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Questioning Drawing's Credibility

Throughout the design education program, we are presented with opportunities to work with students and faculty from varying disciplines, each with their accompanying approaches to problem-solving. As each project begins, hopes are high that the group dynamic will be open, inclusive and productive, but all too often the group falls victim to differing academic deadlines, varying priority on individual parts of the problem-solving process, and, ultimately, an ill-informed view of the purpose of the project and the role of each participant in the group. In discussing the outcomes of these cross-disciplinary group projects with other design students, patterns emerge about the preconceptions of the use of visual imagery in group projects. The following are some of these issues surrounding designers and drawing:

First, many people assume the job of design is to make “pretty pictures” and that they lack a comprehensive (or professional) understanding of how the design will work or how their concepts could be implemented. For instance, in approaching a reputable professor of engineering, we presented a comprehensive document proposing not only a concept for a new transportation system, but an accompanying cost analysis and implication timeline. The idea was initially waved off as superficial and insubstantial: “All you have are pretty pictures; the ‘warm fuzzies’ of a feel good idea. Where’s the data?” What he failed to realize was that the data was in the document, the research was compiled, the plan was thought through and proposed on a reasonable time scale; but what he saw, what first caught his eye and commanded his attention, were the rendered images used to sell the idea — to designers. These photorealistic representations of the concept hijacked his ability to view the proposal objectively, and overshadowed the substance of the ideas contained within. Eventually, after much backtracking and re-justification of the need for such a system, we were able to begin proceeding with gathering together the necessary players to move forward on the realization of the total concept.


Second, drawing is not accepted as a quantifiable endeavor in the traditional sense, and as such is deemed to be less important in the formula-driven professions. It is true that the effectiveness of a drawing cannot be measured along a metric of requirements per se, but it is tacitly evident when a drawing is successful — when the audience, whether the group or an external body, gets it. This lack of classification causes a difference in prioritizing group efforts because the drawing stage is seen to be only useful at the front end of a project or, again at the end, when the group desires “pretty pictures” to sell an idea. One aim of the following research and discussion is to offer a different method of measuring the affectance of drawing as it relates to group ventures, one based on internal, cognitive dimensions.

Lastly, showing our best drawings prematurely (before the near-final or final stages of the problem-solving process) has a tendency to backfire; non-designers tend to believe that what we show them is our ultimate and final solution, regardless of the stage of design. In addition to rough sketches designers produce renderings, highly detailed images with the intent of creating a realistic interpretation of design concepts; however, these images are often taken as the culmination of the design process and interpreted by non-designers as being what we, the designers, are set on producing. Perhaps what is required here is a sensitivity on the part of designers to modulate the intensity of the drawings we share, not a “dumbing down” of drawing ability, but a stronger focus on accuracy and connection with our audience.


fig. 3. drawing’s lack of quantifiability is often the source of its critcism as a solution-generation tool.

Susan Kemp and Sharon Sutton from the University of Washington (School of Social Work and School of Architecture and Design, respectively) summarize these concerns in a study weighing the advantages of the design approach in the realm of community-based design problems. They state that designers help by “generating beautiful, functional solutions to complex spatial problems. At the same time, they create visual representations that help people make sense of their spatial experiences and communicate with each other about possible spatial changes.” However, “because designers co-evolve problem and solution, they appear to leap to conclusions, which may lead social scientists and community members alike to perceive them as unresponsive or self-indulgent,” They also warn, and rightly so, that “their emphasis on artistic expression may also seem irrelevant to pressing community concerns”|Kemp&Sutton, 2006|.

Perhaps what is required here is a sensitivity on the part of designers to modulate the intensity of the drawings we share, and a stronger connection with our audience.

These views, when taken together, suggest that a core competency of design-based professions — drawing — is seen by other professions as lacking credible substance when compared with the more concrete and analytical practices of non-design disciplines. In an attempt to determine if these perspectives were the same across the spectrum of academic disciplines, it was necessary to gather a larger body of opinions about the importance of drawing.

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