Illustration: Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)
As the university semester comes to an end, the focus in our class is on tying strands of inquiry together in an in-class simulation exercise. This week the students received a one-page scenario “sketch.” Scenario practice typically involves multiple (completely contrasting and credulity-stretching) stories or sketches for the purposes of ‘rehearsing the future,” increasing agility of thinking and planning today, and enhancing readiness for the unexpected. We do this because our course focuses on unconventional problems which in turn require unconventional approaches to problem-solving, examined earlier on this blog as in here, here, and here. (The current relevance attached in some circles to the importance of becoming more aware of our decision-making processes, and impediments to solving the complex problems of today, can be seen in projects and events such as this upcoming presentation, “Missing the Slow Train: How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy and Collective Action” at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.)
But, our classroom process differs from standard scenario practice, though the goals remain similar. Having just considered case studies in the importance of “reframing the question” in order to design more effective problem-solving approaches to complex challenges, the students (who come from all over the world) have been given an intentionally unbounded rapidly-unfolding crisis situation in the form of a very sketchy sketch. This scenario is ambiguous in terms of ‘ownership’ or national or jurisdictional boundaries or even the exact facts on the ground (simulating reality). The students must even decide “who” they are in this simulation, in devising their plans by next week. Time is short, the situation completely unfamiliar, and two subgroups are working, respectively, in pre-crisis and post-crisis modes. Within these groups people must work together outside of their usual lanes and routines. There is no one in charge, at least initially. Usually the results are pretty impressive, surprising, and it’s a fun, albeit serious, way to end the semester. We all learn something in the process.
Sketching something imaginary?
We naturally start with sketches whether we are contemplating building a new deck on the house, designing a new organizational initiative, imagining something which we don’t see, or drawing a cartoon. Sketching has a role in seeing, as emphasized quite dramatically this very week (!) by a whole room devoted to sketching (complete with free sketchbooks and pencils) at the entrance to the National Gallery of the Art in Washington, D.C. So sketches can be something we draw, or practice (as on a stage,) or simulate in a classroom or a video game.
Photo: U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. taken by Black Elephant Blog author
Meanwhile a gorgeous Spring has provided the perfect palette to practice sketching in different media.
Illustration: Photo by Black Elephant Blog author
Toggling between so many sketch-able things has produced many “works-in-progress” and aspirations to finish them!
Illustration: Work -in-progress pastel sketch by Black Elephant Blog author
But each one is a step in a path towards hopefully something more polished. Sketching is also good for incubating ideas, sometimes over a period of many years, in notes, notebooks, doodles, and …sketches… awaiting a moment perhaps involving serendipity when well-honed ideas can finally be implemented. (Most of us know of people in history who, for various reasons (like survival) kept their own ideas and sketches hidden, like “The Origin of Species” written in the early 19th century, for a quarter of a century or more.)
Illustration: Work-in-progress watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author
It turns out, as many teachers have said over the past year, process matters if we are to make progress on tough challenges (whether in art, education, public health, or security matters) and create better outcomes. Complacency and routines can be deadly in this regard.
How curiously different is the world of artists from the world of those in many other professions. Artists must be original in order to have a chance at being successful, much as Georgia O’Keeffe was in adopting her various styles. But so many other professions discourage originality in part because it’s impossible to manage traditionally. As more and more challenges at the level of cities, regions, nations, and the world at large demand originality and creativity, traditional organizations are stumbling, although some are trying to adapt. It’s a tall order for most of them, but necessary. Would we better off if creativity and originality were emphasized, rather than stifled, beginning in primary school? One wonders. Meanwhile, it’s no wonder sketching is catching on like wildfire: sketch away!