Don’t dismiss doodling – in the right hands, it can be a serious and useful tool that should be deployed when problems are most messy and topics most serious, says business owner, author and leader of the doodle revolution Sunni Brown
Many of you may recall the story of the now-infamous ‘Davos doodle’. For those who don’t, let me summarise. In 1996 in Davos, Switzerland, the world’s most pre-eminent leaders gathered at the annual World Economic Forum. They were discussing weighty topics such as the end of easy oil, global pandemics and what was at stake in Iraq. When a press conference came to a close, event workers gathered the remains of the day and found something that turned into a scandal: a doodle left behind by then-prime minister Tony Blair.
Unfortunately for Blair, the scribbling was psychoanalysed by graphologists – people who study handwriting and relate it to psychological states. From their analyses came assertions that Blair was “aggressive” and “unstable”, among other unflattering things. But when the dust finally settled, a truth no one anticipated emerged about this doodle. It didn’t belong to Blair. It was by the Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates. This discovery led to backtracking about the conclusions drawn, and reignited an old debate about graphology as a pseudoscience.
A rootless stigma
During this rather childish mania, the press missed something important. The rhetoric surrounding the fiasco had a built-in assumption that is negligently off-base: it was inappropriate for Blair to have been doodling in the first place. Time and again I noticed the covert messaging: leaders do not doodle. When solving serious problems, to draw is to trivialise. It’s unacceptable to sketch when complex subject matter is being dealt with.
The media arena isn’t the only place where the practice is underestimated and vilified. Doodling, at least in the US, is perceived as inappropriate in virtually every learning environment in which we find ourselves – in the classroom, boardroom and Situation Room. But this persistent cultural view works against us. As a cognitive tool, the doodle is incredibly useful.
According to Professor Jackie Andrade at the University of Plymouth, doodling is our mind’s way of ensuring that we have enough cognitive stimulation to stay focused and remain engaged in an information exchange. And that’s not all. In my work as an information designer and visual thinker, I’ve learned that doodling, sketching and drawing is our mind’s way of reflecting information back to itself, allowing us to grasp it more efficiently. Until we can see something, in many ways we can’t really know it at all. As the 20th-century French artist Henri Matisse said, “To draw is to make an idea precise.”
Food for thought
Visual language – something as sophisticated as a wireframe or as simple as a doodle – is native to our brains. To suggest implicitly or openly that learners should rely solely on text or auditory content to understand complexities and solve problems is to deny the brain one of its most fundamental and profound ways of understanding. Leonard Bruce Archer, a mechanical engineer and champion of design research at the Royal College of Art, noted that people working through problems seem to “form images in their mind’s eye, manipulating and evaluating ideas before, during and after externalising them.”
I’m a serious advocate of the doodle, which I define as “a marking that helps a person think”. Doodling should be deployed when problems are most messy and topics most serious. In particular, I encourage what I refer to as “strategic doodling”, which is drawing to track auditory content, translate text into visual language or sketch a mental model you need to see to understand. I’ve seen the transformative power of the doodle, and it’s not the nemesis of intellectual thought; it’s one of its greatest allies.
This article originally appeared in issue 210 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.