Monthly Archives: October 2013

It was a year ago that I wrote ‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre Part 1’, with the good intension that I would write this post soon after. As life gets busy, I find myself having done another year at AHO, teaching a new and improved class on design ideational methods. So here are some of the techniques and exercises I’ve developed over the last 7 years to aid the drawing process. Many of my drawing exercises have been influenced by my colleague Terry Rosenberg who continues to be a brilliant drawing teacher, so this post is a big nod to him.

I’ve ran these classes in different forms and situations for over the last seven years, what you see here is a selection of highlights that try to give a overview of the approach. Ultimately, I’d like to write a book about the approach. Until then, a blog post will have to do.

The warm up; reconnecting the hand, eye and brain


I start my workshops with a drawing warm up; A set of exercises that are common on foundation courses and life drawing classes around the country. The idea of the warm up is three-fold:

First, it acts as a diagnostic; giving me insight into the skills and abilities of the group. It’s allows me to assess the levels of the participants, whilst starting to see the good and bad habits they have evolved in their drawing practice. It’s important to know their strengths and weaknesses in order to pace the session. Strangely enough many people with very good drawing skills find these classes harder – I think this is due to a more developed (entrenched) way of using their hand, eyes and brain.

Second, it allows me to set out the relationship between the hand, eyes and brain within the drawing process. The exercises isolate each part of the body to explore the role it plays in the drawing process. It gives people insight into how practice builds strength in all three. By isolating looking, thinking and moving I highlight how each contribute to the production of ideas. Deconstructing the physicality of drawing identifies the bodily nature of the imagination.

Finally it allows me to discuss the difference between representational and ideational drawing. Drawing to make a representation of something that already exists and drawing to generate the new. It is here that I argue that drawing, even at a representational level, is the construction of ideas. Therefore the conscious manipulation of ideas through the act of drawing becomes highly fruitful for a designer.

The exercises are timed (between three and ten minutes a drawing) and are delivered with a sort of military charge (I was once accused of being a Sergeant Major of Drawing “Drop and give me 50”). I do this on purpose, the tight time restrictions give people little time to think and critique their own work. This means they relax and become less precious with their marks. This is essential, as it’s impossible to generate ideas through drawing if you spend your time fearful of ridicule and critique. The students are asked to draw portraits of each other, this also acts as an ice breaker. They laugh at each other with mutual generosity.

I move from finger tips to shoulder, isolating parts of the body to highlight the effect of bodily movement on the mark and mode of representation. I show how shifts in bodily relations change the nature of the mark and therefore the idea of the drawing. I end the warm up with a series of ‘continuous line drawings’, again these act as a great leveller. It gives everyone the same ‘style’ and aesthetic, relieving tension and expectation. It helps remove hesitancy and nervous ‘hairy’ lines, building a form of false confidence. It also forces the participants to locate their subject within their environments. The web of lines move across the page connecting disparate objects and ideas, they form a visible network of things, aiding connections and relations.

Drawing at AHO

Investigate and deconstruct

After the warm up we move on to drawing things. I normally ask the students to bring a collection of interesting and unusual objects, it starts with the familiar feeling of a ‘still life’, a pile of unusual objects (found, scavenged and treasured) ready to be observed and documented. I start with a series of continuous line drawings, at this stage it’s really important to keep the momentum going, it becomes easy to fall back into old habits. It’s also important to emphasis detail and dimension; things are made from materials, they have weight, density and texture, using continuous line technique it’s easy to make shorthand assumptions about an object; a slow abstraction towards an icon.

Once the objects have become familiar, I ask students to draw an exploded diagram, still in continuous line, we deconstruct the constituent parts of an object to see it in its complexity. Obviously, at this stage, it’s not possible to break the object to pieces, it’s here that the drawing moves from observation to assumption. By asking for an exploded diagram, I challenge the students to deconstruct the object in their imagination, giving them an access point into understanding manufacturing and construction. A form of engineering fiction.

Explode view diagram

In our current climate of conservative ‘design research’ it’s hard to imagine how a drawing practice can be rigorously investigatory; how it can shed light on ideas, objects and forms, how it is part of knowledge production. But I’m keen to encourage our students to use drawing as a way of knowing the world. It’s through the act of drawing, the to and fro of idea to observation, that objects can unravel their meaning. Drawing acts as a process of forensic examination of materiality, demystifying meaning and generating new.

Conjoin and mutate (bridging reality and the imagination)


My next activity centres around the move from representation to ideation. From drawing things in the world, to inventing things. I get students to select and draw two objects, one on the far left of the page and one on the right (see diagram above). I then ask them to fill the gap with 3-5 new drawings/objects. As their drawings move towards the centre, they should imagine a hybrid form, a mutant offspring of the two objects either side. By the time they reach the middle, they have a 50:50 hybrid, but either side of the centre is a less dominant mix. I commonly ask the students to use continuous line, this allows them to drift from one form to the next.

As with most of my drawing exercises, the outcome is often not the main goal. It’s the thought process that the act of drawing evokes. In the example above, we start from the familiar and move towards the strange. Drawing allows a space for the careful consideration of materials, construction and form, whilst opening opportunities for the examination of function. By trying to splice together incongruent objects, a slow consideration of their context and use comes into play. Again it is the fluctuation between objects as they are and how they may be.

Conjoin @ AHO

Infection and connection

The last process that I’m going to explain, is probably at the heart of the ‘The Matt Ward Manoeuvre‘, it’s the most challenging to master and the hardest to teach.  In this process my aim is to unlock a state of mind that allows the designer to make connections, interrogate ideas and invent new objects. It becomes hard to describe without falling into theories of ‘flow‘, ‘unconscious cognition‘ and ‘radical plasticity‘, but I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist (although I think there’s a killer PhD in there), and the theoretical reflection of this work has never been the drive for my engagement (I’ll leave it for another time/post/life/paper).

First, I ask student’s to compile some lists. If working on a brief, the lists should be related to a central topic, if not, random lists can suffice (but can lead to difficult dead ends). I ask for five lists containing at least ten items of the following:

  • Objects (artefacts related to their interests/context of investigation)
  • Sites (places where interactions occur)
  • Situations (events that take place in the network of culture that surrounds their objects)
  • People (professions, personalities or characters relevant to their object/context/project)
  • Qualities (adjectives describing of the interaction, behaviour of material involved)

Making lists is an important part of this process, it gives participants the chance to draw up an ecology of ‘actors‘, understanding the constituent parts of the context for which they’re designing. It allows for the mapping of places of action and ultimate the opportunities for design intervention.

I ask the participants to select an object from their list and draw it at the centre of an A3/A2 page. The central object should be something that resonates, something they can imagine designing, enjoy drawing, or something that is key to their interests. I then ask them to write one word from each of their lists in each of the corners of their page (see diagram below).


I then ask for the object to be re-drawn 3-5 times toward the edge of the paper, as the object moves towards the word, it becomes infected by it e.g. as the object get redrawn toward the ‘site’ it becomes more site-specific. This allows for students to start to re-imagine objects through the cultural complexities of the context, it allows actors to merge and agency to become physicalised. In this process form gives way to environment, context becomes reflected on the surface of the world.

As I describe above, the important outcome of the drawing isn’t necessarily the objects that emerge, it’s the thoughts that are triggered, it’s drawing as ideational practice. Therefore, it’s important to jump straight into drawing, I encourage a leap of faith, where the drawing is started without knowing the direction or outcome. If time is spent pre-thinking the outcome, the power of the process is lost. I try to encourage the embracing of dead ends, the power of ideational drawing is in the new beginnings and monstrous births.

These processes can be morphed, adapted and mutated, highlighting different elements of the design context with each iteration. The activities need repetition and practice, as with all drawing, it is through practice that familiarity and flow occur.

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This post was first published on Medium.

Dad's room

In March 2011 my Dad was diagnosed with vascular dementia, in the following October he discovered he also had inoperable lung cancer. With a prognosis of 12 months and two terminal conditions, he still manages to struggle on. Those that know me, have seen that the protracted and gradual loss of my father has had a profound affect on me. Unable to mourn him, I instead have to watch him slowly loose his dignity and identity. This form of loss is something that many people experience and with an ageing population it will become one of societies greatest challenges.

Beyond the emotional, medical, economic and social problems dementia presents, I think it’s important to reflect on what we can learn from those that are loosing purchase on reality. To understand, when our mental lives are slipping away, what do we grasp onto. To reflect on how our actions in the world today may shape the way we react to this terribly cruel disease, if we’re unfortunate enough to succumb to it.

On loosing reality

It’s a common myth that dementia is purely about memory loss. The most common response from someone finding out about my Dad is; ‘Does he still recognise you?’. The answer is yes, identifying his family has never been a problem. However, he’s also completely insane. I mean in a proper ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ way. Dad lives in an alternative reality — his perception of the world, his role and agency within it are fully fictional. He spends most of time living in a different time, but his new reality is saturated with the media of today. Most recently, he’s been obsessed with my Mother having an affair and being pregnant by Simon Cowell. My Mum is 68 and has never met the renowned R&R executive. His anxieties are re-lived in a perpetual loop, he’s stuck, replaying fragments of a fictional life.

Insanity, is something that people are very uncomfortable with, ‘forgetfulness’ is far easier to understand and ignore. Seeing dementia suffers as old people that forget names, faces, where they live, gives us a way to empathise with them without feeling threatened or terrified. Sadly, the reality is far more disconcerting. Believing you are in a different place, time and space, doing tasks that are never complete, battling demons that never show themselves is a far darker place to be.

Last week I attended Improving Reality. I throughly enjoyed listening to smart people discuss the possibilities of change within our socio-technical complex. However, as with many provocations, the word REALITY, once said over and over started to loose meaning and impact. I left the day with only a scant understanding of my own reality, never mind the opportunities to improve it. In talking about design, I often use language about ‘reality’, ‘change’ and ‘alternatives’ with little scrutiny about what we actually understand as the representation and manipulation of our reality (or realities). When confronted with a group of people who live and perceive the world differently, you can start to understand the role of media, narratives, conversations and relationships in a different light. My Dad’s reality is his reality, through gentle conversations you can start to uncover the boundaries of his world, you can give texture to the everyday frustrations of living apart from the rest of us.

Souvenirs, aide memoires and the materially sentimental

The reason I started writing this post was an overall sense of sadness about my Dad’s room in his care home. In their original states, the rooms are scantly decorated, institutionally bleak, to allow residents and their families to ‘make it home’. Most rooms have trinkets and ornaments, photographs and keepsakes, scatter cushions and familiar furniture. Everywhere around the care home you see evidence of residents’ families making efforts to remind their loved ones of who they once were, hoping that the objects they once loved would somehow create an anchor to this reality. My Dad’s room is empty. Even the draws are empty. It looks like a hotel room on the morning that you leave; signs of life, but one of transience and departure.

The lack of stuff in my Dad’s room is due to his capacity to distribute his material possessions to the furthest (and strangest) parts of the home. Within 24 hrs any object that enters his room (including his false teeth!) will disappear. I sometimes wonder if his rejection of his possessions are in someway a protest to the reality he finds himself in. By repelling his belongings he can keep a distance from the place he finds himself, seeing it as a temporary stop-over before he returns home.

Dad has always been a very un-sentimental man, he has little time for reflection and reminisce. Whether through friends, photographs or objects, he has lived his life in the perpetual present, loving new experiences and carrying little with him. This approach to life has in someway become amplified through his dementia. Sadly, he isn’t left with the positive affects of his life philosophy, only the negative.

He has become obsessed with the idea of someone stealing his things. He’s also turned his hand to occasional larceny. Many residents in the care home also appear to be obsessed with the loss and theft of their possessions. Obviously, as a family member your first reaction is to worry about members of staff abusing their positions of power. Recent media coverage has done little to build the trust you feel for care homes. I’m sure that theft and abuses of power occur, but in this instance, I don’t believe it’s the case. I think this phenomena is linked to the relationships we build with commodities.

Contemporary living seems to be largely based around the collection and consumption of material things, much has been written on the psychological effect of our modern obsession. But it is when sanity is stripped away, we see the unsettling remainder of conspicuous consumption. Material possessions give little solace to my Dad, instead he’s left with anxiety and paranoia. When all the glitz and glamour gone, we’re left feeling hollow.

It’s all detritus

I’ve been approached countless times by the residents clutching small collections of objects muttering about someone stealing something or things being lost. On Wednesday, an elderly man approached my holding a nail file, an elastic band, some scissors and an Ikea pencil. These things hand been stolen from him, he’d being trying to find them all day. No matter what objects enter the care home, they’re consumed on the same level. Semiotic chains of meaning are disrupted and broken. Objects are washed up on the shores of memory as fragmented links to a reality long lost.

All of this has made me try to rethink how the meanings of things are created and maintained. How do I select the things that I hold dear to me? What will these things mean if I suffer the same loss of reality as my father? And most importantly, if I loose my grip on reality, will I be left with a continual and unsettling feeling of material loss? If so, how do I live my life to strengthen and nurture relationships with people and not things.