Note: I will use the terms sketching, drawing, and doodling interchangeably throughout.

Last week on my post titled Why Doesn’t Everybody Sketch?, I talked about my struggle to understand why not everybody sketches or draws? According to Denise Grady in her article titled The Vision Thing: Mainly in the Brain, our brain dedicates millions of neurons to visual processing; the two optic nerves that carry signals from the retina to the brain consist of millions of fibers; and the areas of the brain dedicated to process touch is only 8 percent and the area to process hearing is only 3 percent, wouldn’t that make more people inclined to sketch or draw?

Here is another fact. According to Margaret Livingstone, author of the book Vision and Art, The Biology of Seeing, processing visual information is much more of a challenge because visible light for example, “comprises a much smaller range of frequencies than audible sound and because differences in wavelength are on the order of nanometers, differential signaling of wavelengths of light presents a much bigger challenge…”

Thus, maybe the question why doesn’t everybody sketch is not the right one. Because as it turns out, Grady states that “the retina is an outgrowth of the brain.” And the “retina contains 150 million light-sensitive rod and cone cells.” Rather the question may be how is the processing that the mind does is expressed in the physical world? And maybe that expression is perhaps an issue of skills, experiences, and inclinations more than a reason to draw or not draw?

For me drawing, sketching most likely these days, or doodling is about giving my a thought or an idea a tangible space in the world. Otherwise is gone. But I acknowledge that I grew up drawing. No one taught me. As far as I can remember I would draw all the time. It was very difficult for me not to draw or paint. Getting lost in a picture book with my crayolas was one of my favorite things to do. And my trees were purple and my chairs orange.

That detail did not escape one of my cousins who could not understand my color choices. He is an engineer by training and his mind is very analytical, concrete, and mathematical. We are complete opposites in our expressions of how our minds process the data we both receive. Drawing, painting, sketching, and doodling are unthinkable tasks for him. But he plays chess like no other and does math calculations impressively. I could not care less about chess and will lose in a second because I am fascinated with the patterns on the board. My mind wanders and it has always wandered. I had to teach myself to focus. Nowadays there is so much help that I simply did not have.

The lack of resources taught me a lot. It forced me to learn to focus and learn to engage other senses rather than just my visual sense. I did not know what I was doing. To me it was a simple thing: I have to do better. I would memorize content, I would repeat things over and over until they were second nature to me, and I learned to take notes. However once in college, I had to relearn all of this. Distractions got the best of me and my habits suffered.

Yet, one thing that never occurred to me was that if I was naturally inclined to doodle, sketching, and drawing, why not intertwine my writing or note taking with it? The space reserved for that doodling or sketching was on the back of my notebooks or as the book that bears the title, the back of a napkin. I saw my ability as a way to escape things not as a way to process things or think through them. And this is where I think the problem in  education lies.

We tend to look at sketching as a stepchild of writing and the thinking process. As the lesser child or the black sheep that does not belong in a history lecture or any other kind of lecture. But what if it wasn’t? What if sketching and writing are actually ways to think and communicate that can actually help each other?

Some years ago I gave a talk at SECAC titled The Mindful Designer. In it I argued that sketching as opposed to writing gave us a more immediate and tangible common ground in communication with others. Take this example, a ball. Think of it. Take a moment. Don’t read on until you think of a ball!

What did you think about? Which one of these balls came to mind?

© Alma Hoffmann, 2017


Words free your mind and with good reason. You can imagine, think, and make connections that may or may not have been there before. But when I give you a sketch like this one below, you know exactly which ball we are talking about, right?

© Alma Hoffmann, 2017

Yes, I can show a picture but how likely is it that I will have that precise image with me? A sketch however, will convey an idea quickly and cheaper. Or what if in the lecture there is a lengthy description of a moment in history? Would it be easier to write it all down or to quickly jot down a sketch with notes?

While taking classes to prepare to go grad school, I took a History of Graphic Design class. The class relied on slides in a dark classroom. The professor, Alan Mickelson, would explain and talk about these slides. I loved the class. But to memorize the slides, I would quickly sketch them and make notes around them. I would remember the slides in the exams and would ace them. Eventually some of my classmates started studying with me. But see, my ability to remember the art work on each slide relied on that combination of sketches with notes. I could then see that slide in my mind. This was, however, a lesson I would had to relearn years later. And I am glad I did.

Perhaps not everybody can draw something eloquently or sophisticated. But everybody can do simple marks in which an object is created, albeit rustic or primitive looking. The idea to attach meaning to a shape is not a new device. Memory experts do it. They create spaces within a mental journey in their minds. In each space there may be an object of significance or an area where they “pick up” a term, a name, a to do list, or a speech. I do this but with my slides. Each slide in a presentation I give is attached to a thought or idea that I will develop. And no, I don’t use cards. They confuse me.

I believe that if we allow students to draw in class, albeit with the condition that it should be about the class, they would remember more and better. Our minds can hold lots of data and process it. But like a house it needs keys to free them from the rooms in which they are stored. To be continued…