There’s More to Doodling Than You Think


Feb 10, 2017


“Pay attention!” It’s every parent, teacher (or boss’s?) reaction to the person sketching stick figures in the margins of a report, or doodling in class. But research shows that the doodler already is paying attention – maybe even more than her classmates or colleagues.

Jackie Andrade, a professor of psychology at Plymouth University in the UK, posited, after her 2009 study found doodling improved recall of verbal information by 29%, that doodling keeps the brain from slipping into default mode network, a technical name for the very commonplace awake-yet-at-rest state during which the mind wanders or daydreams.

But there are more benefits of doodling than simply keeping someone alert; it can maximise learning, particularly among the youngest generation.

The Benefits of Doodling

“Our culture is so intensely focused on verbal information that we’re almost blinded to the value of doodling,” said Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution, in a 2011 TEDtalk.

Schools, particularly, rely on the written and spoken word, from reports to exams to lectures. And yet, students – most comfortable on image-based social media like Instagram and Snapchat – are increasingly visual learners.

In fact, visual intelligence has been rising for the past 50 years, according to research by Patricia Greenfield, UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles.

“Students today have more visual literacy and less print literacy,” Greenfield said in 2009.

And they are only likely to become more image-oriented.

“Looking at the popular apps, you can see that we are raising a generation now of tremendous visual communicators,” said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the independent US-based nonprofit Media Psychology Center in an interview with CBS News last year. “It’s the most powerful form of communication.”

It’s possible the benefits of doodling can help bridge this gap between the way knowledge is taught and the way kids learn. According to educator Neil Fleming’s VARK model of learning, people learn best by combining two of four different learning styles: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and reading/writing.

“The incredible contribution of the doodle is that it engages all four learning modalities simultaneously,” Brown said in her talk.

While schools (and sometimes parents) may be behindhand in valuing the power of the doodle, corporations have started recognizing the benefits of doodling, opening up avenues for a career laypeople might call professional doodling.

From Visual Learners to Visual Practitioners

benefits of doodling
A graphic recording by Santosh Nair (Courtesy Santosh Nair)

“It’s not just something people look at and say, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful,’” said Santosh Nair, talking about the products of his work. “If someone says that, it’s almost an insult. … I tell them, ‘I’m not here to draw the Mona Lisa.’”

On most days, Nair, a Mumbai-based graphic recorder and facilitator, is in a room with corporate employees, sometimes NGO workers, settled a little off to the side, but in full view, so everyone can see him work.

If he’s recording, he’s a silent, unbiased documenter of proceedings. If he’s facilitating, he’s interacting, sometimes prompting or questioning the others in the meeting, and always jotting down images and words. Either way, it’s his job to visually – and sometimes literally – connect the dots of the discussion.

Nair has no artistic training; the closest thing in his background was biology class, he said, a favourite subject because it required drawing. He found his way into graphic recording in 2011 while working at CapGemini.

“It’s a tool for collaboration and brainstorming,” he said, “and that was the department I was in.”

graphic facilitation
A graphic recording by Erin Nicole Gordon (Courtesy Erin Nicole Gordon). See more of Gordon’s work.

He picked up tips from a network of colleagues around the world and wove it into his consulting practice. Now, he works solely as a freelance graphic recorder and facilitator, but said he knows only two others in India, where the field is growing, yet nascent.

Graphic recording and facilitation  is a fairly recent practice anywhere. US-based visual practitioner (a catch-all term for graphic recording and facilitation) Erin Nicole Gordon discovered it around the same time as Nair. Gordon is a muralist-turned-strategic management consultant who works with the Department of Defense and NASA.

benefits of doodling
Erin Nicole Gordon during a graphic recording session. (Courtesy Erin Nicole Gordon)

A half a world away from Nair and in such a new and unformed field, it might be supposed their approaches would be as divergent and freewheeling as the sketches of their youth. But both stressed the same secret to success that youthful doodlers are seldom credited with: Listening.

“The key element of the role (active or passive) is listening, actively and intentionally,” Gordon said via email. “A visual practitioner must be an expert listener, and very self-aware (to recognize any filters or views that may apply subjectivity or personal sentiment onto what is actually spoken). It is rigorous work – exhausting but so very rewarding – and typically accomplishes a month plus of work in a day when well planned and carefully delivered.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the result of a visual practitioner, who combines both to convey the spoken and unspoken layers of a conversation, might be worth a thousand more.

“It’s a myth that to be worthwhile a drawing must be ‘good’ or beautiful,” he said. “If you can find links between ideas, then it’s a powerful graphic recording.”

It’s also a powerful doodle.

“When we doodle what we hear, it means that we must first hear and then internalize the information. The two-step process asks us to engage more deeply than simply listening and proposes that we will more likely remember what we’ve heard,” Gordon said. “So, I might ask: Why not doodle?”



Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields *.

The latest in health, gender & culture in India -- and why it matters. Delivered to your inbox weekly.