Draw More In Meetings & Get Others On Your Page

13-Oct-2011

Apparently the age-old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is true – or at least trending. Visit a marketing department or advertising agency meeting room that’s been updated in the past few years and it’s guaranteed to boast a floor to ceiling IdeaPaint whiteboard wall. Their staff regularly say “let’s whiteboard it out” and are perhaps even a little addicted to a spectrum of scented dry-erase markers.

Meanwhile some of the most classic tools of capturing ideas by hand have been making a steady comeback, as well. Look at the renewed obsession with pocket-size journals. What self-respecting creative director shows up to a meeting without their Moleskin and fine-tip Sharpie? Or visit the web site of the scrappy, independently-rugged notebook brand, Field Notes. Their rough brown paper and vintage typography-inspired design is practically a testament to the renewed romance of note taking.

But if the more mainstream popularity of drawing surfaces are any indicator – personal journals are now a fixed staple of any bookstore and while erasable drawing surfaces like the trusty chalkboard have always been in the classroom, the luckier schools are now installing SmartBoards in every class as early as first grade – it seems that creative professionals and marketing communicators aren’t the only ones catching wise to the power of sketching out ideas.

Visual note taking – especially of the spontaneous variety – helps thinkers of all ages and professions, better capture ideas and creatively solve problems in the moment.

But just as powerfully, doodling, drawing, and sketching while explaining ideas can get groups of people seeing on the same page, to be more likely to engage and contribute in the process, and increases the chance that those new ideas will actually get executed down the road.

“Any Problem Can Be Helped With A Picture” is Dan Roam’s mantra and the crux of his how-to book for visual problem solving, The Back Of The Napkin: Solving Problems And Selling Ideas With Pictures.  And Roam definitely puts his philosophy – and doodles – into practice, as his book is chock-full of smart, simple, and personable drawings which he uses to explain everything from the science of visual thinking (for the truly geeky), to simple tips (for the truly drawing-adverse) and poses lots of strategies for those of us that fall somewhere in between.

The problems and ideas Roam draws about in his book are the kind found in almost any business-planning scenario.  And since being able to tap into new ideas practically on-demand, while also getting others to understand (and enthusiastically-approve) those ideas are basically the top of the list for any marketer or creative professional, this book is incredibly eye-opening for them in particular, providing actionable ideas for creating hand drawn visuals on the fly, especially in collaborative group settings.

Dan Roam The Back Of The Napkin

Dan Roam The Back Of The Napkin Split Screen

“Because processing images activates more corners of our minds than words alone, we have a greater tendency to believe what we see – and the images we create are far stickier than the things we only hear.”  – Dan Roam, The Back Of The Napkin

Because Pictures “Are Stickier”
This is Roam’s point that someone may be describing their point-of-view one way, but every other person in the group is seeing it in their mind’s eye differently. Until an idea is put to paper, it’s impossible to tell if everyone’s really on the same page, or napkin in this case.

Now, if the idea of being asked to actually draw in a meeting gives you Pictionary-fright, Roam stresses you don’t have to be an artist to flex your visual thinking muscle. If you can draw a circle, a line, a square, an arrow, you’re pretty much set. But people can get pretty intimidated about this, especially those that don’t consider themselves creative or just don’t want to “play along.”  Roam suggests overcoming that resistance might be as simple as just knowing which color pen a person identifies with.

Back of the Napkin Pen Descriptions

What Color Is Your Pen? Roam identifies three kinds of visual thinkers: “people who can’t wait to start drawing (the black pen people), those who are happy to add to someone else’s work (the highlighters or yellow pen) and those who question it all – right up to the moment they pick up the red pen and redraw it all.”


“Proceed With Curiosity.”
While Roam’s book is very much targeted toward business problem-solving, How To Be An Explorer of the World by Keri Smith, is anything but corporate. “Proceed with curiosity” is hand written – irresistible not to turn – caution on the opening page of her book that’s unfolds like an illustrated journey.

Less about presenting, and more about capturing what we find when we actively cultivate our curious nature – is where visual note taking, drawing and documenting comes in to Smith’s method.  It’s why pens play a big part of her book, too.  Pens, notepads, and pocket-journals are just a few of the tools Smith recommends to analyze, collect, compare and spot patterns – be it in the detailed study of the bark of a tree or the observations of every person you see walking out of the corner grocery store in a one-hour sitting.

How To Be An Explorer of the World by Keri Smith

“Artists and scientists analyze the world around them in surprisingly similar ways.” – Keri Smith, How To Be An Explorer of The World

Branding exercises, employee or customer observations, workshop activities, and collaborative group problem-solving are all ways that businesses, from a two-person startup to a multi-layered organization can drill down to their unique differences and most compelling attributes. So, while it’s anything but a business book – any person trying to find the underlying truth in an organizational challenge can find lots of simple, unusual, and frankly fun methods in Explorer.

Every page is basically a mission. Smith uses quirky photos and line drawings to describe each one to the reader. They are simple to execute exercises that transform commonplace objects, environments and tasks into almost clandestine assignments with the promise of eye-opening revelations. Three such experiments that could be easily adapted to a branding, concepting or other creative business challenges are “Fifty Things,” “Local Lore” and “Accidental Art.”

50 Things Keri Smith Explorer Exercise

Local Lore Keri Smith Explorer Exercise

Accidental Art Keri Smith Explorer Exercise


From The Back Of The Napkin To Explorer Of The World
Getting comfortable with capturing what is seen, and making sense of it on paper for others to understand (or on whiteboard paint with a grape-scented marker) improves problem-solving skills in the professional world. But busting out those markers shouldn’t be reserved for only brainstorming sessions. Even a Monday morning staff meeting can be improved by a brave person setting down the coffee mug and pulling from their tool belt of visual skills (and that doesn’t have to always mean illustrating-skills here, so simmer down you draw-phobic).

So whether taking even a small cue from “business-savvy-doodler” Roam or “artist-as-scientist” Smith, here are some practical visual skills worth uncapping your pen for.

Work On Your Capturing/Seeing & Sharing/Showing Skills:
- look for patterns in what you’re seeing or hearing
- categorize or “clump” commonalities in columns, circles or grids
- try thinkmapping or mindmapping
- try out other visual maps like venn diagrams
- charts are okay, but beware letting them get dry, think about the data as the star
- timelines or “family-tree” type flowcharts can be enhanced with touchpoint drawings along the way
- listen for and collect “found words” things people say that strike a chord
- if you’re talking about a person, draw that person (stick-people method is fine)
- if you’re talking about a product or service, draw an object that symbolizes what it stands for
- take digital photos if you’re visiting an office or worksite, even if it’s one you’ve gone to hundreds of times before
- then use the photos you took to explain a solution along with simple captions
- draw a single object that captures the emotion or you want to convey as the starting point of a story you want to tell
- create a vision board with magazine clippings, colors, found objects to make your idea one that others can imagine

Your Next Meeting Of The Minds
Next time you’re in a meeting (even that Monday morning one) rather than conceding to the typical agenda, and letting everyone just go their separate ways at it’s close – often saving the heavy thinking for the privacy (or procrastination) of their cubicles and computer screens – instead seize the moment and either:

Visually Frame and Sketch

a.) visually frame the actual problem so all parties go away from the meeting with a better understanding of what steps they can take next, or

b.) sketch out some solutions on the fly. Just because you come up with an idea spontaneously, doesn’t mean it’s not of value. A lot of times a five minute idea can serve as a catalyst to get leaps and bounds closer to an answer. Especially when everyone can see it.

Try practicing some visual problem solving skills we’ve outlined above, or check out Dan Roam’s  The Back of the Napkin or Keri Smith’s How To Be An Explorer of The World.

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