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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."