Architects and the Mental Visualization Fallacy

We don’t all “see” the same thing

Since I joined IrisVR last August, I’ve been amazed at the impact Virtual Reality has been having on the day to day lives of designers around the world. After many conversations with users all around the world, one bias has kept emerging, which for now I call the Mental Visualization Fallacy — I’m sure there must be an existing term for this. The Mental Visualization Fallacy is a bias that those trained in the “traditional drawing methods” tend to have regarding their ability to visualize spatial relationships from two dimensional plans. This fallacy has been focused on in various research papers that address our general capacity for spatial cognition and more explicitly, architects and engineers ability to transfer 2D information into 3D sketches through mental visualization.

Seeing, Imagining, and Representing

I was trained as an architect, both of the landscape and building kind. In the first couple of years of academic training, architects are guided through a rigorous educational program that focuses on the value of two dimensional drawings. The book above, was a staple of almost every architectural design program in the country. In the introduction, Professor Ching explains the value of “traditional drawing methods” in the face of technological change.

Even as electronic media evolve and augment traditional drawing methods, enabling us to transfer ideas onto the computer screen and develop them into three-dimensional models, drawing remains a cognitive process that involves perceptive seeing and visual thinking
Plans can be pretty abstract for those not trained to “read” them.

What is missed from the conversation and much of the book is the position that no matter how highly trained architects purportedly are at mentally visualizing space, drawing is a mediocre method for precise communication around spatial experience. As a cognitive process, it is highly personal. What you perceive to see in your mind’s eye is likely very different from what I perceive to see in mine. While we can agree to see the same thing as it is — say a floor plan of a building — its far harder to accurately imagine ourselves inhabiting that floor plan.

Given the same 2D information — what these architects “see” is different. (Yagmur-Kilimc, 2010, p.164)

While few studies have been done around the topic of mental visualization in the building industry, Elif Sezen Yagmur-Kilimc’s dissertation at Georgia Tech stands to shed some light on how we work, think, and communicate through drawing. In Yagmur-Kilimc’s study, targeted at the abilities of architects with professional experience and those without to mentally visualize 3D space from 2D plans and sections, she concludes that there is no correlation between age and experience and the ability to imagine spatial properties. Furthermore, she comes to the conclusion that communication through 2D drawings about 3D issues is flawed as it cannot be determined that all parties involved in communication can “see” the same thing.

Our inability to share a mental visualization is an axiom of human communication.

Our inability to share a mental visualization is an axiom of human communication. It makes intuitive sense, but the whole history of representational techniques assumes we’re all seeing the same thing. What might it mean if we took the defacto state of any visual correspondence between collaborators, to be flawed?

Different objects can have the same plan, section or elevation

I experienced VR and saw the future

Sometime last year, I met up with Shane, a co-founder of IrisVR to invite him to a talk for a meetup some friends and I organize. During our conversation he showed me a demo of what IrisVR was working on. It was a simple solution for a historically difficult problem. The demo was a plugin inside a robust and complicated 3D modeling tool called Revit used in the design and construction of buildings large and small. From the plugin he was able to send the entire model into virtual reality within a matter of seconds. I put on the Oculus Rift, and was amazed.

While I knew the use of game engines had already been experimented with in architecture — both through my visits to design reviews at GSAPP in Columbia University and through the anecdotes of friends at Georgia Tech, I also knew the workflow was tedious. Hours if not days of prep work to bring a model into game engines made it a cumbersome approach to visualization, let alone design review. With this demo however, the dots were connected.

What was so powerful about that demo then and even more now, as we’ve been developing it with feedback from our users, is that it affirms that virtual reality is here, and it is poised to solve one of the oldest problems in human communication. It allows us to see and experience our design intentions in a way that is clear, intuitive, and wholly immersive. With virtual reality, drawings are not dead, but they can now be focused at the right stage of a design process, when you need to quickly communicate an idea that doesn’t need high resolution, or intuitive confirmation. With some of the tools we’re building out, however, drawings might even be given new life.

I’d like to note that by no means does the Mental Visualization Fallacy diminish the amazing work being done by architects and designers around the world. It should be evident that drawing as a tool for generating new ideas, for nimble experimentation, for thoughtful inquiry, and for quick communication is still critical as a skill and should not be discouraged. Moreover, 2D techniques like sections, elevations, and even perspectives are still incredibly useful tools within the design process to negotiate the orchestration and organization of space, the connection between materials. But what I’m suggesting is that 2D drawing techniques are focused tools for specific outcomes within the design process, and what virtual reality does incredibly well is bring those outcomes into a format that can be easily discussed, critiqued, signed off, or re-worked.

And even as the world slowly transitions from the use of two-dimensional drawings and workflows ever increasingly tighten between 3D models and fabrication processes, buildings will still be designed, coordinated, and constructed with sketches as a key part of the communication chain. But by recognizing that the drawing is a fundamentally flawed way of translating perceptual information, we can seek ways to improve — and in effect move the building industry and its stakeholders from a culture of wasteful interpretation to one of clear expectations.

I’d like to thank everyone, practicing architects and otherwise, that have given some great critical feedback on this topic and have been incredibly helpful in support of the conversation. A warm thanks to David Hecht, David de Cespedes, Rubah Musvee, Simon McGown, Ailyn Mendoza, for their initial thoughts and provocations.