My research into the value of a rough sketch in the creative visual process has focused on undergraduate students enrolled in the Visual Communication degree at the Western Sydney University from 2013 to 2019.

Many of the Visual Communication students attending WSU are the first person in their family to attend university. WSU students are culturally diverse with domestic students from more than 170 countries, including indigenous residents, (Scott, et al, 2008).

Currently there is no requirement to submit a visual portfolio, or have previous art or design training, to enroll in the Visual Communications Course. Students enter with varying degrees of visual literacy skills and understanding of the design process.

This is not to say that those lacking skills cannot ‘catch up’ in their first year and go on to become competent designers, many do, but others struggle, hiding their inadequacies, relying on templates, and perhaps ‘cheating unintentionally’, (Tabor, 2013).

In the Classroom
Students are routinely required to collaborate; to clarify a given brief or to develop concepts. Sometimes these activities occur within the classroom environment. My observations reveal that unless a student views himself or herself as an illustrator, they are reluctant to expose themselves to judgment of their drawing skills. Many struggle to articulate their ideas and cannot engage in an ‘oscillation of visual arguments’, (Gabriela Goldschmidt, 1991), preferring to use keywords or verbal descriptions.

Despite this lack of drawing skills, in some students, questionnaires confirm that most design students agree that having some drawing skills can be an advantage. However the distinction between process drawing or ‘first thought sketches’ and final illustrations, or more detailed ‘second thought sketches’, or ‘pentimenti’, (Deanna Petherbridge, 2010), is often misunderstood. Through classroom observation, questionnaires and student feedback there is some evidence that using simple warm-up drawing exercises and sketching demonstrations can clarify expectations and build confidence in non-drawers.

For some students, using a sketch or thumbnail to think through ideas and plan a design approach, is often viewed as an optional activity, or a waste of time. Unless first thought sketching is an assessment requirement, many students believe that manipulating and rearranging elements on screen using their final output program is a more efficient ideation method. However, jumping straight onto a computer for some design tasks may ultimately prove more time consuming and provide limit outcomes. Professional designers agree that sketching in the early design stages of specific tasks such as designing a logo or letterform is an advantage, (Pam Schenk, 2015).

Assessment tasks at WSU strive to mimic ‘best creative thinking practices’ and can include mood boards, storyboards, and process diaries. These tasks can provide insights into the creative thinking strategies used by students to initiate ideas, but such tasks may be an unreliable source of information for the purposes of my research.

For example, mood boards often represent a desired ‘style’ rather than a collection of conceptual links and can often limit students’ imagination. Pinterest can provide a ready-made mood board that may or may not be appropriate for the design solution and the origin and meaning of the chosen images may not be fully understood by students, (Garner, McDonagh-Philp, 2001).

Although process diaries can be a valuable resource and provide a visual ‘thinking trail’, not all students find using a diary an efficient way to work through their ideas. Indeed, in my first small batch of interviews, some participants revealed that they often created a storyboard after they had completed the design task, and redrew or ‘tidied up’ their roughs for assessment purposes. This may be because many students are time poor and seek shortcuts where possible.

The interviews are recollections and reconstructions of students’ creative processes. They are narratives of past events and reveal attitudes rather than exact behaviours. Some interviews reveal a paradox where students show an understanding of how they are expected to approach a design task but also acknowledge that they do not necessarily follow that recommended path and frequently create a finished product without being able to show evidence of their creative process.

Through classroom observations, questionnaires and preliminary interviews it appears that most students use a combination of activities as part of their creative process, and drawing is sometimes omitted. When and how they use process drawing seems to depend on the task and whether it is a requirement for assessment. Much of their creative process occurs away from the classroom, so it is difficult to confirm.

Some students rely on their mental imagery skills and written and verbal descriptions to express their concepts to others, only reaching for a pencil when the limitations of their mental processing require a sketch (Verstijnen, et al, 1995). This approach can often back-fire on some students as they struggle to produce an adequate visual response to their eloquent descriptions.

It is therefore an area of concern that some students at WSU place little or no value on process drawing in their creative process.

Scott, G., Shah, M., Grebennikov, L., Singh. H. (2008).  Improving Student Retention: A University of Western Sydney Case Study. Office of Planning and Quality, University of Western Sydney. Journal of Institutional Research, 14(1), 9–23.
Tabor, E. L. (2013). Is cheating always intentional? the perception of college students toward the issues of plagiarism. (Order No. 3557437, Capella University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 139. Retrieved from (1346009210).
Verstijnen, IM, Hennessey, J M and Leeuwen, C van.(1998). Sketching and Creative Discovery, Design Studies 19, 519-546