The Computer Can’t Think

Originally published in "Why Don’t Designers Draw?," Dexter Ward, editor; The Caseroom Press, London, 2007

When first approached to contribute to the discussion of “Why Designers Don’t Draw,” I must admit I was a bit mystified—a bit stymied—as to how to respond. I wondered, “To which designers could they possibly be referring? All of the designers (and design students) I know do draw. The notion that designers don’t draw anymore seemed as absurd to me as a salmon not knowing how to swim upstream.

O.K. I understand the premise—and let’s get this right out on the table: with the advent of computers—and their ubiquitous use in our industry—current design students are more likely to jump on a computer instead of drawing by hand as a means of expressing their ideas and making images.

In some places, this may be the case, but I see drawing happening all around me much of the time. My kids (ages 9 and 12) draw often. Like the drawings of other children, the images my children create are more of the “imaginative” sort—scenes and scenarios from their inquisitive, inventive minds. In fact, just today they were thrilled that I brought home some mechanical pencils with a 0.9 mil. lead, tools that would afford them a thicker line quality, more like that of a #2 pencil.

Likewise, all my design students have to draw as a required part of every assignment. I suppose here I should parse the meaning of how I interpret the term “drawing.” Obviously, many forms of drawing exist, from life drawing to figure drawing, to the imaginative drawings my kids make “out of their heads,” to thumbnail drawings. When I say my design students have to draw, I mean they are required to make thumbnail sketches before starting any project. Strike that. I actually insist that my students first approach the design brief by thinking about the subject matter, gathering information and doing good old-fashioned research. Once they have immersed themselves in the research and thought process, then I require them to do thumbnail sketches as a way to visualize their ideas. When they have come up with something worth discussing and critiquing, we have an open brainstorming session about the ideas they have presented in some visual form. Then and only then do I “allow” them to “get on the computer” as a means of producing their ideas.

To think that students don’t draw anymore is, I believe, naive. Do students generally want to “jump on the computer” right from the get-go? Sure, as a design teacher, I see this happen frequently. This is what I call the “rookie mistake” of trying to avoid the thinking process, of trying to avoid the very difficult work of coming up with ideas and concepts to solve the assigned problem. This is the students’ attempt at trying to avoid the “heavy lifting,” so when I see a student getting on the computer before he/she has thoroughly invested the time necessary to come up with ideas, I simply throw them off. Why? For the simple reason that the computer can’t think.

When my students resist and say “But I can’t draw very well,” I reply, “This may very well be true.” I explain that their thumbnail sketches don’t need to be a Picasso, an Eakins, a Leonardo, or a Giacometti. (My personal favorite draughtsman is Alberto Giacometti—to whom I was introduced in college by one of my Drawing teachers. He is my favorite because he was evidently not afraid to show his searching for a line in his drawings.) Students’ sketches need to be drawn well enough to express the ideas they have been thinking about, and in order to have a discussion about the work. And, yes, sometimes students need to be forced not to avoid this activity on their way to making something.

Drawing is not easy. Like most other things worth doing, drawing is a discipline that requires practice just like any other discipline, whether it be dance or music or playing tennis. If one does not practice, it is very difficult to get any better. Sure, some may be born with an innate talent that enables them to draw extremely well. For the rest of us, we need to practice this discipline to get better at it, and designers certainly need to draw well enough to communicate their ideas effectively.

I still have my design students drawing type in Typography course in an effort to help them better understand the shapes and forms that make up the individual letterforms. Of course, these students are also using the computers as a way to explore the realm of Typography—but they still do some drawing of letterforms. Interestingly enough, I am also seeing some designers and design students “hand draw” their typography, searching for a more hand-done effect as a different approach to the banal, “computer-generated” type that these days—with the omnipresence of the computer—is all around us. In these cases, students realize that sometimes it might be better to get “off the computer” to produce something interesting or special.

Usually, when I tell a non-designer what I do for a living, the initial reaction is likely to be, “Oh, you work on computers.” I reply that, “Yes, I do work on computers” (much like the rest of us). But I am quick to add that my projects start the same way they always have (even when I was a young design student)—with research and information gathering. I start my work with digging deeply into the subject matter at hand. Once I have a solid enough foundation of information on a particular subject, then I can begin my working process with conceptualizing ideas and concepts and drawing. I try to get “the thoughts and ideas that are rattling around in my head down on paper” to begin to give them visual form. This is usually done by a variety of drawing, writing, and/or brainstorming. Sometimes this is sketching, sometimes writing down words or phrases, and sometimes brainstorming with lists of ideas.

For designers, the very activity of drawing is a way for us to think, to begin to make sense of the project or problem we are faced with. It permits us to give visual form to the myriad of ideas and possibilities that we may be thinking about. It is the way we are/were trained to get our ideas onto paper. And, at times, drawing is a way for us to express ourselves and to record what is going on around us. My point here is that drawing, in some way or another, is an integral part of what a designer does to conceptualize ideas.

Like most of us who call ourselves designers, we ended up in this profession, because at some point (usually as a young child), we “liked to draw” and/or “were good at art class.” And judging from my students, this is still the case. I do believe drawing is a natural activity, and perhaps one for which we were “hard-wired.” Honestly, I can’t imagine being a designer and not drawing.

Perhaps with the proliferation of computers and new technology, as design teachers we might need to invent opportunities in which our students still do draw. For example, for the past several years my University has been offering a design elective course over the winter break, a short-term study abroad course in the Dominican Republic, a relatively small, still developing country in the Caribbean. We use the facilities of the Altos de Chavon School of Design (La Escuela de Diseño) in La Romana, Dominican Republic. The school has been billed as one of the “finest art schools in the Caribbean,” and one look around indicates why. The student work displayed all over the school is magnificent, especially the drawing.

We use the facilities—basically a drawing studio space—to set up what we have called “a studio in the field.” At the beginning of the two-week course, and as a way to get acclimated to their new setting, we require students to go outside into the beautiful Caribbean surroundings to draw. Drawing (especially from nature) is about seeing, observing, and then trying to record these observations. Back home, most of the students normally sit in front of the computers and don’t draw enough. As a way to address this, we purposely insist that they draw as an integral part of this coursework.

In addition to drawing activities, in an effort to study the intense, bright color palette of the Caribbean, students make small color studies utilizing found objects (flora including flowers and leaves) from their newfound environs. Last year we also used an old etching press to make monoprints as a further way for the students to draw and experiment with image-making. Some of them had never done any printmaking before and it was an exciting new process for them. In addition, with the assistance of another guest instructor, we had an opportunity to participate in a figure drawing class. Most of the students hadn’t done any figure drawing since their foundation year (even I had not done any since my college days).

We do bring a few laptop computers, but we never could bring enough computers for each student to have his/her own (in fact, students were allowed to use the computers merely to download their digital photographs). As faculty, we began to realize that it might be better to gear the assignments to be produced entirely without the computers, so last year we purposely ran the coursework much more “off the computer” than on.

From the accounts of the students, they found it very refreshing to work this way and not to be tethered to the computers all of the time (like they think they are back home). They loved being “off the computer.” As a teacher, it was a wonderful experience to open up the world of possibilities to them and to have them work in fresh, new ways. The challenge is to open up their minds to new ways of working and for them to accept that there are other ways of making work besides sitting in front of a computer.

I recently asked a current group of my students what year they were born. Most of them replied that they were born in 1985. I then asked if they could name a significant event that happened in the year of their birth. I soon realized my question was too far reaching, and then narrowed it down to a significant event that changed their soon-to-be profession dramatically. What I was attempting to get at was that in the year they were born (or close to it), personal computers started to be used in our industry. Like ripe fruit from a tree, computers dropped onto our desks around 1985, and most of them came from a company called “Apple.” This phenomenon not only changed the way we produced our work, but subsequently has changed the way that all of us actually live our lives.

Ever since that time, we (the graphic design industry) have been trying to figure out ways to deal with, to adapt to, to make sense of, this “new-fangled” technology that has revolutionized the way we produce our work. In the late 1980s, a sense of dread was omnipresent in our profession. Now that the curtain was revealed, clients were going to know how we did what we did (the proverbial “cat was out of the bag”). Clients were also working with computers and they were becoming familiar with terms that heretofore were exclusive to our domain alone such as use of “fonts,” use of color and imagery, etc. The graphic design industry was up-in-arms about “desktop publishing.” How many times did we hear that “now the secretary was going to be doing the newsletter or company bulletin” that once was produced by a graphic designer? Designers were fearful that projects to which they alone had access were going to be done “in-house” by the “untrained” secretaries of the world. The whole profession was going to go to Hell in a handbasket!

Well, obviously, this didn’t happen. There were probably projects the secretary was meant to do all along (if he/she only knew how to do it). And then there were other projects either so complex or so important that they required the skill and knowledge of a trained practitioner. Did this sound the death knell of the graphic design industry? I think not. Last time I checked, there were still scores of people practicing this profession today, and from what I can tell, I don’t see this changing any time soon as our profession still remains attractive to young people. In her presentation, “The Landscape of Graphic Design Education” (presented at the Schools of Thoughts II., AIGA Design Education Conference in Los Angeles, CA March, 2005), Meredith Davis, North Carolina State University Professor and Director of Graduate Programs, noted that with the recent increased number of graphic design programs in the United States, there are in excess of approximately 43,000 new design graduates each year attempting to enter the work force. What all of these “wannabe” graphic designers will wind up doing—and the oversaturation of our industry—could be the subject of a whole other article.

In addition, due to the invention—and overwhelming use—of the computer, entire industries no longer exist. Typesetters are surely a thing of the past (their role having been assumed by us graphic designers), much like “service bureaus” (relatively small companies that would make high-end camera ready artwork for reproduction or output pages to color copies). But is this any different than at other times in history when a new technology, or new way of doing things, has changed our industry? As an example, the invention of photo-mechanical processes and the changes they wrought completely transformed the printing industries. On the other hand, one could argue there now exist brand new industries previously unheard of—not yet even thought of—back in those early days of the computer (e.g., the internet, web design, interactivity and other related digital activities). But this too, could be a whole separate article.

During this time of uncertainty about how best to adapt to this new technology, we also heard time and again the adage that “the computer is only a tool, just like the pencil.” And further, that the computer can’t think. When I turned on my computer to begin to write this article this was still the case. And even when the time comes that I decide to acquire the technology to simply dictate to my machine what I am thinking (and the computer will do the typing for me—Oh, how I wish!), the computer as a tool will never be able to think—at least, I don’t think so.

The computer has become a very productive tool to help visualize ideas and thoughts that we as designers decide to make. Obviously, computers help us to produce our work, making many variations of any particular design possible in a very short amount of time. Tasks that used to take many hours to do, can now be accomplished in a fraction of the time. But even before there were computers, there were still designers thinking and drawing and sketching as a means of expressing themselves and to solve graphic design communication problems. Just because the computer can help us produce our work perhaps faster than before, doesn’t mean that we should abandon drawing as a very important, and necessary, activity and approach to making our work.