Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Art of Thinking Through Making

I am at heart an irrepressible classicist who likes my type justified and prefers Merchant Ivory to Miramax. I'm an incorrigible Anglophile, a devoted Francophile and I am utterly convinced that my DNA is heavily weighted toward the first half of the twentieth century. I'm kitsch-averse, but I do cling to certain kinds of nostalgia, particularly that which conjures theatrical re-enactments of times long gone. (That would explain the Merchant Ivory fixation.) And I am fully aware of — indeed, an advocate of — the degree to which visual thinking makes history real.

Thinking through writing, as I am doing now, is one way of experimenting with the expression of an idea. But thinking through making work is entirely different. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, as a tangible proving ground for a hypothesis, the idea of thinking through making is perhaps unique to designers. We demand nothing less of our students.

But have you tried this yourself lately? It's really hard.

This year, I took a leave from teaching to begin work on a new book, an exploration I chose to parallel with the pursuit of a new body of work in my studio. I have long tried to sustain a practice in which I write to figure out what I can't make, and experiment with form as a way to push the idea even further. Framed by inevitable demands of consumer culture — the clients, the budgets, the insatiable technology — the process of making work is, more often than not, curtailed by reality: it's not so much what as when, and how, and of course how much it costs, how much time it takes, how much impact it has when it's out there, orbiting solo as that final, autonomous, designed thing out there in the world.

But back in the studio, the dialogue between the maker and the thing is something quite different: there's a kind of blind faith, an anti-discipline at work in which the process of discovery is fueled less by what than by what if? What if you turned it upside down? What it you switched materials? What if you shut out the noise that smacks of responsible conclusions and replaced it with loopy questions, fragmented notions, implausible fictions?

This is where the pencil comes in.

Drawing is the point of contact in which idea begins to approximate form. There is a kind of transcendent energy in the sketchbook, or the tissue, or even the napkin upon which the simplest of doodles begins its long, twisted road to realization. It's all grist for the mill, and the studio is its incubation chamber: not the studio with the white board and the IT guy and the phones ringing and the incessant emails, but the studio in which the ideas seek, and ultimately start to find, their burgeoning, fledgling form. Cezanne once wrote that the painter must enclose himself within his work, and it is true that such investment — physical, spiritual, and deeply intentional — is, in fact, what making work is all about. But as the public's media appetite moves further away from the dreamy landscape of imagination (think Reality TV and confessional memoirs) the danger for design, I think, is imminent. Sure, design serves a pragmatic need, but that doesn't mean its point of departure needs to position itself so firmly in the realm of logic, does it? Drawing, as the primary gesture of making, reopens the doors of the imagination and recasts the process as something completely different. Scary, because you don't always know where you're going. But somehow, you know when you get there.

There's time, later for logic, for editing, for justifying all that type, for putting up those responsible roadblocks that we all must, on some level, choose to embrace. The studio, at least a little piece of it, is not the place for such duty-bound thinking. Somewhere, somehow, it must be the place for thinking through making.

But don't take my word for it: the only way you'll know for sure is if you turn off your phone, pick up a pencil and try it yourself.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

Comments [27]

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jessica. It makes for good morning reading, and reminds me of a book called Inspired, which features a number of European designers and their sketchbooks (and, in some cases, scrapbooks).
Ricardo Cordoba

Drawing, for me as always been a wonderful experience, but I'm not sure the drawing I do, is the same as what you're talking about. It sounds like to me you are talking about doodling, but i'm not entirely sure. Do you have some examples, of your own or perhaps others? How is this different from the sketching?

As a grad student i've always been thankful that my program requires me to have a grad minor in a studio area.The specifics of the kind of drawing you are talking about aren't overly important to me, i'm just being curious. I'm just happy someone is recommending that designers draw.

I'm not sure it matters what you're drawing as long as you build drawing into your life, connect it intimately to your process. The whole value of being facile with a pencil may be deserving of its own post: but for now, it is the developmental aspects, the evolution of thinking through the process of making something that interests me.
jessica helfand

It's funny how you get a certain feeling about 'making' something when you draw/sketch/doodle and not so much when you write.

I remember making a drawing of Spiderman for my four-year old, done by hand while looking at a picture of old Spidey. The feeling of 'Wow, I made that," took me more by surprise than anything else. Particularly since I would never call myself an artist in the drawing sense. I started my career as a writer and still one of my proudest moments was when I wrote and made my own book at the age of eleven. The book is lost but not the feeling.

Thank you Jessica, for clarifying for me. :)

Jessica, I'd be curious to hear more about your process—how you think by making. I'm not entirely convinced that thinking with images is inherantly different than thinking with words. Certainly they feel different, on a visceral level. But many of the things you describe—that blind-faith, anti-discipline experimentation that happens when working through an idea—seems equally applicable to writing. Maybe less so with nonfiction writing, but certainly that's something that authors of poetry and fiction experience. What about "making" is entirely different?

I went back to figure drawing after a long period of working on the computer as a designer - using nothing but charcoal on huge pieces of paper. When I made my first "mistake", I instinctively reached for the "command z" undo. It was a scary to realize that I had forgotten how to work on paper, think on paper, encorporate the "mistake" into the drawing. I think drawing is exciting to look at precisely because the thinking is present and active - layers of re-thinking that we never see in the finished product of our designs. Paul Rand's work seems to retain this quality somehow - thank you Jessica for your lovely book about him, by the way.

Mandy --

May I address the question you directed to Jessica?

Briefly, a different part of the brain is activated and engaged when drawing vs. when using words.

Speaking personally, I find that -- through the process of sketching -- I can connect ideas and communicate messages in ways that words don't. I see relationships in ways that aren't evident through words alone.

It's a different type of language -- activated and processed by a different part of the brain.
Daniel Green

I'm not a neurologist, but as I understand it, it's a bit more complicated than that. Even if there is an underlying neurological difference, how does that translate into a different process? Can you articulate the difference between a process that uses words as the medium, versus one that uses images? Are you always only using one or the other, or do they sometimes spill into each other? If you were to think about something through sketching, versus thinking about it through writing, how would the end results be different? By results, I don't just mean the end product (i.e., the image or essay), but the intellectual conclusion.

I'm not sure of my own answers to these questions. But I will say I'm somewhat prejudiced to believe that language is always part of our thinking, whether we're sketching images or words. I don't believe we're quite that compartmentalized; or, at least, I don't think I am. Interesting to consider that letterforms began as pictograms, and evolved into the abstract forms we use today. Were the first people to create letterforms thinking through making?

Jessica, I agree, but you seem to be assuming that all designers can and do draw. I recently went through a GD degree program at Parsons and was flabbergasted to find myself one of the few designers who draws. One of the VERY few -- the vast majority of my peers skip the sketching process entirely, not because they don't brainstorm or visually explore, but simply because they don't do it via illustration. Some instructors required students to sketch, and more often than not it was absolute disaster. I stopped counting the times I heard, "I just don't think with a pencil..." or the absolute "I don't draw."

There is a new fleet of young designers who create only in the machine and consider themselves to be completely void of traditional artistic ability. Forcing them to pick up a pencil more often than not became an exercise in frustration (for all involved, especially the audience trying to decipher ideas) rather than in imagination. Thinking through making as a direct route to stagnation.

As a designer who draws, I don't hesitate to show others my sketchbook or to include conceptual sketches when presenting work to clients. But for the majority of my former Parsons classmates (most of whom have gone on to respectable if not relatively flashy jobs), the feeling of pride and creative satisfaction that I get after successfully illustrating an idea on paper comes to them as they stand over the printer waiting for the machine to heave out something they've done on their computer. As I said, for them all creative exploration happens solely in the machine. Is their imagination less functional? Is their method of generation less valid? As designers we all think, but not everyone has the ability to pick up a pencil and make something.

Nice posting! I'll second what Mandy says about writing -- that it's useful to make a distinction between nonfiction/essayistic/thinking-it-out type writing, which involves a lot of cerebration, and "creative" writing, which is often much less intellectual and much more craft-oriented, and much more about look-and-feel-and-tone questions. In that sense it's much closer to painting or filmmaking or music, or even acting. Shhhh: between you and me, a lot of fiction/poetry types, however talented, aren't very bright in the intellectual sense. That comes as a surprise to a lot of people, who associate writing with school-type intellectual smarts. But the school-smart people who go into writing usually wind up as editors, nonfiction writers, etc. The people who have story-making or poetry-making talents often didn't do very well in school. I'm not aware of any brainscanny studies that have been done on diffs between the way nonfiction writers and "creative" writers use their brains, btw. This is all just anecdotal and impressionistic. But I've known a lot of writers ...
Michael Blowhard

Pity that drawing courses were not integral to your program at Parsons, Kate. The "I don't draw" mentality was experience by myself in graduate school, particularly amongst the sculptors. These people were typically good at one thing, and they milked that one thing to death because they refused or ignored the development of their visualisation skills.

I have found that there is a certain quality inherent in the work of those who have developed their drawing skills and those who have not. They can better articulate their ideas, can work through them within minutes, and quickly ditch those that are dead-ends. Try to make twenty thumbnails in ten minutes on a computer. I have watched my own students push images and text around on the screen for half an hour or more in order to work out a composition that could have been sketched in 2 minutes on paper.

6 of one, half a dozen the other. But in the end, I see this trend biting into billable hours, and once the bottom line becomes visible to the principals within the company, your mates with the flashy jobs may be searching the want ads.

I'm crummy at drawing. I'm a college sophomore who didn't take art classes before college. I took a drawing class in my first term and absolutley loved it, even though my skills at something like figure drawing are lacking and remain so. Nonetheless, I have had tremendous successes in graphic design and three-dimensional design. When I make thumbnails for a poster, I make many sketches and thumbnails in notebooks and on sheets. My general lack of sensitivity to rendering space on paper does not feel like it's hindering my creative process, I just draw very simple shapes and imagine anything I can't clearly define with a pencil. Is anybody else in this boat? Did anybody use to be in this boat?

It doesn't matter who's in the boat with you, as long as you're floating. I would encourage you, however, to continue to develop your drawing skills, as it sounds like you enjoyed it, but just didn't follow through and it can only help you.

I read once that it takes 10 years of practice at any one thing to become an expert at it. So don't be discouraged if, after one term of drawing, you aren't Michelangelo. I've been drawing since I could hold a pencil, which should make me an expert a few times over, but I still look at the Master's with awe, and I see plenty of space for practice and improvement.

As they say, what doesn't kill you can only make you stronger. And drawing never killed anyone (to my knowledge. Sculpture has claimed a few lives, ... architecture, ... painting, if you count suicide and reckless driving ... ).

Sorry, that's "Masters", sans apostrophe. Master is as master does.

I'd add that drawing is only part of it. I've seen students develop their ideas in sketchbooks made of scraps of ideas, culled from their findings, or photographs ripped and annotated with writing. My own sketchbooks reveal a fragmented, experimental, and decidedly inconsistend process: some drawing, some collage, some writing, and many combinations of the three. (Far be it from me to elevate my work to the level of serious artmaking, but if you look at Jasper Johns sketchbooks, which are out in paperback, you'll see similar compilations of writing/questioning/sketching.) The important thing, the helpful thing with regard to advancing your work is to stay busy, I truly believe, with your mind as well as your hands.
Jessica Helfand

Whether through making, drawing, or writing, the most important thing is, as Jessica notes, keeping busy - and also consciously finding time and a place for a period of quiet isolation - with no distracting computer, TV, crowds - in order to have the "space" to think/work through ideas. Many of us begin with only a vague concept or idea, but when we spend some time alone, inside ourselves, the genuine, authentic work comes through. In many cases although I have a general idea of a thesis or outline when I begin, the act of writing often "tells" what I believe and what I really think. My many artist friends similarly realise what they are making as they are actually creating the work. The willingness to remain open to ones thoughts and gestures can create a magic that is not otherwise possible.
Barbara bloemink

That is lovely.

I'm a verbal person, but years ago I started feeling this urge to doodle when I speak. Now, it's hard for me to talk without a visual prop to refer to.

For most of my life, I've thought of myself as someone who, "can't draw." Now I know that I can draw. Only, what I draw are things that only I can see.
Tom Guarriello

I believe that it is not nostalgia that drives the desire to draw/design with a pencil but the ability for the pencil to be an 'open' tool that does not slow down or restrict the creative process.

Initially I used to be from the 'Why use a pencil? I can draw using the computer' school of thought, but after years of working this way, I found that what I produced had a visual vocabulary that was limited and derivative.
After moving back to working with a pencil (as one of the many other tools - camera, computer, knife etc) I found my visual vocabulary to be more open and the creative process a lot more enjoyable and fluid.

Thanks again Jessica, for another enjoyable post.

I'm not a neurologist, but as I understand it, it's a bit more complicated than that...


In the attempt to be brief, I probably have oversimplified. I'm not a neurologist either, but I would agree that there is a complex interplay between the parts of the brain and its sensory inputs. I wouldn't characterize brain activity as compartmentalized, unless there was a neurological disorder present, such as damage to the corpus callosum. However, there has been research dating back to the 1960s that documents how the two brain hemispheres control different activities.

As to your question regarding thinking-through-writing vs. thinking-through-sketching, I'll generalize and say that any problems involving space, flow, color, and patterns (problems which are confronted by the likes of architects, traffic engineers, community planners, etc.) are problems that can arrive at a broader and more effective range of solutions through sketching than through words. (A couple of my old college texts deal with this subject better than I can summarize myself. If you can find them, check out Experiences in Visual Thinking by Robert H. McKim, or Graphic Problem Solving for Architects & Builders, by Paul Laseau.)

Of course, the inclusion of words, numbers and multivariate data, as documented in Edward Tufte's books, can create a tool for thinking that combines some of the strengths of visual, literal, and numerical thinking.

But I'll stand by Jessica's post supporting making as a unique and valuable form of thinking in and of itself.
Daniel Green

Wonderfully stated - when pen hits paper an idea is brought forth into the physical world, it is the translation of mental into physical, and hence abstract into concrete.

An inspiring read on this dreary Monday morning.

There have been some excellent points made
in regards to "making" and the creative process...

For designers who are NOT illustrators, it simply
isn't efficient nor practical to take the time
to hand render a concept to the 99th degree of
polish. One tends to use the least amount of skill
required to carry out his/her intentions. In this
case, crude, simple, sketches/doodles would

Drawing isn't the same as sketching.

Sketching is for "discovering/studying/analyzing"
Drawing is for "making/creating/therapy"

I agree the creative process of design should
include a myriad of sketching, writing, and
even collage techniques if need be.

There are very good sites which discuss
visual thinking techniques and how to apply
them in daily life as well as for business.
(highly recommend)

communication nation

visual thinking school

Examples of sketchbook projects

sketch book projects

The bottom line is, the skills of graphic
designers will vary based on the type of design
work they do.

Mr. Frankie L

hello, interesting article but thinking through making is not particularly unique to designers.

in dance most choreographers use the process you have described, one might say that it is overused. thinking in terms of movement rather than the 'meaning' of the movement only ever reveals so much. it's easy to get lost in your own thinking, and end up editing a replication of your navel.

that said thinking through making is a vital part of all artistic praxis. but as with every process it's knowing how to apply it.

To the questions of how separate language is from the other mental activities we engage in: There really is no separation. To quote modest mouse, whom I recognize is not an authority in cognitive studies, but the line is illustrative of the point anyhow: "Language is the liquid that we're all dissolved in / Great for solving problems, after it creates a problem" ("Blame It On the Tetons," Isaac Brock). Why bring it up? Because in a folksy way it articulates the point literary theory has argued for a long, long time, and not simply because it's literary theory.

Language is the tool that you use to frame your experience. The way you see, feel, think, experience is dictated by the language with which you process stimuli. Note well that language is not by necessity verbal or spoken; that we are all communicating by computer screen and not voice chat should be a strong indicator of this. If you can read words on a page, you are processing language visually. The act of "making through work" and the act of writing are two outlets for the same activity.

As to the idea that all the "intellectual" writers are pursuing nonfiction, well, frankly that's nonsense. Anyone who's glimpsed the brilliance of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" knows that. To argue that fiction writers are less intellectual or less cerebral than nonfiction says more about social attitudes toward fiction than any real truth of the creator. How many more people recognize "Et tu, Brute?" as attributable to Julius Caesar than "Omnia Gallia tres partes divisus est"? (And in the interests of transparency, we have no primary sources indicating the truth of Shakespeare's quote, and Julius Caesar wrote the latter himself).
the Brightside

I think I am more a drawing board designer by training (an architect). There is always this gap between the making and my drawing board. And model making is just not enough to close this mental gap. About 4 months ago, I started a piece of wooden sculpture. I began to study the grain, the texture, orientation of cracks.. of the material. I felt like coming to know a friend. And I would feel sorry for the wood when I make a wrong cut. Somehow that exercise helped me to understand the relationship between the real built, the building process and design.

I think when you make, you try to talk to the thing you make. I guess that talking is thinking.

look fr studio LDA

Please represent Otl Aicher, as you are essentially quoting the poor dead guy's ideas.
James Butts

I am a designer by training who has been studying and most recently teaching within a Masters Programme for Holistic Science. One of the areas of study is Goethean Science which entails what Goethe called a 'delicate empiricism' or what might today be called a phenomenological study of a subject. In Goethe's case it was usually plants or natural phenomena such as colour. What struck me about Jessica's excellent essay was the focus on drawing as a prelude to making and alternative to other forms of expression that are more linear (such as writing). In Goethean Science we use drawing as an almost literal extension of the eye (Michael Polanyi talks of 'subsidiary' awareness to describe this) which is used to enhace empirical observation and ultimately/hopefully allow the phenomena to reveal itself through this process of observation. Many times I have found that the 'place' into which I enter while doing drawing of this type become timeless, non-linear and to an extent transcendent. This, I think can strongly influence the 'making' that we go on to do as artists, designers or scientists.
Terry Irwin

Jobs | July 24