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.

 

Advertisements

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