Drawing as a Tool for Thinking: The Back of the Napkin

Drawing on the Back of the Napkin, by Dan RoamLately I’ve been reading Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin: Selling Ideas and Solving Problems Through Pictures. In the book, Roam asserts that drawing pictures can help you solve problems. It’s a simple but profound assertion.

You’re no doubt familiar with the same assertion with writing. Writing is a tool for thinking, a method for unlocking ideas. Writing about something helps you think about it, helps you see the problem more clearly, helps you see what you’re trying to say. Most people who write know this. It’s what teachers in writing courses tell students who dislike writing—that even if you’re not going to be a writer, writing is a worthwhile skill because it extends your critical thinking faculties.

Roam essentially says drawing provides much the same critical thinking tool.

It sounds cool, but does it really work? I decided to give it a try. Here’s the problem I was trying to solve. Next month I’m giving a five-hour WordPress workshop in Vienna (as part of the TransAlpine conference). Five hours is a long time. If I stand up there and lecture, not only will I collapse from exhaustion after three hours, everyone else will either leave or fall asleep. Also, the room won’t have Internet. How can I keep people awake and engaged?

Roam has a specific heuristic to follow when drawing. Not only should you explore the 6 W’s—the who, when, why, what, how / how many, and where—you should also look at various angles: simple versus elaborate, quality versus quantity, vision versus execution, individual versus comparison, and change versus as-is.

I decided to keep it simple and mostly focus on the first set of questions, but you can imagine how each of these angles would prompt a different inquiry. Here’s what I drew.

Drawing the problem helps you come up with solutions

Drawing the problem helps you come up with solutions

As you can see, I’m not an artist, but that’s okay, Roam says, because the purpose of these drawings is to analyze and explore the problem, not to represent something aesthetically.

My chicken-scratch drawings may look unintelligible, but they did help me consider solutions and additional facets of the problem that I hadn’t previously considered. While I was drawing, here are some of the ideas I thought about.

In drawing the how, I realized (and this may be small) that I’ll need a long cord to extend to the projector if the projector is in the back of the room. I doubt the room is set up that way, but drawing it made me think about the layout of the room and what technical problems I may encounter. If I need sound, how will I orchestrate that? What problems will the 220 current from European outlets pose for my American equipment? Will I set my laptop on a table beside me or on a slanted podium?

In drawing the why, I realized that I’ll be filling the participants with enthusiasm and excitement for WordPress, but if there’s no outlet, no way of putting that enthusiasm into practice, it will be an exercise in frustration. I’ll need some practice problems for everyone to follow. To facilitate practice with WordPress offline, I’ll have to walk them through local installations of WordPress on their own computer through something like WAMP server.

In drawing the what, I decided I’ll need a workbook of some kind for the participants to follow along. The workbook will give structure to the course and provide a safety blanket for people who may feel they’re not entirely getting a concept. I already started on a WordPress Quick Reference Guide last year, so perhaps I should update it, extend it, and illustrate it with more pictures.

In drawing the how many, I realized that of the 20 to 30 people who might attend the course, the participants will likely have a variety of technical backgrounds, from people who can’t code a hyperlink to people employed as professional web designers. I need to be aware of the different skill levels and start from the ground up, assume that many will have little understanding of CSS and later move into advanced concepts.

In drawing the how many, I also realized that not everyone may be planning to use WordPress as a blogging tool, but might be looking to use it to sell products, build a chapter site, or implement it for some other purpose. I know that’s a somewhat obvious point, but I didn’t think about it until I drew forty separate audience members, each of whom looked a little different.

So you see, drawing out various scenarios, answering the who, when, what, why, where, how, and how many, did bring up some important issues and help prompt some solutions. Drawing really is a tool for thinking, a heuristic for investigating ideas.

Part of the reason drawing works, I believe, is because our visual sense is critical to the way we understand the world. It’s how we process what happens around us. As children, we instinctively draw. The urge is unstoppable. Even as bad as the pictures are, we don’t care. I can’t help but think that, unconsciously, children draw to help make sense of the world, to understand what they’re seeing and to express what they’re feeling.

Perhaps we draw less as we learn to write, but drawing does not provide the same analytical results as the written word—it’s another sense and medium. As a unique medium, the answers are often unique as well. Whatever the reason, drawing as a tool for thinking does give you another tool for solving problems. (And it’s a great excuse to doodle on paper.)

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

14 thoughts on “Drawing as a Tool for Thinking: The Back of the Napkin

    1. Tom

      Mike, thanks for the link. That really does look interesting. I hadn’t thought of creating sketchnotes, but it looks really useful.

  1. Julio Vazquez

    Hi Tom,

    Write on! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) As I work on the next edition of my book, I found that some of the concepts were easier to write after I drew some use cases that I was trying to describe. Not only did I come up with a way to visualize what was going on, but I then had to write less because I included those crude, but relatively effective, images within the content making the point clearer to the reader.

    1. Tom

      Julio, thanks for the comment. You make a good point about how visual illustrations reduce the amount of text you need. I’m glad you’re adding visuals to illustrate concepts for your DITA book.

  2. Alan J. Porter

    Hi Tom – Welcome to the “drawing” club. I sketch stuff all the time to help me solve problems. I also tend to do a lot of thumbnail sketches when developing procedures and narratives (and not just for the comic books I write).

    I use a white board and note pad as much for scribbling on as I do for note taking.

    A point I’ve often made during my presentations on best practices is why do we often draw up a process on a white board and them write that out in prose in the documentation? – if we needed to sketch it out to help us as content developers understand it – then we should use a cleaned up graphic to help our readers/users understand it.

    Great post.

    1. Tom

      Alan, I completely agree. People draw things on the board all the time in meetings, but somehow that same mindset doesn’t always carry over into documentation. By the way, your wiki book is on my list of books to read.

  3. avi

    I add a drawing wherever possible. People easily rleate to them, offer to improve them, expand the topic they discuss, and so on.
    I’m almost never asked to take them out.

      1. avi

        Wow, Tom. This is the first time I see nested comments on WordPress. Is it an add-on?
        To the point, I use the simplest tools possible: Visio for flowcharts, SnagIt for screenshots. I try to keep images simple: up to 5-6 items per flowchart; a single callout per screenshot.

  4. Latest News

    Drawing is the best way to show the world the exact picture of the thoughts, to draw a picture needs deep thought and sensible thinking, a am new in it but love to present my thoughts to world through drawing

  5. Pingback: Drawing as a Tool for Thinking I 39 d Rather Be Writing Tom Johnson | Wood TV Stand

  6. News

    This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. this is very nice one and gives indepth information. thanks for this nice article


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