Info-Doodles contain both words and images. Brown recommends them instead of traditional note-taking.

Verbal and auditory learning modes often conflict. But visual and auditory modes reinforce each other.

A "Game-Storming" mashup.

Translating words into images can open up new avenues of interpretation.

The visual alphabet is the "A, B, C's" of doodling.

Creative teams should literally be able to doodle all over the office.

Turning an equation into a dramatic doodle scene.

Turning an equation into a dramatic doodle scene.

Turning an equation into a dramatic doodle scene.

Turning an equation into a dramatic doodle scene.

Turning an equation into a dramatic doodle scene.

Turning an equation into a dramatic doodle scene.

Co.Create

Here's Why, How, And What You Should Doodle To Boost Your Memory And Creativity

The author of The Doodle Revolution explains how this common "time waster" is really a creative launch-pad.

Did your boss ever catch you covering an important memo with Escher-like scribbles? In high school, did your teacher call you out for drawing on the desk, your sneakers, your skin? Today, the doodle nay-sayers are being drowned out by a growing body of research and opinion that indicates that connects that seemingly distracted scribbling with greater info retention and creativity. Companies like Dell, and Zappos, and Disney are eager for employees to doodle on the job--they even pay consultants to help them.

"I can’t tell you how important it is to draw," says Sunni Brown, whose creative consultancy Sunni Brown Ink, teaches "applied visual thinking"-- a.k.a doodling--to coders, designers, and even journalists. "It gets the neurons to fire and expands the mind." Just why and how this happens is the topic of Brown's recent book, The Doodle Revolution. Here, she shares her doodling "dos."

Why Doodle

Studies have shown that doodling can free up short- and long-term memory, improve content retention and increase attention span. It can also produce creative insight, because "when the mind starts to engage with visual language, you get neurological access that you don’t have when you're in a linguistic mode," says Brown. Most of us use reading, writing, and talking to brainstorm, but "the human mind is very habit forming," she says. To break that habit, you have to think in an unfamiliar medium--a visual medium.

What To Doodle

These Brown-recommended doodling exercises will help you rethink the familiar and make unexpected connections.

"Atomization." Take an object and visually break it down into its tiniest parts. If you start with the word "racoon," you might draw claws, a robber's mask and a trash can. As Brown says, "any element of a raccoon--its body or environment--becomes a way of looking at the animal that you didn’t think about" when you considered it as a whole.

"Game-Storming." Take two unrelated things, like elephants and ice cream, and draw them in their atomized parts. Then create drawings that randomly fuse these parts together. Like trunk-cones or melting ears. Brown has used this technique to help journalists think up unique story angles.

"Process Map." Having trouble thinking through a problem? Create a visual display that illustrates (literally) the sequence of events. Brown calls this a "cause and effect doodle." Sometimes, looking at pictures can help your brain make sense of a complex system better than words.

JFK, word doodling "Fidel Castro"

When To Doodle

A lesson or presentation is a particularly great time to doodle. "Few of us can effectively take point-by-point linguistic notes while listening to people talk, because the auditory information competes with the written information," says Brown. But visual attention is like a learning loophole; it doesn't compete with what we hear. That's why doodling in school can actually help you learn. Brown says that abstract doodling is great for these occasions, as are "info-doodles"--a combination of images and key words.

Of course, words are images. "But with language, there are too many tiny images crammed together, so the brain chokes up," says Brown. "The optimal scenario for trying to learn a subject seems to be partly visual, partly linguistic. If gives your brain two layers of richness."

Where To Doodle

The answer, according to Brown, is anywhere. "When I work with companies, the room has to be almost 80% white space, and if they don't have it, we design it for them," she says. This isn't just about helping CEOs unlock their inner child. It's about creating a fully immersive learning environment. "Your mind only has a certain capacity for storing information, so it's important to have a physically large playing field for the brain to consider different visual possibilities." Therefore, Brown encourages people to "draw on the floor, on each other, on table tops."

How to Doodle

Your ability to accurately render a cow or tree does not make doodling a more effective creative tool. "It's not art class," says Brown. But it does help to have a visual alphabet. Like the ABCs, Brown teaches her clients 12 basic shapes--including dots, lines, angles, spirals, and triangles. "When you have that alphabet available to you, you start to break the world down into visual components. A tree becomes a line with a bunch of other lines branching off." Soon, you realize that you can draw almost any object--or an approximation of it. Doodling works the best when it's spontaneous, which means your brain can't be worrying about how to sketch that rocket ship. All that matters, says Brown, is that your doodles "let you see something that you didn't see before."

[Doodling: Corepics VOF via Shutterstock, Illustrations courtesy of Sunni Brown Ink]

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10 Comments

  • I love this. I'm a person who is itching in every meeting to get to a whiteboard or a scratch pad to draw out processes and workflow and how ideas all come together. Great tips, Jennifer!

  • I love doodling! But in the past have often shoved it aside as time-wasting. No more! Thanks for the article and some new things to try.

  • stu

    I've always been a 'verbal' thinker, and I'm seeing lately the merits of opening up stale thought patterns with visual representations ...

    I've also reduced my reliance on PowerPoint for client introduction meetings, and often whip out a marker and use a whiteboard. The engagement is 10-fold from that before.

    Give it a try!

  • Murtaza Kankroliwala

    Adding colours to the doodle would further enhance the retaining ability and help to give priority to the information at hand.

  • Mary E. Tippin-Moody

    Great article. Great to know that what I have always done is now validated. I have had my "paddies slapped" for this numerous times...but I couldn't stop it if I tried! CHEERS!

  • jamielcotman

    I run a holding company and all of my direct staff are visual communicators. If they don't know when I hire them, I train them to do so.

  • Susan M. Davis

    This is so refreshing - and so TRUE! 20 years ago my son was diagnosed with learning differences and we chose NOT to medicate him (the PUSH of the school community) , but rather to explore ways for him to be able to learn differently. Part of his I.E.P, which followed him throughout his public school education from 2nd through 12th Grade, was to be allowed to doodle while listening in class. When he doodled, he absorbed information like a sponge, and could repeat back or respond to questions from the teacher. When forced to "concentrate" on the teacher/info being presented, with no doodling, his focus was just not there, and hence, no information getting into his brain, at all. This was a real fight for us, for all those years, getting teachers to accept the I.E.P. - which is actually a legal/binding document. Now at 27, he's a very happy and successful tattoo artist and accomplished fine artist. Doodling helped him learn & became a daily practice of drawing, leading to his success.