Design sketching or why doodling is good for you………

Product design by one of our students

I feel I should begin this post with an apology.  An apology to all the students over the years whom I have steered in the wrong direction on this one.  For the many who found their own way in the world as designers and makers, well you will have found out the truth for yourselves either consciously or in your own practice.  To those who did not, please forgive me.  For years I explained to students,  and anybody who would listen,  that designers sketched to communicate their ideas to other people.  Wrong!

The truth is that for designers sketching is so much more than a way of showing your idea to someone else; a means of making your abstract concept concrete.  Sketching is the way that designers think.  You know how it is when you suddenly come across an idea that fits into place in your understanding like a jigsaw piece and makes  sense of so many other experiences?  I read a paper called “Sketching and the Psychology of Design”, by Rudolf Arnheim (In, “The Idea of Design”, Ed Margolin and Buchanan, MIT Press 1995) and I had one of those, “Ahha!” moments.  It is obvious when you think about it, as a designer do you really sketch for other people or do you sketch for yourself?  True there are times when you need to present an idea in which case you probably do a lot more than a sketch, you do the full work up, perhaps CAD renderings or a really classy piece of representational drawing, but the point is they are not for you, they are not part of the process.

Arnheim explores the interplay between idea and sketch in the designers mind, the dialectic between ideation and visual representation. As I was reading that all sorts of lights went on for me.   Let me ask you a question.  Have you ever found yourself watching a sporting event on TV, tension is running high, the next few moments really matter and as the star player moves into action you find yourself moving in sympathy.  Your body participates in the action you are watchin.  You might find your leg “taking the kick” or your arm mimicking the catch or stroke, (insert sport dependent reaction here). We are used to thinking of ourselves in pieces; body, mind, spirit, for example.  I often ask a class of children to point to the part of the body where they learn and, predictably they all point to their  heads.  Science fiction writing has often toyed with the theme of the disembodied brain as some superior form of life but the reality is that we sense data physically and make use of it using the whole of our bodies.  In schools in this country much has been made  of  VAK as a way of sorting learners; complete this questionnaire and we will tell you whether you are a visual or auditory or kinaesthetic learner.  ( Some of my pupils even tell me that they cannot do something because it doesn’t suit their learning style. )    The human body and brain are parts of the same organism.  The notion that higher order thinking is that which does not relate to the practicality of the real world derives from a philosophy developed by an aristocracy who needed to justify the distinction between themselves and the slaves who made their life of contemplation possible.

Back to sketching.  As a designer I have a thought which is half formed, I sketch it thinking to a greater or lesser degree about how to represent it, and all the time my mind is reviewing what I am doing.  In thinking how to represent something I am working out how it can be made real, with the same representation I am making judgments about how the idea is shaping up and proposing revisions.  Sometimes I find myself in a mental blind alley and I use sketching as a way of finding a new direction, forcing myself to go through alternatives and in the process waiting for them moment when I seize on a new avenue of exploration.  I sketch a line and I know it’s bad, perhaps the fault was in the drawing, perhaps in the conception but I judge which move to change whichever I think is at fault.  At some point an idea will graze my consciousness and I pause to capture it in enough detail to sketch.  While I am still sketching a new idea emerges and I move on with that one.  I am thinking through sketching; the act of drawing acts on my thoughts just as my thoughts dictate the act of sketching.

So as a teacher how often have you stopped a child doodling in your class?  A child who is not paying attention is not learning, surely?  Well I do a lot of sketching in meetings, sometimes, I confess, it is because the meeting is boring but often the action of sketching/doodling works with my thinking to focus me on the key issues.  I now show my pupils my sketch books and admit to working on them in meetings, I try to resist the urge to stop children doodling, I try to find ways to teach children to think in all possible ways and not just the obvious ones.  Most of all I teach my pupils how to sketch and how to use their sketching as part of their thinking process.

4 Responses to “Design sketching or why doodling is good for you………”
  1. Veizman says:

    Beautifully written.

    (and thanks for articulating my recent experiences in jewelry design).

  2. gwlanyon says:

    Isn’t doodling another part of what Dan Dennett discusses in Consciousness Explained when he quotes E M Forster “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say”. Thinking isn’t separate from listening/speaking or from looking/mark making?

    Sketching/diagramming also enforces a different consistency to writing. In my experience it’s pretty easy to write something inconsistent without realising it, but much harder to produce an inconsistent diagram where the inconsistency doesn’t stare you in the face.

    • I love the Forster quote and it gets close, the idea that thoughts are not fully formed until they are articulated. I also relate to your experience with writing and diagrammatic representation. Where I think the difference lies is that for some ideas, or some people, the actual process of thinking is carried out graphically. This is not necessarily a check but in actuality the way in which their thinking is conducted. I am sure that the same thing holds true for people who need to make or model to think. James Dyson famously made 5000 models to develop his vacuum cleaner, I suspect that he did his thinking while modelling.

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