Drawing for Discovery
What the sketchbooks of architect Sou Fujimoto taught me about how the brain can think on paper
I’ll open with an asterisk that should float alongside while reading: I have zero credibility on topics related to neuroscience. My sources go no deeper than the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. (If there is a neuroscientist out there who would like to study design drawing and the brain please do get in touch.)
Every designer who has completed a degree in product design can share stories about the volume of sketching he or she had to do to become capable of quickly visualizing something on paper so that others can understand the vision. For most people, this is not an easy skill to develop and requires considerable time* to produce. Some students show a natural proficiency for product sketching, while others have to wrestle considerably to learn this skill. (I’m one of these people.) The time required to learn to draw well in the field of product design is likely an outcome of a few variables: individual spatial/visual intelligence; ability to focus; the state of development and efficiency of the individual’s pre-frontal cortex—the “processing” area; and the degree which muscle “memory” has been developed through the repetitive behavior of sketching rapidly. The likelihood that some part(s) of this concert will need improvement is high for pretty much everyone.
The professional need for developing the skill of product sketching is to communicate clearly to others. As an individual designer or a design team moves through the process, ideas evolve from abstract to concise, with the fidelity of the idea(s) increasing along the way. Strong design teams facilitate time and space for both personal and collective concept generating sketching sessions.
However, how one draws personally to generate ideas is another matter. There’s a danger in drawing overly formal during this stage, especially if the individual’s drawing skills for team communication are well developed because those more refined techniques will tend to become the default style. The purpose of personal concept generation sketching isn’t to communicate, but rather to discover.
Drawing for discovery is different from drawing for communication. It requires allowing your subconscious to guide the pen and turning off the analytic, judgmental parts of your brain. This isn’t necessarily easy to do, especially if you’ve developed the skills necessary for drawing for group-based communication well.
Japanese Architect Sou Fujimoto is a master of drawing for discovery. The 2016 published collection from one of his personal sketchbooks, Sou Fujimoto: Sketchbook, is a meditative journey through this style of sketching. The gestural scribblings document fuzzy ideas, inarticulable insights, and loose notes for some projects that have materialized and some that haven’t, yet. In the red ink sketches, nothing is overly committed to or even fully understood. The sketches often appear ghostly. Very few instances of written notes appear with the sketches explaining what they are. Whether the sketches led to action isn’t important; materialization of the idea is secondary to the process of discovering the idea itself. Fujimoto describes this process as a “dialogue with himself.¹” Expanding, he describes sketching as a phenomenon where,
The lines are never certain, never knowing where the next will lead to. Never knowing, but continuing to draw. And for this very reason, there is always an opportunity for something new. From the infinite dialogues of the brain, eyes, hand, paper, and space, new architecture is born.¹’ — Sou Fujimoto
Let’s move to the topic of audience and how sketching changes depending on the intended audience.
Sketching for others is about communication with anyone other than yourself—usually others who have a stake in a design outcome being successful. The style allows them to understand what you’re thinking, and for what you’re thinking to be affected by what others are thinking. Levels of refinement exist within this type of sketching: from more rough to more fully rendered and realistic. The fidelity of the sketching is decided based on the phase of the design project and the needs of the intended audience(s).
Sketching for yourself is about personal communication, similar to journaling, and begins to orbit what Fujimoto is describing. Sketching like this involves relatively formed ideas, notes, and journaling without the refinement that would improve the clarity of the communication with an outside audience, however. To the outsider paging through someone’s sketchbook, sketches like this might require some demystifying and effort to understand, but are perfectly understandable to the designer.
Sketching for no one is about communication of the mind with itself where you become the conduit and observer. Sketching like this requires a meditative approach whereby the mind is allowed to draw whatever it can originate and translate into drawn form—with as little guidance as possible from the analytic pre-frontal cortex. Ideas, shapes, forms all come and go. What’s produced is a seismograph of the mind’s dialogue.
I now use a sketchbook devoted solely to sketching for no one borrowed from the style of Sou Fujimoto. Below are a few of those sketches.
*This could be an equally fascinating subject for further neurological study.
¹Fujimoto, Sou. Sketchbook. Lars Müller Verlag, 2012.