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How real is visual thinking?

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The discipline of design needs to come to terms with the fact that it deals with intellectual sensitivity, not just an innate skill BY KATHRYN MOORE

If we are to teach design more effectively, it is time to challenge the idea that there is such a thing as visual thinking. This metaphysical conception is not only the source of considerable confusion, but also obscures the intellectual dimension of design. It is difficult to justify, let alone develop, design as a discipline when its basis remains clouded by such subjectivity. In times of dwindling educational resources and fierce competition for research funds this is becoming a serious problem.

Dangerous presumptions

A common enough idea, the concept of visual thinking informs general debate about thinking and intelligence. We don't think twice about it - we are so convinced of its 'truth' we accept it naturally as the basis of any discussion. The concept is endemic within the academic world of theories about art and design education, playing an important role in explaining the more difficult aspects of design. It is thought to be the key to creative thinking, the way to 'gain insight'. It plays a fundamental role in the artistic part of the design process. It is thought to be the mechanism which enables us, if we are accomplished enough, to understand the 'visual language', or sense the invisible, underlying essences of place. It is also fundamental in the notion of expressing ideas or design solutions which exist 'in the mind's eye'. In each instance, the presumption is that in order to access this part of the psyche, we switch to visual or 'imagistic reasoning'1. It is a shift which also apparently occurs when we look at paintings or drawings and even when we daydream.

Visual thinking is thought to be quite different from verbal thinking. The latter is generally assumed to be 'constrained by the rationality of language' whereas thinking visually is thought to be the opposite - idiosyncratic, subjective and non-linear. Characterised as an intuitive and emotional way of knowing, visual thinking is typically unrelated to intelligence. In fact it is often suggested that in order to make the most of this mode of thinking we should ignore the intellect, and just let emotional feelings and sensations resonate with the subconscious. These ideas are potentially disastrous in educational terms.

The idea that there are different modes of thinking is predicated on the assumption that there are different kinds of truth. This premise is the basis of distinctions made between subjective opinion (emotions and feelings) and objective facts (logic and science) and many other familiar beliefs. These include the assumption that there are different types of reasoning, some of which are more rational and objective than others, and other more complex notions such as the idea that we can communicate without language or learn without understanding.

This group of ideas largely determines what we think about the way we think. Despite the fact that this paradigm and the dichotomies that emanate from it have been questioned and undermined over the last century, the whole framework remains a hugely significant touchstone of our culture.

Emotional bridges

Within design discourse, its most obvious expression is the characterisation of design as a complex (and impossible) reconciliation between subjective opinion and objective fact, a logical process and a creative leap. Generally thought to be an unassailable foundation of design, this dichotomy has led to a significant amount of time being spent trying to devise complex (or sneaky) strategies to build bridges or gateways between the emotional, intuitive aspects of design, dealing with space and feelings, and the logical side, dealing with practicalities and language.

The distinction made between visual thinking and verbal thinking has a substantial research following which tries to work out how we synthesise thinking in images with thinking in words and, of course, hypothesising how we might teach such a skill.

Inquisitive students, anxious to know more about the design process, often discover this thing called visual thinking, even if it is not specifically taught as part of their course. However, the fact that this is thought to be embedded in the subconscious causes immense problems.

Innate or intellectual?

Visual thinking is obviously something in which they need to gain fluency - but how? If it is more than just drawing skill, just what is it? And if it's not, then why not simply call it drawing skill? How is it possible to learn something that apparently has no intellectual basis and is purely subjective? If it is an innate skill, then what chance is there of developing it? If it is subconscious, untainted by the intellect, how can it be affected, or impinged upon, consciously? Through osmosis, a seepage of experience? Above all, how is it accessed?

This, incidentally, was one of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe's quests during the latter part of his life. The inviolability of the subconscious, for example, as a repository of visual skill, is the reason why there is so often a reluctance among students to study precedents, read about other designers' work, or learn about design history or theory. Such information might spoil the visual image bank, contaminate it with 'intellectual' preoccupations.

Setting educational aims or even assessing work based on the notion of visual thinking is also problematic. Anything 'emerging' from the subconscious is portrayed as having a cultural resonance. If this is the case, the significance of the sort of things supposedly dependent on visual thinking, such as drawings, pre-conceptual sketches or design concepts, should be transparent and equally obvious to all. There would be no need for any debate or question. This rarely happens, leading to the widely held belief that assessment of design is completely subjective.

Neither view is helpful. If subjective, whose judgement counts more and why? The usual answer is to give credibility to those who are experienced - as though experience carries with it the ability to empathise subconsciously. But what is experience other than knowledge and awareness that is learned, acquired over time maybe, but learned nonetheless? It is based on understanding. Could the same be true for visual skill?

All in all, the concept of visual thinking is difficult. It is impossible to synthesise visual thinking with language because it is subjective, subconscious and specifically has nothing to do with language. Supposedly it is impossible to learn because it is innate. Where does that lead us? Whichever way you look at it, to more of a hindrance than a help in teaching design. All the concept does is to maintain the mystery surrounding the design process.

Pragmatism and design

Pragmatism, re-invigorated in 1980 by the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty2, addresses the issue from a different perspective by questioning the traditional conceptual framework. From a pragmatic viewpoint there are neither different types of truth nor different types of reasoning. Rorty argues that what we believe to be true reflects the values we hold. These change over time, evolve as they are interpreted and reinterpreted, drift in and out of fashion. These truths are culturally defined. This radical conceptual shift actually removes the foundation of the objective/subjective dichotomy, in effect, dismantling any justification for the idea that there are different modes of thinking.

This analysis has been used to examine the design process. As a consequence, considerable doubt has been thrown on the validity of distinguishing between modes of thinking which are subjective and intuitive, and those which are logical and objective. What is rarely recognised, however, is that this analysis also applies to the distinction made between visual and verbal thinking. The intractable problems caused by this distinction are unfortunately of our own making, part of a powerful, but ultimately unhelpful, tradition.

Pragmatism focuses on how we think, rather than what we think3. From this point of view, the thought process happens in the same way, whatever we are thinking about. We interpret, judge, make decisions, try to understand our emotions, and try to make sense of what we see and feel. So whether we work in fine art or physics, in architectural design or quantity surveying, the way we actually think is the same. The difference lies in the discourse we pursue, which inevitably reflects the traditions and practices of each discipline.

Everyday reasoning

On this basis there is no argument to support the idea that the way we think depends on what we are looking at. Whether we are looking at a picture or reading the accompanying text, we observe, either casually or intently, thinking deeply or superficially about what we see.

If we take notice of what we are reading or looking at, even of how text might relate to a picture, or vice versa, there is no shift from one mode of thinking to another as we glance from one to the other, just a change in what we are looking at or thinking about. We make sense of pictures or words in the same way. Whether we are reading a book on mathematics or on the philosophy of art, or looking at Kandinsky's water-colours or drawings by Calatrava, we try to understand our responses, feelings, reactions. The way we make sense of what we see, how we understand it, written or drawn, relies on interpretative reasoning. This is not a special way of reasoning, but something we do every day. Why should it be any different in design? The sense we make of these things depends on our experience, knowledge, memories and associations. It also depends on how intently we concentrate or how casually we gaze, on how much notice we take of what we see.

From a pragmatic perspective, visual skill is not a mysterious, subconscious mode of thinking, it is a critical and analytical way of understanding what we are looking at. Recovering the intellectual dimension of 'the visual' in this way clarifies the rationale for teaching visual skill as part of any curriculum.

Understanding the significance of the way things look can justifiably be put forward as a tangible, educational goal, rather than a mystical gift which needs to be 'mindlessly' nurtured. There is no need to reserve critical, analytical skills just for words and numbers. This approach also leads to the conclusion that what something looks like is not just its 'merely physical' aspect, but an important intellectual dimension of its design - one which we have overlooked for too long. Let's lift the veil and demystify visual thinking. It is time to become more critically aware and fluent in the conceptual implications of what we see and feel.

Kathryn Moore is the course director of a part-time postgraduate course in landscape architecture at the University of Central England in Birmingham. This work was developed with the support of the Leverhulme Trust and is based on a paper given at the cude Conference on Changing Architectural Education held at Leicester in April.

1 Goldschmidt, G (1994). 'On visual design thinking: the vis kids of architecture'. Design Studies 15 (2 April 1994): 158-174

2 Rorty R (1980). Philosohy and the Mirror of Nature. Oxford, Blackwell

3 Menand, L, Ed (1997). Pragmatism A Reader. New York, Vintage Books

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