Part I : How and why does sketching deliver?

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking sketches and early design explorations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 How and why sketching delivers?

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

1.1 Sketching is close to thinking with hands

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

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

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

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

1.2. Depictive sketches afford creative reactions

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

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

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

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

1.3 Sketches afford conversation

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

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

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

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

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

Sketches also afford team conversation

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

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

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

1.4 Distancing affords reconsiderations of ideas

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

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

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

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

Sum up

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgement

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

Note and references

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

2  Types of sketches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Why do designers sketch?

Art and design, both bring something new in the world through objects and images. Nobody disputes that thinking influences the creations. The creations start as a mental activity, but results deal with real world sensory elements, that you can see, touch, feel and operate. Design thinking often involves composing meaningful physical and visual elements in 2D and 3D space. The thinking leads to intentional actions, so that the resultant ‘composition’ works as a meaningful and effective solution, as close to the original thoughts as possible.1

Such composing is most often accompanied by visualization, but it rarely is a one shot affair. During early creative phase, visualization is base on incremental steps till the clarity emerges. It involves two abilities. First, it deals with working with images in the mind; Second, making them visible in some form. However, these are fragile and are lost if not attended to.

Though visualization can technically remain as a standalone mental activity, it is often supported by some form of dynamic representation/s that keep co-evolving as the thinking explores newer directions.2 In design, initially it is represented in some media and physical form like, notes, diagrams, sketches as well as orthographic drawings, cardboard mockups and so on. See figure 1. Some of these forms of representations are unique to design profession. These actions, and the way they are executed, look like that are natural partners of the thinking process.

1

Figure 1: Examples of how ideas are represented in early creative thinking. 1) Top: Early sketches of car ideas. Courtesy Vishnu. 2) Early thinking in diagrammes and notes,. Courtesy Ameya 3) Diagrammes to architectural design ideas. Courtesy Kamu Iyer, 4) Mockups with different levels of granularity.

Let us ask a question,

Why is there a need to represent the ideas externally? Why and how do representations contribute to the development of ideas?

To find answers to these questions, we must take a short detour and dig into the ideas on how the brain processes information and the role short-term and long-term memories play. We will then return to design thinking.

Overcoming the limitations of Short-Term Memory (STM)

STM plays a critical role in human actions and specifically in problem solving. Miller3 proved that STM suffers from severe capacity limitations. We can only hold seven plus or minus two items in the short-term memory. Miller also showed that the limited cognitive resource has to be rationed between processing efforts and need to temporarily hold information.

Common examples would convince us of these limitations. For example, you experience these limitations when you learn to drive. You don’t enjoy the drive when you are learning, nor can you give a coherent account of what you encountered on the road! It is a same story when you eat Chinese food with chopsticks for the first time. When you are learning, there are too many micro tasks and sequences of actions to be attended to. With practice, you chunk them together as units. Then you don’t have to process them as micro-steps but attend to them as a chunk. The primary activity (like driving or eating with chopsticks for the first time) takes so much of your cognitive resource that you find it difficult to converse with others around. According to Miller, STM has an upper limit on number of things that it can attend to and process simultaneously.

Here is a short exercise to understand the idea. (See figure 2) There is an unfolded flat cube with 6 sides. You have to mentally fold it and decide if the line closes and forms a continuous loop. Now imagine, while busy with the folding task, if a random list of capital cities were to be read out to you by your friend? Will you remember the cities and get the right answer to the cube problem?

Puzzle_withtextFigure 2: Does the line close into a loop when the opened up shape of a paper is mentally folded into a cube?

The contents of the fragile STM decay and vanish quickly unless you make efforts to retain (rehears) them actively. In solving the cube problem, watch yourself doing it. You complete the folding of first two sides and check if the lines meet on the edge. When you move on to other sides of the cube, the folding operations that you performed little while ago are lost! You divide cognitive resource between folding of planes and holding it in the STM and memorizing the list. The limited cognitive resource available in STM is divided between 1) our efforts to hold the content and 2) process them. If processing demands large part of the resource at the cost of holding it actively in STM and vice versa.

Some of the master chess players, when visualizing and simulating the game in the mind prefer to keep an empty chess board in the front to reduce the contents they would have to hold in their STM. We also encounter the limitations of STM all the time in our routine tasks. That’s why we look for quick and handy forms of representations, like we stick ‘Things to do list’ on refrigerators and Post-its on computer screens. (Traditionally, in India women used to tying knots to their pallu as reminders of things to do.) Obviously, the number of things that we can attend to and process are limited.

Representation and the act of design

We now know that external representations are critical because they primarily serve the purpose of extending the limited capacity of the STM. External representations are part of human strategy developed to overcome limitations of the brain, particularly of STM. To conserve resources, one of the most important strategy that humans use is to quickly represent ideas externally. In design, it includes diagrammes, sketches and quick and dirty mockups. We will concentrate more on sketching. We will start with questions,

How do we overcome the limitations on the capabilities of STM in the act of design? How do we ration the cognitive resource while designing?

Why do designers sketch?

The answer to this lies in the way designers use diagramming and sketching as an extension of STM. But the ideas can’t be routinely extended to understand the role of sketching and the act of design. We will attempt to understand this in two stages. Though there is a clear advantage in external representation, you do need cognitive resource to generate sketches. In the first stage, we will focus on the relative use of cognitive resource in different representation problems. In the second stage, will also add problem solving component and see how the resources are reallocated.

Visualizing, sketching and cognitive resources

We will focus first not on designing, but just on the act of representation. Quick sketching is the most common form of representation. The need for cognitive resource is determined by the nature of sketching tasks and the backup logistics that it expects from the STM. Some tasks may demand more than others. The discussion that follows deals with different representation tasks and indicates potential resource demanded by that representations.4

The idea is modeled in figure below. (See figure 3.1) Let us take a simple task like observing a composition of objects in front and drawing it as seen. (task 1) You may need to hold it briefly in STM and keep refreshing it frequently. But you do have to generate instructions for moving your hand and pencil point. This is least demanding. That’s why children are taught this in schools. Now if you remove the objects after sometime, you must rely on memory. (task 2) You now have to visualize the composition in the STM, hold it actively and refresh it continuously to draw it. That is little more taxing.

Suppose you give a task where the composition remains in the front, but you are expected to draw it from opposite side and that too from a specific viewing angle? (task 3) This makes extra demands on processing, as you have to ‘work out’ and then visualize what it will look like. To overcome processing limitations of STM, most observers do this in stages by segmenting the composition. The processing is similarly demanding if you are given orthographic drawings and asked to draw a cross section! (task 4) Most likely, it will be done in segments and each segment is quickly drawn before moving to the next. Remember the folding of the sides of the cube. The cube problem would have been easy if you were allowed sketching in segments as you solve.

Figure 1-01

Figure 3.1 Modeling the act of problem solving and representation.4

Task 1: [->1 -> 3 -> 4]; Task 2: [->1 ->2 ->3 -> 4]; Task 3 & 4: [-> 1 <-> 2 <-> 3 -> 4 -> 1]

Notice that tasks 3 and 4 demand that you ‘work out’ (visualize) the representation by expending resource and then generate instructions to draw. The task is so heavily processing biased that most people resort to visualizing as well as sketching it in parts. Note that all the tasks so far deal with different levels of processing to understand and/or create representations. None of them demanded any design problem to be solved.

These tasks were recorded in ascending order to reflect increased need of cognitive resource demanded by different representational tasks. The first two are simple sketching tasks typically given to children in schools. The third and the forth require resource to visualize representations. They demanded ‘working things out’ in the head, which requires substantial cognitive resource for processing and subsequently generating instructions on how to represent (draw).

Where is the capacity for design thinking?

Now imagine that you have difficulties in visualizing and in making neat and correct sketches quickly. The problems of making a proper sketch and correcting it will take way most of your processing capacity. Remember the earlier examples of learning to drive and eating with chopsticks?

If implementations take all the cognitive resource, how will additional resource be available for the intensive mental activity of solving the problem in design?

That is why the idea of performing representation tasks (in our case sketching) in autopilot mode, where you expend minimum cognitive resource, makes sense. Can you sketch quickly in autopilot mode?

Added complexities of the act of design5,6

The purpose of the act of design is to find a meaningful solution to the problem that the designers are working on. Designers spend time and efforts in understanding the problem, the context and the functional requirements. The Long Term Memory (LTM) also supports the activity by retrieving relevant stored items into STM. These may include accessing knowledge, design precedents and memories.6 It also takes new inputs from the real world. Is not that the reason to fix those mood boards in the front? See figure 3.2.

It is well known that working out the solution to the design problem as well as accompanying visualization is performed in STM. So, the limited STM capacity has to serve us on several fronts. It is well utilized, if it is used for developing solution directions and visualize how they can work out in space, than on problems of drawing and correcting the sketches.

Imagine now that you are working on a design problem. We need to account for activities like solving a problem that make additional demands on STM. Let us plugin a hypothetical process of problem solving in the earlier model.7 Roughly, we can look at ‘design thinking and problem solving’ as primary activities leading to ‘visualizations’ and subsequently to ‘sketching or mock-ups’.

Figure 2-01

Figure 3.2 : Modeling the act of problem solving and representation.

Task 5: Iterative [5 <-> 2 -> 3 -> 4] -> [ 4 -> 1 -> 2 <->5 <-> 2 -> 3 ->  4]

What are the new plugged in activities? The design thinking is now focused on understanding the problem, generating new ideas and evaluating thoughts and ideas. (Task 5) It demands designing and design thinking and might require that we bring in contents from the direct perception of objects and events in the real world or as memories from LTM and handle it actively in STM. This requires substantial cognitive resource to be deployed.

Next, as the ideas develop, they lead to visualizations of arrangements of elements in the fragile STM. But, this is not a one-way flow. (5 <-> 1). It may start with tentative visualization of ideas that are quickly evaluated and altered in the STM. This cyclic back-and-forth flow is likely to lead to incremental development of design ideas. What are its implications?

Imagine if we had decided not to make those quick and messy sketches and notes? It would mean holding the ideas as visualizations in the STM. Either you have to keep rehearsing it to hold it as an active display in STM or allow it to decay. Quicker you record the ideas, the better it is. So, cognitively less demanding quick representations becomes critical. Take an example. In writing, you suddenly get a wonderful sentence in a flash, but you may loose it, because part of your STM is busy instructing the hand to completing the previous sentence. That is why quick and messy form of recording (noting and sketching) is required.

In design, the representations take form of rapid sketches, diagrammes and quick and dirty mock-ups. Once the current ideas are sketched out and are available to the designer as external entities, capacity starved STM is relatively freed; it can now allow 1) new material to enter and 2) new ideas to evolve in STM. One should treat rapidly recording external devices like sketching as extensions of the STM.

It is advantageous to spend some cognitive resource to generate instructions to the hand muscles, to record them as sketching/diagrammes/notes. Even though they are incomplete and ambiguous, they do serve the purpose. So far as they capture the right contents and reflect the intentions of the thinker, it does not matter that they look messy and confused. Besides, the action releases STM of its burden. In short, these external recordings truly act like an extension of STM, relieves it of the efforts needed to hold the ideas and help to overcome the limitations on its capacities.

So, in spite of its limitations, the STM can handle resource hungry problem solving provided the acts of representation (sketching) do not demand too much resource. Else, the main activity of solving a design problem and visualizing new ideas that steer the thinker to an effective solution are starved of cognitive resource. Most creative efforts are process intensive and make heavy demands on severely limited processing capacities of STM.

Sketching, when the designer are executing it, works like a ‘online’ dynamic depictive display unfolding in front of his eyes. The act of observing the display is important, because it serves as a major input for self-criticism and further incremental development of ideas. Of course, the display needs designer’s continuous attention, which entails expending continuous cognitive resource.

Neat and clean process?

The way the process is described, the operations look too clean and sequential to be realistic. While design thinking and visualization process has its eureka moments, it is often not a one shot process. You iteratively reorder, scrap, rebuild and transform elements till the design intentions are met. The advantage of sketching is easier to understand if you treat act of design as a temporal and cyclic event consisting of series of iterative actions that record ideas. The complexities of handling the temporal iterations obviously demand moving contents in and out of these circles shown in figure 3.2. Such operations are even more cognitive resource intensive. But once the external record is available, even if it is only in parts, STM is relieved of its burden to hold them and is free to take up the next problem solving as well as visualization challenge.

Thinking sketches

Designers use sketches as intermediate representations of the ideas evolving in their mind. They can be called as ‘thinking sketches’. They are messy, incomplete and often ambiguous. The value of these sketches as end products is often not important, at least till you become famous and research worthy! In most sketches, they only represent objects that will be produced on different scale, in a different context and in different materials. For them early sketching is a means of supporting the evolving thoughts. This type of sketching should be treated as a different class. Though they are not important as end products, they have a key role in design thinking.8

We saw how quick and messy representations are key to design thinking. But there is much more to designer’s ‘thinking sketches’. We hope to discuss this exclusively in the next post.

Should design career be reserved for those with good drawing skills?

The discussions so far suggest that, sketching is a critical activity in idea generation. This also leads to interesting questions.

Should design be taught to those who already know how to sketch and draw well? Or should we teach ‘thinking sketches’ and drawing to those who are passionate in pursuing design carrier? And lastly,

Considering that design thinking is widely used in different types of problems, which may not have visual component, are there other forms of representations that could compensate?

In my research on representations, I tried to conceptually explore all contradicting possibilities. We hope to discuss these questions over the next few posts.

Programme to learn ‘thinking sketches’

Our roots in visual arts have always influenced the teaching of sketching in design schools. Would the nature of designer’s sketching be different, particularly during the early creative phase in design, if the design profession had emerged independently? This is a hypothetical question, but answer seems to be yes,

How does one learn to draw thinking sketches? How could such programme for sketching be developed?

Design career should be opened to students who show a creative promise and are thinkers, who could then be taught sketching to support their ideation. I tried to develop a course for sketching based on the conviction that early ideation stage need different kind of sketching. Logically it follows that such efforts should shun the art school influences (at least partly). So, I build the course ground up from scratch.

The focus of the course was to minimally depend on use of cognitive resource while sketching. Observe that we walk, swim, eat and even drive in autopilot mode (i.e. with only a cursory use of cognitive resource). So, why can’t we sketch in autopilot mode? It made sense, because during early creative phase, designers sketch to support problem-solving process. So, they must allot their cognitive resources for their problem solving efforts. Wasting this resource on making correct sketches entails depriving the creator from using it for the main task of solving a problem. So, the focus was on ‘How can we make sketching a near natural act, like walking and eating?’

The course ensured that the students learn to draw quick and correct sketches in a short time. The focus was on correctness of the sketches than on style of sketching. It deployed out-of-box ideas to shorten ‘learning to sketch’ duration. It insisted on using the entire body to participate in the process of sketching. So, it focused not only on moving the hand, but also moving the body and assuming correct postures. I plan to discuss this in the next post.

As mentioned earlier, design thinking is being practiced by many, and they are unlikely to be skilled enough in sketching. Are there forms of representations that can effectively substitute sketching? Can other forms of representations support creative thinking and problem solving? We will have quick glimpses at the other options available, but deal with them extensively in later posts.

What if we prevent designers from sketching?

Out of curiosity, I challenged, the notion that sketching is an inevitable form of representation in designerly thinking. In scientifically conducted experimental series, the designers and architects were blindfolded and they were asked to design. When prevented from sketching, designers used their ability to internally represent their creations in their mind’s eye (mental images). These served as an effective depictive display to react to, almost as the way sketches on paper functioned. Designers seem to have amazing abilities to effortlessly generate new images and manipulate them willfully to solve problems. All of them were able to react to their mental images, transform and manipulate them and at times reject what they did not like, almost as if they were working on paper.

Can this be used by students of design thinking? Is it possible to train oneself in use of mental imagery?

 

Generating gestures and word strings

Directions attempted so far, is the use of combination of gestures and word strings to represent objects to their teams as well as to self. Together they contained description of evolving shapes and compositions. We are trying to simulate the early thinking during ideation.

I am now trying to concentrate on exploring forms of representations that can be naturally acquired, easily learnt and do not demand much of cognitive resource to be utilized. It is work in progress, but it is likely to be a mix media communication. If potentials of design thinking have to be explored, this will be a critical step.

There are several indicative examples. Ideas in brainstorming sessions are not necessarily sketched. Many times, in face-to-face conversations, ideas are explained using gestures, with only a marginal support from sketching. It is important to explore other forms of representations that could support creative explorations in non-spatial problems. We will pursue this in later posts.

Sum up

In this post, we were exploring design behavior in the early creative phase and have addressed the questions, ‘While solving a problem, why is there a need to quickly represent the ideas? And subsequently, why a mental activity like design thinking quickly ends up in sketches?

Design thinking often leads to visualization and later to its quick representations. The limited cognitive resource that STM works with demands that we ration it carefully to different mental activities involved in design problem solving. We tried to develop a model of these activities in two stages. We prefer to quickly represent ideas externally to conserve limited cognitive resource, which otherwise would have been expended in holding the ideas in STM and work with them.

External representations, particularly visual representation like notes, diagrammes, sketches and mock-ups work as extensions of STM. They have key role in idea generation. As a prelude to the future posts, we concluded the discussion by touching other possible forms of representation.

It is clear that sketching as a form of representation helps designers to overcome limitations of STM. We referred to them as thinking sketches, which serves many more functions than just conserving cognitive resource. In the next post, we will discuss the nature of thinking sketches and how they work. We will also discuss wonderful things that designers do when sketching, along with my efforts to develop a special course to how to draw thinking sketches.

Notes and references

1 This is true of many creative art efforts. We intentionally compose sequence of words to create prose and poetry. We compose musical notes into a composition with intent.

 2 In most cases, representations appear to be critical, however, the way thoughts are represented is largely discipline specific. Designers sketch, musicians play or write score, authors write or word process their thoughts ….

3 Miller G., (1966) The magical number seven, plus or minus two, in Readings in Perception, ed. Wertheimer M., Van Nestrand, New York

4 In spirit, the figure is somewhat close to the interactive visual imagery diagramme that Mckim proposed, but is developed further to include cognitive perspective. Also see

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

5 It is not based on specific research on act of design, but extrapolated from what is known of STM. What is explained here can be considered indicative.

6 Discussion on art thinking is not included here. I did not have the fortune of studying how artists think and the kind of problems they solve. So, the discussion is limited to designer’s work. The model proposed will have to be altered to include art. My limited understanding is that the purpose why artists sketch is to explore and present a personal point of view of seeing the real world. This involves intense initial contemplation and self-searching to get clarity on how he should act. Artists are known to keep gazing at the empty canvas in front till some clarity emerges. Initial intermittent representation actions become more frequent as they advance and the depictive display in the front guides their thoughts.

7 There is no way to figure out the actual information flow in the act of design experimentally and show how it should it be represented.

8 Designers also make well rendered sketches as finished products. They are more presentation heavy and are a different ball game. This post does not deal with such cases.