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“Without a visual design translation, many fundamental concepts...would remain ungraspable by most.”

- Paola Antonelli, Design and the Elastic Mind, 2008.


Visual information allows us to experience concepts in a way that is analogous to the real world; an image represents the semantic meaning of a concept and does so without conforming to the structural or syntactic rules of standard language. Drawing is therefore an agile form of communication, able to maneuver around barriers that impede the exchange of ideas between one profession and another where the difference in cultural dialects gives rise to translation complications. This thesis argues that the value of visual information lies not in the final, finished images, but during the creation of those images, during the action of drawing. If drawings are generally considered a form of communication, then drawing is a form of visual conversation; much like spoken language, its message unfolds as it is performed, and we make meaning from that performance.

Following an exploration of the visual and cognitive systems integral to interpreting visual information, a discussion of language structure and sources of language conflict sets the stage for employing the act of drawing as a collaborative tool in cross-disciplinary settings. Proposed is a set of principles guiding this use of drawing which builds upon the research findings herein. These principles are structured to be usable by all professions, regardless of artistic background or traditional practice, and to encourage a reevaluation of drawing’s role in the problem-solution process.


The use of drawings to communicate information is a long-standing practice, however it is my belief that it is in the actual act of drawing where the most information can be exchanged. At times, this exchange of information is internal to the one creating the drawing. Donald Schön, author of The Reflective Practitioner, speaks at length about the way a designer’s understanding of a problem (and its many and far-reaching effects) and their proposed solutions co-evolve during an organic and fluid exchange between designer and concept. The drawings produced during this dialogue are a physical record of the thought process of the designer. This use of drawing highlights one of its most beneficial attributes: its ability to show us, even as we draw, new opportunities and solutions to the problem we are seeking to solve.

In other instances, drawing is employed as a means of communication; often overlooked however is its capability of transmitting more than merely visual data. Drawing is a performative act: its message unfolds in the moment much the same as spoken language, yet it is able to transmit meaning without adhering to the structural rules of established language. This informal flexibility pushes drawing away from the category of communication and toward that of conversation.

At the intersection of these two attributes drawing, generation and conversation, we find an opportunity to move drawing beyond the professional territory of designers and artists. To do this, drawing must be presented as an easily accessible medium of collaboration that focuses not on artistic talent but rather on the communicative aspects of the act itself. This requires investigation into three key areas: the relevancy of drawing to professional practice, the intrinsic values of the act of drawing as exploited by traditionally design-related fields, and how drawing can be elevated to a primary mode of communication.

This document is divided into three sections. The first, Why Drawing Matters, begins by tracing our interest in drawing from childhood through professional practice. It also includes analysis of responses to a survey of faculty across the Virginia Tech campus about the presence of drawing in their respective disciplines (excerpts of which can be found throughout this book). The second section, entitled How Drawing Works, traces the visual and cognitive pathways that are responsible for our abilities to interpret visual information as well as how we reverse that flow of information to produce drawings. In Drawing As Conversation, we explore the structure of language and its comparison to drawing, and potential sources of language conflicts (specifically within cross-disciplinary groups). In closing, we discuss a proposal for principles that might guide the use of drawing as a conversational tool aimed at overcoming these language barriers.


My personal perspective on this topic has been influenced by the works of Zenon Pylyshyn in the field of visual interpretation and mental imagining, the writings of Donald Schön on the reflective nature of drawing, and those of Don Norman and his persistent calling to make design meaningful to human beings. As such, this body of work serves as a compilation of the findings encountered while researching areas of science, design, and the collaborative environment as they relate to drawing. Though this book includes tangents through the realms of psychology, anatomy, television commercials, and board games, each can trace its origins back to the core question: why do we draw?

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