Part IV: Can you interact with nonexistent physical objects and spaces?

Using embodied cognition as a framework, the preceding post revealed the probable role that the gestures and body movement played in creation of the objects. In this post, we focus on the causes of the accuracy of designer’s interaction with the objects and spaces. It will address the unanswered question,

How could designers corporally interact with a virtual, physically non-existent object that they created in their mind’s eye? And that too, with surprising accuracy?

About this post

It is planned to rely on multiple sources to answer these questions. First, we will depend on research literature, particularly on embodied cognition. This does not deal specifically with gestures in imagery and sketching. So, some elements of speculation cannot be denied, but at least, it offers a broad framework to support the ideas. Second source is the data that is available as series of experiments. We will also take support from anecdotal example, more to understand ideas than to support the conclusions.

So, the discussion that follows has following aims. 1] To offer a plausible explanation to the participants relying on specific kinds of gestures and movements during creation of these objects and spaces. It argues on why and when gestures and body movements vigorously mimic and do not mimic the physical characteristics of the shapes. 2] To explain the source of accuracy of designer’s interactions with the physically non-existent virtual objects while creating the shapes, and 3] To explain why, during summing up their solutions towards the end of the experimental sessions, the participants are able to repeat the identical gestures and body movements.

The creators selectively chose gestures and/or body movements to suit the design task at hand. The post will argue that their decisions to deploy or not to deploy them were prompted by the useful contributions that gestures and movements made to the evolving thoughts. Let us try to develop these arguments further.

During discussion in the preceding blog on embodied cognition, there were references to the close relationship between visual system and the motor system. This suggests that cognitive processes also encode the sensory-motor aspects as series of movements.1 The argument is built on this central idea of the partnership between the visual and the motor system. So, we first address the partnership related question,

Can the creator’s actions be viewed as close-knit partnership between visual decisions, movements and the thought process?

If the answer is yes, it will give us a framework to answer the questions that we started with.

The casual support to the idea of this partnership comes from several examples in our every day routine tasks that demand relying on mix of motor and visual system. They seem to work together in partnership. We perform such tasks efficiently because these two systems seem to work in sync. But are all partnerships same? For the purpose of this paper, we plan to categorize the partnership into two broad groups. We are specifically focus on the second, which is of interest to us in the context of this paper. So we only briefly touch the first and move on.

1] Creative partnership where gestures and movements are based on convention or tradition

In this category, the planned visual effects are achieved through ‘pre-designed’ body postures, movements and visual expressions. The visual and the motor systems work in sync. They balance the cerebral and the corporal.

The major difference is that the gestures and movements are not free to evolve, but were defined by codes. They are motivated by convention or tradition, and are often formally learnt, practiced and produced. These events give ample evidence of how visual and motor systems work in sync.

Typical day-to-day example would include writing and production of your own signature and learning to write new script.2 Formal example to understand the category would be live performances of classical dance, street play, fashion shows and even performances of acrobats in circuses.3 These gestures and movements are either controlled by tradition (as in classical dance forms) or by convention (as in writing, plays and fashion shows).

These categories of gestures and movements are unlike those produced in our experiments. Explanations of learning, producing and use of these gestures are available as footnotes cited above. This ensures that we maintain our focus on the second category i.e. the spontaneous and intuitively produced gestures and movements.

2] Supporting the partnership with intuitive and spontaneously produced gestures and movements

A typical example to explain the idea would be the gestures accompanying natural speech. These gestures are spontaneously produced to support the evolving thoughts. They reflect the thinking in some ways. They show how the cerebral and corporal work in partnership.

Better and more convincing examples in this category are the gestures produced when giving route directions to a remotely located third party. They are truly embodied creations used everyday. The gestures clearly offer a corporal support to the cerebral processes.

The synchronization between the visual and motor systems continues like in earlier cases. It is not dictated by practice, but by the emerging thoughts and ideas. Our focus is on corporal actions (gestures and body movements) as supports to the cerebral actions (thinking process). Spotlight on this is justified because we feel that this is how the designers and architects have used gestures in our experiments.

A formal and compelling example is a live music concert. The singers move their hands and torso. Accompanying artists too move their bodies in sync. These gestures and movements support the primary task of creation and production of live music. (Also see ‘Can we prevent designer from sketching’ in this blog series)

Such gestures are very similar to the way they occur in our experiments. They are in sync with the evolving thoughts and ideas and so, reflect the thought process. They are very much a part of the process of creation. Such spontaneous use of gestures would be of interest to us in the current discussions.

Like in the live concert example, in our experimental sessions, the gestures were spontaneously produced. They appear to respond to the creator’s evolving thoughts. Most of them seem to incrementally shape the ideas of objects and spaces. They often mimic the shapes and/or indicate the locations of features in the space, as if these exist in front of them.

Let us focus on these experiments with architects and designers that we reported in this series of posts. The participants in the experiments were not briefed and had the option of using or not using the gestures. They were free to deploy gestures and movements, if and when they chose.

Identifying partnership to interact with the physically non-existent shapes and spaces

Transcripts show these gestures and movements do not appear as consciously ‘designed’, but look spontaneous and well integrated with the act of creation. They had clear roots in the thought process that resulted into in creation of objects/spaces. Obviously, individual differences do exist in the way movements were produced. Yet they display internal consistency.

Such occurrences are also true of most speaking gestures. The creators seem to develop the rules of their own and sometimes improvise on the spot. Such individualized gestural behavior is also common in live music during concerts. Yet, there is a difference between gestures in music and in design.4

By revisiting events in the experiments reported in the earlier posts, we plan to understand these spontaneous gestures and body movements of the designers and architects during the act of creation. Because there are differences in the nature of the assignments handled as well as in the way the designers and architects used gestures and movements, it is better to discuss them separately.

Revisiting SP’s actions: Casserole case

Let us look at SP’s performance under experimental condition one, where he was blindfolded. (See ‘Part II: Reflecting on gestures as design behavior’ in this blog series) Video transcripts show large segments, where SP moves his hands to shape the casserole, responding to his evolving ideas and thoughts.5 The transcripts suggest that he was describing the shape to himself and experiencing it. But there is much more to these simple actions.

The actions dealing with the shape issues show close correlations between the decisions dealing with evolving image and the accompanying gestural kinesthetic sequences. (See video 1 and 2) SP’s palms and fingers are actually seen mimicking the shape in 3D space as truthfully as he could. (See also video 4 in the next section)

Video 1 : The segment defines the overall shape. Watch how the palms and fingers define the curved surface. The relative angles define the angular relationships of surfaces with each other.

Video 2 : In the later part, the segment discusses complex detailing, where the legs are conceptualised to be folded-up during packing.

On the face of it, SP seems to be mentally shaping the evolving visualization of 3D geometry as an image in his short-term memory. This mimicking of the shape with hand gestures perhaps ensures a close partnership between, 1] sets of sequential (gestural) kinesthetic actions in 3D space, leaving traces of motor system in action, 2] the image in the mind’s eye, which he continues to modify, visualize and consolidate through visual system. Both processes seem to happen simultaneously.

Accurate recall of form of the object

SP could repeat identical movements while revisiting the feature for modifying at different points of time during designing, as well as during final description of the shape created. So accurate was the description of his final image and reproduction of hand movements and gestures that shaped that image, that even other designers could decode them accurately and reconstruct the casserole and bowl shapes from the video. The accuracy in performance is surprising.

Holding a stable image in the mind’s eye as well as reproducing gestures that shaped the image with surprising accuracy is not a trivial fit, particularly considering that the gestures were spontaneously produced on the spot, they were shape dependent and were not practiced, nor bound by conventions.

The visual processes and motion processes are working in sync and together they are responding to the emerging ideas and thoughts. The close synchronization and partnership between the two systems seems to have led to stronger and stable creations that you could recall and modify at will.

Revisiting architects’ actions

Architects, when blindfolded, moved in the real world space and used gestures differently. The large sizes of the enclosing wall envelopes and other architectural elements were beyond the grasp of their hands. So, they figured out the way to compensate. Two of them visually built spaces by walking around, as if they were on a real site. They developed the spaces around themselves and used body movements to create the layout and feel the scale of the spaces.

It appears that they chose to rely more on the visual system to generate the walled enclosures in the mind’s eye. Simultaneously, they depended on body movements and the motor system for the geometry of the layout and to scale the spaces. To indicate relative positions of features and walls, they selectively used gestures and virtual locations of their body, on the virtual site that they visualized. In such cases, gestures played a secondary role, more as a complement to the body movements.

In two out of four architects, their physical movements in the hall could be mapped to the layout of spaces they were creating in their mind’s eye. These physical movements in the hall could have left interlinked memory traces. Transcripts show that their movements match the walkthroughs in space when they were creating in their mind’s eye. That is how they could effortlessly move in and out of these built spaces, ‘feel’ them, and to get the ‘view’ from the position they visualized they were standing at. This explains why, when asked what their built-form looked like, they raised their head and even stepped back to ‘see’, though the image was only in their mind’s eye! (See video 3)

Video 3 : The architect was asked to describe what his building looked like. While answering, he took a step back, looked up as if he was scanning the face of the building.

Accurate recall of architectural design

As a part of protocols of the experiment, the architects were asked to describe their final solutions after they completed their design. Some preferred to walk the talk while describing; and these walking movements were identical to what they had performed when they conceived these solutions. This also explains why during descriptions of the final solutions, two architects could walk accurately through the spaces that they had created. Another architect when asked, could walk back to the virtual entrance without error.

None of these performances are trivial. Probably, their actions may have led to strong visual and motor memory traces that they could fall back on.

When gestures? When body movement?

Architects and designers appear to spontaneously produce gestures and movements when they are a convenient support in 1] Development of the image in the mind’s eye and/or operating on it, 2] Conceptualization of enclosure spaces around them, 3] Exploring spatial relationships of elements and scaling the shapes and spaces.

Preference to depend on visual system, and use or not to use motor system (gestures and/or movements or mix the two) depended on individual capabilities, design context as well as the complexity of the design assignment or its details. It also depended on the context of the experiments. (i.e. Sitting or allowed to move) SP’s actions are restricted by the fact that he was sitting with a table in front. Besides, his design assignment was also a tabletop object and so, within his grasp. He used hand gestures to shape all the features.

It is interesting to note that the choices between the gestures and body movements were largely interchangeable. There is also sufficient evidence of effortless switching between the two. For example, architects, who generally walked and used body movements, could adopt quickly to the use gestures, when they found this efficient. For example, when the idea of entrance demanded a sculpted shape and flow of surfaces, she used the hands and palms almost the way SP used them. (See video 4) Similarly, some occasionally went back to their traditional methods and scaled down the creations to see the built spaces as a small table-top model, being inspected from top and even shaped it using gestures to match their evolving thoughts. (See video 5)

Video 4 : The segment where the architect shapes the entrance with her palms, as if she is sculpting it by hands. The limitations of the grasp are clearly visible.

Video 5 : The architect switched to treating the creation as a scale model that she visualized and partly shaped it using gestures.

Exception to the rule

Though most of the designers and architects chose to use gestures, to construe that they are essential part of the thinking process may be too hasty. As we saw earlier in the context of mental rotation, individuals either use visual system, favour the motor system or a mix of the two, to perform such tasks. They choose what they consider appropriate for the task or what they are comfortable with.

Amongst several experiments conducted, there is one unique example in this series where the architect sat on the chair throughout, with hands on the hand rests of the chair and developed and spoke of his ideas without any gestures or body movements. He produced quality work and was as detailed as others, who used gestures. He walked through the building virtually, describing people populating the spaces, the ambiance of light and shades and so on. He seems to have depended on visual system completely. When the experiment was over, he was asked about it. He replied that he could have used gestures, but was able to visualize it clearly in imagery equally well. He did exercise his choice to depend on visual system.

In all my initial research writings on these experiments, I explained gestures and body movements by referring to them as ‘thinking with body’. Later, I hinted to its roots in hinted of spatial intelligence.6 I had no clear idea of their relationships with evolving thoughts and ideas. It was during the writing this blog, that I realized the full force of spatial intelligence perspective. Later, I realized that embodied cognition and embodied design offer a even more effective framework to explain why the creator’s gestured and moved their body. If we look at these events and actions through this new lens, lot of events and actions are easily explained.

These are of course post-facto explanations and there are some speculations involved. But, I thought they are intuitively appealing. However, it is best leave it to the cognitive scientists to explain how and what prompted these actions.

Summing up

Have we answered these questions that we started with?

How could designers corporally interact with a virtual, physically non-existent object that they created in their mind’s eye? And that too, with surprising accuracy?

We now have reasonably clear explanations to these questions. In doing that we have also identified several unique, non-trivial and surprising performances of the designers and architects that need a special mention. We have listed them below.

Non-trivial discoveries in design behaviour

1] Our results of the experiments reported so far seem to support the idea that the visualization of objects/spaces by the visual system was assisted by motor system that contributed to creating, altering and maintaining the continuously transforming shape and spaces. These two linked systems seem to lend stability to the image and allow the designer to revisit them at will, and interact with them with accuracy.

2] Video transcripts give a feeling that the creators were treating the creations as if they were real events unfolding in front of them. There is sufficient evidence of the creators being present in the situation and taking decisions, accounting for the location and orientations of the features. Because of the visual and motor systems working as partners in the process of evolving and modifying objects emerging in their mind’s eye, designers seem to accurately and almost effortlessly, interact with these nonexistent entities using their gestures and body movements

3] Creators are able to recall and reconstruct the current states as an image with a fair accuracy. They could also describe their images in details with certainty. This suggests that the images that they recall in their mind’s eye are relatively stable at any point of time. Even the physical actions that shaped these creations could be recalled and repeated without error.

It appears that the entire history of the gradual evolution of these shapes and layout spaces is available to the creators.

4] The actions like gestures and movements of the body accompanying the speech strings were so accurate that could be decoded by third party to understand and reach the final design in the creator’s mind.

None of these are easy to explain, but an attempt is worthwhile. The reasons not only include the cognitive aspects, but go beyond. So, in the next post we will attempt this.

Preview of the next post

To effortlessly perform these non-trivial actions at different points of time in the design process is a surprising fit. We have tried to attribute this to stability to the otherwise fragile mind’s eye images.

Can you attribute the performance in these non-trivial tasks directly to the linking of visual and motor systems at a cognitive level? Or are there also other factors in these actions?

To perform these actions at different points of time in the design process is a surprising. We have tried to attribute it to the duel encoding that may have given stability to the otherwise fragile mind’s eye images. In the next post, let us explore other answers to this. Though we can never be sure, based on the evidence before us, we can at least come up with some conjectures.

Notes and references

1     Pande, P., & Chandrasekharan, S., (2017) Representational competence: towards a distributed and embodied cognition account. Studies in science education, 1-13

2     In many routine tasks, along with visual system, the motor system (movement memories) is also primarily used during learning as well as in performance. Most common example is the reproduction of our own signature. While signing, the flow is monitored by visual system as well as by the motor system. They have to work in sync and as partners.

Another example. In traditional method of learning to write, the children are given learning templates that indicate starting point/s and the direction of pencil movement. They are also encouraged to pronounce the sounds. The directions on the template control the final appearance of the marks on the paper as well as the correct movements of the hand. The practice also ensures creation of movement memories.

Video 6: Child practicing script. The appearance of the letter is controlled visually and the movements by the instructions given on the template. (video courtsey Santosh Khirsagar)

That explains why, little children can play the game of letter recognition by writing on each other’s back with finger. These are clear case of cerebral and corporal working together.

3     Creative partnership, where gestures and movements are based on convention or tradition

In classical dance, the gestures and body movements are directly responsible for the primary visual effect. So, the visual and the motor systems work in sync. The planned visual effects are achieved through ‘pre-designed’ body postures, movements and visual expressions. The freedom to evolve and change is within the framework of tradition and convention. The partnership has to be consciously and painstakingly learnt through practice till they are well synchronised.

Modern dance has the freedom to innovate new gestures and movements. Choreographers of modern dance and street play can explore new creative directions. Because they are driven by creator’s thoughts during conceptualiaation, they are closer to our experiments in design. They balance the cerebral and the corporal.

Closer to our example is when the modern dance performance is being choreographed, particularly modern dance. We could have included such cases to balance the findings. However, we are forced to exclude them from the current discussions because we did not have the opportunities to study the practices and actions involved during choreography.

4     In live music, the singer produces gestures spontaneously. The listener is aware of the gestures and uses them to understand and appreciates the performance. He may even synchronize his bodily responses to these gestures. In design, the final creation of objects and spaces stand independently and do not even offer clues to the gestures that were used to create the object. They play no visible role in the appreciation of the final output. In the act of design, gestures act more like backstage tools.

5     That the transcripts also show different kinds of gestures and all the gestures do not necessarily mimic the shape. For classification of these gestures refer to reference 6 below.

6      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.


Part III : Is design a corporal act

In the last post, we viewed the act of design as a cerebral act. We also touched the role of intelligence, particularly spatial intelligence in design problem solving. We tried to explore the role the gestures and body movements play in design problem solving. Developing this idea further, we cited several facets of spatial intelligence from the protocols of the experiments. However, visibly rigorous gestures and body movements suggested that one must also go beyond spatial intelligence to explain designer’s actions. Let us reword the earlier questions,

Why did the designer move hands in the air to mimic the shape he was creating? Why did the architects and designers physically move through the mental spaces that they created in their mind’s eye?

Are there more effective explanations to gestures and body movements in the previously reported designer actions?

Part III searches for alternative theoretical framework that directly confronts the issue. It treats design as a corporal act that supports and sometimes dominates the cerebral act, i.e. the body and its movements take part in understanding, reasoning, judgment and in conceptualizing of idea in problem solving. It is called as embodied cognition, a framework that I realized design community will more easily identify with. This theory draws from many fields like sports and music, to present more convincing answers to why designers used gestures and body movements.

Both the theories show advantages of getting the body involved while thinking, particularly when innovations are spatial in nature. Let us take this perspective to argue our case. Keeping embodied cognition framework as a backdrop the post will move on to explain some of the design(erly) behaviour in the experiments reported in earlier posts.

Design as an embodied cognitive act

The discussion in this post extensively relies on the new framework proposed by embodied cognition. To understand the nuances of this framework, it is best to contrast it with its predecessor, the classical information processing model. With a short introduction to the relevant features of the classical model, we can return to embodied cognition.

Classical information processing model

In our last post, we treated designing as a cerebral act. This is consistent with the classical model, which focuses entirely on cerebral processing. Designer is viewed as an information processor, who manipulates symbols during problem solving. The model suggests that all cognitive processing is (or is best) done by neural processes inside the brain. The influences of computer model are visible in its focus on working memory load, long-term memory, information storage and finally the resultant action produced.

In the classical model, the external representations (like sketches or diagrammes) are seen as help to offload information. External representation has a limited passive role of acting as a vehicle or a transmission media that carries information for processing.1  It is assumed that the cognitive system passively receives information from the external representations.

On the other hand, embodied cognition takes an opposite view. So, after a brief introduction to the theoretical framework on which these new concepts are based, we will explore if it offers better insights into the observed design(erly) behavior in our experimental data.2

Understanding embodied cognition

Embodied cognition theory considers that the cognitive processes are distributed across internal and external representations. Interactions with external representations (like pictures and sketches) are the central process driving meaning and understanding.3 (Note 3) Embodied cognition 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 processes beyond the brain. Embodiment assumes that what happens in the mind is depending on properties of the body, such as kinesthetics.

It is also argued that that the brain and the cognitive processes are developed for action, particularly motor action. So, the body and the motor systems are closely involved in most cognitive operations. It also recognizes that the cognitive processing is distributed across internal and external representations.3 (Note 3)

In this framework, the local environment is seen as an actual extension of the body’s cognitive process that is explored through active perceptual and motor actions. Ideal way to understand the concept is to imagine that if we had different physical attributes and capabilities, we would have understood and responded to the world differently. There is a conceptual shift from the classical model in suggesting that cognitive process also encode sensory-motor aspects during interaction. As we will see later in this post, both are key to understanding the role of gestures and body movements of the designers. Even behavior is seen as a result of embodied cognitive responses. Examples will help to understand the ideas and concepts.

Human response to musical renderings is an excellent example. In this approach, spontaneous bodily movement (moving hands, head and torso) contributes to musical meaning formation. Indeed most listeners do respond to music with body movements. On the other hand, in disembodied approach (i.e. cerebral) the focus is on perception and analysis of musical structure.

Take another example. In spatial task like rotating of object in space, most individuals use visual processes by imagining rotational movements in the mind’s eye. However, some complement this by using hand /palm gestures to mimic the movement of shape in space.  They favour motor processes to perform the same tasks, often with higher overall performance. It points to the influences of the motor system on high-level reasoning and cognition.

A more convincing example is the use of mental abacus by experts. Some expert abacus users rely heavily on visuo-motor operations by implementing the same sensory motor actions internally in their mind. Others use the same action covertly leading to gestures as if they were using a physical abacus. In mentally playing an imagined musical instrument, similar covert physical actions are sometimes visible. These examples from divergent areas convincingly explain the concepts of embodied cognition and active bodily involvement.

Embodied creation

Creative endeavors in arts recognize the role of bodily involvement and responses. The embodied cognitive responses have important role to play in creations. For example, production of live music integrates the corporal and the cerebral act. Most singers and musician spontaneously produce gestures and body movements when they sing or play a musical instrument.4 (Note 4) It is difficult (if not impossible) to see production of music as a disembodied act.

The spontaneous partnership of body in learning as well as creations is not unusual.5 (note 5) We also extensively use spontaneous gestures when talking on telephone, knowing fully well that the person on the other side is not able to see them.

How does embodied cognition explain design(erly) behavior? How do we then explain the use of sketching? And benefit of gestures and body movements accompanying mental imagery? All these are in someway used to represent the objects and spaces in our experiments. We will deal with these issues later in this post. Based on this exposure to embodied cognition framework, let us revisit the  discussion on the results of these series of experiments.

Corporal acts and creations

Like embodied music creations, the tasks of shaping and locating elements in space are embodied design actions. Such events are referred as embodied imagination and are derived from the idea of embodied cognition. They are based on the premise that the actions of the body can (and do) participate in the development of thought and ideas. Embodied design explorations rely on be gestures or movements of the body and visualization in the mind’s eye.

Embodied imagination explains how, in blindfolded conditions, SP generated and manipulated the objects in condition 1, and architects conceived spaces around them in condition 3 (mentioned in the preceding post). Designer’s moves and reflections in these experiments show embodied imagination in action. These are ideal examples of embodied spatial creations.

Gestures and movements as corporal acts

Watch SP’s hands during creation of the casserole shape in condition 1. They move to create, refine and perfect the shape of the object. Several processes seem to be at work here.

First, SP’s gestures seem to complement the visual system deployed in the development of his visualization i.e. the visual system acting on the internal mind’s eye display. He could then creatively react to the display. Second, the fact that SP developed the virtual shape in front of him at a fixed distance shows that his body played a role in locating and scaling the virtual shape in front of him.

Second, the embodied creation demands being there, virtually or physically, to create objects and building ‘things’ and locate decision with respect to the body. Though SP’s visualization was virtual, the protocols and the design decisions seem to suggest that the designer was present physically in these visualizations. SP was sitting on a chair and. sculpted the object in his visualization as a tabletop creation in ‘front of him’ and scaled it using ‘his hand movements’. The actions were within a spatial range that ‘his grasp’ permitted. See video 1 below.


Video 1: Everything that SP created was small enough to be within is grasp, so he could shape it with hand gestures

In the next series of experiments (condition 3), the architects were let into a large hall and blindfolded. The responses were dramatically different. Corporal involvement became more intense. Architects chose to physically move in the hall and imagined as if they were on a ‘real’ site and the environment. Their physical movements as well as navigation (embodied cognition) seem to have contributed not only to their understanding of the spaces but also to creatively altering of the spatial arrangements. Architects immersed themselves in the space they created and almost ‘walked and lived’ in the visualized enclosures. (See video 2) In virtually constructing the built spaces, they appear to have relied on the visual as well as movement memory!

Video 2: The architects were so immersed that appears as if they ‘walked and lived’ in the spaces that they created.

Third, in describing design actions, they referred to design, as well as site features with respect to their bodies. So it is not surprising that the transcripts are full of references like ‘in the front, on my left/right, behind me’ and so on. (See transcripts in figure 2) It is impossible to make sense of the spaces that the architect’s created without accounting for the their body, its location and orientation.6

Video 3: In the immersive steps, the architects were able to tell where they were when asked.

Figure 1

Figure 2: Terms like my left, right, in front, occur extensively in the transcripts.

Is design a cerebral act or a corporal act?

There is much that we could learn from both the standpoints. As a designer, I feel that the act of design switches between the cerebral and corporal along the different stages in the design process. Early analytical studies are cerebral and when the action moves towards synthesis, the designer seems to frequently switch between the two. Frankly, it is best left to the cognitive scientist to solve the puzzle.

Summing up

Preceding post (Part II: Reflecting on gestures as design behavior) treated design as a cerebral act and focused on spatial intelligence and its role in design problem solving. This post viewed designing as a cerebral act and looked at it through the classical information-processing model. It tried to explain designer’s gestures and body movements as a cerebral act.

The current post pursues the same questions that we started with. ‘Why did the designer move hands in the air to mimic the shape he was creating? How could the architects and designers physically move through the mental spaces that they created in their mind’s eye?’ This post explores new theory that offers a better explanation to designer’s actions.

The theory that is relied on is embodied cognition and in many ways it takes an opposite standpoint. It claims that what happens in the mind is dependent on properties of the body. The local environment is seen as an extension of body and its cognitive processing.

The theory also proposes that the brain and cognitive processes are developed for motor actions and they extract information through active perceptual and motor actions. The physical actions like gestures are seen as complimenting the visual processes. Through several convincing examples, it shows how the body actually participates in thinking as well as development of ideas. This post, (as well as the subsequent posts) focus on this connection between cognitive processing and motor actions.

Representations, both Internal (mind’s eye) and external (sketching), play key role in this theory. The interaction with representations is considered central to deriving meaning and understanding. The current post views design behavior as a result of embodied cognitive actions. The post also touches the extension of this idea to embodied imagination and creations as a corporal act. It suggests that such corporal acts observed in the experimental tasks may have influenced thinking and dictated design decisions.

Preview of the next post

The next post will focus on the reasons for accuracy of designer’s interaction. It will address the question,

How could designers corporally interact with a virtual, physically non-existent object that they created in their mind’s eye? And that too, with surprising accuracy?

The answers will be somewhat speculative. It is possible that the effect of mimicking the physical characteristics of the shapes and the spaces had something to do with accuracy with which they interacted with the objects and built spaces during the creation as well as the recall in final description. What ensured the vigorous and accurate interactions with physically non-existent objects?

We will deal with these important questions in the next post. It will also argue that the choice to use gestures is with the designer and his decision is influenced by useful contributions that movements make to the evolving thoughts.

Notes and reference

  1. Interestingly Robert McKim has also talked of sketches as vehicle of thoughts. See McKim, R., (1972) Experiences in Visual Thinking. Brook/Cole, California
  2. For more on embodied cognition refer to Wilson, M., (2002). ‘Six views of embodied cognition’. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 9 (4): 625-635
  3. Pande, P., & Chandrasekharan, S., (2017) Representational competence: towards a distributed and embodied cognition account. Studies in science education, 1-13
  4. Even in the radio era when the musicians could not be seen, the gestures were not absent, but were less conspicuous.
  5. There is also conscious production of practiced bodily responses, as part of learning a spatial task. Most sportsmen practice their playing actions in the air, to reinforce their embodied responses, but their relationship with thoughts is slightly different.
  6. Location of objects or elements with respect to the body is common and is considered almost innate. George Lakoff points out that human movement revolves around standing erect and moving the body in an up-down motion. Humans innately have these concepts of up and down. Lakoff and Johnson contend this is similar with other spatial orientations such as front and back too.


Designers imagine, touch and walk the talk

This post is third in the series three posts that explores potentials of mind’s eye by blindfolding designers and architects and asking them to develop their design proposals, completely relying on internal resources and visualizing in the mind’s eye. They extensively used gestures while solving the design problem. On the other hand, in my earlier posts on teaching sketching for designers, I had focused extensively in getting the whole body involved in the act. I was interested in the relationship between the body movement and the thoughts.

Leaving the architects standing

To broaden the scope, I treated hand gestures as only a part of the larger aspect like conscious moving of body. I decided to refocus on the role that the body can play in solving design problem. In all my previous experiments, architects sat on a chair and then they where blindfolded. This had actually constrained their movement of the body. In these experiment, they were then blindfolded and left standing in a middle of a large empty hall, wearing a wireless collar mike in. I had hypothesized that they will move around and use their movements in some constructive ways.

Experiment design

This time we invited four architect volunteers with two/three years experience after graduation to participate. They were given a site plan with no indication of what functions to accommodate. Site given was rectangular, with one curved corner along the access road. It had gentle contours. The plan indicated trees (some to be preserved) and location of existing storm water drainage. The architects were asked to remember these features and verbally recalled them before they were given project requirements.

The design problem given was a hangout space with a cafeteria for student community on the campus. It also had a space that could be used by the students to display outcomes of their hobbies. The detailed account of the experiment and the results were published.1,2

The questions addressed were,

Will the freedom of movement impact visualization strategies?

Will the architects move their body to ‘feel’ the space that they develop in their mind’s eye?

If yes, can these movements be mapped to the spaces that they develop?

The design of the experiment ensured that the architects had to completely depend on their mental imagery and internal resources. We were exploring how the architects would use the freedom to move constructively and take advantage of the space in the hall. We were also looking for changes that may occur because the built spaces were much larger than their body and they have to be designed from inside as well as from outside.

Indeed there were visible changes in the strategies that architects used in visualization and in solving the design problem. They constructed a site in their visualization intervened in it creating architectural spaces around them, even walked around in the spaces created and when necessary altered them. Looking back, it seems like a peculiar interaction. The use of gestures was differed from the way Industrial designer used them. The difference is that the built spaces were too large to be physically sculpted! Their gestures and movements had different functions now. There were differences in the way four architect approached the idea of using the space. The visualization strategies also differed. We plan to discuss some key observations like 1] their presence on the virtual site that they visualized; 2] the strategies that they evolved to visualize the spaces and details; and 3] the way they interacted with their creations. The interested readers could refer to a detailed paper on this experiment.3

‘Presence’ on the site: Virtual or physical?

The video suggests that all the four architects were also seeing themselves virtually standing on the site, visualizing built spaces around them. How can a person be on a virtual site? This might sound strange, but it is true. Yet it needed to be proved beyond doubt by relying on concrete visible evidence of the designer was bodily present on the virtual site. The proof came from several sources in the video data and the transcripts.

We analyzed the transcripts to locate words and phrases that contained frequent references to self, such as ‘I am’, ‘on both sides of me’, ‘front of me, left side of me’, ‘on my right side’. (See figure 1) Surprisingly, most architects dropped references to north and referred everything with respect to the body, its location and orientation. In all four transcripts, there is only a single isolated reference to the North direction. (See video 1) In practice, North direction is critical in architectural practice and comes up often in conversations. Similarly, heat gain, ventilation and rain directions are worked out with North in mind.


Figure 1: Shows how concurrent speech that reveals the architect being on the virtual site


Video 1: There is only one reference to North direction in the four case studies is unusual. Their virtual presence on the visualized site was so dominating that most of them did not refer to North.

Occasionally the architect was asked a question ‘Where are you now?’ When declaring their location, they relied on the virtual space. They declared their locations with references to the features of the site or of new design that they were developing in their mind’s eye. (See video 2,3) Besides, when asked to go back to a specific feature or a location in the proposed design (like entrance), they made finer adjustments in their movements to reach almost the exact spot in the physical world! (See video 4) Such events further supported the idea of presence on the site. The boundaries between the physical world and virtual world seem to have blurred.


Video 2, 3: The architects were asked during the blindfolded session “Where are you now?” Observe the answers. All the architects were on the virtual site that they visualized and they were clear where they were located on it. (Architect in video 1 also ‘knows’ where he is.)

Video 4: Watch the architect making finer adjustments in his locations, before finally declaring where he is.

This presented sufficient evidence of the architects being on the virtual sites that they visualized in his mind’s eye. But we still need answers to the question,

Why were the architects on the virtual site? And how did it contribute to design decisions?

Beyond presence

It was not a mere static presence that could be observed. They walked up and down; exploring the site and conceptualizing built spaces around them. They seem to be imagining themselves constructing and using the spaces that they constructed. Most started with developing a built space from inside first but when required, they came out of the building to see what they had created. (See video 5)

Video 5: When working on the outside of the built space, architect steps out spontaneously.

How does one get valid clues to what they were seeing and experiencing? We mapped the combinations of gestures, body part movements and speech strings from the transcripts, second by second, and plotted the contents with respect to the site plan. (See earlier figure 1) The combined rich descriptions typically indicated site landmarks and new built features. On the other hand, simultaneous gestures, hand, neck and body movements showed the locations of these features. (See figure 2) This helped us reconstruct and map what they were seeing at that a given point of time and how it transformed. (See video 6)

Figure 2: Shows how concurrent speech with gestures and movements recorded and later mapped to reconstruct experiences.


Video 6: Watch how the site moves as the architect turns. With the site, all the built features also turn.

Virtually being on the site allowed him to operate in the ‘virtual’ space that he could build on, alter and experience from inside and outside. This was lot quicker than if had chosen the normal path of sketching these out and altering them. Watch the videos carefully. Their visualizations were far quicker to generate, lot more pliable and could match the speed of the evolving thoughts, ideas and fantasies.

Visualization strategies

The architects had to adapt to the unfamiliar situation spontaneously. So, to imagine consistency in the visualization strategies used by the four architects looked unrealistic. Nobody had any training in handling mental imagery. (Unlike sketching, the pedagogic implications of use of mental imagery have not been explored and so it had never been a part of any design curricula) Most often, it accompanies thoughts spontaneously and remains a very personal experience. The architects had to adapt to the new of ways on the spot. So, instead of searching for consistency in visualization strategy, we decided to look for differences between architects.

Architects moved on the virtual site as well as in the physical space, but the speed and the vigour of the movements and lengths covered were different. At times even the purposes of the movements seem to be different. The strategies could be grouped into three classes. Each architect treated one of the strategies as primary, but switched occasionally to other strategies when they found it convenient.

Strategy 1: Visualizing, working and moving in-situ

Two of the architects built the virtual building spaces and layouts around them and comfortably moved within it. (See video 7) They created the spaces and walked into them and altered them if necessary. The distances and spaces around were very ‘real’ to them. When asked to sum up their design, they were able to walk into the virtual built space that they created almost without error. The results clearly show that the two architects had developed a bodily feel for the virtual spaces that they built and oriented their body within these spaces. (See video 8)

Video 7: Architect created a virtual site and built the spaces around him, while pacing up and down. He is clearly developing his ideas by being inside the built spaces.

Video 8: Architects were uncomfortable if they miscalculated the body orientation and corrected it. Video shows one such example.

The visualization, particularly when in-situ, was very accurate. In summing up the design, when the architects were asked to sum up is design ideas, he could walk the same spaces with surprising accuracy. So accurate was this movement, that in spite of the eye mask, when asked to go back to the entrance, the architect carefully moved back and adjusted his steps to reach the correct location in the physical space! (See video 9)

Video 9: Watch architect going back to the exact location that she had planned as entrance. The last bit of adjustment showed surprising accuracy in the bodily feel.

When asked to describe elevation of the built space, one of them stepped out of the virtual space, to ‘see’ the building elevation and the entrance and reworked on it. (See video 10) Incidentally, these are the only gestures that sculpted the shape of the entrance interactively.

Video 10: Architect steps out and sculpts the entrance to the cafeteria. It appears as if she was developing the ideas in-situ.

Strategy 2: Carrying site on the shoulder

Two of the four architects moved into an in-situ space. Other two moved, but not with the same purpose and vigour. Their moving was a free wheeling movement. It had no direct relationship with the visualized space around. It appears that when they moved, they always had site with them. It appeared as if they were carrying the site with them as if it was attached to their body. So, the site moved and rotated, when they moved and turned. How does one prove such a strange conclusion?

Using the combination of concurrent speech strings, with gestures, neck and body movements, we could map their image that they were seeing in their mind’s eye. These dynamic map shows that when the architect moved or turned, the site also moved and turned, as if they were carrying it with them. (See video 6 shown earlier) It is not clear what was the advantage of this strategy to the designer, but they do look comfortable. Perhaps they were not aware of their own strategy of site moving with them.

Strategy 3: Shift over to a scale model

Some of the architects occasionally shifted to another strategy. From the body movements, gestures and speech, it appeared as if they were working on a scale model. They were outside the site now and perhaps viewed it from the top and created built spaces. Their hand gestures either showed location of the spaces or described shapes (often site contours, structure, roof) Gestures suggest that they are perhaps working on a small-scale model floating in the air, at a short distance from the body. (See video 11) This is closest to the earlier discussion on industrial designer (SP) working on a virtual model in front of him.

Video 11: The gestures suggest that the architect is working on a model close to her body.

General Observations

By allowing the architects to move around, we made the canvas larger. It revealed many new things. We derived three major visualization strategies from the data. For most, though one of the visualization strategies remained as a primary strategy, they were able to effortlessly switch to the other strategies when required. In spite of differences in strategies, all of them were able to solve the problem effectively.

With the broader canvas, the body movements and gestures were used to perform newer functions. They pointed out locations and directions of features that designers was conceiving or referring to. They indicated shapes and in rare case, they even sculpted the shape and the contours.

We also realized that the concurrent gesture + speech combination is so rich in information that it was possible to map what they were seeing in their mind’s eye using their body as a reference. This material acquired richness and revealed lot more of what was going on in the designer’s mind and what he was visualizing. The speech + gesture combination clearly revealed that the architect built spaces, while imagining a virtual site in his mind’s eye. He also used his body as a reference to locate things around.

In my earlier writings, I attributed this to ‘thinking with body’. Reflecting back now I found new explanations that closely match how and why architects and designers performed the way they did. It would be worth going to these areas by considering all the findings of the three articles together. We plan to do this in the next post.

I have come to believe that one of the important characteristics of designerly thinking is the inner urge to solve problems through the design expertise. The attitude can be captured as ‘whether there is a client or not, I want to, and need to solve the problem’. Designerly thinking is based on ambition as well as the excitement solving the problem, a point that writings on design methods miss completely. So, the constraints, like not allowing usual processes like sketching, blindfolding or left standing in the middle of the hall, don’t seem to bother them. None of them complained about the constraints imposed. They took the challenges in their stride, and in fact adapt to them, by spring back with spontaneous alternative strategies and approaches.

Sum up

This article is third in a series of posts that presented findings of the experiments on designers and architects, when they were blindfolded and asked to design. Sufficient evidence was presented in the previous two posts to conclude the most of them were able to handle design problems and come up with solutions and that too with amazing dexterity. This post focuses on the next objective, the role that body and its deliberate actions can potentially play in supporting visualization.

This time four architects were given a design problem and were let into a large hall. They were blindfolded, wore a cordless collar mike and were asked to work on an architectural project. The experiments were video taped and all the speech strings were transcribed for detailed analysis. The expectation was that they might use the freedom to move around while thinking of the solutions and this might impact their visualization. Indeed, they spontaneously responded to the new situation with different visualization strategies.

There was sufficient evidence in their speech as well as in the body movement and gestures to show that they were present on the site visualized in their mind’s eye. When asked, they would declare their location in the built form that they were developing. So, it is not surprising that they located everything around them with respect to their current location and orientation on the virtual site. The way they operated, even this virtual presence looked almost real to them!

Some of them used a strategy where they built the site in their mind’s eye, developed their ideas as virtual built forms, manipulated them in their visualization, but actually moved and interacted with their creations through actual physical movements in the real world. So accurate was their mapping between the virtual and real world that, when asked, they could physically walk back to the exact location in the built form and it would also tally with the physical location in the hall!

Another popular strategy was when they moved they carried the site with them. The site turned when they turned. Though the physical movement did not impact visualization, it was probably required to keep them active in the 3D space on the virtual site. Last, and perhaps the least used, was a conventional strategy of working on a small-scale model like situation. The fact that it was rarely used is surprising; as most of them are used to working with the scaled versions of their creation all the time, and that is how they are taught to develop ideas.

This data showed that body movements were far more pronounced and gestures played a supporting role. There were rare occasions when the gestures were used as tools to model the idea. Perhaps, the bigger size of the built form and the fact they had worked primarily from inside the spaces may have made it difficult to use gestures as shaping tools, the way industrial designers could.

The post concludes by listing the architects’ actions, visualizations and particularly the movements in the physical world. In the next post, we will review the findings of all the three articles in this series through the theoretical framework of spatial intelligence and embodied design.

Preview of the next post

The next post will take a bird’s eye view of experiments on imagery. We will address following questions.

While visualizing, how do designers benefit by use of body movements and gestures?

Why do they feel it necessary to move the body?

Does it support spatial decisions and design thinking?

The theoretical support for the mental events in this series come from work on forms of human intelligence and from findings in cognitive psychology. We will touch areas like 1] Spatial intelligence as well as; 2] Embodied cognition (We touched this in earlier post “out-of-box ideas to teach sketching”) as well as its spin-offs like embodied design and imagination.

Notes and references.

1 Athavankar. U. (2008) Exploring the boundaries of spatial intelligence, Conference on Research and Training in Spatial Intelligence, Evanston.
2 Athavankar. U., Prasad B., Guruprasad.K., Patsute R. and Sharma S. (2008) Reaching out in the mind’s space, In Design Computing and Cognition ’08, Eds. Goel A., Gero J, 321-340. Springer.
3 Athavankar, U., (1999) Gestures, mental imagery and spatial reasoning, In Visual and Spatial Reasoning, MIT, Eds Garo and Barbara Tversky. 103-128. MIT



Out-of-the-box ideas to teach sketching

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

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

Structured learning and out-of-the-box methods

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

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

1 The act of visualization

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

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

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

Visualization: Work out what we don’t see

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

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

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

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

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

2 The act of sketching

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

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

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

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

‘Feel’ the act of sketching

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

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

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

Distracting the classroom

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

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

‘Feel’ where the pencil tip is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Feel’ of perspective space through body

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

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

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

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

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

Need for control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Back to visualization with a difference

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

Testing the pudding

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

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

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

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

exam freehand9.

9. Sketching exam with a viva in an unrelated subject

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

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

Reflections: Does designing/sketching use embodied cognition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sum up

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

This post answers several questions that were raised at the end of the last post. They included, ‘How can we expedite learning to visualize ideas in the mind’s eye?’ ‘How does one learn to sketch as if it is a routine and natural act that demands very little attention and budgeting of mental energy?’ and ‘Can you reduce time and effort to produce this level of competence by planned and structured efforts?’ This post deals with answers to the last two questions extensively. It just touches the first one cursorily, but leaves it for extensive treatment in the next post.

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

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

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

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

Preview of the next post

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

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

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

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

Notes and references

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

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

3 What is embodied cognition?

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

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