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I Can’t Draw

By Yuen Yen Tsai
September 27, 2022

A statement I often hear in the design thinking trainings that I give to participants from all over the world is this negative statement, “I can’t draw.” In this article I want to share why you hear these words, how to deal with them, and what  deeper meanings you can find in the sentence ‘I Can’t …’.

Here’s the Context…

I work as a trainer and introduce learners to the methodology of design thinking. Calling design thinking a methodology is showing you that thinking and doing as a designer has structure, processes, steps and templates. But at the same time I want to show you the other side as well: the creative side.

To create means seeing some problems and ideas that are in front of our eyes – yet not everyone sees. Creating also means making combinations that no one else thinks of making. So, when you apply design thinking, it would be nice – and motivating – to tell yourself that you would like to find ideas and solutions that are fresh, novel, not-seen before: creative.

So, applying design thinking asks for structure and creativity. And I love this description by Idris Motee in “Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation”: Design thinking is the search for a magical balance between business and art; structure and chaos; intention and logic; concept and execution; playfulness and formality; and control and empowerment.

The Negative Statement…

As a design thinker you are constantly trying out different perspectives. Being able to look at a problem from angles as different users, different moments of the day/week, different ways of handling, different purposes, provides you with many choices. You like these choices – it gives you space to reflect.

And you also want different languages to express. You want your learners, team members to draw what they think. You want to see what is in one’s head. I’ll get back to this point later.

So quite early in the training, I ask participants to draw. It can be drawing each other, it can be drawing an object or even a fun fact. Within a second – for sure – somebody will say:

‘Oh! I Can’t Draw!’

Now take a second and think back of the last time that you actually drew some idea that was in your head. And that you used a drawing to express to somebody else what you meant. Was that a while ago? Or recently? Who was the recipient of your drawing?

Why Does This Happen?

It is easy to explain how we have created the reaction of ‘I can’t draw’. Growing up as a child and becoming adults, we learned to compare ourselves and judge our own actions and products, like drawings. Others such as parents, teachers, peers could have continuously confirmed what is the standard to be achieved. We stress the ‘best’, the number one, the perfect result. Unfortunately, consciously or unconsciously, grading everything else as less-sufficient, less worthy, less important. If we cannot deliver a drawing – a perfect one – on the spot, we should not even try. Even if we try, when we show and share, we apologize for the result. This is what happens in my training sessions.

When I think back on my own childhood, I recognise the constant comparing and aiming for the number one position. I do not think that was bad, but in hindsight – I wished somebody also had shown me the richness of variety and had demonstrated an appreciation of diversity, either in skills or perspectives.

So back to you: what were your first thoughts about drawing? And how were those thoughts shaped in your mind? I wonder.

How to Overcome These Thoughts

What I do in the training is to instruct a drawing exercise as soon as I can. As quick as we can. When the surprise of drawing someone or somebody kicks in, there is no head space to overthink and judge. We draw each other in 2 minutes – creating Picasso-like drawings. Or we draw our favorite hobby and use the drawing to support the explanatory introduction of oneself, in 2 minutes.

Teacher, alongside students' sketches

Here is a warming-up exercise to draw Squiggle Birds that I use. It goes like this:

Step 1: have paper and 2 color markers ready
Step 2: take one color and draw 6 squiggles on your paper
Step 3: take the other color and add eyes, wings, toes and mouth to the squiggle to make it a bird
Step 4: tada! Show your Squiggle Birds
Step 5: explain that you draw to convey a message.

Squiggle Bird sketches on sticky notes

 The essentials are enough to support the message. It is not about the exact – perfect – copy of a bird. But we need to see the bird that is inside our head – in order to be able to discuss the details and the context. Because the details and the context can be the crucial factors of the success of an idea to a problem.

Why is this worth trying?

Both the statement ‘I can’t draw’ and the practice of a drawing exercise are very small events. But I see a deeper meaning. When a person says: “I can’t draw”, somehow he or she has confirmed that thought for him/herself. And by confirming that again and again, we allow a fixed mindset concerning drawing to block the development of a (necessary) skill. This fixed mindset concerning this skill prevents the person from trying, to experiment, to fail and to learn from that experience. Exactly that experience, motivation and joy are so needed to innovate and create.

I hope you can see that hidden in such a small event as drawing, you can become aware of what your learner or team member is thinking of creating, experimenting and asking for feedback. And these are skills that are essential when you are creating fresh and novel solutions for your organization or clients.

Consultant and Trainer, International Institute for Learning

Design Thinking Trainer and Facilitator. Trains and teaches topics in Design Thinking as School/Stanford model to Emphasize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test; converging and diverging mindsets; various tools and building diverse design teams.

She is the author of several publications, such as Serious Gaming, BinnenBerijk, 2015.  She has contributed to various publications as Essay ’Playful public administration, about the application of gamification in public administration ’Interview by NSOB (Dutch School for Public Administration), 2015, or Research ‘Gaming and gamification for judicial institutions’ Member of the Supervisory Committee WODC (Research and Documentation Centre, Ministry of Justice and Security), 2015 among others.

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