Written and Doodled by Rex

Earlier this summer, at the annual conference of our client, Association Media & Publishing, I enjoyed a presentation on “visual thinking” by Dan Roam, author of the best-selling book, Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. As you can see in the photo on the right, I got into the spirit of the presentation and took notes about his presentation on the back of a napkin — more on that in a minute.

At Hammock, we’re constantly challenging ourselves — and the photographers, illustrators and videographers with whom we work — to tell stories visually, not just to think of their work as something to support the words in our stories. It’s true what they say about pictures and a thousand words — but for some reason, people don’t feel comfortable with trying to solve problems and develop strategies with pictures.

My fascination with visual thinking goes way back.

I was in college when Time Magazine hired a young artist named Nigel Holmes who was one of pioneers of what we now call “infographics.” Before there was a USA Today, Holmes was transforming timelines and pie charts into whimsical and powerful illustrations that turned data into easy-to-comprehend works of art. Holmes, along with others pioneering similar ideas at the time, notably, Edward Tufte and his classic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, laid the groundwork for what we today call information design, a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and interpreting statistics and data with skillful design and talented illustration.

You can see the inspiration of Tufte all over the web and on iPhone apps — like whenever you see a data-oriented timelines that Tufte pioneered and named sparklines.

Following in the footsteps of Holmes, Tufte and others, a generation of talented illustrators has evolved the craft of data-driven graphics, and now, interactive animations, into an art-form. The work of those new illustrative chart and map creators has had a great influence on me.

But I can’t draw. Or, at least, not for public display.

So one of the reasons I found Dan Roam’s book and presentation so refreshing is his emphasis on encouraging those of us who may not be skillful designers or talented illustrators to let go of the inhibitions preventing us from thinking visually.

The number one inhibitor: Our belief that we can’t draw. “Everyone can draw,” says Roam. Ask any child attending kindergarten, and he or she will tell you instantly that, “of course I can draw.” It’s not until we grow older and start thinking that drawing is something reserved for those with special magical gifts and talents that we get the notion that we can’t draw. We compare ourselves to others and start believing “we can’t even draw a straight line.” Fortunately, Roam reminds us, “you don’t need to draw a straight line to draw.”

As I said, when Roam spoke at the conference, I decided to take him at his word and took all of my notes from his presentation on a napkin and posted them on our live-coverage of the event. I’ve been surprised at the number of people who’ve seen those notes and told me, “I didn’t know you could draw.”

Me neither. But, then, I’m not one to let something silly like not being able to do something get in my way.

As anyone who has visited Hammock offices knows, we are quick to grab a dry-erase marker and draw on windows. In my office, I have a large white board and several windows that are constantly being written and drawn upon. It’s how I think. And I’ve begun to notice more and more that it’s how most people are thinking.

Roam calls this “visual thinking.” I call it thinking with doodles.

John Hobalt used visual thinking to figure out how to send a man to the moon.

Some people think up and present great ideas with doodles — people like John Houbolt, for instance. He’s the rocket scientist (no lie) who came up with the idea of using a lunar orbit rendezvous approach to sending a man to the moon. So, I say, if a rocket scientist can use doodles to figure out how to send a man to the moon, why can’t we use doodles to help us think through client challenges and explain solutions better?

Roam suggests that we first learn some basic shapes that can represent lots of different ideas: boxes, circles, arrows. We then need to learn a few process drawings that can represent a wide variety of situations. Most commonly, when we start a white-board session, we’re examining a problem. Almost always, such a situation illustrated like the drawing of the cloud on the right.

Some of the basic drawing shapes one needs for visual thinking relate to the ingredients of solving almost anything: resources, places, time, people, processes. Processes are easy, however — lots of clouds and questions marks. All of these shapes can be easy to draw with a little practice. However, I’ve been trying to improve my skills so I’ve decided to keep a drawing book (a handy non-lined Moleskine) nearby so I can collect examples of different kinds of line shapes when I’m “doodling.” The photo below is a page from the book of transportation-related shapes I’ve doodled. On other pages, I have stick people and hands (I’m awful with hands) and buildings.

I’ve found that with a little practice, drawing basic shapes — of the stick people variety — is easy to do. It takes a little bit more practice to think about the process drawings, but with practice — and noticing when others do a good job at it — one can vastly improve one’s doodling skills and, more importantly, start looking as smart as a rocket scientist.

It’s important for you to jump on the thinking-visual bandwagon. Just the other day, I was watching CNN when I saw Wolf Blitzer and others standing in front of their “giant wall” touch screen computer trying to use it to explain the healthcare bill. I was amazed at how they were using this $100,000 monitor as nothing more than a whiteboard. And boy, were they bad at visual thinking. I recommend they purchase a copy of Dan Roam’s book and start practicing.