Visual arts for engineering students: Productive collaboration and enhanced composition

Woman holding paint brushes while painting on a canvas

My previous two posts (Part 1, Part 2) suggest that “doing” visual art, not just studying it, is likely to open up a new world of insight and accomplishment for you and your students. As an example, I described one benefit, namely seeing, not just looking. Consider two more benefits of participating in visual arts.

More creative and innovative collaboration

Suggesting the power of freehand drawing in a group setting, Dan Roam [1] says: “Visually representing someone or something, regardless of actual likeness or detail, always triggers insights that writing a list alone cannot achieve.” Even simple freehand drawing, in the form of shapes, lines, arrows, stick people, and things visible to all participants enhances each person’s ability to really see the physical, environmental, health and safety, socio-political-economic, financial, and other aspects of pressing issues, problems, and opportunities.  

I have searched for, studied, and experimented with various methods intended to help teams and groups be even more creative and innovative. About one-half of the creativity-innovation stimulation tools that I discovered have strong visual components. Some examples of these methods are Fishbone Diagramming, Mind Mapping, Biomimicry, Process Diagramming, and Six Thinking Caps [2].

I recall meeting with several client representatives in their conference room. The front wall was a white board — floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Fantastic! As we all began to talk and share questions and ideas, I got up and started to make what turned out to be an evolving visual record of our conversation. “Seeing” what we were “saying” and “envisioning” where we might go seemed to help everyone.

Enhanced sense of composition

Consider another benefit of participating in visual arts — an enhanced sense of composition. In the art world, composition refers to how elements or things are positioned on a painting or drawing or arranged within a sculpture. The artist uses composition to set a mood or send a message [3, 4, 5, 6].

We don’t know why, but the human brain tends to respond favorably to classical composition rules traced back to at least the Renaissance. Consider some of these rules, using the following elephant drawing as an example.

Oil painting of an elephant in the jungle

  • The rule of thirds: Don’t put the principal object in the center. The elephant is to the upper right of center.
  • Gazing/walking direction: If the main object has a directional aspect, leave room in that direction. Ample space is provided in the front of the elephant.
  • Emphasize positive versus negative space: Positive space is that occupied by the principal object and negative space is everything else. The elephant occupies a substantial portion of the drawing.
  • Focal point: Immediately bring the viewer to the principal object through the use of size, color, or other visual features. The elephant’s white tusks and large ears tend to grab the viewer’s attention.

So what is the benefit of understanding the art world’s composition rules? The short answer is that engineers are composers and we will be more effective if we understand and apply composing rules. We should know what kinds of arrangements are likely to connect with the brains of the colleagues, students, clients, and stakeholders we work with or serve.

Consider an example. You are leading a writing workshop for your academic department and want to stress the value of aggressive pruning — getting rid of unnecessary words. Accordingly, you do not use a boring text-only slide with bullets. Instead, because of your understanding of composition rules, you compose the following strongly visual slide to communicate your pruning advice.

Young women holding shears pruning vines of a plant



About the Author
Stuart Walesh, Ph.D., P.E.

Stuart Walesh, Ph.D., P.E.

Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., practicing as an independent consultant, provides management, engineering, and education/training services to private, public, academic, and volunteer sector organizations.  After earning a BS in Civil Engineering at Valparaiso University, Stu obtained a MSE at The Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a licensed professional engineer in Indiana and Wisconsin and a Diplomate of the American Academy of Water Resources Engineers.

Stu has over 40 years of engineering, education, and management experience in the government, academic, and private sectors and has worked as a project manager, department head, discipline manager, author, marketer, sole proprietor, professor, and dean of an engineering college. He is a member of ASCE, National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), and has chaired state and national committees and groups.  


  1. Roam, D. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures. New York: Penguin Group, 2008.
  2. Walesh, S. G. Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson, 2016.
  3. Biasotti-Hooper, M. “Composition.” Presented at the Venice (Florida) Art Center, January 11, 2016.
  4. Calle, P. The Pencil. Cincinnati, OH: North Light Books, 1974.
  5. Krizek, D. Drawing and Sketching Secrets. New York: Reader’s Digest Association, 2012.
  6. Hoddinott, B. Drawing for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.