How To Turn Your Mindless Doodles Into Productivity Enhancers

Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution, reveals how companies like Google, Disney, and Facebook use visual language to work more creatively and productively–and how you can do the same.

From Steve Jobs to Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy to Nikola Tesla, several of history’s greatest thinkers relied on a secret weapon: doodling. Yes, doodling–the thing you find yourself mindlessly doing every time you’re in a meeting.


Most people connote it with short attention spans or dismiss it as pointless child’s play, but misconceptions like these are holding them back from becoming more productive, more creative, and more collaborative employees, says Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently.

Brown, an international speaker, creative consultant, and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People of 2011, defines doodling as “making spontaneous marks (with your mind and body) to help yourself think.” That’s because doodling isn’t about zoning out or creating an artistic masterpiece to hang on your walls–it’s about staying engaged, processing information, and communicating that onto a page.

And it has serious benefits. A 2009 study from the University of Plymouth discovered that when participants listened to a recorded phone call, those who doodled during it recalled 29% more information than those who didn’t. And a 2011 article from the journal Science reported that when science students drew visualizations of course material instead of using words, they forged a deeper understanding of the concepts and could more effectively communicate them to others.


However, most people never learn how to use doodling strategically, Brown says. “Most people’s exposure is in an art class or in a specific creative pursuit,” she says. “It hasn’t been pulled into other fields.“ Here are five tools to help you start using doodling to your advantage.

Learn the Visual Alphabet

Working adults already have a basic grasp of visual language. We encounter enough symbols in our daily lives to know that an arrow implies direction or causation; a triangle sitting atop a square is a house or a building; in emails and texting, a colon followed by a closing parenthesis means a smiley face. Brushing up on the basics can teach aspiring doodlers to break down any complex concept into easy lines and shapes.

“It takes you back to your ABCs,” Brown says. “This is not rocket science. You have to start somewhere. It’s very akin to learning to read or write. You don’t bust out with some Keats before you (learn to) write.”


Stick figures can be particularly effective symbols when brainstorming with others. “When you put a face into a visual, people get enlivened, because it’s almost like seeing a part of yourself reflected back to you,” she says. But as animating as they can be, stick figures won’t make sense in every context, so Brown recommends using the icons that are most familiar and relevant to the topic.

Discover Your “Doodle DNA”

Everybody has a different learning style. Auditory learners absorb more when they’re just listening, while kinesthetic learners do better when they’re up and moving. Some learn best when they’re just reading and writing, while others are drawn to images and pictures.

But just because we’re not all visual learners doesn’t mean we can’t all be enlightened doodlers. Even Brown, who travels internationally to help companies doodle their way through organizational problems, says visual thinking doesn’t come naturally even for her–the person who literally wrote the book on doodling.


“People have orientations toward certain types of language, and I have more orientation toward written language,” she says. “That’s where I shine. I’m really clumsy when I attempt to draw. It’s not native, and it’s not my specialty.”

Just as there are different learning styles, there are also five main doodling styles. John F. Kennedy, for example, was a known word doodler, preferring to write and repeatedly trace certain keywords when deep in thought. Dwight D. Eisenhower, on the other hand, was a picture doodler, drawing more literal images in the margins. Other people might opt for abstract shapes, human-like cartoons, or images of nature, such as flowers and trees.

“Most people have had an experience in their life where they know they are best functioning,” Brown says. Recognizing what she calls your “doodle DNA,” or your go-to images and patterns, can help identify the tools that best facilitate your thinking.


Don’t Stress the Doodle

One of the biggest obstacles to becoming a successful visual thinker is what Brown calls “the Shadow”–the little voice in the back of your head telling you to quit before you embarrass yourself. Brown recommends overcoming that hesitation by practicing in real time. Putting on a presentation while you doodle nonstop, for example, creates an improvisational environment that emphasizes listening and spontaneity over editing and critiquing.

To translate what you’re hearing into help visuals, listen for metaphors and similes that express abstract ideas in universal terms. Look out for narrative cues (“I have three proposals to discuss today”) that can help structure your doodles. If you miss a key point, keep going. If you misspell a word or mess up your sketch, don’t go back and fix it.

“There has to be a suspension of judgment,” Brown says. “It’s like Pictionary. You just have to go. Forgive yourself and move on.”


Doodle With Friends

The doodling experience is almost always enhanced when coworkers put their heads together. Attacking a problem with one shared visual helps groups come to consensus and see the bigger picture more quickly. Members are also more engaged in the conversation, and their contributions are all accounted for on paper instead of left hanging in the air.

“It so clearly improves the experience that it’s sometimes hard for me to be in a group where that’s not possible,” Brown says. “It’s like going to a party and there’s no alcohol. Not that alcohol is required to have fun, but it makes things better, it’s more fun, it goes faster, people share more. Everything about it is a win-win.”

Because meetings are almost universally loathed and often inefficient, they’re the perfect place to apply doodling. A study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found that meetings where attendees incorporated visual thinking were 24% shorter than those that didn’t, but starting small is key. You won’t see the benefits if you burst into the conference room and demand that everybody start scribbling.


“I like it when people start off in pairs or small groups,” Brown says. “Meetings are a huge opportunity, but have to be treated with the courtesy of people needing to be oriented.”

Establish A “Whiteboard Culture” At Your Company

Getting your colleagues on board with doodling can be an ambitious and monumental task. “A lot of people will say, ‘I want to infuse this into my culture,’ and that’s like saying, ‘I want to infuse creativity into my culture,’” Brown says.

To create what she calls a “whiteboard culture,” a work environment that encourages visual thinking at every stage of the process, Brown recommends modeling the behavior first. Keeping a whiteboard at your desk makes your doodles public, piquing the interest of curious co-workers and letting closet doodlers know they’re not alone. Inviting a coworker you’re close with to do a 10-minute brainstorm session at the whiteboard, for example, establishes a no-pressure environment that’s open to anyone looking to participate.


“You’re not making a sales pitch, you’re just doing it,” says Brown, who cites Zappos, Facebook, Google, and Disney as examples of companies with whiteboard cultures. Some companies she’s worked with have even set aside entire offices for the purpose of having employees write on the walls and get creative.

“It behooves people to understand there’s a huge opportunity, and there’s really nothing to lose,” Brown says. “It’s all benefit and no cost.”

[Images: Courtesy Sunni Brown]


About the author

Nolan Feeney writes for and produces The Atlantic’s entertainment channel. He has also written for TIME, Forbes, and Entertainment Weekly