this question. I can only venture an answer. Holding images in the mind is indeed difficult. It is true that they need to be regenerated frequently to remain visible in the mind’s eye and that requires budgeting of mental energy. However, most of such findings on energy budget and limitations of short-term memory are based on showing the participants completely new and unfamiliar pictures or words and ask them to recall. As against this, SP used a clear logic and reasoning to evolve the form, which clearly reflected in his speech. So, in case the image is lost due to its fragility, he could regenerate it easily using the logic.

The experiment clearly shows that mental imagery could be one of the viable substitutes to sketching. Perhaps we should correct our earlier statement. What design thinking needs is an ability to represent an object in some form that act as a stable display, that allows you to manipulate it quickly and effortlessly. Such a definition ideally fits sketching, but is inclusive enough to legitimately accommodate other forms of representations like mental imagery.

Could these results have been a freak case? Is the ability restricted to a gifted few? Or is based on years of in design that SP had?

This is a unique ability that designers seem to acquire during their education and practice. In fact, most professional designers who participated in the later experiments told me that, it gives them flexibility to work whenever and wherever they choose. SP himself commented, by using mental imagery “I carry the problem with me in my mind.”

Sum up

The article seeks answer to the question, ‘Is sketching as a representation tool an indispensible part of design problem solving?’ If yes, then this should be treated as an essential skill in design and architecture careers. The answer is explored through a carefully designed experiment, in which the designer is given a design problem to solve and he is blindfolded and thus prevented from sketching.

The fact that designer solved complete design problem when he was blindfolded was ensured by the way experiment was designed. The results show a clear and unambiguous answer that confirms that designers can do without sketching and they compensate this loss with their abilities to create images in their mind’s eye, manipulate them and work with them to develop solutions. In fact, in this case, he created a virtual model in front of him, interacted with it with his hands and altered it willfully. It also showed that he could effortlessly respond to this strange situation and that his design process was not altered.

Mental images are known to be fragile and not easy to work with. They also demand budgeting of more portion of mental energy to retain and process them. So, designer’s visible and effortless switchover to handling of imagery is not easy to explain. Perhaps because the images were generated and regenerated based on his reasoning, he does not seem to face the problem of diversion of excess mental energy. That also explains why designer’s design process does not visibly change.

The designer extensively used hand gestures while generating ideas and for interacting with the virtual model that he created in the front. He perhaps also used them to communicate his ideas. What is worth noting was that his interactions were amazingly accurate.

The results force us to correct our earlier statement. What design thinking needs is an ability to represent an object in some form that act as a relatively stable display, but allows you to manipulate it quickly and effortlessly. Such a definition no doubt fits sketching, but is inclusive enough to legitimately accommodate other forms of representations like mental imagery. Even if designer develops competence is handling one of them, he should be able to make a reasonable headway in design career.

Preview of the next post

When I conceived this experiment reported in this post, I had no confidence that I will discover new findings. Reflecting back, it could have been because of my love for sketching. I was more than surprised by these results and the findings. But it left a nagging feeling,

“Can this result be a freak case? Or is it because of years of experience of designing that SP had?” Or “Is this ability restricted to a gifted few?”

This subsequently led to series of experiments with designers and architects. More about it in the following post.

Notes and references

1 There is sufficient evidence to show that such think-aloud exercises reveals part of the contents of the short-term memory in action. Note that what is captured is what he naturally chose to speak aloud and may not represent everything that passed through his mind. These are referred as think-aloud sessions. Evidence shows that it approximates what he is thinking about. (In fact, most designers and architects are comfortable talking while designing)

2 Athavankar U., (1997) Mental imagery as a design tool. Cybernetics and Systems, 28 (1), 25-42.

3 Athavankar U., (1999) Gestures, imagery and spatial reasoning, In J. Gero & B. Tversky (Eds.), Visual and Spatial Reasoning (pp. 103-128). Preprints of the International Conference on Visual Reasoning (VR99), MIT

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

5 Shepard R. and Metzler J., (1971) “Mental rotation of three dimensional objects.” Sci
ence. 171(972):701-3

6 Kosslyn S., (1983 ) Ghost’s in the mind’s machine, creating and using images in the brain. Norton, New york

7 There are also groups in cognitive psychology who dispute this, leading to what is now termed as mental imagery debate

8 Finke R., (1990) Creative imagery, discoveries and inventions in visualization. New Jersy, Lawrence Erlbaum

 

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 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?

Diagram-01-01-01

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.

Notes

  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 https://qz.com/823204/graphic-design-legend-milton-glaser-dispels-a-universal-misunderstanding-of-design-and-art/ 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.