The role of drawing in Design Research

For my recent internship project at Stby, I researched the use of drawing and illustration to assist conversations with interview participants. This began as a way to turn my passion for drawing into a useful research method that can complement traditional interview techniques.

Previous research by Craik and Lockhart’s on rehearsal memory (The levels of processing model*), found that people remember things they do repeatedly in a literal way. This is called rehearsal, a way for the brain to save energy so that we have the answers to frequent questions readily available. This rehearsal effect can be a tricky thing to navigate in an interview, because the answers given might reflect something this person has saved up over time, and it might not be the actual representation of their experience in the particular situation that we ask them about. This might for example happen in situations where we ask a seasoned professional about something they talk about a lot. 

By asking participants to formulate their answers in a visual way, using another part of their brain, we might get them to rethink their story in a way that makes their answers more accurate and representative.

I guess I do think about it in this sort of way, interesting!

Why drawing?

As a design student, I have always been interested in drawing and artmaking. These passions of mine have been put to good use during my internship at Stby, and the opportunity to explore this further in my research project felt like a perfect fit!

I first began by looking into the science behind drawing and the benefits it holds for us. I found several studies about this, and they all suggested that there are significant positive benefits to it. Existing academic research indicates that regularly being creative strengthens the connective tissue in your brain. This improves the communication between different parts of the brain and increases people’s problem-solving abilities.

Drawing and other forms of artmaking have also been proven to reduce cortisol levels (up to 30%), commonly known as the stress hormone. It also can help people process emotions and improve their ability to memorise information.

All of these scientific research findings made me think that it would be a shame not to utilise these benefits in some way in design research, as it may help us and our participants. 

How I set up the research

With this in mind, I constructed a test research study using drawing. I wanted to see if this could help stimulate participants’ brains in alternative ways in order to access new information that might not come out in a traditional interview setting. Drawing is an accessible tool because nearly everyone has at least doodled a few lines and circles in their life.

I wanted to stimulate people’s creative minds in the most effective way, but I did not want to throw them in the deep end. Therefore, I shaped the interview by putting limits such as time constraints and a distinction of when they should draw and when they should talk.

I used this study to explore the question, ‘How does A Lab affect our work?’ I conducted six interviews with individuals from different studios within A Lab (our office building in Amsterdam) – an environment that houses multiple creative studios and serves as a community for inspiration. The participants I interviewed came from a variety of studios, and, together, we explored their experiences working in this space through drawing.

The interviews, each lasting half an hour, included five main questions. Participants were asked to illustrate their answers, followed by a conversation about their drawings. The questions focused on their feelings about A Lab’s environment, their perspectives on studio dynamics, and their sources of inspiration. In their drawings, the participants were free to express themselves in whatever way they chose, within the limits of the available materials (coloured markers and paper).

What I noticed while conducting the drawing interviews

There was a common consensus in the interviews that “the method was very fun to do”, and the participants felt at ease during the process. 

Here are a few other interesting findings I gathered while conducting these interviews:

  • Answering the given question verbally during the drawing process resulted in shorter, more simplified answers. This could mean they first accessed the part of the brain that verbalised their original response to draw this answer while speaking it out. 
  • Drawing as a research method was an enjoyable experience for participants.
  • Participants focused on their drawings and were not distracted by the interviewer.
  • Participants who drew their answers in an abstract way gave more in-depth explanations. For example, one participant drew their feelings about a particular topic as an abstract shape and had to elaborate on what it meant; this resulted in a more in-depth explanation, compared to other participants who drew their answers more literally.
  • Participants tended to stick with the drawing system/style they started with.
  • Drawing sometimes caused participants to come up with answers they did not expect. “I guess I do think about it in this sort of way, interesting!” 
  • Asking participants about their use of colour across different questions made them reanalyse their answers. Most participants used the same colours without giving it any thought. 
  • Participants felt at ease during the drawing exercise, which allowed them to open up.
  • Although the results were quite diverse in terms of drawing style, the answers given were always well thought through. This could mean they first accessed the part of the brain that verbalised their original response to draw this answer while speaking it out. 
A collage of the participant drawings

In conducting these interviews, I stumbled upon some things that held me back. I would keep the following learnings in mind for the next time:

  1. It’s essential to keep the conversation and the drawing separated if you wish to get the most out of each part.
  2. It is good practice to put a time constraint on the participants so they cannot spend indefinite time on their answers. This removes the need to create something nice and gives them an excuse to be loose and free with their drawing.
  3. When participants draw abstract answers, they tend to give more in-depth explanations. Depending on the research goal and target group, applying a constraint on abstract/literal drawings might be helpful.

Huib Wezenaar

*Lockhart, R. S., & Craik, F. I. (1990). Levels of processing: A retrospective commentary on a framework for memory research. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 44(1), 87.