Just doing it – why writing, sketching and making are useful forms of thinking

Writing (words), sketching (pictures) and making (things), the activities of design are all manifestations of the same thing. On the surface of it, they all involve a translation of thoughts into something tangible. They are forms of communication, but I would argue that they also constitute actual thinking and are a useful form of thinking.

Take writing as an example:

For writers, the blank page can be terrifying because the finished document seems so distant. Thoughts are hard to pin down. The writer procrastinates because it’s hard to believe that the required effort will produce anything worthwhile! But with writing, as with any design, the key is to start writinganything.

Once there are words on the page, you’ve started, so the demons of procrastination have been banished. You no longer waste energy worrying that you haven’t started! Also, once you’ve started, you have a vested interest in finishing – it’s now more frustrating to give up than push through to the end.

It doesn’t matter that the quality may not match the writer’s expectations. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the first words committed to a page will be any good. What matters is that there is something now on the page to change. It’s a cliché that the real hard work of writing is the editing and re-editing that makes the final piece look so effortless. But in truth, it’s much easier to edit than it is to create.

Why does this work? Why is it easier to knock something that already exists into shape, than produce something good from scratch? The act of writing externalises thoughts and makes them concrete – it clarifies the nebulous thoughts you had in the first place. Also, it’s relatively easy to improve the ideas on the paper because once they exist in the world, you can see what’s wrong with them – we are naturally perfectionists. It’s easier to be a critic than a creator!

But the act of writing, whether it’s committing an existing idea to paper or editing text to improve it, is more than that. It’s actually instrumental in adding new stuff. It’s transformative. Like a catalyst, the act of writing actually generates more ideas than the ones on the paper. This is a kind of magic that never fails to amaze me. I have to confess I don’t know how this works with words, but perhaps it’s easier to understand with sketching which is less abstract.

The generative property of sketching:

The traditional view of design is solving a problem that is given to a designer. But a different view is that the definition of the problem is the designer’s task. In other words, a designer can reframe the problem using the constraints at hand, rather than surrendering to them as unchangeable and given.

Sketching is the perfect technique for this reframing concept. For example, an interaction designer might start sketching the interface to satisfy a particular process. He/she starts with some rough layouts on A4 paper where these equate approximately to web pages. But it soon becomes apparent that the interactions are too complex to reasonably fit on one page. Of course, web pages are flexible, but the act of sketching the layout on fixed paper naturally opens various alternatives:

  • Split the process across separate web pages
  • Fit the process onto one long page (perhaps with collapsible/expandable sections)
  • Use one page for the overall process but capture the detail in separate overlays
  • Simplify the process
  • Fit the process onto one wide page (requires horizontal scroll)

Some of these alternatives may not work in practice, but the point is that attempting the first sketch opens the floodgates to new ways to frame the problem and new ways to solve it. As Bill Buxton says in his brilliant Sketching User Experiences book, the more designs the merrier – you need lots of viable alternatives that are sufficiently different from each other in order to make a meaningful choice.

Effectively, sketching involves two purposes that can’t be separated:

  • Use of knowledge to yield a solution
  • Test of that knowledge (i.e. does the solution work?)

The intention behind the initial sketch might not even be formed at that point. Instead it develops ‘in conversation’ with the process of sketching which over time transforms the design. By reflecting upon the external representation of an early sketch, designers can discover unintended consequences that may have remained otherwise hidden.

There is another, perhaps deeper reason, why the activities of design are so fertile. The active doing of design can be enjoyable. If it’s enjoyable then it’s more likely to succeed.

Taking a closer look at making:

Psychologists refer to a pleasurable state of mind, known as flow, which can be attained by performing a challenge which tests our skills. If the challenge is much harder than our capabilities to achieve it, the result is frustration. If the challenge is much easier than our capabilities, the result is boredom. If our capabilities are just enough to meet the challenge, the result is flow.

Perhaps, the design activity that best demonstrates the joy and fulfilment associated with design is making – the least abstract of the three design activities.

The recent Power of Making exhibition at the V&A in London is a celebration of the act of making – over 100 amazing hand-crafted objects, some of them made by amateur enthusiasts. Many of the objects are beautiful like the shark made from the treads of rubber tyres. Some are follies in that they have no purpose or are ultimately unusable like the motorcycle that has 48 cylinders or the prosthetic suit for Stephen Hawking made from wood and rope. But what’s clear as you wonder at these objects is thatthey were all made for the sheer joy of making them. They are the ultimate expressions of the maker’s skill and, in a sense, the final object is not as important as the process of making. The objects just demonstrate what is possible.

It could be argued that making something isn’t design at all. But an article about the exhibition points out that craft isn’t just a matter of executing a preconceived idea, something that already exists in the mind or on paper. Making is also an active way of thinking, something that can be carried out with no particular goal in mind. It is this type of playful exploration where innovation is likely to occur.

Thinking in relation to design:

So, the activities of design make it easier to improve early designs, and help generate new ideas. In other words, the activities of design aren’t just the by-products of thinking in isolation. The thinking that relates to design goes hand-in-hand with the activities of writing, sketching and making. Thinking cannot be decoupled from doing. At the point at which writing, sketching and making are fluid (such that the designer doesn’t have to concentrate too much on these activities), they actually become thinking.

References:

  • Gedenryd, H. (1998). ‘How Designers Work – Making Sense of Authentic Cognitive Activities’ PhD Dissertation, University of Lund, Sweden.
  • Schon, D. (1992). Design as a reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation. Research in Engineering Design
  • Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching user experiences: getting the design right and the right design.

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