How drawing helps you think | Ralph Ammer | TEDxTUM

How drawing helps you think | Ralph Ammer | TEDxTUM

Translator: Rosa Baranda
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Whenever we draw something, we ask ourselves painful questions, such as, ‘Is this drawing good?’ ‘Am I talented?’ or worst of all, ‘Is this art?’ And that leads many of us to say, ‘Well, this doesn’t look like art.
I’m not an artist anyway. I can’t draw, and I shouldn’t do it.’ We would never do that with language. No one would say, ‘Well, this just didn’t come out
like a poem. I shouldn’t speak.’ (Laughter) Because we know
language is a way to think and get in touch with others. Well, and so is drawing. We’ve put drawing into
this dark corner of the art world. But drawing is not only
about artistic excellence, personal self-expression,
or talent for that matter. Drawing is not about art. Drawing is bigger than art. It is a way to think in pictures – like an architect does
when she tries to imagine a new building, or a scientist who tries to figure out
the spatial structure of molecules. These people are not
only thinking in words; they are also thinking in pictures. The think visually. You can do that too. And today I want to show you five ways how drawing can support
your visual thinking. Let’s get to the first one, intuition. When we want to get better at drawing,
the first thing we might want to do is improve the connection
between our hands and our eyes. And we can do that
with little exercises like this one, where we just fill
a piece of paper with circles. We start with bigger ones
and gradually fill up the whole space. And exercises like these are
physical workouts for our hands. So they might get
a little tense now and then, but the stronger our hands become, the better we can control them to draw. Repetitive exercises like these
also have a soothing effect on our minds. We have to focus intentionally
on our visual sense. So they bore other parts of our thinking, bore them in the best sense of the word. They bore our restless
thoughts and worries and make room for a more
intuitive visual mindset. And in this intuitive mindset,
we can see beautiful things. Because, you know,
seeing beauty is not that easy. The problem is
there are just too many things. We can’t see everything –
it would be too exhausting – so we have to reduce the amount
of information that we take in, and we try to see patterns and order. We also see less. Now, without turning around,
ask yourselves, What is the person behind you wearing? How many trees did you see in front of
this building when you came in? We don’t pay attention to these things,
because we don’t have to. It’s much easier to just recognize things
around us instead of actually looking. We don’t care how many
leaves are on a tree or how its branches are shaped, (Laughter) all we need to do is identify the tree
so we don’t run into it. We reduce the world to labels. But when we draw, we actually have to look
and discover the world around us. The labels disappear, and we see
what is actually there, right now. We situate ourselves in the world. And because we pay such
intense attention to what is around us, it becomes a part of us. So when I think back
of this beautiful French small town where I spent last summer, I can remember many beautiful details. Because I spent the time
and the effort to look and draw them. So I stored those memories
in my mind and not on my camera. Now, you might say, ‘Okay, I want
to discover beautiful things too; I’m going to draw one of those plants.’ And the drawing should look
something like this. So you give it a go, but your drawing might turn out
more something like that. (Laughter) What’s going on here? The problem is we tend to draw
what we already know, and not what we see. Here is a little trick, how you can
switch off what you know. Instead of drawing an object, let’s focus on the spaces
between the object and draw those. Because when there’s nothing
to recognize for our rational mind, like the leaves or the buds of the plant, it’s easier for us to actually
observe the forms in front of us. And when we make observations like these, we can discover extraordinary beauty
in ordinary things. Because we don’t find beauty; we make the world beautiful
by paying attention. Okay, so we know how to get
into an intuitive visual mindset and how to draw what we see. Can we also draw what we cannot see, like our thoughts or emotions? We first have to understand
that the way we see the world and, as a consequence,
the way how we see images has been shaped by evolution. Over millions of years, our surroundings
have taught us how to perceive the world. Gravity, for instance,
is very important for us, so we’re very sensitive
to horizontal and vertical lines. Horizontal lines seem to be
stable and resting, like the ground. Vertical lines
are in opposition to gravity, as you can see in a standing person
or a growing plant. Both horizontal and vertical lines
seem to be relatively stable for us. Diagonals are a whole different story. They make us a little uneasy: ‘Is this thing going to
stand up or tip over?’ And it is visual habits like these that are the foundation
of our visual language. Now, when I use the term language,
I’m using it as a metaphor here. Shapes are very different from words; you can’t look up what
a shape means in a dictionary. And we don’t build sentences,
but we build compositions of shapes – compositions that mean something. Here’s something you can try. Pick any subject,
like this ladybug, for instance, and arrange it in different ways
on a piece of paper. Now, observe how
the position of the subject changes what the composition says. Each of these arrangements prompts us
to think differently about the ladybug – as a threatening monster, a lover, or maybe someone who got lost. And if you learn compositions like these, if you learn how to use
different lines and shapes, then we can draw things
that you can’t see. For instance, I made it a habit
to draw my thoughts everyday. In fact I have a rule: if I can’t draw something,
then I probably haven’t understood it yet. So I make little sketches, like this one,
where I was trying to figure out what’s going on in my mind
when I focus on something. Or this one, where I was wondering about the relationship between
the shapes of our everyday objects and the shapes of our hands. This was about two different sorts
of conversations that two people can have. And here I was thinking
about rhythms and language and other types of communication. So over time I’ve gathered
many, many of these sketches, and they give me an overview
of my thoughts about the world. And I can also rearrange
these drawings and see connections. So drawing can also help us to understand. Okay, so we know how to get
into an intuitive mindset, how to discover beauty with drawings, how to draw things that are invisible. What can we do with this? Well, we can imagine something new,
something that isn’t there yet. At the core of creativity are ideas. What is an idea? I like to think of ideas
as two thoughts or more that we have and that somehow magically combine
in our heads and shape something new. And of course, the more thoughts and knowledge
we have about what already is, the likelier are the chances
that some of those thoughts might combine into something
that could be. Creativity really is all about quantity. Let me give you an example. Let’s assume for a minute
that you share my passion for pottery, and you want to come up with a new cup. If you know how to draw things, then you have a visual
representation in your mind, and you can combine those,
you can work with those. Let’s say you are into football,
and you want to imagine a world cup. You can easily imagine it vividly. All you have to do now is draw it. Or let’s say you feel a little grumpy today, and you want an angry cup. Or … you might have a friend
who likes things very orderly. You might come up
with a very precise cup for her. And this type of visual thinking
is very powerful because you can imagine something
without having to make it. So, this is very useful in the first part
of your creative process, where you try to come up with as many
ideas as possible, even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones. We don’t judge in this part
of the creative process. And then in the second part, when we narrow things down
to find out a viable solution, a stupid idea from before might turn out as just
the right birthday present for a friend. And you can apply this way of
visual thinking to all sorts of problems. Because creativity
really is like breathing: you take in information and knowledge, and you combine it
to new ideas that you made. And if you know
how to draw what you think, then you have a powerful support
for this process. You can also share
those new ideas with others, in texts or in presentations. Language is probably the most powerful tool
we have to communicate, and yet it has its limits. One problem with
written words, for instance, is you have to go through them
line by line, word by word to know what they say. And as soon as you have,
those words quickly disappear and vanish into a grey texture again. It is hard for us to anchor
words in our minds, and drawings can help make them stick. Let’s go back to how
we use words as labels. I want you to close your eyes
for a second and imagine a tree. Imagine a tree. Got it? Okay. Did your tree, or does
your tree, look like this? Or like this? Or maybe even like that? Probably not. I bet each and everyone of you
has a different tree in mind right now. Because the word tree is a public
placeholder for all sorts of trees. Now, you could say,
‘Okay, these imaginations, these personal imaginations that we have
are different for everyone of us, so they’re useless for communication. We should focus on the word,
the common ground.’ And I would say,
‘If we do that, we’re missing out.’ The problem with words
and why it’s so hard to anchor them is it’s hard to relate them
to personal experiences. Now, a drawing can build a bridge between the personal experience of a tree
and the abstract expression of it – the word, the conventional word. And it’s crucial that this drawing
is unconventional, specific, and personal. Let’s have a look at a very conventional
illustration of an idea first that keeps haunting flip charts
all over the world: the light bulb. I would argue the light bulb
is very much on the conventional side. It’s a mere substitute for word. So it doesn’t add
any nutritional value, really. If, on the other hand, we have
a specific personal illustration, then that can supplement
what we say with our words. So if you want to convey
an idea with your words, you can help make it stick
with an image or a drawing. And the fact that this drawing
is very personal is not a problem; this is actually where its power lies. Because you can lead other people
through your personal expression to connect them and understand
your general ideas. And for that to happen, these drawings
have to be as original as our words. Okay, these are just five ways how drawing can support your thinking: it can ignite our intuition, make our lives more beautiful, help us understand, imagine new things,
and share them with others. If you make drawing a daily habit, it will be a dramatic
improvement for your thinking. And please remember: Our drawings do not have
to be pieces of art. If they help us to think
and connect with others, they are good enough. Thank you. (Applause)

9 thoughts on “How drawing helps you think | Ralph Ammer | TEDxTUM

  1. Daily drawing-
    Just maybe

    I can change my actual health.
    Thanks for sharing on TED.

    I am disabled mentally.
    Able to picture only faint mental images
    Slow “Visual Processing”
    Deplorable memory.
    No longer employable at 42 years.

    Gonna take up this challenge with commitment –
    Buy a sketchbook and journal the progress-
    Doodle in every waiting room-
    THESE faint mental images ARE going down on PAPER!

    “How drawing helps you think.” Inspiring.

  2. I had – some time ago – realized that I (my brain) prefers to think/work in pictures. – especially when I`m learning something.

    I find that really interesting, because that it's not how education is done here where I live. The education system is (almost) solely based on using the left side of the brain.

    To me it feels like I can remember many things per imagined "picture", so books don't really works great with me – unless of course there are many drawings/illustrations/pictures with explanatory text. In software development – source code counts as a picture after I had read it
    Multiplying that with the : Humans can have from 3 to 7 things in their mind – is probably the reason why I – in software architecture, and SW design – are so many "steps" ahead in solving a solving complex problems compared to everyone else.

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