janet profile photo 2013 monoWhy am I doing a PhD? I started tutoring graphic design students at the Western Sydney University after working in several busy design studios in Sydney. For me the classroom was a foreign, yet challenging, environment.

In my early teaching days, many of the assessment tasks were group assignments and required in-class collaboration exercises, so group discussions and mind maps were encouraged. I often found myself reaching for a pen and paper to help students clarify their spoken ideas. Why weren’t they doing rough sketches themselves?

For me, it was natural to talk through an idea while sketching. I wondered if this was just a by-product of my pre-computer education?

I then discovered the research of Pam Schenk, who has conducted several longitudinal studies investigating the role of drawing in the graphic design process of both professional and novice designers in the UK. Her research began in the mid 80’s and spanned a 25-year period that coincided with my career as a graphic designer. Like many of Schenk’s professional participants, I was exposed to the constant and profound changes that technology brought to the industry, and to the design process in particular.

Like some of the participants, many of the hand-drawn elements in my process were quickly replaced by computer-assisted techniques. I didn’t go out of my way to become an early adopter, but I did try and use the most efficient means available at the time to conceptualise and communicate to clients and production teams. This was necessary to remain competitive and fulfil client expectations. Eventually, like many of my colleagues and new recruits, my use of drawing was reduced to ideation sketches and thumbnails, which I still found essential.

Research confirms the many benefits of sketching as part of the design thinking process, but many students find drawing quite challenging and therefore, restricting. So if students aren’t sketching as part of their process, what are they doing? Through a series of questionnaires and interviews, I am building a picture of creative thinking techniques used by high achieving students at the Western Sydney University. Could their creative processes be improved or enhanced by the inclusion of more hand-eye thinking? How can all students be encouraged to give drawing a go?

Narrowing down my research topic has been a difficult, ongoing process. Initially I was interested in developing improvisational drawing exercises, like ‘squiggling’ and ‘doodling’ to promote drawing participation. I had discovered improvements in my own creative thinking skills using similar projection techniques, but I soon discovered that for many students there was a disconnect.

I then explored using the iPad and various sketch apps as a possible ‘gateway’ into drawing for students. All first year students were given an iPad on entry, so this warranted investigation. Whilst I found I was able to draw ‘well enough’ on this small, slippery surface with a stylus, non-drawers found this a very difficult and discouraging experience. The new generation iPads and stylus technology may make it easier and more viable in the future. For me the real value of sketching on an iPad is to record the creative process. For a novice designer, the value is making a digital mark that can be easily translated into another program.

My thesis, ‘Back to the Drawing board?’ (working title), will explore the value of the rough sketch or ‘process drawing’ in the ideation stage of the creative process. Through my own design and visual arts practice, and through the development of improvisational drawing exercises for graphic design students, I have been trying to ‘find a way through drawing’.

Understanding student’s needs and limitations is key to the development of successful creative thinking practices taught in design schools. The question is not ‘should drawing be taught in design schools?’, but rather ‘How should drawing be taught in design schools’?

Schenk, Pam. Drawing for Design: The Impact of Computer-Assisted Design on the Role of Drawing for Communication Designers in Commercial Practice, The Design Journal, 1:3, (1998)
Schenk, P. (2005). Reflections on the teaching of drawing in the digital age: attitudes of senior academics in the United Kingdom to the place of drawing tuition on the design curriculum in higher education. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education4(3), 189-203.