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Mental Images and the Design Process

How might we use our individual differences to our advantage in creative work?

Throughout my years of studying design, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the design process. We were taught different models of the design process and an array of methods and tools to be used during each of its phases. When my friends and I learned about aphantasia towards the end of our bachelor studies, we began to wonder about mental images and the design process, and whether the vividness of our individual imaginations impact our design process.

Do you need mental images to be a designer?

I stumbled upon articles and videos discussing whether you need to be able to form mental images in order to be an artist or a writer. A few years later, this led me to want to answer the question from a designer’s perspective in my master studies. 

  • How do people with aphantasia design? 
  • Are mental images essential for a successful design practice? 
  • When and how do we use mental images throughout the phases of the design process? 
  • Do designers who find themselves on different points of the visual imagination spectrum work differently, using different tools? 
  • Can we benefit from each other’s individual methods?

Before I could talk about the impact mental images or their absence may have on the design process, I needed to find out how to talk about mental images in general. 

Exploring how designers talk about their mental experiences

I conducted a series of experiments, which are presented in another article I wrote entitled Visualizing the Invisible, to explore different ways of discussing and depicting mental images. For one of those experiments, I created a set of cards that aim to inspire conversations about mental images. I tested them with small groups of design students. During these test, it became apparent right away that there was a correlation between my participants’ way of thinking and visualizing and the design discipline they specialize in.

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All of my participants have a background in design, coming from the same course of study. However, most of them specialize in different fields. A few participants focus their work on film and photography. They described their mental images using words like “camera angle”, “camera movement”, “setting”, “perspective”, and “studio”. They sometimes compared the process of modifying the images in their mind to editing images in photo editing software:

“It’s like taking a picture with a camera. It’s static and can’t be changed or recreated. To change something about it, I would have to open it in Photoshop.”
“I visualize the seashell like a photograph, with landscape and depth of field, as if I took a picture with a telephoto lens. […] The shell’s size is defined by the camera setting. […] If I zoom in, the background will get blurrier.”

A participant who works with collages described her way of thinking as “collage-like”. Another person, who does classic graphic design and enjoys simple two-dimensional illustrations, mentioned how bad she was at spatial thinking. Meanwhile, the group’s product designers were talking about “material”, “exploded view drawings” or 3D modeling software:

“I can visualize the process of extruding parts of the shell, like working on a model in Blender.”
“The shell’s haptics are important to me. […] I can feel the exact surface and how it is giving depth to my image.”

At some point, all the participants noticed the correlation between their work and their thinking style. They began discussing whether it’s their software that influences their visual imagination or their imagination dictating the media they choose to work with. They concluded that a mutual impact must exist.

I can’t design without my visual imagination

I lean towards the hyperphantasic end of the visual imagination spectrum. After doing this research, I began reflecting on my own use of mental images throughout my design process and how my work might depend on them.

When I receive a briefing for a new project, images of possible results immediately pop up in my mind. I never sketch to come up with ideas; I only make sketches with the intention of capturing ideas I have already formed in my head. While translating my idea into a design, I mentally visualize the result of every single step before its execution. I update my mental image according to the work I see in front of me, just like I create the work according to my imagination. I personally cannot imagine designing without my mental images since I am not able to pause their constant generation. 

I use mental images in all phases of the process, although I may not need them. This led me to wonder: Which design phases rely on mental images and where may people without the ability to visualize encounter problems? 

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Interviewing aphantasic and hyperphantasic designers

As a next step, I interviewed aphantasic and hyperphantasic designers whose insights confirmed my assumptions. 

My aphantasic interview partners rarely sketch and feel like they cannot translate their abstract imagination into pictures. Therefore, they prefer working on abstract or conceptual projects. My hyperphantasic interview partner generates clear mental images and only sketches them for precision or to communicate his ideas to others. Otherwise, he views sketching as a waste of time. 

My hyperphantasic interview partner noticed early in school that his imagination seemed to be more vivid than those of his peers, while the aphantasic designers I interviewed only found out about their inability to visualize during their bachelor studies. All of them are glad to have not discovered their aphantasia sooner, assuming that they might have chosen a different career path out of the fear of not being creative enough. They don’t feel at all restricted by their lack of visual imagination and are, compared to other designers, less inclined to hold onto the first idea that pops into their head. Additionally, they observed no differences as compared to other designers with regards to the amount of time or help they need to finish a project. On the other hand, the hyperphantasic designer says his vivid imagination causes an obsession with details that often leads him to spend more time on a project than he should. 

One of my aphantasic interview partners even created her own design tool that generates unexpected images to serve as a starting point for new projects – doing what she cannot do in her mind. Similar to that, another designer with weak mental imagery told me in of my experiments: 

“I mostly work digitally and, if possible, with immediate visual feedback, e.g. by working with node systems. It helps me to see and understand what is happening and why. I also like to work abstract and based on coincidences because I struggle to find concrete and realistic forms […]”

Designing with methods from aphantasic visual artists

This reminded me of the process of aphantasic artists. Throughout my project, I researched various methods that enable aphantasic visual artists to create work, e.g. by following rules and grids, working with their eyes closed, using found materials, or printing out/making copies of their work’s current state to physically draw on in search for new ideas. While I collected these methods during my conversations and interviews, I relied more heavily on the information I gathered from the  Extreme Imagination Conference 2021, in articles shared by the Aphantasia Network, and in the publication Extreme Imagination – inside the mind‘s eye

For my last experiment, I wanted to apply those methods from the field of art to the field of design. I gave designers with low to no mental imagery the task of designing a poster using the methods mentioned. 

When discussing their results, we found out that they did not only enjoy incorporating the methods into their process but already actively use some of them in their day-to-day work! 

Because this test was specifically geared towards designers with low to no mental imagery,  in the future, I want to repeat the test with designers with vivid mental imagery to see how the results differ.

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Mental images and the design process

Our design process is influenced by our imagination

To summarize my main findings: You do not need a vivid visual imagination to be a designer. However, the design process for those who do experience mental images is heavily impacted by them. 

On one hand, the type and quality of a designer’s mental images seem to determine the media they choose to express themselves as well as the tools and software they work with. On the other hand, the software designers use daily shapes the way their visual imagination functions which complements and sharpens their mental images. 

The describable differences I observed in the design work of people across the spectrum seem to be very individual and more dependent on a person’s imagination style than on the vividness of their visual imagination. Examining how we can embrace the way our individual imagination functions and how to use that function to our advantage in our design work  is much more interesting than questioning how people without mental imagery can design.

References

MacKisack, Matthew & Aldworth, Susan (eds.) (2018): Extreme Imagination – inside the mind‘s eye. Exeter: University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health 
Mental Images and the Design Process

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