Design Thinking is the Story

by Nancy Fowler

Solving a design problem by visualizing it in your head while simultaneously sketching it takes a lot of concentration, especially for a student just learning the craft. So imagine doing all that while also explaining it out loud to the whole class.

The process may sound intimidating, but Mike Keller, ’00, assistant professor of interior design, believes it helps students come up with creative, more effective solutions. The method Keller calls “Live Drawing with Narration” began to take root as he worked with a student who was struggling with a project.

“I said, ‘Let’s get through this together,’” Keller remembered. At issue was the backdrop of a reception area. How should it be assembled? First Keller drew, and then the student ended up drawing as they talked it through.

“We figured out that it could be prefabricated, not piece by piece, because that would be flimsy, hard to build and very costly,” Keller said. “We realized together, ‘This makes a lot of sense.’”

Keller began to integrate Live Drawing with Narration into the curriculum of his interior design classes at Maryville, a decision that has led to many “a-ha” moments. Recently, a student was sketching and describing aloud a glass front building. The activity led her to solve the pressing problem of where to hide a radiant heater in a transparent display.

“In this way, the process starts to work like a forensic tool,” Keller said. “She began to see where to put the heater so that it would be invisible on the outside.”

Many students are understandably apprehensive about drawing while talking. “You take a position of authority when you stand up in front of the class,” Keller explained. “If you grab a pen and you start to draw, it seems to say, ‘I know what this is and I’m going to share it with you.’ It builds trust.”

This semester, Keller is experimenting with a different — and perhaps less formidable — twist on Live Drawing: placing students in an office-type setting in which they sketch an idea on an iPad and project it onto a larger screen. “This way, they’re not standing up in front of the class but they’re still leading the discussion,” he said.

When it’s time for students to enter an actual workplace, they will have a leg up with the technique in their toolbox, Keller said. He believes sketching a design and revising it in real time can help convince a boss or client that you’re onto something. “If you just say your idea, people can more easily shut it down,” Keller said. “But if you start to put a drawing or some sort of sketch to it, people are going to take a little bit more time with it and it’s harder for them to deny the idea.”

In addition to its practical applications, Live Drawing with Narration builds confidence and communication skills that students will take with them into the professional realm, Keller said. “It helps them with sharing their ideas,” he said. “And that’s what the profession of design is about: sharing those ideas and selling them effectively to others.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Maryville Magazine

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