Good designers stop & compare developing versions of a concept. To do so, ideas must be sketched. It can’t be done in your head.

– January 6, 2015

On Drawing & Design, Part V

I can remember back in my 20s when a “friend” was always the center of every party because he was so funny. I recognized where got his quips because we liked the same movies, and I would tell myself that he somehow cheated because he adapted those those old lines for new situations. I was jealous. He usually got the girl.

T.S. Elliot once said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” I know, we all attribute a vision of that to Picasso these days, but there’s no known evidence – except for Steve Jobs – that he ever actually said it. He did say, “If there's anything to steal, I steal.” But the Elliot quote is more apropos to the argument I’m going to attempt to make. No offense intended, Pablo, Steve.

Our creativity arises out of knowledge, and our knowledge is built through observation. OK, maybe not for Steven Hawkings, he seems to have the unbelievable ability to image things out of thin air – he must be the exception that makes the rule. Few people have ever been able to theorize at Hawkings’ level, however, and I would be tempted to argue that even Hawkings’ lofty ideas grew out of a foundation learned through observation. If so, Hawkings is perhaps the ultimate example of creativity in action, using his foundational knowledge as a springboard to thoughts so abstract that they appear to have come out of nowhere.

New creative comes from adapting that which we’ve seen: expanding upon it, bending it to fit new purposes – just like the good poets of the T.S. Elliot quote. Steven Hawkings can do that voodoo in his head. We mere mortals cannot. When we try work from our head, we are dependent upon what we are able to remember of what we’ve seen, and our memories are often suspect. I, for example, have a hard enough time remembering what I had for lunch yesterday. For most of us, counting only on our faulty memories often limits our creativity. When we always return to the same source, regardless of the problem to be solved, we risk becoming that great aunt whose only contribution to any conversation is the same story of her gall bladder surgery.

That's where drawing comes in. The very act of making a mark on paper is the act of creating something new, something that has never been seen before. Maybe we tried to draw a straight line, but there is a slight bend or taper to the mark. Our mind still thinks of the straight line, but in our observation, we notice the subtle movement, are reminded of something seemingly unrelated, and start to imagine a “what if.” We make a new mark based on our newly expanded knowledge borne of our observation of the first mark. This then can lead to another discovery…

Whoops, I just spilled the beans about the benefit of drawing thumbnail sketches. The physical act of drawing a thumbnail sketch – and the key word here is sketch, not render – actually encourages a stream-of-consciousness type of thinking, or free association that can greatly expand on an original thought or concept.

But if you don’t draw, you don’t experience it.

The free-flow of ideas happens because we prevent our minds from returning to the mental file cabinet of “stored” ideas by keeping it busy sketching and observing. The ideas in our filing cabinet are safe and proven, and they’re easy because our perceptions already exist. To create new, we have to stay away from what we think we already know about a problem, and scratch out our visual free association.

But if you don’t draw, you're limited by the trappings of your old perceptions.

When we look at the sketch, we see something new that had not existed. We have a brand new observation. We have expanded our knowledge. In time and with practice, we’re able to learn to use that knowledge as a spring-board to try something different. Suddenly, we are not bound by the limitations of our own remembered experiences. We are inventing and testing new solutions. We are being “creative.”

But if you don’t draw, you are just attempting to imitate the style that you think you remember.

Too many designers, especially student designers, are tempted to use the computer for the new idea generation stage. But as I wrote in the previous post, the computer takes us down the road that it wants to travel. Moreover, the mental effort required to resist the computer’s machinations is counter to the mind-freeing experience that enables the free association that leads to new ideas.

If you want to develop something truly unique and tailored specifically to the problem at hand, you have to go beyond what you’ve seen done for similar problems. You have to be willing to extend yourself past the “easy” way of doing things. You have to work for it: you have to draw.

All designers, illustrators, and artists should steal from their treasure trove of observations amassed through the years. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, right? But these observations should inspire you to put in the effort to make something better, or at the very least, different. Otherwise, you’re simply imitating someone else’s design solution as an answer to a your own design problem. In the eyes of T.S. Elliot, it could even be viewed as a form of defacement of the original. He would not approve, and neither would your curmudgeony design professor.