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Draw Your Problem

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 refaming them to get a new perspective. All of these methods focus on the words used to describe the problem. 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?

Drawing Is Something People Have Always Done

I don’t know if the earliest cave painters had a problem to solve, but there is something primal about drawing. Perhaps 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: the one focused on visual aspects instead of the words themselves. In effect, it’s a way to light up more parts of the brain at the same time, which automatically increases the brain’s output and stimulates creative thinking. If you’re not yet convinced, a final reason is that scribbling or doodling is a great psychological tool. It fascinates me to watch how people tgake notes in my workbooks using drawing or scribbles instead of writing notes. There’s heaps of research that shows doodling is helpful in many ways, such as boosting one’s memory. Here’s a recent article – 10 Benefits of Doodling for Creativity, Productivity and Focus – on Canva that you might enjoy.

Instructions to Inspire People to Draw More


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.

Standing vs. Sitting

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.

Explain the “Vocabulary”

I typically start by explaining the basic drawing vocabulary. Everything you’ve ever wanted to draw include the basic XX elements.

  1. A straight line
  2. A wavy line
  3. A dot
  4. A square (and all of its variations, like a rectangle, kite, rhombus, parallelogram)
  5. A circle or an oval
  6. Triangle
  7. Cloud or thought bubble

Begin with the Problem

Start with describing the problem or situation that you’re in: be simple and be concise if you can. If you’re doing this technique with others, you might go around the room and ask each person to phrase the problem in their own words, collecting their responses for a clipchart.

Start Drawing!
  • Seriously, just start. Don’t think. How you/they draw it is personal. Don’t sit and look at a blank page. Doodle to get started. (It might take some people longer to warm up.) Stick figures are fine, details are OK too. (Remind people if necessary of the vocabulary.) Some will draw flat, two-dimensional designs. Others will add perspective, depth and shading. Whatever works!
  • No judging. As my first design teacher Anna-Maria said:  “If it’s a bluebird to you, it’ll be a bluebird to me.”
  • It’s important too to remember that “rawness” in a drawing is good. It allows other people to project their imaginations on to someone else’s work.
  • Encourage people to try several drawings, not just one – or worse, spending all their time trying to turn their squiggle into something that’d hang in a museum. Again, the point is not artistic expressiveness. This isn’t a live drawing class. This is about using the visual aspects of your brain to draw the problem instead of using words. This last point is another reason why I ask people to use as few words on the drawing as possible.
  • Either walk around and encourage people to share, or deliberately mix people up to share and comment. Expect a lot of laughter and giggles, which is great. When people are more relaxed, their brain is less conservative and playful.
  • Encourage people to share, steal, adapt, change, start again, go back and draw more.
  • As the facilitator, you will probably need to help people focus on a certain element, or change colours, or draw something from a different perspective. The key is to get people to keep drawing!

Keep the Drawing Going!

If you need help to keep the attention and momentum going, try these suggestions:

  • 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. Collect them together, or post 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). Look to see if there’s any patterns or themes from the drawing. (Group like-minded pictures together.) At some point, start to drill down to the purpose.  What are we seeing that makes us look at the problem differently?

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?

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