The power of Making what you can Imagine


by Erin Riley -

Several years ago while while teaching an upper level drawing class I noticed that some of my students were struggling to understand 3D space on the 2D drawing plane.  In an effort to help these and future students, I reimagined a way of keeping track of studio projects based on where they might be organized by their 2D-3D “ness” on a spectrum, and identifying the sorts of visualization that would be involved as they cross into other spatial forms.  My notes, part curriculum development, part brainstorm, part webbing structure, took the form of mind maps and at the time helped to organize my ideas. This set into place a way of thinking about art, design and making activities that I use in the Engineering and Design Lab and art studio today.

Student orthographic projection 

The Mind's Eye

Moving back and forth between 2D and 3D approaches encourages mental visualization and strengthens spatial skills. Providing opportunities to practice translating mental imagery into the physical world empowers makers.  An architecture student might undergo this process, accessing the idea in two dimensions by drawing a quick sketch of a structure and developing the visual idea to include floor plans, elevations, cross sections and linear perspective renderings.  Eventually the idea is brought into the physical world through the creation of a 3D model.  The student utilizes mental visualization moving from 2D to 3D representation first by drawing then with physical construction to execute a design idea. A reverse approach is used in a project designed for Middle School students titled, “Think like an architect, Draw like an engineer”.

A recent lab project used a 3D entry point as students prototyped iPhone amplifier designs out of foam, cardboard and recyclable materials.  The prototypes were tested for amplification.  Before moving onto a sketch, students had to translate their design idea into a second prototype using flat material stacked and configured.  The material had to be easy to cut build with.  Stale toast was our choice for this design challenge!  Moving from 3D to 2D, students drew up plans of their designs, considering how each layer would register to create a three dimensional object.  They redrew their flat designs in Illustrator and these design files were compiled and cut on the CNC router.  The final stage in this project brought the design back to the 3D world as students constructed their amplifiers.  The sequence as follows: 3D prototype→ 3D stacking prototype→ 3D drawing plan→ 2D design plan as a drawing→ 2D vector drawing→ 3D construction.

Linking the Eye, Hand and Mind

It’s standard teaching practice in the art field to describe the act of drawing as an exercise in linking the eye to the hand.  Adding the mind to the mix gives makers access to mental imagery as well.  Drawing is a visual language that unlocks student power to bring their ideas into the physical world.  The beauty is, the ideas do not have to be practical, functional or realistic.  Like Leonardo and his inventions, many of which were precursors to modern designs, students can stretch their imaginations outside of the boundaries of the physical world and imagine what could be possible tomorrow.  

To what end is all of this hard mental work of visualization and representing?  STEM folks might say “It’s essential to engineering.”  Art folks might say “It’s essential to self-expression.” Whether you are couching this question in the context engineering design or hatching an idea untethered to function, we may simply want to frame it as essential to making.





Sylvia Martinez's picture

Argh, the blog just ate my comment!

Well, what I was trying to say is that this post reminded me of a time in middle school when they taught us perspective drawing. What a revelation! There were RULES! I always thought that my friends who could draw were just artists, and I wasn't. Just like I could do math and they were always confused. I think we send these signals to kids even when we don't intend to.

But making is the answer! I know that "growth mindset" is all the rage, and while I appreciate the sentiment, I worry that a lot of the outcome is adults telling kids they can learn stuff. I think the DO is what's important, and helping kids connect the dots of what they DO to what they CAN DO.