Principles of Visual Dialogue

These principles are predicated on drawing's inherent qualities of accessibility, expediency, and communication.

Until now we have discussed at some length how vision works, how drawing can be used to expose new ideas, and how language is structured as well as stifled. How do these three broad concepts relate when applied to the academic environment? Is it possible to combine what we know about visual stimuli, the use of drawing as more than a representational tool, and the elements and syntax of language to encourage more fruitful cross-disciplinary interaction in a place so ripe with profession-oriented knowledge? The following is an attempt to do just that: propose principles that could guide the activity of drawing in a collaborative setting that would maximize its effectiveness on group cohesion and group solution-generation. These principles are predicated on drawing’s inherent qualities of accessibility, expediency, and communication.

i | Balancing expediency against completion.

Time, as they say, is “of the essence” in collaborative working groups; often these cross-disciplinary ventures are done in addition to or outside of regular individual responsibilities. This necessitates a use of drawing that can be executed quickly, and one way of doing so is to employ the Gestalt principle of completion (discussed in Chapter 2) wherein we rely on the mind’s ability to fill in the missing information in a visual display of information. This form of visual sparsity is exactly the basis for the drawing game Pictionary. A successful Pictionary team — often made up of members of diverse backgrounds — is one that can extract meaning from the least number of visible marks on the drawing board (see Essay: The Pictionary Phenomenon).

ii | Balancing resemblance against representation.

Based on the work of Pylyshyn, Fish, Steinhart, and others, it is clear that our visual systems are able to make meaning out of percepts that are not exact copies of the objects that they represent. Of this, Pylyshyn says:

“Resemblance is neither necessary nor sufficient for something to have a particular reference: images may resemble what they do not refer to or what they depict (e.g., an image of John’s twin brother does not depict John) and they may depict what they do not resemble (an image of John taken through a distorting lens depicts John in the sense that it is an image of John, even though it does not resemble him)” |Pylyshyn, 2003|.

This raises the question of how much our drawings need to actually resemble the ideas they are trying to represent. In a collaborative group setting where the goal is to advance the directives of the project, we do not want to spend copious amounts of time creating amazing works of art; rather, we should focus on creating images that connect with our audience’s understanding of the concepts being discussed.

iii | Drawing what needs to be known, not always what must be seen.

Directly related to the preceeding principle, this principle recalls our natural tendencies in drawing as children as well as the basis for Gestalt visual theory (principle 1). As children, our grasp on accurately recreating what we see is limited, therefore we draw images that more closely resemble the mental models of which Wujec speaks in Chapter I that allow us to make meaning from the world around us. Perhaps by employing this style of drawing we are able to connect the concept that we wish to share with the way our viewer would naturally deconstruct the image. As for the Gestalt relation, again it is not always necessary to complete an image before our audience is able to extrapolate meaning from it; in addition, we can utilize other Gestalt principles to superimpose meaning and relationships on an image that does not exactly represent those relationships. [grouping, proximity, similarity, good continuation, etc.] In the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “confused things rouse the mind to new inventions” |Fish, 1990|. We are able to jump-start the creative problem-solving process by feeding the work group visual indeterminacies that lead them to synthesize relationships and therefore possible solutions.

iv | Sememe-Grapheme drawing.

The notion of drawing what must be known forces us to dig deeper into the material or concepts that we are trying to exchange amongst members of the group. It is imperitive that each member of the team have the same understanding of the concept being discussed, and one way we can increase the possibility of a shared understanding is to focus on the semantic qualities of the concept. If we look back to Altmann’s studies, it is possible to influence our audience’s receptiveness and responses to concepts by priming them ahead of time with semantically-heavy information. As discussed earlier, sememes of written language can be broken down into their graphemes, (the basic units of written language) so how does this translate to drawing? We could propose that there are, in fact, graphemes of a visual language; the danger here is that we begin to think of symbols as those elements that combine to represent meaning, and it is largely argued that symbols, in most professions, are arbitrarily assigned (such as π or Δ in mathematics) and lack clear connection to the concept they represent. Another drawback to symbols is that they have the tendency to oversimplify a discussion in a way that makes it difficult to recall the finer details at a later date. As Dan Roam suggests: “The real goal of visual thinking is to make the complex understandable by making it visible -- not by making it simple. Whether that goal demands a simple picture, an elaborate one, or an intentionally complex one is almost always determined by the audience and its familiarity with the subject being addressed” |Roam, 2008|

What then are the visual elements that combine to create meaning? One is speed: the rate at which we draw has the ability to transmit qualities of the thing being drawn. For example, if we wished to share forceful, strong ideas, it could be suggested that broad, quick strokes translate determination and assuredness. On the other hand slow, calculated curves could convey delicacy or softness. These are the graphemics of drawing which can be employed during the representation of a concept that could further enhance the semantic meaning of that concept.

v | Drawing globally, thinking locally.

One way of building a consistent understanding of a concept is to layer on information in such a way that the team can grasp the concept in increments. Edward Tufte, a prominent figure in graphically representing statistical data, mentions a similar idea in his book Envisioning Information: “Among the most powerful devices for reducing noise and enriching the content of displays is the technique of layering and separation, visually stratifying various aspects of the data” |Tufte, 1990|. We can take this to mean that if we gradually increase the number of visible elements, our audience (the group) can digest each new layer sequentially and in the proper order. We can employ the findings of Belke to determine this “proper order”; in response to whether our audience is predisposed to prenominal or postnominal modes of description, we could either start with the most vague dimensions first (for the former) or with the most absolute dimensions (for the latter). 

Dan Soltzberg’s comment about defining the factors of a problem rather than the exact formula seems appropriate again here: “It seems like what we are able to identify isn’t a specific equation but a set of factors...” |Core77, 2010|. In the process of identifying these elements, and subsequently their possible relationships and arrangements, we are able to approach problem definition in an “outside-in” manner, i.e. we identify the global structure first, then gradually localize our focus until we have pinpointed the basis of the problem, from which we can begin to work outward again in scales of possible solutions.

Perhaps these principles are the basis for breaking down the convention that drawings must be prepared and then explained, that no one should see our work until it is finalized, or that our process drawings are somehow less when compared to our refined, final images. Perhaps this is the positing of a new discipline or practice, that of visual conversationalism. A way of using what we know about the visual and cognitive processes, along with our understanding of the limitations of our eyes and our mind’s eye, to create an approach to drawing that not only communicates and allows for, but even fosters active conversation.