Spatial Ability and its Influence on the Design Process

By Anthony Philip Williams and Ken Sutton.

Published by The Design Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The Design process is a complex activity that requires significant cognitive abilities one of the more important aptitudes for students studying design is spatial ability, the significance of which we are only starting to fully appreciate. Spatial ability can be defined as the performance on tasks that require the mental rotation of objects, the ability to understand how objects appear in different positions and how they relate to each other in space. Another aspect which is potentially a significant factor for design is three-dimensional (3D) understanding or the ability to comprehend accurately the form of a solid object. Despite there being a vast amount of research on spatial ability, there is very little known about the effects of spatial ability on design thinking or how it is developed through appropriate education programs. Spatial ability should therefore be considered a fundamental skill in design-based disciplines, but its importance is not always understood or given the attention it deserves. Of consideration is ability to effectively manipulate imagined objects as part of the thought process is valuable in most design domains.
This paper reports on the development of a spatial ability test suitable for designers according to psychometric test construction standards. The test measures the spatial ability construct and five separate spatial skills which are believed to contribute to this construct. The test measures both choice accuracy and reaction time of the participants. These tests provide a more accurate understanding of the diversity of presentation of the five spatial ability skills. Reported as well is the spatial performance of novice design students studying in a first year university graphics course, of note is the performance of the female students involved in the study. Consistent with the literature, a significant gender difference favouring males was found for the spatial ability test and most of the spatial skills it measures.
Spatial ability in the past has been considered an innate ability but recent research has created an awareness that this may not be the case in all situations. Online learning tasks that allow active exploration and manipulation of 3D objects are thought to improve spatial performance. This paper discusses the influence of spatial ability on novice designers through the reporting of research outcomes based on detailed statistical analyses.

Keywords: Spatial Ability, Design Cognition, Drawing

Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Volume 5, Issue 6, pp.141-152. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.226MB).

Prof. Anthony Philip Williams

Head, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, Australia

Dr. Ken Sutton

Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, Australia


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