How sketches work : a cognitive theory for improved system design
Evidence is presented that in the early stages of design or composition the mental processes used by artists for visual invention require a different type of support from those used for visualising a nearly complete object. Most research into machine visualisation has as its goal the production of realistic images which simulate the light pattern presented to the retina by real objects. In contrast sketch attributes preserve the results of cognitive processing which can be used interactively to amplify visual thought. The traditional attributes of sketches include many types of indeterminacy which may reflect the artist's need to be "vague". Drawing on contemporary theories of visual cognition and neuroscience this study discusses in detail the evidence for the following functions which are better served by rough sketches than by the very realistic imagery favoured in machine visualising systems. 1. Sketches are intermediate representational types which facilitate the mental translation between descriptive and depictive modes of representing visual thought. 2. Sketch attributes exploit automatic processes of perceptual retrieval and object recognition to improve the availability of tacit knowledge for visual invention. 3. Sketches are percept-image hybrids. The incomplete physical attributes of sketches elicit and stabilise a stream of super-imposed mental images which amplify inventive thought. 4. By segregating and isolating meaningful components of visual experience, sketches may assist the user to attend selectively to a limited part of a visual task, freeing otherwise over-loaded cognitive resources for visual thought. 5. Sequences of sketches and sketching acts support the short term episodic memory for cognitive actions. This assists creativity, providing voluntary control over highly practised mental processes which can otherwise become stereotyped. An attempt is made to unite the five hypothetical functions. Drawing on the Baddeley and Hitch model of working memory, it is speculated that the five functions may be related to a limited capacity monitoring mechanism which makes tacit visual knowledge explicitly available for conscious control and manipulation. It is suggested that the resources available to the human brain for imagining nonexistent objects are a cultural adaptation of visual mechanisms which evolved in early hominids for responding to confusing or incomplete stimuli from immediately present objects and events. Sketches are cultural inventions which artificially mimic aspects of such stimuli in order to capture these shared resources for the different purpose of imagining objects which do not yet exist. Finally the implications of the theory for the design of improved machine systems is discussed. The untidy attributes of traditional sketches are revealed to include cultural inventions which serve subtle cognitive functions. However traditional media have many short-comings which it should be possible to correct with new technology. Existing machine systems for sketching tend to imitate nonselectively the media bound properties of sketches without regard to the functions they serve. This may prove to be a mistake. It is concluded that new system designs are needed in which meaningfully structured data and specialised imagery amplify without interference or replacement the impressive but limited creative resources of the visual brain.