Why do we draw? This simple question took on an outsized role in my thinking a decade ago — when this work was produced — and it still does. As a human being I have to wonder: does drawing make more sense than using words? As a designer I have to ask: what is going on in my brain when I draw a system, a concept, or sequence? As an educator I have to ask: how can we support people to work together? This site is a way to ask these questions to a broader audience and to share a small body of work related to the nature of drawing, thinking, and conversing. While the content is perhaps a bit outdated, the concepts discussed are still relevant (I think) to the ways in which we live, work, play, and engage as humans. Maybe you'll find something interesting about how our brains parse visual information, or perhaps in how spoken language is like an onion, or maybe even in the genius of a common game.
I hope you enjoy reading and considering what is presented in this document. I also understand the irony of reading words trying to define and describe the act of drawing. If you want the short (and updated) version, you can follow this link to my TEDx talk from 2017. If I get around to updating any of the info, you'll also find that on this site.
First, let me make a few things clear. I am not a linguist, nor am I a psychologist, a neuroscientist, a sociologist, or an anthropologist. I am, however, someone with a passion for drawing; I believe that drawing merits more than a supporting role in the communication process, that it can and should sit at the table with--and as an equal to--other accepted forms of communication. More directly, it is drawing in the verb tense that most interests me, as I believe that it is in the moment of drawing that we are most fully engaged in the idea that we are attempting to represent or communicate. In addition, I am attracted more to the careless lines of quick, explorative sketches--the kind that show an author’s disregard for polished presentation or cleanliness--than to other types of drawings. There is something inherently genuine in the rough-hewn marks of the concept sketch, the evidence of rapid thinking and reactive readjustment as an idea is born, grows, and matures on the page. It is the visual thinking process that impresses me the most.
My intentions for this body of work is not to serve as a how to draw book (with step-by-step instructions for marking on paper to create a drawing), nor to argue which type of paper or marking instrument is best, but to identify an approach to the world just beyond the mechanics of drawing (in the verb tense); to provide a starting point for discussions about what our brains are doing when we draw, why we turn to drawing when words just don’t do our ideas justice, and how drawing as an activity is conversational by its nature. I also aim to bring to light the belief that all to often we gloss over the activity of drawing in favor of the final product of that act, and in doing so we ignore the most important and effective part of the drawing process.
I must explain my thoughts about drawing (the action) and communication (the transfer of ideas) in order to frame the perspective from which this work is written.
Drawing is the simplest and most effective way that any one human can get another human to see and understand the ideas that are in their head. There are other ways to describe our thoughts, but how often when we hear or read words do we begin forming a picture of what it is that we’re hearing or reading? We are creating a visual representation so that we might better comprehend what we’re supposed to be comprehending, but why do double duty? Our visual system is incredibly suited to locating, recognizing and filtering the signals it gathers from our natural world, and I believe that we should embrace these capabilities whenever we are trying to share our ideas with one another. Drawing is often considered a form of art, but it is like sculpture; it is experienced after-the-fact. What if it were viewed as a member of the performing arts? Isn’t drawing an act? There is something, some process, that has to happen to make marks appear on a page and that process is narrative. It is as narrative and detailed as the telling of a story, the movements during a dance, and the spoken lines of a theatrical production.
Communication, while usually defined as the transfer of knowledge, seems to me to allow for the possibility of a one-way process; it is a monologue, a single-directional transfer of information with very limited--if any--allowance for feedback. For example, an informational poster communicates to us rather than with us, because we cannot communicate back to that poster. I prefer to focus then on conversation as a means of exchanging knowledge or ideas; a dialogue between participants that enjoys the freedom of being less prepared, less formal. Conversation involves response, it involves a back-and-forth between speakers, and it creates an environment for building ideas on other ideas; it is a continuous, ongoing process.
While the addition of visual imagery to explanation is not a novel concept, I believe that exploring why we draw might inform how we draw, and subsequently what we can do with it.