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Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance

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Research in cognitive psychology and in design thinking has shown that the generation of inner representations in imagery and external representations via sketching are instrumental in design problem solving. In this paper we focus on another facet of visual representation in design: the ‘consumption’ of external visual representations, regarded as stimuli, when those are present in the designer's work environment. An empirical study revealed that the presence of visual stimuli of different kinds can affect performance, measured in terms of practicality, originality and creativity scores attained by designs developed by subjects under different conditions. The findings suggest that the effect of stimuli is contingent on the type of the design problem that is being solved.
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Variances in the impact of visual
stimuli on design problem solving
performance
Gabriela Goldschmidt and Maria Smolkov, Faculty of Architecture &
Town Planning, Technion eIsrael Institute of Technology, Haifa
32000, Israel
Research in cognitive psychology and in design thinking has shown that
the generation of inner representations in imagery and external
representations via sketching are instrumental in design problem solving.
In this paper we focus on another facet of visual representation in design:
the ‘consumption’ of external visual representations, regarded as stimuli,
when those are present in the designer’s work environment. An empirical
study revealed that the presence of visual stimuli of different kinds can
affect performance, measured in terms of practicality, originality and
creativity scores attained by designs developed by subjects under different
conditions. The findings suggest that the effect of stimuli is contingent on
the type of the design problem that is being solved.
Ó2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved
Keywords: creativity, design problems, problem solving, visual stimuli
Designers in all disciplines live in a very visual world. They are
sensitive to the appearance of artifacts and environments, as
a matter of course. Needless to say, the visual qualities of their
design products are, with practically no exception, of great importance
to them (as well as to clients and users). Therefore, it is not surprising
that visual information is prominent in the design process. We often
say that designers think visually, by which we mean that representations
that serve designers to think with are not only verbal but largely consist
of shapes and forms. There is a debate concerning the mode of such rep-
resentations: are inner representations, using imagery, the prime gener-
ator of visual thinking in designing, or are external representations, in
the form of drawings of all sorts and other two- and three-dimensional
representations, indispensable to design thinking? Fish (2003) proposed
that humans were endowed with mental imagery to survive as hunters in
prehistoric times, but evolution has not yet adapted this capacity to deal
with complex inventive processes such as are required in designing.
Corresponding author:
G. Goldschmidt
gabig@tx.technion.ac.il
www.elsevier.com/locate/destud
0142-694X $ - see front matter Design Studies 27 (2006) 549e569
doi:10.1016/j.destud.2006.01.002 549
Ó2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Printed in Great Britain
Therefore, external representation is beneficial as a means of representa-
tional amplification. Most of the research pertaining to representational
issues has not yet addressed typical complex design problems of the kind
designers handle routinely. An exception is research into the activity of
sketching in designing which continues to be the subject of detailed
investigations, among others because of the importance of the under-
standing of the role of sketching in designing to the development of
computational support tools for design (e.g., Akin and Moustapha,
2004).
In this paper we focus on visual stimuli and the effect they have on de-
sign performance. Visual stimuli include displays in the designer’s work
environment and they may take various shapes, including sketches
produced by the designer him/herself, for whatever purpose. It is not
the activity of sketching that we study here, though, but the presence
of visuals to which the designer has immediate access. We know that
environmental factors have an impact on people in general and even
random encounters with external stimuli might direct problem solving
in a particular direction (Seifert et al., 1995). McCoy and Evans
(2002) found that in an environment perceived as high in creative poten-
tial people get higher scores in at least some creativity tests than in en-
vironments that are seen as low in creative potential (in other tests no
difference was registered). The environmental factor that was seen as
having the greatest impact on creative potential was complexity and
visual detail. Malaga (2000) reported an experiment in which partici-
pants were asked to generate ideas in response to a specific task, having
been shown word, picture, and combined word and picture stimuli. The
use of picture stimuli elicited more creative ideas than word or combined
stimuli. Nevertheless, we found it difficult to predict the impact that spe-
cific visual stimuli may have on design performance and in particular, on
the solving of differentiated design problems (e.g., problems with a heavy
technological focus versus low-tech problems with an ecological, or
emotional, emphasis). Therefore, we set out to conduct an explorative
experiment with the general hypotheses that visual stimuli do indeed
have a bearing on designers’ performance, and that this influence is dis-
similar for different types of design problems. Following a brief survey
of the literature we consider most relevant, we report the experiment and
its results, and discuss what we learned from it.
1‘Mental synthesis’ and beyond
In the 1980s, Finke and his associates (e.g., Finke, 1990) pioneered a
research agenda whose subject matter came to be known as ‘mental
synthesis’. The purpose of these investigations was to establish how
550 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
powerful mental imagery is in manipulating forms and acting on them.
In a series of influential studies Finke showed his subjects a set of 15
labeled forms, half of which were geometric (e.g., sphere, cone) and
the other half simple objects (e.g., hook, bracket). After the subject
had memorized them, the forms were removed. The subject was then
blindfolded and given the labels of three of the initial forms, randomly
selected. He or she was asked to combine the three elements whose
names were called out into a useful object that belongs to a given cate-
gory (e.g., toy, household item). The time allotted was 2 min. After those
2 min, the subject was asked to name the object or objects (if there were
more than one) into which he or she synthesized the three forms, and then
draw it, or them, on paper. The great majority of subjects eall
psychology students ewere able to come up with at least one such syn-
thesized object. The drawings were then scored by na
ıve judges for
practicality and for originality; combinations of scores beyond a certain
threshold were considered creative. The experiments were repeated sev-
eral times with slight variations and Finke concluded that imagery is
a strong cognitive resource that people can use for inventive thinking.
He called the creative objects that his subjects came up with
‘preinventions’ (Finke, 1990).
1.1 Sketching
Finke’s experiments were repeated, with variations, by other researchers
who were also interested in related topics that Finke had left out of his
agenda. Anderson and Helstrup (1993), who like Finke used psychology
students as subjects, designed an experiment in which a control group
was not blindfolded but, on the contrary, was allowed to use paper
and pencil and sketch during the 2 min in which they were to synthesize
useful objects. When comparing the creativity scores of the subjects, no
significant differences were found between the blindfolded subjects and
those who were allowed to sketch. Logie and his associates who con-
ducted similar experiments came to similar conclusions, but qualified
them to subjects with no prior sketching experience (e.g., Pearson
et al., 1999). Verstijnen, who hypothesized that sketching must be of
some benefit to those who practice it routinely, like designers, repeated
the experiment. She used only geometric forms (and a smaller set of
them) and in addition to having blindfolded subjects and open-eyed
sketchers, she also had two categories of subjects by background: psy-
chology students and industrial design students (with a minimum of
two drawing courses). The difference between them was the amount
of experience they had in employing sketching to solve problems: design
students had such experience whereas psychology students did not. The
findings showed clearly that at least for some classes of ‘preinventions’,
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 551
sketching results in more creative solutions provided the subject is an ex-
perienced sketcher, in this case an advanced design student (Verstijnen
et al., 1998).
Design researchers followed the ‘mental synthesis’ literature with great
interest, but made the point that synthesizing three elements into a useful
object in 2 min does not qualify as designing. Athavankar and his asso-
ciates (e.g., Athavankar, 1996; Athavankar and Mukherjee, 2003) car-
ried out several experiments in which designers and design students
were asked to undertake design assignments while blindfolded, a typical
design session lasting 1e2 h. The subjects talked out loud during the pro-
cess and drew the resultant designs at the end of the session. Athavankar
concluded that complex designs can be generated using mental imagery
as the only medium of visual representation. Kokotovich and Purcell
(2000) went back to mental synthesis experiments, but used two separate
sets of stimuli: two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional forms
(Finke and his associates had carried out mental synthesis experiments
with two-dimensional shapes before they moved on to three-dimensional
forms; see for example Finke and Slayton, 1988). Their subjects included
graphic design and industrial design students, and law students as a con-
trol group. They were able to show that both designer groups performed
better than the non-designers (law students), but each of the designer
groups scored higher in problems typical to its domain. That is, graphic
design students did better in two-dimensional problems and industrial
designers achieved higher scores in three-dimensional problems. In these
experiments sketching had no effect on creativity scores.
Suwa and Tversky used retrospective reports (replication protocol anal-
ysis) to study how designers utilize their own sketches and how such
sketches help crystallize design ideas and concepts (e.g., Suwa and Tver-
sky, 1997, 2001). This work follows in the footsteps of Goldschmidt
(1991), and Scho
¨n and Wiggins (1992), who explained the robustness
of sketching activities among designers (architects, for the most part)
by describing design as a conversation, or dialogue the designer holds
with him/herself and the materials of the situation. In such a ‘conversa-
tion’ the sketches serve as representations off which rich information is
read that is not readily accessible otherwise.
1.2 Rich displays as stimuli
If designers are able to read useful information off their vague and in-
complete conceptual sketches, they are likely to read information off
other representations as well, even if such representations are not so
intimately related to the problem they are wrestling with. Designers
552 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
have always been inclined to surround themselves with rich displays and
in fashion design, for example, the use of ‘sources of inspiration’ has
been formalized (Johnson et al., 1999; Eckert and Stacey, 2000). How-
ever, such sources are carefully picked, and are usually within-domain
references. Casakin asked whether stimuli in the form of collections of
pictures, some within-domain and some not, have any effect on
designers’ problem solving. In his experiments subjects (architects and
architecture students) solved ill-defined and well-defined design prob-
lems in a room in which some two-dozen black-and-white drawings
and photographs were pinned to a large board. A control group solved
the same problems in a bare space (same room). The scores assigned to
the resultant designs by na
ıve judges showed that subjects who worked
with displays outperformed their peers who worked in a bare space in
solving ill-defined problems. For well-defined problems, however, only
experienced designers benefited from the displays (Casakin and
Goldschmidt, 2000).
1
This result is relevant to our present study because
it suggests that designers exhibit opportunistic behavior in that they take
advantage of anything in the work environment that may potentially
trigger ideas or lead to an enhanced memory scan, motivated by a cue
that suggests itself as useful. The cuing channel appears to be visual,
i.e. visual displays become stimuli. This is consistent with McCoy and
Evans’ (2002) findings, described in the introduction.
To summarize, research suggests that (a) Designers, like others, can use
mental imagery to manipulate shapes and forms and recombine them in
meaningful and even creative ways ean activity that is most relevant to
designing. (b) Sketching is useful (i.e., leads to more creative results) to
those who due to experience are proficient users of sketching in design
problem solving, in certain types of spatial manipulations of simple
forms. It is postulated that the advantage results from the self-generated
sketches becoming displays that are particularly rich in useful cues.
(c) Domain specific design experience controls performance and qual-
ifies the benefit from sketching in problem solving. (d) Visual displays
in the work environment act as stimuli and possibly as prompts in design
problem solving.
We are now ready to ask the next question in this line of inquiry: are dif-
ferent kinds of visuals equally effective in enhancing designing in all
problem types? We already have evidence that various types of spatial
manipulations in mental synthesis are not equally supported by sketch-
ing (Verstijnen et al., 1998), and that prior sketching experience can be
meaningful to certain types of spatial manipulation. When it comes to
designing, do different problems require different types of cognitive
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 553
resources and, therefore, is performance in terms of parameters of cre-
ativity affected by visual stimuli, and how?
2Design problems
If prior drawing training and experience modulates the benefits a
designer is able to draw from the use of sketching (Verstijnen et al.,
1998), and if visual displays improve design problem solving for ill-
defined, but not necessarily for well-defined problems (Casakin and
Goldschmidt, 2000), then we may conclude that many factors may
have an impact on preferred cognitive behavior in designing. A factor
that has hitherto not been investigated is the types of design problem
that are being solved (beyond ill- or well-defined) and the visual design
support systems that could be helpful in solving them. In this paper we
consider only the effect of visual displays on parameters of creativity of
design solutions. No relevant literature on differences among design
problems was found, but based on the research findings that many factors
may have an impact on design behavior and conditions that support
problem solving, we hypothesized that design problems of different types
show partiality toward different kinds of visual displays as support sys-
tems. However, we were not able to predict which displays would benefit
the solving of what design problems. Therefore, our research question is:
how do different kinds of visual displays affect the solving of dissimilar
design problems? We set out to investigate the question empirically. Sec-
tion 3describes the experiment that was carried out toward this end.
3The experiment
At the outset, the question we posed was: ‘what is the role of sketching
and visual displays in design problem solving?’ An experiment was
planned to partially answer this question, in which students of architec-
ture and industrial design were asked to solve (at a preliminary level)
two different design problems (see Section 3.2), under different condi-
tions. The variability in conditions included the use of sketching during
the process versus the use of mental imagery alone, with a final descrip-
tive sketch of the solution (similar to ‘mental synthesis’ experiments),
and work with or without visual displays of one of two types, as
described below. In this paper we address the differences in the judged
performance of subjects as a function of the type of design problem they
solved, which emerged as one of the most interesting topics raised in
this research project. The following is a report of the experimental setup.
3.1 Setting
All of the experimental sessions were conducted in an enclosed, window-
less area within a larger space. Subjects were tested individually by an
554 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
experimenter who dispensed problems to the subjects and explained the
procedure, but did not intervene in what the subjects did. Subjects were
asked to talk out loud and sessions were videotaped with a single camera
pointed at the desk surface on which the subjects worked. Before the
first experimental task was presented, a brief training problem was
given, the purpose of which was to accustom subjects to talking out
loud. Following each session a short debriefing interview was con-
ducted, in which the subject was asked to articulate his or her difficulties,
if any, during the session, feelings regarding the experiment, and a sub-
jective view on the effect of having made sketches or being prevented
from sketching. All graphic output by the subjects was collected and
coded for subject identity and experimental condition.
3.2 Tasks
Each subject was asked to solve two design problems, at a fixed order.
For each problem 20 min were allotted to the development of ideas,
and 5 min were dedicated to the execution of the final version of the so-
lution in the form of a sketch.
3.2.1 Task 1 echocolate packaging
This task stressed aesthetics, emotional appeal, and innovation. Subjects
were asked to design packaging for fancy chocolate candies, sold by the
unit. The individual candy is round, 2 cm in diameter, and wrapped in
foil. The packaging must accommodate any desired number of candies
between three and 50. Figure 1 shows three of the solutions to this
problem.
3.2.2 Task 2 edrinking fountain
This task emphasized functionality, practicality, and human factors.
Subjects were asked to design a drinking fountain for a picnic area in
a public park. Subjects were requested to take into account the different
heights of adults and children who use the fountain, and to make sure
that excess water is collected and not spilled around the fountain. The
drawings in Figure 2 are examples of solutions to this problem.
3.3 Subjects
Thirty-six subjects, 20 males and 16 females aged 21e26 participated in
the experiment, all students in a Faculty of Architecture. Twenty were
architecture students in their fourth or fifth year of undergraduate stud-
ies and 16 were industrial design students pursuing a Master’s degree. Of
those, five had an undergraduate degree in industrial design and 11 had
undergraduate degrees in other fields. All had at least three design stu-
dios to their credit.
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 555
3.4 Experimental conditions
Subjects were divided into three groups, comprising 12 (architecture and
industrial design) subjects each. Each group worked under different con-
ditions as far as the displays (stimuli) to which they were exposed are
concerned. We therefore distinguish among the groups in terms of stim-
uli. Half the subjects in each group (six subjects) were asked to sketch
while designing, for which end they were given white A4 sheets of paper
and pencils (black and color). The other half (six subjects) were asked to
carry out design operations in their heads and sketch the solution only at
the end of each task.
Group 1 worked with no specific visual stimuli, with the exception of the
functional furniture used during the experiment (desk, two chairs efor
the subject and the experimenter), and three bare cardboard panels,
100 200 cm each, positioned vertically against the walls, as depicted
in Figure 3.
Group 2 worked with diverse, rich, visual stimuli. The three card-
board panels that were in the space were covered with a large number
Figure 1 Design solutions,
chocolate packaging task:
(a) with rich stimuli; (b)
with sketches as stimuli; (c)
with no stimuli
556 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
of pictures and drawings of various kinds (color and black and
white), drawn from a host of fields (e.g., product design, art, mor-
phology, nature). In addition a variety of three-dimensional objects
were placed on the desk and around it (e.g., architectural models,
cardboard polyhedra, and wooden blocks). Figure 4 shows this
environment.
Group 3 worked with a modest number of visual stimuli, in the form of
photocopies of sketches pinned to the cardboard panels. The sketches in
question were made by group 1 and group 2 subjects who had partici-
pated in the experiment earlier. Sketches were selected for display on
the basis of their clarity and provided they were sufficiently abstract,
i.e., they did not contain explicit solutions to the design problems.
The sketches were enlarged (150%) to compensate for viewing distance.
Figure 2 Design solutions, drinking fountain task: (a) with rich visual stimuli; (b) with sketches as stimuli; (c) with no stimuli
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 557
The number of sketches shown was approximately equal to the average
number of sketches produced by subjects (eight sketches per subject).
Each subject was shown a different set of sketches. The environment un-
der this condition is shown in Figure 5.
3.5 Judges
All design solutions were evaluated by three judges who were blind to
the research goals and the experimental conditions. The judges were
graduate students in design or architecture toward the end of their
studies toward a Master’s degree, and who also had professional design
experience.
Figure 3 Experimental envi-
ronment, no stimuli
Figure 4 Experimental envi-
ronment, diverse rich stimuli
558 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
3.6 Scoring
Each design solution was assessed for originality, practicality, and gen-
eral quality. Scores were given on a scale of 1e5, where 1 is low and 5 is
high. Inter-rater agreement among judges was computed using Pear-
son’s coefficient of correlation, as presented in Table 1. Significant
correlation for both tasks was found for originality and practicality,
whereas for general quality, the agreement among judges was acceptable
for the chocolate packaging task, but not for the drinking fountain.
Therefore, the results and analysis that follow regard only originality
and practicality.
Figure 5 Experimentalenviron-
ment,sketchesasstimuli
Table 1 Inter-rater agreement among judges
Task Assessment r(Judges
1&2)
r(Judges
2&3)
r(Judges
1&3)
Chocolate packaging Originality 0.50)) 0.58)) 0.68))
Practicality 0.44)) 0.34)0.41))
General quality 0.52)) 0.43)) 0.53))
Drinking fountain Originality 0.55)) 0.56)) 0.48))
Practicality 0.51)) 0.52)) 0.51))
General quality 0.07 0.18 0.19
)
Correlation is significant at the level of 0.05.
))
Correlation is significant at the level of 0.01.
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 559
4Results
4.1 Practicality
Tables 2 and 3 show the mean practicality scores assigned by the judges
(scale of 1e5) to the final design proposals for the chocolate packaging
and drinking fountain.
4.1.1 Practicality of chocolate packaging designs
A two-way analysis of variance yielded no main effect of stimuli condi-
tions (without stimuli, with rich stimuli or with sketches as stimuli)
F(2,30) ¼0.49, p>0.05; no main effect of sketching conditions (with
sketching and without sketching) F(1,30) ¼0.49, p>0.05; and no
main effect for their interaction F(2,30) ¼0.13, p>0.05.
4.1.2 Practicality of drinking fountain designs
A two-way analysis of variance yielded a main effect of stimuli condi-
tions (without stimuli, with rich stimuli or with sketches as stimuli)
F(2,30) ¼4.16, p<0.05; a main effect of sketching conditions (with
sketching and without sketching) F(1,30) ¼8.29, p<0.05: and no
main effect for their interaction F(2,30) ¼0.13, p>0.05.
T-tests were used to compare between scores achieved in the two tasks
under different conditions:
When no visual stimuli were provided, a significant difference
between practicality scores for the two tasks was found (T(23) ¼2.11;
p<0.05). In this environment subjects reached higher practicality
scores for the drinking fountain than for chocolate packaging.
When rich visual stimuli were provided, no significant difference
between practicality scores for the two tasks was found
(T(23) ¼0.4; p>0.05).
When other subjects’ sketches served as visual stimuli, no significant
difference between practicality scores for the two tasks was found
(T(23) ¼1.52; p>0.05). Although significance was not reached, in
Table 2 Mean practicality scores: chocolate packaging
Scores Without stimuli
(SD)
Rich stimuli
(SD)
Sketches as stimuli
(SD)
Average (SD)
With sketching condition 3.22 (0.5) 3.33 (0.51) 3.44 (0.58) 3.33 (0.51)
Without sketching condition 2.94 (0.74) 3.33 (0.8) 3.22 (0.98) 3.17 (0.82)
Average 3.08 (0.62) 3.33 (0.65) 3.33 (0.78)
560 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
this environment subjects reached higher practicality scores for the
chocolate packaging than for the drinking fountain.
In the sketching condition, significantly higher scores were reached
than in the non-sketching condition only for the drinking fountain
task.
4.2 Originality
Tables 4 and 5 show the mean originality scores assigned by the judges
(scale of 1e5) to the final design proposals for the chocolate packaging
and drinking fountain.
4.2.1 Originality of chocolate packaging designs
A two-way analysis of variance yielded a main effect of stimuli condi-
tions (without stimuli, with rich stimuli or with sketches as stimuli)
F(2,30) ¼3.83, p<0.05; no main effect of sketching conditions (with
sketching and without sketching) F(1,30) ¼0.07, p>0.05; and no
main effect for their interaction F(2,30) ¼0.20, p>0.05.
4.2.2 Originality of drinking fountain designs
A two-way analysis of variance yielded a main effect of stimuli condi-
tions (without stimuli, with rich stimuli or with sketches as stimuli)
F(2,30) ¼11.89, p<0.05; no main effect of sketching conditions (with
sketching and without sketching) F(1,30) ¼0.12, p>0.05; and no
main effect for their interaction F(2,30) ¼0.13, p>0.05.
Table 3 Mean practicality scores: drinking fountain
Score Without stimuli
(SD)
Rich stimuli
(SD)
Sketches as stimuli
(SD)
Average (SD)
With sketching condition 3.67 (0.67) 3.67 (0.73) 3.22 (0.88) 3.52 (0.75)
Without sketching condition 3.50 (0.41) 2.78 (0.34) 2.44 (0.62) 2.91 (0.63)
Average 3.58 (0.53) 3.22 (0.71) 2.83 (0.83)
Table 4 Mean originality scores: chocolate packaging
Score Without stimuli
(SD)
Rich stimuli
(SD)
Sketches as stimuli
(SD)
Average (SD)
With sketching condition 2.83 (0.62) 3.61 (1.16) 3.17 (0.81) 3.20 (0.90)
Without sketching condition 2.50 (0.75) 3.67 (0.91) 3.22 (0.81) 3.13 (0.92)
Average 2.67 (0.68) 3.64 (0.99) 3.19 (0.77)
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 561
T-tests were used to compare between scores achieved in the two tasks
under different conditions:
When no visual stimuli were provided, no significant difference
between originality scores for the two tasks was found (T(23) ¼1.49;
p>0.05).
When rich visual stimuli were provided, no significant difference
between originality scores for the two tasks was found (T(23) ¼1.99;
p>0.05). However, a strong tendency enear significance etoward
greater originality in the design of chocolate packaging was found
(p<0.06).
When other subjects’ sketches served as visual stimuli, a significant
difference between originality scores for the two tasks was found
(T(23) ¼2.27; p<0.05). In this environment subjects reached higher
originality scores for the drinking fountain than for chocolate pack-
aging design.
No significant difference between the sketching and non-sketching
conditions was found in both tasks.
4.3 Creativity
Following Finke (1990), creativity was defined as a product of practical-
ity and originality: only solutions that rate high on both practicality and
originality are considered creative. In our study a design solution was
considered creative if the sum of its practicality scores was at least 11
(out of 15, which is the maximum accumulative practicality score by
three judges; see Section 4.1), and the sum of its originality scores was
also at least 11 (likewise, out of a maximum of 15; see Section 4.2). A
total of nine design solutions were found to be creative: six in the choco-
late packaging task (Table 6) and three in the drinking fountain task
(Table 7). The proportion of creative outcomes (12.5%) is close to
that found by Finke (1990) in his studies. No creative solutions were
achieved in the environment in which there were no visual stimuli.
When rich visual stimuli were provided, five designs (out of six) for choco-
late packaging and one design (out of three) for a drinking fountain
Table 5 Mean originality scores: drinking fountain
Score Without stimuli
(SD)
Rich stimuli
(SD)
Sketches as stimuli
(SD)
Average (SD)
With sketching condition 2.17 (0.93) 2.89 (1.08) 3.67 (0.70) 2.91 (1.07)
Without sketching condition 2.22 (0.86) 2.83 (0.78) 3.94 (0.25) 3.00 (0.97)
Average 2.19 (0.85) 2.86 (0.90) 3.81 (0.52)
562 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
were found to be creative. Where others’ sketches served as stimuli,
one chocolate packaging and two drinking fountain designs were
found to be creative. Due to the small number of items no statistical
analysis was carried out. However, the findings strongly suggest that
the presence of visual stimuli is positively correlated with the emer-
gence of creativity.
4.4 Sketching effect
For both practicality and originality, no significant difference was found
between designing with and without sketching, in both the chocolate
packaging task and the drinking fountain task, for most conditions. In
the drinking fountain task, sketching during designing resulted in higher
practicality scores than designing without sketching (T(35) ¼2.64;
p<0.05). We also found that of the nine design solutions that
were considered creative (Section 4.3), six were developed with the
use of sketching (three out of six chocolate packaging designs and
all three drinking fountain designs).
5Discussion
Our results point to a mixed effect of stimuli on parameters of creativity
in design problem solving. For the first task, chocolate packaging, the
pattern of results for practicality and originality scores in the different
environments was more or less consistent ebetter results were obtained
with visual stimuli than without them, although the incremental
improvement varied and significance was achieved only sporadically.
For the second task, the design of a drinking fountain, we found contra-
dictory tendencies; whereas visual stimuli dramatically increased origi-
nality, they had a negative effect on practicality. We consider this
Table 6 Number of designs defined as creative: chocolate packaging
Without stimuli Rich stimuli Sketches as stimuli Total
With sketching condition 0 2 1 3
Without sketching condition 0 3 0 3
Total 0 5 1 6
Table 7 Number of designs defined as creative: drinking fountain
Without stimuli Rich stimuli Sketches as stimuli Total
With sketching condition 0 1 2 3
Without sketching condition 0 0 0 0
Total 0 1 2 3
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 563
result anomalous. The types of stimuli that affected performance were
also in disagreement: rich and diverse displays had different effects in
the two tasks and for the two parameters of practicality and originality.
Sketching, which produces ‘self-generated displays’, had an effect only
on practicality scores in one task, and no effect at all in the other
task. In addition, and quite surprisingly, there was no correlation
between subjects’ performance in the two tasks (r¼0.03 for practicality;
r¼0.13 for originality). Several explanations of these results should be
considered.
First, we must look at the differences between the two tasks. Both were
short ‘sketch problems’ (i.e., solutions are expected at a rough concep-
tual level only) and well suited to the subjects’ level of knowledge and
experience, and to the amount of time allotted to the exercises. However,
the nature of the problems was different, and we can surmise the differ-
ence from the subjects’ descriptions of the drinking fountain problem as
‘closed’, ‘concrete’, ‘centering on ergonomics’, ‘related to a basic need e
drinking’, and the chocolate packaging as being ‘open’, ‘interesting’,
‘flexible’, ‘experiential’ and ‘inspiring a feeling of luxury’. The judges’
assessment criteria also stressed different priorities. For the drinking
fountain, in order of preference: convenience of use, compatibility
with the natural environment, and ease of installation and maintenance.
For the chocolate packaging: high aesthetic appeal, uniqueness, and
ease with which candies can be drawn out of the packaging. As stated
in Section 3.2, the drinking fountain task can therefore be seen as mainly
utilitarian, with its operational properties considered of the greatest
importance. In contrast the chocolate packaging task is seen as aiming
primarily at emotional satisfaction and pleasure through its appearance.
None of the displays, including subjects’ sketches, contained any cues
that could possibly assist in operational aspects of the drinking fountain
and therefore it is not surprising that displays provided little support in
this case. Why did scores actually drop with displays? A possible expla-
nation is that attention to the useless eas it turned out edisplays,
distracted subjects and subtracted from the attention they were able
to dedicate to their problem-solving activity. It may also have been
costly in terms of the time allocated to solve the problem, which was
rather limited; scanning the displays limited it further. Operational con-
siderations were of a much lower priority in the chocolate packaging
task, and therefore the lack of cues in the displays was of no conse-
quence. However, some of the images, in both types of displays, seem
to have suggested assembly principles that could be used, with or with-
out transformation, in this task. For example, the flower-like candies
564 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
placed in a vase (Figure 1a) could have been influenced by a picture of
individual artificial flowers in a vase-like receptacle that was displayed
when the subject in question was in session. Such a solution must
have been seen as original to the judges, who were not exposed to the
displays. Therefore, displays in this case were more useful, and diverse
rich displays in particular, as they were more complete, coherent and
well-executed than the rough, incomplete sketches made by peers that
were used as the second type of stimuli. The diverse stimuli contained
cues that could be of value to both practicality and originality of choc-
olate packaging, even if the subjects themselves were not necessarily
aware of their effect on them. A match between the emphases in a design
task and the visuals that are available as ‘sources of inspiration’ may
therefore be crucial to the effectiveness of the displays in upgrading
practicality and originality of designs.
It is particularly interesting to note that even accidental features of the
environment have occasionally served as stimuli. Figure 2c is a design
proposal for the drinking fountain, made in the bare environment
depicted in Figure 3 (the design was rejected by its maker, as indicated
by the cross that was drawn over it, but we can overlook this rejection
here). We notice that the hole in the right-hand side board that encloses
the work space has found its way into the design (upper left-hand
corner, square hole in a proposed wall). The student explained that
this was a ‘peephole’ that enabled one to see users of the drinking foun-
tain on the other side of the wall. This example stresses the notion that
environmental factors can become useful stimuli to the keen eye almost
under any circumstances.
Second, we would like to address differences between conditions that
contribute to practicality in design, as opposed to those speaking to
originality. This is a highly complex matter but it is worthwhile pursuing,
because of its far-reaching consequences for the understanding of de-
signing and for design education. Is performance related to practicality
and originality equally sensitive to the circumstances of designing?
Goldschmidt et al. (1996) have shown that for design problems of
the scope we tackle in this paper, novice designers (first year architec-
ture students) get significantly higher originality scores when the
problems are presented in an ‘open formulation’ than when ‘closed
formulations’ are used.
2
Functionality (similar to practicality in
the present research) scores, on the other hand, are not affected by the
problem formulation. If the formulation of the problem affects the solu-
tion space constructed by the subject under certain conditions, as
maintained by Goldschmidt et al. (1996), then other factors may
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 565
also be instrumental in shaping the problem/solution spaces, and
visual stimuli make reasonable candidates for such influential factors.
We can calculate the difference between scores in the most favorable
and least favorable conditions, in terms of visual stimuli, for practi-
cality and originality, in both tasks of the present study, using the fig-
ures in Tables 2e5. The results are presented in Table 8. With the
exception of (the problematic) practicality scores for the drinking
fountain task, the least favorable condition is the lack of any visual
stimuli and the most favorable condition is the presence of one of the
types of stimuli. Dis the calculated difference between the highest
and lowest scores, relative to the lowest score (percentage).
As Table 8 clearly shows, originality was more affected than practicality
by the presence or absence of visual stimuli. This is in line with the find-
ing that problem formulation has an impact on originality, but not on
practicality of design solutions (Goldschmidt et al., 1996). Likewise,
for both types of scores, the design of the drinking fountain was more
sensitive to the presence or absence of visuals than the chocolate pack-
aging. These findings are compatible with the explanations offered
above, regarding the nature of the problem. It seems, then, that for short
design problems and a modest amount of design experience, visual stim-
uli can expand or shrink the problem space in which the designers search
for solutions, and primarily for original solutions. What effect similar
conditions may have on designers with more experience, who tackle
design problems for much longer stretches of time as is often the case
in reality, is at this stage an open question, begging for rigorous research.
Third, we would like to bring up the effect, or lack thereof, of sketching
on the scores obtained in this experiment. One’s own sketches become
‘self-generated displays’ and as such are expected to harbor cues that
the designer, and for the most part only the designer, can benefit from
(Goldschmidt, 1991; Suwa and Tversky, 1997). There is some evidence
that the act of doodling enables very young children to read meaning
into fractions of their own scribbles but not those of their peers (Adi-
Japha et al., 1998), which may support the assumption that sketching
is helpful in reading information off displays, even random displays,
Table 8 Score increments as a function of variance in experimental conditions (D/Lindicates increase/
decrease with stimuli)
Task D-Practicality (%) D-Originality (%)
Chocolate packaging þ7.1 þ36.3
Drinking fountain 26.5 þ74.0
566 Design Studies Vol 27 No. 5 September 2006
and associating it with items retrieved from memory. We would there-
fore expect sketching to have a positive effect on the scores in an exper-
iment like ours, at least where no stimuli are provided. We did not find
such an effect esketching had no significant enhancing influence on
scores in environments with no visual stimuli. However, we found
that sketching did play a role in most of the solutions that were graded
as creative. We may therefore postulate that sketching is useful, in
skilled hands, in cases where a conceptual breakthrough is made. The
designed object in such a case is radically different from familiar objects
(Christiaans, 1992), which can eso goes the theory ebe internally rep-
resented and manipulated for the purpose of design. When sufficiently
remote from typical or prototypical designs, external representation,
i.e. sketching, is helpful because experimentation and evaluation are cru-
cial. The volume of our data does not allow for an in-depth comparison
between the ‘creative’ and the rest of the solutions, but we postulate that
sketching is indeed particularly meaningful where novelty is of the es-
sence, and provided the proposed solution is more complex than is
easy for imagery to handle.
Lastly, we must point out that certain methodological problems may
have affected our results, although we believe that their effect, if any,
is marginal. The number of subjects was relatively small, and they
were not sufficiently homogenous in terms of background. The order
in which the problems were given out was fixed, rather than randomly
altered. The number of stimuli was very large in the ‘diverse rich’ condi-
tion and relatively small in the ‘peers’ sketches’ condition. It is possible
that if these imperfections were eliminated, we would obtain somewhat
more clear-cut results.
6Conclusions
The research reported in this paper shows that when designers are
required to solve ill-structured design problems at a conceptual level
and in a short time, the presence of visual stimuli, and their nature,
have an effect on qualities of the solutions they arrive at. The effect
is different for different problem types. Design problems with different
characteristics are sensitive to different environmental conditions in
terms of visual stimuli that may enhance performance. Creative and
innovative thinking, we found, is most sensitive to environments that
provide potential cues and harbor analogy-sources or other similes
that contribute to high-level design solutions. Design problems are
not of a kind, and it seems appropriate to sort them out more than
has hitherto been done, and find the conditions that can potentially fos-
ter the most effective design performance.
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 567
Acknowledgments
This paper is based on the second author’s Master’s thesis, supervised by
the first author. A first version of the paper was presented in the Third
International Conference on Visual and Spatial Reasoning in Design, at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 22e24
July 2004, and was published in its proceedings (Goldschmidt and Smol-
kov, 2004). The writing of the paper was partially supported by a grant
to the first author from the fund for the promotion of research at the
Technion, hereby gratefully acknowledged.
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1. The experiment also had a third condition in which subjects were shown displays
and asked to try and use them as analogical sources to support their problem
solving. This has also enhanced the solving of ill-defined problems, beyond scores
obtained due to the mere presence of displays with no instruction to use them. See
analysis and conclusions in Goldschmidt (2001).
2. ‘A closed formulation is phrased using a concept (word) that is clearly associated
with existing, familiar solutions of similar design problems.An open formula-
tion presents the same design problem, but is phrased so as to avoid concepts
related to existing solutions’ (Goldschmidt et al., 1996, p. 390).
Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance 569
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... Representations serve as means to communicate information characterizing the artefact and its components between the designer and herself or others (Schön and Wiggins, 1992). Earlier studies show the role of representations in stimulating tutor-student interaction (Goldschmidt and Smolkov, 2006;Goldschmidt, 2014). A study exploring the time spent on a 3D digital model through shared and personal views suggested the need for better means to support shared views during crit interaction (Horvat et al, 2021). ...
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... Analogies aim to increase the quality of problem solutions, develop knowledge-skills and creativity by supporting the habit of identifying and researching hidden information of the individual (Goncalves et al., 2014;Casakin & Timmeren van, 2015). In particular, analogies increase the creativity criteria of the individual in problem solving (Goldschmidt, 2006). ...
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