How to Draw a World, for the visualization-impaired

in design, musings

I think I’ve mentioned before that I believe I have a non-verbal learning disability. Self-diagnosed, but I don’t need to be a trained child psychologist to know that I’m unusually clumsy, get easily disoriented and confused in unfamiliar surroundings (I have some great stories about getting lost! and by great I mean they range from kind of terrifying to super-embarrassing-but-we-laugh-about-it-now), have a very poor visual memory but a great auditory memory, and trouble with non-verbal social cues. I can’t tell you about what my motor skills development was like when I was young, but I was definitely verbally precocious, and my social skills used to be lot worse than they are now. I also can remember having a lot of trouble understanding what the point of some stories were, even when I could easily read all the words.

So here I am trying to make my way as an interaction designer, which requires a certain proficiency with visual communication. I wouldn’t say that I have trouble coming up with design ideas, but sometimes you really need to be able to sketch them out in order to communicate them to someone else, and that can be a problem. And a whole lot of people like to write books about how everyone can draw, you just have to develop the right ways of seeing and stop being critical of yourself, practice until you get better, etc, etc. But I have yet to see a single piece of advice on drawing or sketching that addressed what I think of as my major obstacles: remembering what I see, and visualizing what I’ve never seen. I’ve taken art classes and made plenty of competent if not beautiful sketches of a thing that I could look at; looking at what’s in front of me and getting that on paper is not my problem. My problem is standing at a whiteboard trying to draw the visual form of something that is in my head as words and feelings and abstractions. My problem is trying to remember which way the lines of perspective go for a building and not realizing I’m wrong until I’ve produced something not just ugly but unrecognizable.

So I’m trying to develop my own kind of “learn to draw” system that focuses on improving my visual memory and getting to the point where I can reliably visualize and then produce simple, common shapes and items to build up a sketch of the kinds of things I’ll need to be able to draw. In the past two years I’ve filled a lot of sketchbook pages with funny-looking cartoon hands, let me tell you.

For the visual memory exercises, what I do is look for a photograph on flickr or something with high-contrast shapes and areas that I could recognizably reproduce in sketch form. I spend time studying the photograph, trying to take note of basic shapes, proportions, angles, that sort of thing. Then I look away from it and sketch what I can see of the photograph in my memory. Or at least, I’m hoping to work up to that. Right now what I do is I look away from the computer screen, draw a few lines, try to remember another area of the photograph and give up and look back. But I always leave a little time in between looking away and starting to draw, so that I’m never simultaneously drawing and referencing the image. One recent attempt began with emo pony, and produced this:

sketch of a miniature horse staring out at water

I’m also reading various “how to draw” books, but the usefulness of the advice to my situation varies. I know how to draw circles and squares and triangles, yes. I know it is possible to put them all together to make more complicated shapes. I know how to carefully study a thing in front of me and separate the shortcuts and tricks of my visual processing system from what the thing literally looks like, in order to accurately draw what’s there instead of what I think I see. None of this really helps if I need to draw a cat real quick and I can’t remember what a cat looks like well enough to decompose it into smaller shapes that another person would then also recognize as a cat. What I want is to develop a simplified, cartoon visual of a cat that I can remember and reproduce reliably. That’s where a book like Ed Emberley’s Make a World comes in. All of Ed Emberley’s drawing books consist of step-by-step instructions for building little cartoon objects out of simple shapes. And it’s not like all those how to draw books where they show you how to sketch in a bunch of circles and curvy lines and whatever and then ink in a ton of details and erase all the pencil lines. You know, like this:

With Ed, you just keep adding simple shapes until they all make up the final shape. And so far, it’s been fun! I can definitely follow the directions to sketch cute little cartoon cars and horses and chairs and stuff. And mostly, if I concentrate, I don’t screw it up too badly. Here’s what a couple days of going through the book and choosing objects to draw has produced:

a series of simple cartoon drawings

The next step I think will be making this approach to drawing something that I can replicate without having the book open in front of me. Which could be interesting, what with the poor visual memory and all. I might add it to my daily photo drawing exercise. Perhaps after I return the book to the library I’ll go back to the drawings I’ve made, choose one object, study the shapes that it’s made of and then try to recreate it without looking.

The next step after that of course is to be able to come up with my own simple cartoon versions of objects, just based on knowing a thing I want to draw. I’m not sure whether that is an achievable long-term goal or not. Feel free to reassure me on this point, but if you don’t know firsthand what it’s like to get lost on your way to a classroom that you successfully found the previous three weeks, you’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical.

If you do have an NVLD and want to tell me stories about how you managed to improve your visual memory and spatial reasoning skills, please do! Please.