Thursday, September 27, 2007

Demystifying the act of design thinking and visualisation.

Image: A preliminary sketch by architect Louis I. Kahn for the IIMA Building project in Ahmedabad. "Plan Sketches early revision Nov. 14 1962", IIMA campus & buildings, Ahmedabad, India

Demystifying the act of design thinking and visualisation in the DCC course.
In 2003, exactly four years ago, I made the following submission to the PhD-Design discussion list to explain my understanding of design thinking at that stage in the context of the discussions that were taking place on a list populated by as many as 1200 professors and scholars of design research and theory. When I look back at this submission I do not find much that I would change today since my views have not changed much but my understanding of design has undergone a massive change in the same time.

Today when we were discussion with our post graduate batch of students working on the articulation and expression of design opportunities dealing with “Sustainability” in their core areas of – Learning, Food, Health, Mobility and Play – I found that the students required a thread of ideas about design imagination and visualisation to hang on to, when they went about their task of trying to figure out how designers thought and how they would then share these thoughts with their colleagues and to other stake-holders who may play a major role in the implementation of that design concept that was on offer. Their imagination that was triggered by their perception of the possibilities and limitations needed to be shown in some way for a transfer of the concept to be effected. It is only when the core of the concept is made visible or in some way tangible would their peers and partners carry the same degree of conviction that they themselves may have as a result of their internal-to-themselves-thoughts, a result of “inploration” (a new design word – see link) that is a product of sustained thought and cumulative insights.

Image: "Partial site plan and elevation sketches, early version", IIMA campus & buildings, Ahmedabad, India

The drawings and sketches made by architect Louis I. Kahn while working with NID on the design of the Indian Institute of Management’s campus in Ahmedabad in the early 60’s is used as an example of progressive visualisations that were made in the design process – from vague and tentative expressions (doodles) to definite and decisive form and proportions (measured drawings) – all done as new information and feedback would have come in from the client (Vikram Sarabhai is mentioned in one sketch) and from his own imagination and conviction as revised from time to time. A description of all images is given in the notes below.

The students were required to explore some selected concepts and meet experts and users and develop insights which would inform their further moves and build their own layers of conviction as they moved towards a solution, all with a number of variations and alternatives that unfold as the development work progresses. These positions based on conviction would be used to take decisions and to evaluate and choose the one alternative that eventually would represent the final synthesis that would be chosen individually or collectively with other stake-holders. I am quoting below the post that was made on the PhD-Design list to explain the process of design visualisation and its role in design synthesis and decision making.

Image: Plan Sketch sixth version with library in diagonal square, IIMA campus & buildings, Ahmedabad, India

Image: First floor plan - twelfth version 1969., IIMA campus & buildings, Ahmedabad, India

I quote (note there is a nested quote below which is part of the PhD-Design submission):

Creativity vs Design Visualisation: Looking Inside vs. Looking Outside

Prof. M P Ranjan - 20 September 2003 (A very long post: Not for the light-hearted))

Creativity for me has been a very ambiguous target and much of the published references having raised more questions than helped provide answers to many pressing questions that come to ones mind. However there is such a large body of literature on the subject and it is interesting to see that there are as many sceptics as there are the believers in search of the final truth in this matter.

I have all but stopped using the term “creativity” because of the numerous myths that surround the term in the domains of art, music and literature and nowadays in a large section of management writings and in science break-through as well. However I am as yet unable to find a simple, compelling and fitting explanation of the phenomenon of creativity that is not prescriptive or aimed at the uninitiated others in search of that “elusive leap of imagination” or “flight of fantasy” that I can use with my students effectively.

From a design education perspective I have found it to be far more fruitful to focus on the external models created by a profession, particularly in those tangible traces of external manifestations that are used by designers when grappling with a solution for a complex design problem, at the macro level of the total system or at the micro level of part detailing, that are being attempted in the process of design synthesis. For me It has been more interesting to try and watch the process of design synthesis through these external manifestations and to try and discover the very fuzzy initial processes through the evidence provided by the external traces of early models (external) that led to the comprehension of some major new pattern or breakthrough in the course of the design exploration and iteration. This may be a more fruitful course of investigation in the understanding of the phenomenon of innovation and creativity and perhaps the field of Cognitive Psychology will provide some of the answers that we seek in the years ahead.

Several years ago I therefore abandoned the search for a description of creativity processes while dealing with my students in the design methodology class (now called “Design Concepts and Concerns”) and I shifted my attention to the series of external models that are generated by various professionals from a number of fields of art and design. To make my views on the subject available to my students I offered a set of class notes and created a lecture with supporting visuals from the works of great architects and artists. We had with us a remarkable set of original drawings and pre-visualisation sketches created by the architect Louis I. Kahn who worked with my Institute (NID) as the local architects to design and execute the campus for the Indian Institute of Management. These are now published in the book “Complete Works of Louis I. Kahn” (* see reference below). I used these and other available pre-visualisation images of progressive external models to argue against the single great moment of break-through and in favour of this progressive external manifestation that facilitated the right and left-brain interaction in the process of design synthesis. My paper that was created as class notes in 1997 to support a visual lecture is quoted below. (Since it has not been published outside NID so far, reproduce it here to facilitate this discussion).

Class Notes and Lecture on Drawing for Visualisation
AEP Bridge Semester
National Institute of Design
Paldi, Ahmedabad - 380 007.

16 October 1997
Design Visualisation

M P Ranjan

Design is a responsible and creative activity that aims to understand human needs and aspirations in order to generate effective alternate solutions that can resolve these needs. By its very nature the process of design deals with extremely complex interrelationships of issues and concerns of the user, the environment and the well being of society in social, technological and economic realms. The designer is therefore in the arena of generating scenarios and specifications and offering these for selection and decision within the framework of professional contributions offered to a wide variety of clients. The nature and complexity of different design tasks may vary to a great extent. Some tasks are technologically complex but most design tasks deal with other realms of complexity in the social, economic or psychological dimensions of users and the community that supports the conduct and performance of the task.

Design has therefore moved from being an individual enterprise to that of being a team effort with a variety of members being drawn from a large number of diverse disciplines, the selection depending on the nature of the task and our current understanding of the same.

Professional design has the further complexity of being conducted in an extremely competitive business and economic landscape where the demands of time and quality are stringent and is accompanied by a very high degree of risk. These pressures have mandated a number of critical changes in the processes that designers and their collaborators employ in the conduct of the design programme. Design has borrowed work strategies from all formal disciplines where effective approaches and methodologies have been innovated and developed through experience and research. The morphology of the design task has therefore become a complex set of iterations that revisit the stages of defining and redefining the task leading to improved understanding of the task itself. In this process several alternate scenarios are developed and examined critically and this may lead to restatement of the very problem itself.

Design thinking is distinctly different from scientific and management thinking styles in that the designer and the design team are willing to cope with a great deal of ambiguity while the boundaries of the design opportunity are gradually brought into sharp focus. The process of refining the understanding of the design task and that of generating alternate solutions or scenarios follow one another in fairly quick cycles and are mediated by interactions with real users in many cases. The user centered ideology adopted by designers in recent years has necessitated the creation of several new stages in the design process. Early concepts and prototypes are shared with users with the use of preliminary visualisations that are specially conceived to permit user participation or facilitate user observation to develop insights into potential problems that are not perceptible in the normal course of concept development. It is the attitude of the designer that is put to critical test in such cases where it is very easy to slip into the mode that the "designer knows best" which is in the final analysis counter productive. The designers visualisation skills and cognitive capabilities are needed to create new and unique solutions, but the evaluation of each of these is done through user mediated processes that have proved to be most effective.

The designer is then called upon to innovate appropriate representations of the design concept in whole or in part so that individual or groups of users can interact with these representations and provide fresh insights into both the nature of the problem and the suitability of the solution. Here the challenge is to discover and use appropriate tools and media that are best suited to the process of visualisation and the process of evaluation. The tools and media need to be selected with care so as to afford fluent representation of complex relationships or geometries, form and content, structure and context that is required by the particular design task.

Traditionally the use of a variety of types of drawings were the preferred modes of visualisation used by sculptors, artists, architects and designers. However in recent times many examples of direct modelling in soft materials have been explored where drawing would limit or inhibit the perception of new and unique possibilities. Preferred styles of visualisation of individual designers may also emerge from their professional habits, degree of skill with the tools of their trade and the cognitive modelling capabilities of the individual. Each design discipline or design school may advocate certain standards for the design students or practitioners from their group. Trade practices in particular industries may also set demands for certain standard specifications to be followed by the designer in the manner in which the design concepts are delivered to the client for further action and decision. Many of these standardised methods of representation reflect the communication and documentation norms of the industry or trade in question. Notwithstanding these trade practices and norms the individual designer is always at liberty to explore their personal repertory of media and skills in the early stages of design visualisation when the emerging images of the external models are primarily intended to capture the fleeting cognitive maps and scenarios that are being iteratively explored by the designer.

Such early external visualisations are barely recognisable as coherent images to a casual observer, however for the designer they are of great significance since this is perhaps the first stage of the dialogue between the left and right hemispheres of their brain that is facilitated by the external model, however rudimentary. These early visualisations take many forms and these depend on the media that the designer may choose to employ at various stages of their work and these may be deliberately varied as a result of experience or in an effort to open up new and unusual possibilities in response to the challenges of the design task. These external manifestations may be barely discernible doodles or smudges that for the designer represent a rapidly executed trace of the cognitive model that is being continuously refined, modified and developed in the designers mind. While sketching and doodling are used extensively by the designer for this early stage of visualisation there are a number of other media that are used.

One characteristic of the media that is in common is that it is very fluid and has soft features as if to reflect the fuzzy nature of the cognitive model at this early stage of design exploration and development. These external traces and markings on paper or soft materials provide the designer with the multilevel and intermodal dialogue between the two brain hemispheres that is critical for creative reinterpretations of possibilities and for pattern recognition of complex new relationships that may have been studied in isolated instances but that needs to fall together in the process of design synthesis. Design decisions are made as a sequence of choices exercised by the designer at the time of articulation of the external model.

The design visualisation progresses by the designer creating a series of images or models, each an embodiment of a particular set of characteristics as determined by the data available, the analysis of the task and the user or as perceived by the designer at that particular point of time in the design process. This very act of articulation brings new insights and may shift the direction of exploration or launch the designer into a search for a particular detail that may be critical in making the overall concept to be either viable or interesting. Thus the designer moves from the general to the particular, from the macro to the micro level of observation of the cognitive model that is constantly being refined and elaborated without freezing on any one specific alternative. Usually the designer defers decision on specific attributes and leaves some difficult details in an ambiguous state in a deliberate effort to obtain clarity of the larger patterns and relationships of the solution before solving particular structural, formal or production problems.

In the user centered design ideology adopted by many designers and by several design led companies, the early prototypes and external models are prepared expressly with the intention that they be shared by groups of users in a variety if real use settings so that they can provide critical insights into the strengths and weaknesses of a particular design solution. Numerous iterations are made, each exploring one or more dimensions of the design opportunity and these are documented so that the design team can develop a conviction about the particular directions to be taken in each case.

These external models begin as very abstract and fuzzy representations and these are gradually refined and elaborated till more concrete models replace earlier representations. These models, when drawing and sketching are used as a route for visualisation, grow out of thumbnail sketches, doodles, scale drawings, orthographic drawings, breadboard models for details of construction or performance of mechanisms, scale models and renderings for form review, full scale mock-ups and fabricated prototypes where ever possible.

It may be useful to look at a few examples of such visualisation in action. Let us look at a potter as a metaphor for the process of early visualisation. An artist, designer or studio potter, working at the wheel and making the model of the clay pot works with clay in a series of iterations to produce one particular pot. A lump of prepared clay is centered on the potters wheel and the material is turned at a suitable speed. The potter applies her hands to the rotating clay and observes the transformation of the form with each application of pressure. The form of the pot emerges as a result of her subtle manipulations. The feedback to the potter is not merely a visual appreciation of its form, but with the eyes closed, she can feel the shape and size of the emerging pot, at one point too tall and at another too wide, leading to a corrective pressure on the tips of her fingers or at the base of her palm.

Each application of pressure and the result thereof is a result of years of fine training and experience and each pot is a unique expression of a design intention that is revealed to the designer in the progressive iteration of its making. The designer would have had the chance to see, feel and evaluate numerous intermediate stages before a design and aesthetic decision is frozen in the shape of the finished pot. If the making of a pot is taken as a metaphor for the early stage of design visualisation, then we see that a very flexible medium is manipulated through numerous iterations before the designer moves on to another approach or attempt to resolve the various conflicting variables of the task at hand. The cognitive model held by the designer too gets enriched through each iteration.

Each new "pot" adds to the designers experience of the various scenarios that were explored and it helps form some deep bonds with preferred directions especially if these are confirmed by the interactions with users who are able to see for the first time the "products" of the designers cognitive explorations. In this process the cognitive model gets progressively detailed and is far more complex and detailed than any representation. The designers’ cognitive model is rich in detail and is instantly recalled under varying circumstances of the user and environmental conditions. The designer sees the solution by day and by night, feels the air flow around its contours and can sense the soft feel of the flexible material of a handle even if it is only in the mind at this stage.
The designer lives with the changing model through numerous refinements and critiques from users and colleagues. In team mediated processes it becomes critical that all members of the team are clued in to the current state of the model and their individual contributions are then directed at solving particular aspects of the design task that their special skill or expertise enable. It is important to generate these external models in a suitable media. Sketching has been used by many architects as a means of capturing complex concepts that need to be clarified and developed through numerous iterations before communicative drawings or scale models can be made. The works of architects Reima Pietila and Louis I Kahn are well documented examples of great design vision being captured through a series of fuzzy sketches leading to the articulation of some of their finest works of architecture in India and elsewhere. Kahn designed the Indian Institute of Management campus at Ahmedabad and his early sketches speak volumes of the highly refined cognitive model that he carried about in his head long before a single brick was laid at the campus in Ahmedabad. Similarly the Finish Embassy at New Delhi emerged from some very fuzzy markings and doodles in pen and ink and dry pastels from the experienced hands of Pietila. The key decisions are made in the mind's eye and the external markings at this stage are but a trace of the rich cognitive model where some critical details or proportions are expressed as a slight stress in the quality of a line of the thumbnail sketch if you can call it a sketch.

Like foot prints in the sand on a crowded beach these fleeting impressions are captured on paper (or clay) by the designer in an attempt to clarify and elaborate the form, structure, performance, content and context of the design solution, all in a single moment of design synthesis, only to be reviewed and revised as the design task progresses to its formal conclusion. For the designer these markings are very personal and memorable just as for the person strolling on the beach his very own footprints are clearly distinguished from those of all the others, which for him is mere noise. Very few design tasks are documented to retain some of these moments of breakthroughs that are achieved on the back of an envelope or through a little doodle on the corner of a large drawing that just lets all the complex variables fall neatly in place for the designer to know that the solution is near at hand. The excitement of the moment is sharp and intense particularly after many attempts were frustrated by the critical needs of the problem at hand. Sometimes the designer too is unprepared to see the radical proposal that has emerged from the subconscious just as Leonardo Da Vinci and his colleagues ignored the perfect sketch of a bicycle drawn on one of his sheets. Mankind invented or should we say reinvented the bicycle four hundred years later as a result of this oversight.

There are many dimensions to design visualisation and it is this special capacity of the designer to generate visible and tangible scenarios to complex needs that makes the profession different from the managers who also develop strategies and scenarios for action in their own way. However these are rarely expressed in visual form but in the form of feasibility reports and verbal specifications. It is then the designers task to give form and expression to these strategies and the particular embodiment of the design strategy is captured and the image produced carries with it messages of a complex nature be it fashion, reliability or meaning to a set of users or the community.

I would certainly like to hear from those who believe that the term “creativity” is useful, critical and has a clear definition that can be studied and used in the context of education. I would also like to hear from the list on the ultimate short list of books that must be added to any design library on the subject of creativity and perhaps we need to open a new thread on models and cognition in design to explore some of these issues and processes to arrive at a better understanding of this very complex and elusive phenomena.

* Reference: Heinz Ronner, Sharad Jhaveri & Alessandro Vasella, “Louis I. Kahn, Complete Works, 1935 – 1974, Institute for the History & Theory of Architecture, The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, 1980. (Pages 265 to 305 - Drawings and illustrations on the process of conceiving & building The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India.)

With warm regards

M P Ranjan
from my office at NID
20 September 2003 at 4.55 pm IST

end of main quote.

Notes about the drawings:
Drawings of Louis I. Kahn were originally held in the NID archive and later loaned to the Louis Kahn Foundation for the use in the publication listed above.


Anonymous said...

Human itself could be the best metaphor for design media. Fluid, having soft features to reflect fuzzy nature of cognitive model. From a baby's gibberish to a gentleman's finest speech is the process of design maturity. I picked 'speech' as it is closer to the word "expression" that relates with the purpose of design media.

Creativity is yet another dimension of the Design. I think its desired but not essential to the design.

Lastly, the Da Vinci Bicycle is possibly a hoax ( Nevertheless point raised sustains.


Prof. M P Ranjan said...

Dear Wheel-and-Axle (whoever you are) Yes, the evolution of design can be related to both human evolution (long range and over millennia) as well as human growth from birth to death (short range over a lifetime). The first could be called a phylogenitic view of design history and the other an ontogenetic view of the micro-changes that are the fleeting trends that we see in design offerings. The long term evolution is what I see as something that is done by all humanity while the latter may be seen as individual contributions or that made by a community of designers working as a team.

Yes, I did see the Da Vinci bicycle site but my quote was from an earlier post on PhD-Design list and I did not want to change it. Thanks for pointing it out here. All of us are gullible and we all walk around with many false notions in our heads and our science knowledge and other knowledge too may be deficient till we are corrected by new evidence that is both credible and this is what I see as learning. Not adding new facts to ones repertoire but changing some positions and making fine corrections as we go forward but some of this may be wrong and we may not know it. There is a saying that to err is human...

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