Thursday, March 26, 2015


Sketchbook pages from a recent design project.

I require my students to keep (and use) a sketchbook as a part of their design process.  It is not always the most beloved class activity, and I am sure some of the students view this as an archaic requirement.
I want my students to draw, doodle, dream, explore ideas, visualize, conceptualize, test and then REPEAT.  The sketchbook is an ideal medium for this fluid design exploration process – especially in the beginning of a project when the design is much less defined, and open to interrogation.  Some might (and have) question the validity of this approach in our digitally minded age.

Recently, to raise this discussion in my studio courses, I had my students read a portion of Juhani Pallasmaa’s book, The Thinking Hand.  In it, the renowned Finnish architect, academic, and theoretician makes a strong case for drawing and sketching.  Pallasamaa argues that sketching is both a haptic and spatial exercise, connecting act of drawing by hand to the mental and cognitive functions arise while drawing.  “As I sketch the contour of an object…..I actually touch and feel the surface of the subject of my attention.”   This connection between the mind and the hand (hence the title The Thinking Hand) is what interests me.  Can I more effectively teach students architectural visualization skills by forcing them to work with their hands?  I’m not sure, but in my studio we draw, and we build a lot of large physical models, because I believe that this is the most effective way to teach students to ‘see’ their design work.
This is not a critique of the computer per se, and I am certainly no technophobe.  However, when it comes to teaching young students to see and imagine a design not yet built, there seems to me to be a powerful connection between thinking and working with your hands.  As Pallasmaa argues “In fact, every act of sketching and drawing produces three different sets of images: the drawing that appears on the paper, the visual image recorded in my cerebral memory, and a muscular memory of the act of drawing.”

Perhaps in a few years, as tablets and sketching apps continue to evolve, this argument will become moot.  Until then, the connection between thought and drawing is the reason I want my students to sketch.  I want them to visualize their design work in a more informed, intentional, and nuanced manner.  Pallasmaa echoes these same sentiments, “When sketching an imagined space, or an object being designed, the hand is in a direct and delicate collaboration and interplay with mental imagery.  The image arises simultaneously with an internal mental image and the sketch mediated by the hand.” 

Why do I want my students to sketch more?  Because I want them to THINK more (and think more carefully) about their work.