As a way to get the creative juices flowing, I often talk in brainstorms about focusing on the problem – whether it’s defining it, organising them into groups, or framing/refaming them to get a new perspective. All of these methods focus on using words. This brainstorm technique is (sort-of) the opposite of words. Instead, describe your problem in pictures.
Whatever you call it – doodling, cartooning, sketching, or even something less artistic like scribbling – drawing is an ideal way to understand a problem from a unique or different point-of-view. It’s said that words can be limiting, particularly if you don’t feel like you have a large vocabulary. And, if pictures are worth a thousand words, doesn’t it make sense that brainstorming through drawing might be a fun way to generate new ideas in a brainstorm?
Draw Your Problem
I don’t know if the earliest cave painters had a problem to solve – see the Lascaux Paintings, estimated to be more than 17,000 years old – but there is something primal about drawing. Or maybe the better word is childlike. Babies begin to express themselves either fumbling with words or scribbling with crayons. Something left-over from those days comes out whenever I hand-out paper and markers in brainstorms. The room is suddenly a flurry of activity and the temperature of the room goes way up.
Drawing also taps into a different part of the brain than the one which focuses on words. So in effect, it’s a way to light up more parts of the brain at the same time, which will automatically increase the brain’s output and stimulate creative thinking. And as a final reason (if you’re not yet convinced), scribbling or doodling is a great psychological tool. It fascinates me to watch how people draw in their workbooks or notes – nothing accomplished or sophisticated – mostly a bit of a scribble that captures in a small image a step, a key learning or an idea. There’s heaps of research – here’s one report among many – that shows doodling is helpful in many ways, such as boosting one’s memory.
The materials are simple: paper and coloured markers, pens or pencils. You don’t have to use coloured pens, although there’s research that shows colours are one additional way to light up more parts of the brain. You might also consider tracing paper, but read on for the reason why.
It’s a personal choice whether you want to sit down or stand up. When I stand up, I prefer larger paper – like flipchart paper posted on the wall.
Start with describing the problem or situation that you’re in – aloud and simply. If you’re doing this technique with others, go around the room and ask each person to phrase the problem in their own words.
Now, draw the problem. Seriously, just start. Don’t think. How you draw it is up to you. Stick figures are fine, details are OK too. (If doing this in a group setting, ask people to skip things like perspective and shading if they’re slowing up the group.) Metaphors are great. If a lumpy box is a factory to you, then it’s a factory for us too. Besides, rawness is helpful because it allows other people to project their imaginations on to your work.
For the first few minutes, create several drawings – say 10, or more – instead of perfecting one singular drawing. Again, the point is not artistic expressiveness. The point is to draw the problem or situation in as many ways as possible. If you’re working in a group, go around the room and share your thoughts to encourage shorter drawing time than longer. Use other people’s thoughts as inspiration for your own. Steal. Adapt. Change. Start again. Go back and draw more. If you’re facilitating, you will probably notice some people focus on a certain element, while others will go tethered to something else. It’s all good. Just keep drawing. Get out more paper. Ask people to change colours.
Here’s some thoughts to keep attention and momentum going.
- Draw the problem from the point of view of someone else, such as the end user, a consumer, an expert, or a child. You might even try something non-human, like a dog, cat or bird.
- Speaking of birds, draw the problem from 30,000 feet. Or, from the floor up. Draw the problem from the side, or a few days later, or 10 years in the future, or 10 years prior. Draw it upside down, or inside looking out.
- Draw the problem as person. Add details to the person to reflect the problem. Or, draw several people who interact.
- Draw the problem as something non-human: a thing, event, shape, pattern or emotion.
- Draw the problem in context of something larger, like how it might fit in with a person’s day, career or work life, or family.
- Draw the problem as a cartoon – like you’d find in the newspaper – with panels or storyboards. You can continue to expand on this by adding supporting characters, or multiple story lines, or conflict and resolution. Pretend it’s a movie. How would you cast it? Score it? Where would you set the action?
- Delete the irrelevant parts of the drawing. This is where tracing paper can be helpful, so you can trace the best elements of the drawing without destroying the original. Eliminating aspects of the drawing might isolate a kernel of truth or an interesting perspective.
Keep going until you have lots of images. You might collect them together, posting them on the wall. Group them together in themes or concepts. Keep an extra page handy to write down ideas. I like to use post-it notes to write the ideas on top the drawings (again, so not to destroy the originals).
Before I finish, I want to repeat something. Embrace your non-artistic self. This isn’t a brainstorm technique to win art prizes. Don’t worry if your drawing isn’t blue-ribbon quality. If you’re the facilitator, protect people’s vulnerabilities and allow them to take risks. By letting people let go and have fun, you’ll find this brainstorm technique quite effective in generating new ways to solve the same old problems.
Any other tips or thoughts on how you’ve included drawing, doodling or sketching in your brainstorms?