What's Wrong With This Picture?
How doodling helps shape the unseen, abstract principles in order to create
What if you could see an idea? What if you could hold an idea in your hand
and shape it until it became solid and defined? Until it becomes so clear
that other people could understand it just by seeing at it? If you've ever
had the feeling that you KNEW something but just couldn't find the words to
explain it, you can imagine how powerful seeing an idea would be.
Now: what if I told you that nearly everyone is born with this ability to
see ideas, that YOU have it, and yet for some reason, you are told by your
teachers, bosses, and maybe even your parents...
...to knock it off?
Up to now, you've seen me taking visual notes of the amazing talks we've
heard today. You probably had a few reactions: “What the heck is that guy
doing?” Or maybe, “Oh, I get it: that’s pretty cool.” And maybe, “Hey, I
think I could do that!”
Well good news: I’d like to invite all of you to engage with the rest of
this talk in a way that might be new for you. Please take out the notebooks
and pens you were given, and DRAW WHAT YOU HEAR. Take visual notes. Don’t
try to capture everything you hear, just what stands out for you. Write a
short phrase and draw a quick icon representing that idea. Just try it. You
have a quick startup sheet from my colleague, Mike Rohde, with techniques
for this. And if you don’t want to take visual notes, please doodle. It’s
OK, you won’t have to show it to anybody, and I promise I won’t take it
personally if you’re not staring at me.
As you get started, I’d like to begin with a question: What’s wrong with
this picture? What’s wrong with doodles? Why don't we let kids doodle in
school? All children doodle. It comes naturally. It requires no
instruction. And yet we tell them NOT to do it. Why? I was the kid who
always had two pieces of paper on my desk: one for notes, and one for
doodles. I got in trouble a lot. Especially in Algebra.
I was told: “you’re not paying attention.” “That’s useless.” And “this
isn’t art class.” Today, I doodle professionally. And more than that, I
give people tools to help them see ideas, visual tools based on doodles to
solve really hard problems, problems that would be impossible to solve any
other way. So why do we teach kids that doodling is wrong?
I believe doodling is today what left-handedness was not so long ago. My
grandfather was left-handed. His teachers would beat his knuckles with a
ruler if he didn’t use with his right hand. He got by, but as a result, he
developed a stutter. He got out of school, started writing with his left
hand, and immediately lost his stutter. But: I can’t help but wonder what
school would have been like for him if he'd simply been allowed to write
with his left hand, to do what came naturally.
As a father of four kids who are just beginning their education, my biggest
fear is that schools will ignore the fact that different children learn in
My colleagues Sunni Brown and Rachel Smith have spoken at TED conferences
before about the power of drawing ideas. Take a note: check out their TED
videos. Sunni Brown and Rachel Smith. I’d like to build on their thoughts
along those of other visual practitioners, like Diane Durand and Dean
Meyers, who continue to evolve the conversation around using visuals in
education, healthcare, and business. I'd like to talk about why I believe
doodling can help engage students in learning, ready them for a complex
world, and make school fun. And I’d like to do so by turning the three
biggest misconceptions about doodling on their heads: that it’s
distracting, that it’s useless in the real world, and that it’s only place
is in art class.
First misconception: it’s distracting.
Doodles are black and white proof of a wandering mind. They are inescapable
evidence that “you weren’t listening.” And if you weren’t listening, how
could you have been learning?
So here’s what we know. We learn by seeing, hearing, and doing. You’ve
heard of the visual learner, the auditory learner, and maybe you’ve heard
of the kinesthetic, or motion-active, learner. It turns out that no one is
purely one kind of learner. EVERYONE has SOME aspect of each of these
learning styles, and the more that you engage ALL of the learning styles,
the greater your understanding and retention. Doodling engages all three
styles. A doodle doesn’t even have to be related to the subject matter to
engage the kinesthetic learner. I love this quote by Sunni Brown: “there is
no such thing as a mindless doodle.” A study of people listening to
complicated phone messages found that doodlers retained 29% more content
than non-doodlers. Did you get that? Doodling keeps you from losing focus
when the topic is boring. Which is why I asked you to draw while I was
But when the doodles ARE relevant to the subject, you make a personal
connection with what you are hearing. You think: what does this concept
remind me of? What does it look like? What can I draw that represents it?
What metaphor could I use to illustrate it? You become an active learner.
You create an experiential memory that allows you to make connections and
see patterns that would have been invisible to the passive learner.
We learn by doing and we learn by doodling.
Second misconception: it’s useless in the real world.
It’s not professional. You don’t need it to do your job. Your boss isn’t
paying you to doodle.
Okay, for right now, we’re going to ignore the following professions:
visual practitioners like me, artists, illustrators, architects, engineers,
creatives, designers of all kinds, and anyone else who draws as part of
their job. Instead, we’ll focus on what my algebra teacher called “real
jobs.” Ever seen this before? It’s been called “The most famous napkin in
Texas.” It’s Herb Kelleher's concept for the original business model for
Southwest Airlines, and it was literally drawn on the back of a napkin.
There's a book about that if you're interested. It's called "Back of the
Regardless of what your job is, chances are you have to solve hard problems
or communicate complex ideas. Doodles are the pure language of ideas. One
of the pioneers in the field of visualization, David Sibbet, likes to say,
“you don’t build a house from a set of instructions. You use a blue print.”
When an idea is complex or ambiguous, words lose their effectiveness, and
visuals become more effective. Think about the last time you sat through an
80-slide PowerPoint deck, or read a 100-page strategic plan. How much did
you really retain? The University of Stanford studied the use of
collaborative, participatory group visuals in meetings and found that they
increase retention by 17%, improve consensus by 19%, and actually shorten
the time it takes to solve problems by 24%. Unfortunately, just putting
clip art in PowerPoint doesn’t count. This is about using visuals as a
medium to gather ideas, solve problems, and plan the way ahead.
I want to take a minute and give you a quick list of visual tools you can
look up later that can cut through ambiguity and solve hard problems.
You have your brainstorming tools, like mindmaps, word clouds, and concept
You have decision making tools, like force field diagrams, decision trees,
fishbones, and quad charts.
You have your planning tools, like gantt charts, swimlanes, and process
You have your whole systems tools, like learning maps, vision maps, and
Plus, there’s all the cool STUFF that you use: whiteboards, groupware,
templates like the business model canvas or the graphic gameplan, and my
own personal favorite, paper and markers.
What I just demonstrated is a tool called a mindmap. In my opinion, a
mindmap is the single greatest tool for brainstorming ideas, period. THIS
is something we should be teaching in school. You start with a central idea
and you branch outward, following key ideas as they occur. You move up and
down in levels of detail, adding new branches, going wherever your mind
takes you. You draw cross connections as ideas interrelate. One idea will
suggest another. You can imagine how powerful tools like these are in the
Third misconception: This isn’t art class. This isn’t the time or place.
We’re not teaching art here.
Let me ask a question: at the end of the day, what’s the point? Do you want
kids to have nice, neat, clean, sterile notes that copy verbatim what the
teacher says? Or, do you want kids to make sense of what they’re learning
and retain it? It’s THEIR notes. Let them take notes in a way that they’ll
remember. And yes: kids still get in trouble over this today. So do
grownups, for that matter.
I’m not suggesting kids draw all over their homework or their tests or
anything they have to turn in. But how cool would it be if students turned
in a mindmap along an essay so teachers could actually see the thought
process that went into the final product? Isn’t teaching kids how to think
the point of school in the first place?
There’s two studies I want to share with you on note taking. Tony Buzan,
one of the world’s leading authorities on learning techniques, asked
students what words they most associated with note taking. The top seven
were: boring, punishment, depression, fear, wasted time, rigidity, and
failure. THAT is how students feel about how they spend most of their time
in school. And it doesn’t have to be like that. By the way, Buzan went on
to create a new style of notetaking that he called, “mind mapping.”
The other study I want to share is by Doctor F. Robert Sabol of Purdue
University, who looked at the effects of No Child Left Behind. You can
probably guess some of the findings: more of discipline and behavioral
problems, apathy and resentment, decreased work ethic, but here’s what was
surprising. When it came to drawing or other visualization, students
reported that it was “fun.” How about that? Students drew because they
enjoyed it, it relaxed them, they felt like they could express themselves,
it helped them deal with uncertainty, and that it helped them learn new
things and solve problems. NO KIDDING.
So here comes my favorite question of all time: what if? What if students
were allowed to take visual notes in all their classes? What if we stopped
telling kids not to doodle? Because maybe the biggest loss here is that
kids who are told to stop doodling in class grow up to be adults who say
things like, "I'm not a visual person," or "I can't draw."
“I can’t draw.” I want to do an experiment. This is a quick exercise I
learned from my friends at kommunicationslotsen, a German visualization
firm. Germans have some of the coolest stuff. These markers? German! OK:
take a deep breath. Release. Again. Close your eyes. I can see all of you,
I know who’s cheating. In your mind, I'd like you all to go back to when
you were a student. Think of yourself sitting in class. On your desk, there
is an open notebook. And in that notebook, there is a doodle. There was
always one doodle, one drawing, one picture you drew. You drew it over and
over and over. Now: open your eyes. Find a blank page in your notebook, and
draw that doodle.
Here's what most people draw: an object, a person or a face, a word,
something abstract, or something from nature. What do they have in common?
It's not what you would call fine art, but that’s not the point. It's
quick. It uses simple shapes. It's iconic. It’s a symbol for an idea.
That’s not what a house actually looks like, and yet, people know it's a
house. It is the IDEA that matters most. When you use simple shapes and
simple icons, you have everything you need to take visual notes.
Let’s do one more what if. What if you're a teacher and you catch a student
doodling in class, or you're a boss and you catch an employee doodling in a
meeting? Your first thought will be that they're distracted and not paying
attention. It’s OK: despite everything you’ve just heard, you’ve been
trained your whole life to believe doodling is bad. But now, you know
And then, ask yourself: What’s the point? What’s important to you? Do you
want them to sit still as statues, eyes wide and locked on you? Maybe a
little drool going on? Or, do you want them to maybe learn something? 51%
of us are introverts. 29% of us are predominantly visual learners. 37% of
us are predominantly kinesthetic learners. With those numbers, chances are
more than a few of your listeners would really hear what you have to say
better if they were doodling.
Here’s the message I want to leave you with. Doodles help you learn better.
Doodles have real world application. And doodles can make learning fun.
Anyone can do doodle, because at its core, it's not about artistic skill.
As you probably noticed as you were taking visual notes, the real skill is
listening and making a personal connection to the content.
And here’s what I would ask of you. Think with ink. Think, what’s RIGHT
with this picture. If you have a pen in your hand, draw. If you're a
teacher, a parent, a caregiver, a manager, or a leader, create a space
where doodling is OK. I honestly believe that I have the best job in the
world: I help people see ideas. When you create a space where doodling is
OK, you allow others to see ideas, too.
Via Dean Meyers