Visual Thinking: Sketching, An Essential Tool

“I can’t draw.”

We hear it over and over again when we discuss visual thinking. And our answer is always, “Yes you can. And you should.”

When we were kids, we never said we couldn’t draw. We didn’t even think about it—we simply picked up a marker or crayon and go. We put our ideas on paper; those ideas beget other ideas; and at the end, our completed drawing told a story.

As we get older, many of us who choose to work in less creative fields move away from drawing, and when we do, we lose a valuable tool for organizing our thoughts, improving learning, and communicating ideas.

Drawing—or sketching—is a game-changer for good team collaboration. It’s the fastest and easiest way to convey your thoughts, to help shape the conversation in meetings and get everyone on the same page. Yet so many people don’t feel comfortable standing at the whiteboard with a marker in hand. We want to change that.

Sketching is an Important Learning Tool

When you have a meeting, there’s a good chance that the people sitting around the table don’t all process information the same way. There are three basic learning modalities:

  • Visual learners learn by seeing. They need diagrams, graphs and charts to help them understand concepts.
  • Kinesthetic learners learn by doing. They respond to hands-on exercises and experiences.
  • Auditory learners learn by hearing. They easily grasp information in a lecture or discussion setting.

If your meetings consist of simply talking, you’re probably not getting the most valuable contributions from the visual and kinesthetic learners. Sketching is an effective tool because it unifies all three of those modalities, meaning everyone in the room can quickly wrap their heads around new ideas and add to the discussion.

When we see teams stuck in an endless cycle of talking but not solving problems, we send each member out of the room with a piece of paper and a pen and tell them to sketch what’s in their heads. The results are incredible. Once people are able to map out their thoughts, they’re then able to share them with the group in a concrete way.

Sketching is Easier than You Think

Sunni Brown is an expert in sketching, or as she prefers to call it, doodling. Her visual alphabet consists of 12 forms that she says are the “fundamental building blocks for drawing everything in the known universe.” If you still think you’re one of those people who can’t draw, answer these questions:

  • Can you draw a spiral?
  • Can you draw a triangle?
  • Can you draw a line?

If you answered “yes” to the above questions, you’ve already mastered three out 12. And the other nine are just as easy. The thing to remember is that sketches aren’t art. Your pictures don’t have to be pretty or complex. They just have to communicate your ideas. In the early stages, they can even be messy—you can always clean them up later, after you’ve fully fleshed out your idea.

We’re holding a Sketching Bootcamp in NYC on November 21, 2015, where we’ll spend a whole day drawing and sharing our understanding of four basic concepts:

  • Visual Vocabulary: Learning basic forms to represent people, places, actions and time
  • Process Mapping: Understanding how to put the small pieces together to form the big picture
  • Frameworks: Working with existing visual frameworks like flowcharts, pyramid diagrams and journey maps
  • Summarizing and Presenting Data: How to utilize the above concepts to sell ideas and solve problems

Our bootcamp is a great tool for learning, but if you don’t live in NYC, you can still explore the fundamentals of sketching. After all, you know how to sketch—you have since you were a kid. So grab a pen and go.

Andy Hagerman
[email protected]

Andy Hagerman is one of the co-founders and partners at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot him a note at [email protected].

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