What Color is Your Pen?

Black, Yellow, Red Pen People: Which one are you?


In his book, The Back of the Napkin: How to Solve Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, Dan Roam uses different colored pens to symbolize or represent an individual’s comfort level with sketching. “Black Pen People” are take-charge types who can take a marker and jump right in sketching on a whiteboard or flipchart. “Yellow Pen or Highlighter People” are adept at looking at other people’s sketches and finding insights and connections that make ideas come to life. If you often say “I can’t draw BUT…” you’re probably a Yellow Pen person. Lastly, “Red Pen People” are deathly afraid of having to step up and scribble ideas in public.


So which pen are you?

We use the “Which Pen Are You?” question at the start of sketching workshops to help gauge comfort levels in the room and set expectations for the night.

While getting people to admit to a certain comfort (or discomfort) level is one way to breakdown the barriers to sketching. Here are a few other things to keep in mind to help yourself, your teammates and your entire organization embrace sketching as a practice:

1. Close enough is good enough in sketching.

Sketching is about creating new ideas, capturing other people’s thoughts, solving problems and communicating ideas more effectively with others. It’s not about art. You don’t need an art degree to be proficient at working at a flipchart or whiteboard. Most of the time you’ll be drawing boxes, circles, lines and arrows anyway to get your point across. So it’s not important that your sketch of a building or giraffe look EXACTLY like a building or a giraffe. Close enough is definitely good enough.


2. Fast and loose wins the day.

Two basic skills in sketching you need to hone are active listening and quick sketching. #HearSomethingDrawSomething. Once you develop an understanding of the basic sketching vocabulary (i.e. circles, squares, triangles, arrows and simple icons), you can work quickly and with greater confidence and ease. Getting an idea down is what you’re after. And, as with most things, with plenty of practice you’ll become better and better at this.


3. Generate a variety of ideas quickly.

When you’re not trying to be perfect, you’re free to generate lots of ideas rapidly. Rather than spending too much time finessing an early idea, sketching enables your team to explore different territories, push past surface ideas and allows you to get deeper concepts out of your head faster. There’s no better way than sketching to get the ideas in the back of your brain to the front of the room.


4. Weed out the weak ideas or non-ideas.

Sketching is a great early detection system for ideas. It’s easier to tell how “doable” a potential idea is once you’ve sketched out its basic framework and uncovered its components. Sketching out an idea makes it more tangible and real for people, and therefore makes it easy to qualify the idea or identify if it’s worth pursuing. Doing this early in the process helps your team avoid wasting valuable time working on a “non-idea.”  Many times in our brand design sprints, we eliminate ideas that people love initially but realize there “isn’t a there there” once we had a chance to see it on paper.


5. Sketches invite discussion.

When a “fully baked” idea is shared, it is often with the intention of selling in order to get buy-in to move it forward. But when an idea is shared early and in sketch form, feedback is not only more useful at that phase in the project, but the rest of the team feels that they contributed to the idea and are more likely to be champions in bringing it to life. We often say that design thinking is a team sport, and sketching is a great way to get everyone on the same page (literally) and collaborating together.


6. Sketching is the oil in the design thinking engine.

When everyone is encouraged to come up with ideas and be a part of the design process, people tend to be more collaborative and productive when sketching is a central activity. When you make paper and markers a part of the discussion, people are more engaged, big ideas materialize more rapidly and participants spend less time “selling their ideas” which can sap a group’s energy and patience.

Sketching also helps democratize the ideation process. It’s a great equalizer. When you have multiple roles and experience levels collaborating together, getting everyone to draw an idea and put it on the wall gives everyone a voice in the conversation.


7. There’s data behind those doodles.

There’s compelling data going around that supports the growing popularity of visual thinking and sketching. According to IBM, 90% of all data in the world was created in the last two years. 90% of all data on the internet is visual, this according to Cisco. Lastly, Entertainment Weekly claims that seven out of the top 20 best-selling books on Amazon recently were coloring books for adults—its fastest growing segment.

So there it is. A few things to consider about using visuals and why building a sketching mentality within an organization is a good idea. From a culture standpoint, sketching is a great way to engage people, bridge language or expertise barriers, and enable teams to turn meetings into visual conversations. Getting better at sketching is also a great way to make sure that you’re a part of those conversations.

Interested in learning more? Join us for an upcoming sketching workshop.

Gary Kopervas is VP Brand Strategy and Innovation at 20nine, a creative branding agency, and a TDG Lead Trainer. You can contact Gary at [email protected] or tweet him at @GaryKope.

The Design Gym
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The Design Gym is 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 us a note at [email protected].

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