I love this definition of sketching (from Fish, J., & Scrivener, S. (1990). Amplifying the Mind’s Eye: Sketching and Visual Cognition. Leonardo, 3(1), 117–126.)

[Sketching is] the production of untidy images to assist in the development of visual ideas.

Fish & Scrivener complain that computer systems are too tidy and force people to describe half-formed ideas with too much precision, limiting their ability to discover and explore creative solutions in their sketching activity. Real sketches, they explain, are fragmentary and incomplete, forcing the mind of the viewer or artist to fill in the blanks -- but because the blanks are being filled in mentally, they're more flexible up there in "brain space" than they would be on paper.

I have this in mind when I check out the next paper in my reading queue (Goldschmidt, G. (1991). The Dialetics of Sketching. Creativity Research Journal, 4(2), 123–143.), which looks at architectural "study sketches," the roughest (often incomprehensibly rough), earliest, and most preliminary drawings that architects make when they begin a project.

As I read this paper, I find myself paying more and more attention to the sketches than the text. They are ridiculously incomprehensible; random lines on a page, floppy circles scribbly-shaded in... and those are the ones I can describe. I'm reminded (once again) of cognitive apprenticeship's tagline, "making thinking visible." These sketches are literally making thinking visible -- that is, pictorial. However, the blobby squiggles -- while visible -- are certainly not making thinking comprehensible; it's only when we look at the commentary by the architects that some vague, verbally-expressible sense can be made.

So I scratch my head. Why is it that "understandable" means "able to explain in words" more often than not? Why do we require that level of precision? Might words in this case be doing a version of what Fish & Scrivener criticize about computer programs -- overconstraining the ideas by forcing details to be specified that don't need to be specified quite yet? If architects want to make floppy circles scribbly-shaded in, that's cool, they don't need to explain them to me. We do let architects get away with that, but not other people sometimes... how can we value and validate different ways of thinking and expressing?

Anyway, that was my ponder for the week's readings. I also found an idea in Fish & Scrivener that made me scratch my head again when they started getting into more of the nuts and bolts of cognitive science. Brains have a certain amount of processing capacity for different modalities -- think of your brain as having an "auditory" microprocessor, a "visual" one, a "verbal" one, a "tactile" one, and so forth. If you try to do two unrelated visual tasks simultaneously, it's harder than doing a visual and an auditory task simultaneously (sometimes, viewing your brain as a robot and doing load-balancing can be helpful!)

But apparently doing two related tasks on the same "processor" helps both -- makes sense, since they can sort of work with each other. It turns out that percepts (mental images of things perceived by the senses) are visual -- so visual things and imagined visual things use the same "processor," and sketching helps you imagine things in your mind's eye.

...because we would never have figured that out on our own, of course. I thought the conclusion was obvious, but it's nice to see some thinking about how the mental machinery behind it might be arranged. (It's sort of like research that concludes that "water is wet," but tells you how it's wet. On the one hand, duh. On the other hand, cool.)