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Making sense of human behavior for design and business.

Drawing Out Loud: Visual Conversations



Ethnography and contextual interviews are standard practice in Design Research these days. We get into the everyday context and situations of people lives so we can understand how to make more meaningful connections to address the realities we are asked to design for by our clients. But interviews, observations, and photographs can fall short depending on the circumstance. We have to take into account that we're only in this context of people’s lives for a short time. We also have to take into account that this context, or slice of reality has often been rearranged and sanitized for our benefit. “Be polite honey, answer the man’s questions,” the woman says to her daughter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a messy bed during an contextual interview. I want to see those messy beds. How do we get there? Let’s explore something obvious for a moment. For designers and researchers this topic is not particularly groundbreaking or innovative but I want to talk about the method of drawing as a tool for enhancing the interview process. Drawing is a marginalized skill. It’s left to the artist and other creative professionals. At a very young age we are encouraged to nurture this ability because from the moment we can pick up a pencil or crayon we can make marks – and in these marks we can see (as the viewer) anything. It’s our window into the mind of children. We spend the first couple of years in school simply drawing. But just as soon as we begin to hone the ability to communicate through images it is stripped away from us. We are forced into written arguments and rote memorization to shape our relationships with the world. Take this drawing by my daughter Matilda for example (Figure 1). She is two and she just started school (we start them early here in New York) and the was first day my wife left her alone. This is the drawing she made.  Figure 1: Matilda's drawing of her first day at school. Prior to making this drawing she could only cry incoherently. While this is a valid form of communication for a two year old, Matilda is actually quite verbal and well spoken. But when presented with the unforgivable idea that mommy had left her all alone with a room full of strangers she went to her go to form of communication. The teacher later told my wife that she “was shocked to see Matilda walk – crying – all the way over to a table with markers and paper and sit down – crying– and proceed to draw.” When she finished the drawing she stopped crying. Her very first artwork at school was a message to Mommy in the language of drawing. And for those who have forgotten this language, we just need a little help getting over the hump. Enter the designer. As designers, we must become expert interviewers with methods that rely heavily on the visual representations of these conversations. Designers are in a unique position to have a different kind of conversations. To uncover that message to Mommy. Images are “conjurers.” Once crafted, they reveal what lies beneath the surface. Spoken conversation can only show us so much about a person or situation. The tool of drawing (shape, line, symbol, etc.) can be a means of communication where words fails us. It’s our first language. Drawing can be a tool of provocation. Research participants expect to have conversations with words but when asked to draw as a means of stating our point of view, we become mute. It’s difficult to answer a question with an image. Rudolf Arnheim states that “visual thinking calls, more broadly, for the ability to see visual shapes as images of the patterns of forces that underlie or existence - the functioning of minds, of bodies or machines, the structure of societies or ideas.” Arnheim explains in his book Visual Thinking that thinking visually allows us to see patterns and structures that are not always apparent to us on the surface. But how do we get people to think visually? What I’m really asking is how do we get people to see differently and shift the conversation? One of the first things you learn in a formal drawing class is to actually see what you observe. If we are asked to draw an object in a still life, say a bottle, we tend towards drawing what we remember about the object (like the average shape of a wine bottle) rather that what we actually see directly in front of us. Our brains – for reasons that I won’t explore right now – summarize the sensory data received through our eyes and in some act of cognition, allows us to recognize that we are looking at a bottle. Scott McCloud explains (visually) in Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art that the reason we are so involved comics and cartoons (even as adults) is that we see the world in “general patterns.” For example, when we have a face to face conversations I don’t see every detail on your head. I see shape and position of eyes, shape and position of mouth, etc. When learning to draw, you’re working against this cognitive process of general pattern summary and draw the truth of what is in front of you and not what your brain is trying to summarize. This summarization, or application of “general patterns” is something similar we do in conversation. We have reflexive responses we go to in conversations, especially with strangers. “It’s nice to meet you,” or “see you later,” even though we will in all probability never see each other again. It’s difficult to break people out of these general patterns. Again, how do we shift the conversation, get people to open up bypassing the niceties? Several years ago I was working on a project to help an education services company leverage their intellectual property (IP) to bring a new suite of products to market. Our client wanted to focus on products and services to create new forms of engagement between parents and children. While our client was knowledgeable – many as former educators – about the role of parents and dynamics of education in the home, they did not understand how to conceptualize products to facilitiate or enhance this engagement. Working with our client, we identified two issues concerning transparency and perception to frame our initial assumptions and questions. How transparent does the child want their learning process to be to their parents? And from the parent’s perspective, how much do they need/want to know about their children’s progress? Also, what are the gaps between their (parent and child) perceptions of the learning experience? Do they share similar mental models of concepts like milestones or what constitutes productive activity? My colleague Turi McKinley and I knew we would have to instigate this conversation between parents and children but were unsure how to accomplish this without it feeling forced and awkward. We started to think about how we could have the parent and children respondents talk about education – current and future. We would ask parents and children to draw these concepts. But after we talked through this idea for a bit we hypothesized that the child was going to be influenced by the parent being in the room. We decided to do an introductory interview with them together around these concepts, then split them up during the drawing process and then finally bring them back together to discuss the drawings. What we found was surprising. Look at these two drawings, the first (Figure 2) done by the father and the next (Figure 3) by the son. What are the immediate differences you see? FatherandSonschoolDrawing.jpg Well, the father noticed right away. The overall rating. The father was content with viewing his son's current experience in terms of physical things, desks and books. But his son had a different idea. He was thinking about progress, milestones, and most importantly personal assessment. Just prior to this drawing session in the introductory interview the father was dominating the conversation about how well his son was doing in school and how much he loved it. When we brought them back together and the father saw this overall rating of “frustration” he was brought to tears. We then had a very different discussion about what they both expected, needed, and wanted from the son’s educational experience. He heard, as well as saw what his son wanted. Something the question alone did not do. When confronted with the image – the mental model laid bare – the father saw something that existed but went unsaid.