A few years ago, I took a five-day drawing class in New York City that changed my life. I entered the class a complete ignoramus on matters visual. By week’s end, I was somewhat less of an ignoramus — because, to my amazement, I had begun learning how to see.

Drawing, as I discovered that week and described in A Whole New Mind, is a terrific way to develop the aptitude of Symphony, the ability to put together seemingly unrelated pieces to create something new. If you’re ready to pick up your pencil and try this technique out for yourself, a good place to start is Mike Rohde’s article, “Sketching: the Visual Thinking Power Tool.” (Mike is the illustrator of REWORK, the outstanding book by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals fame.)

According to Mike, “Sketching provides a unique space that can help you think differently, generate a variety of ideas quickly, explore alternatives with less risk, and encourage constructive discussions with colleagues and clients.” Most important, “it’s not about the quality of the drawing, but about capturing and communicating ideas from one mind to another.”

I’ll be stuck in an airport for a few hours tonight. But instead of doing what I usually do there (answering email and foraging for red wine), I’m going to spend some time sketching. Who knows? Maybe it’ll help me come up with some new travel tips. If you’ve been using drawing as a thinking tool, tell us about it in the comments.

22 Responses to “Pencil as Power Tool”

  1. Kristeen says:

    I teach sophomore English and when we read “The Bet”, I have my students write the descriptive words from the story about the lawyer and then draw him as he sits at the table after 15 years. When we read “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”, we draw the angel, again drawing on the descriptors in the story. In both assignments, I ask students to label the drawings.

  2. Ben Knight says:

    Yes, everyday I draw, it is what gets me through, gets me excited, gets me up and out of bed. Drawing is the key to so many problems.

  3. Mike Brice says:

    As a corproate communicator, I use drawing to help me put together newsletter editions.I sketch the page elements over the 6-12 pages, and it helps me see what the newsletter still needs, if it is too dark, or too light, and if it needs more substance.

    I also use a more formal newsletter budgeting process, but sketching out the page elements really helps it come to life for me as an editor.

  4. While not “sketching” per se, your post brought to mind this tool, that is often used to model software user interfaces and other creative projects:


    The final results look like sketches (i.e., not computer graphics), which I think explains its popularity with software designers: The advantages of a computer drawing tool (cut, paste, etc.), paired with the advantage of sketching (allows people to focus on the content, as opposed to the graphical quality of the content).

  5. Eileen says:

    Last year I started drawing pictures in my journal along side a list of intentions for the next day – and it worked! I must have concentrated more on my intentions that way by actually drawing (badly) myself sitting in a meeting with a peace sign next to my head, or playing guitar, or holding a cup of tea instead of coffee. I also got better at drawing some of the little icons I would use over and over again like “cooking” instead of eating out. I’ve also found that drawing the sequence of events of a bad day that’s already happened is much more therapeutic than journaling about it in words.

  6. wittybrit says:

    Thank you, Daniel! Your interview with Oprah inspired me to commit to completing Betty Edwards’ workbook (a cheaper, more convenient alternative to the five day class and nevertheless surprisingly effective). The first takeaway for me was – its about seeing what is there, instead of what you think is there! getting out of my head and in touch with reality … and a great meditative exercise. In the middle of drawing, it is not about the end result but totally ‘being in the process’. Its only when I get to the point of ‘there is no more to add’ that I can stand back and start judging the result. I hadn’t drawn in 40 years (I’m 54 now) and love this new world that has suddenly open up. So again, THANK YOU.

  7. Dan,

    I came across the class reference in your book, got curious and took that class myself last summer. What a treat! Brian Bomeisler’s class was fantastic.

    I took his one day sketching class at the MET museum earlier this year which was another great experience.

    Thanks to you for talking about it in your book!

    Check out the book – Visual Meetings by David Sibbet and grove.com. Another excellent resource I have used to draw at/facilitate meetings.


  8. Monique says:

    Every day in 2011, I make a drawing on my iphone for all my twitterfollowers. @moniqueborst
    Moments of life!

  9. Mike Rohde says:

    Daniel, thanks for mentioning my article at A List Apart – great to see it being helpful, especially for those who don’t feel like artists.

    I remember reading about your drawing class experience in A Whole New Mind so it’s pretty cool to see you mentioning my article – full circle eh? 🙂

    Thank you!

  10. Eris Weaver says:

    Believe it or not, there is a whole cadre of us who make a living solving – and helping others solve – problems with drawing! We’re variably called Graphic Facilitators, Graphic Recorders, Visual Practitioners – check out more at http://www.ifvp.org.

  11. In addition to IFVP, VizThink, http://www.vizthink.com, is a source I’ve turned to for education and information about the power of visual communication.

    I’ve been using Speed Drawing lately when I get blocked on a project … using rapid 60 second sketch exercises of anything within my sight to try and interrupt my analytical routine.

  12. Jeannel King says:

    Amongst other things, I volunteer at local schools to teach youth how to solve problems and share ideas with pictures. And I’ll never forget Michelle.

    Michelle was a 9th grader in very first high school class I worked with. After class, she came up to me to share how cool and interesting she found the workshop. “Great!” I said, “what was the best thing you got out of it?” Now, I figured she’d say “I learned how I could organize my school reports with a concept map” or something like that.

    Instead, this itty-bitty gal said “well, when I’m faced with a problem, I usually deal with it physically…like get in fights and stuff. Next time I have a problem, maybe I could sit down and draw it out instead.”

    I was blown away.

    Dan, thanks for this post. As a visual coach and facilitator, I know the power in solving problems and sharing ideas with pictures. It’s about more than providing graphic recording for corporations, though, or teaching folks how to think with a pencil. This kind of work has the power to transform the way we see what’s possible…for ourselves, and for our world! : )

  13. Kevin Thorn says:

    Hi Daniel,

    I’m one of those kids who got in trouble for sketching on the back of my homework instead of doing the work. Even now in my mid-40’s, I carry a Moleskin wherever I go. I sketch when I take notes in corporate meetings and often get accused of not paying attention – I look up, pause, and recite the last few minutes of the meeting’s conversation to their amazement. Why? Because when I’m lost in the act of sketching, the mind sharpens and is more focused because the creative side is turned on.

    Try this exercise the next time you’ve foraged for red wine stuck at an airport. Look around and identify an object. Any object. A chair, a table, a coffee cup someone left behind. Now, recreate it by sketching it. Not ‘drawing’ it, but just letting your mind go and transforming it to a recognizable object on paper. It’s simpler than it sounds…

    Every object is first a shape. That shape is defined by the space it occupies. Simple lines added to the shape along with light and shadow then define the object. e.g. a coffee cup occupies the shape of a rectangle first. A curved line at the bottom and an oval shape (for the opening) at the top of the rectangle begin to define the ‘shape’ into an ‘object.’ Just add shading to show direction of light and now the shape is defined into the object as a coffee cup. 30 second exercise!

    Not only is sketching, doodling, and drawing great for visual thinking and communicating, it is a superb meditation practice I encourage everyone to do when just thinking and ideating.

    I expect a progress report on your sketching practices 😉

  14. While I would agree that sketching is a powerful means of generating ideas and communicating them in limited circumstances, sketching is not a particularly effective tool for driving organizational change. In my work on improving organizational performance, we are often asked to put ideas into “sketchs.” The presumption is that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

    Perhaps this is true in some circumstances, but pictures leave a tremendous amount to interpretation (ask any one about the meaning of the Mona Lisa’s smile). As such, they leave too much to chance to be an effective driver of performance improvement.

    Instead, the real challenge is to take an idea perhaps generated by a sketch and translate it into language that is so precise and effective that everyone hearing it understands and aligns with a common meaning. We find that certain language from “positive deviants” is particularly powerful at converting sketched images into tangible functions that really change the way people and organizations perform.

  15. Daniel: I appreciate this post. For us language-laden writers, sketching offers an opportune way to light up other parts of the brain. Four weeks ago, I bought a sketchpad and charcoal pencils to relax my over-spinning, word-driven mind. Several early mornings a week, I sketch something. Sometimes a photograph of a bird or what I see out my studio window. Or sometimes a stray line that leads to another line. (Sketching is not unusual territory for me, though; like Kevin Thorn above, I also got in trouble for doodling on all of my class notes and homework. Love your assignment, Kevin.)

    As a creativity consultant, I’ve realized – not unlike the girl Jeannel King cites above – that sketching helps some clients think intuitively through a problem or idea. I also suggest that my clients who are working on books purchase white boards (whitey boards as one new start-up calls their products) to draw and sketch their books’ organic form. The process helps them see how ideas within a chapter relate and how chapters relate to each other.

  16. Doug Jochum says:

    Let me recommend the book, “The Zen of Seeing”, by Frederick Franck.
    He talks about drawing the “Ten thousand things”. He talks about drawing as meditation.
    If you ever want to truly remember a place you visit, draw what you see there. It will be permanently engraved into your memory. Don’t waste time taking photographs. You’ll not only forget what it was that you took a picture of, you;ll lose the photos and when you find them, won’t remember if it was you or someone else who took them.

    • Thank you, Doug! I am organizing a four week drawing class, and THIS is the book I will use. I am a teaching artist, but use drawing all the time in my daily life. When you have really looked at something yes, you do take it with you. It is about paying attention.

  17. I think this is the same case as going for a run or in my case taking a long hot shower. It frees the mind from working on a current problem and let’s your subconscious take over for a while. Being very visual I use mindmapping to “sketch” my ideas and get it out of my head and onto paper. Usually on bar napkins;) And like they say”a short pencil is better than a long memory.”

  18. Eric Grasso says:

    Thank you for being on the side of moving creativity

  19. Dan,
    It is amazing to see how much drawing or doing something else creative gets your mind in a different place. It is important to give yourself some time to relax your mind each day or at least each week so you can keep your energy and creativity up and active. Thanks, Brandon

  20. Fiona says:

    I home school my ten year old. She hated math with a passion. All that changed when we started doing about 15-20 minutes of zentangling at the beginning of each class. We both sit and just draw and chat. Her math then flows easily. After having had a child who cried when the math book appeared, I now have one who is wrapping up the year 8 curriculum – same content, same teacher, just new attitude and focus.