‘A safe space to draw’

Insights from leading a visual thinking workshop, and how drawing can transform the way we work

Recently I huddled up for a day in a classy San Francisco retreat space with an innovation team from Kaiser Permanente. I was there to lead them through a series of exercises intended to help them become more comfortable with visual thinking and communicating.

These team members, employees of a giant west coast hospital system, were facing familiar challenges and barriers in their work: a culture of powerpoint communication, ‘talking only’ meetings, lack of focused time to get work done, and lack of autonomy over how they spend their time. Having spent much of the last three years as a design consultant within a large hospital system, I could relate.

Nick Dawson, Corporate Executive Director of Innovation and the team leader who’d brought me in for the day, had established a theme for this retreat of ‘negative space for creativity and focus.’ So in addition to teaching and discussing drawing, I was able to incorporate more of my favorite topics, like gratitude journaling, meditation, forest bathing, essential oil diffusing, and more. (Sounds random, but they do all relate.)

My two main goals for the day were a) to give these team members strategies for calming their mind, and b) for them to experience and become comfortable with a different, more visual way of working. On the second point I emphasized that we were not trying to transform into professional artists, but we were aiming to become more adept at finding and transmitting meaning through drawing.

Here is a sampling of things we did and what I learned from the day.


Why and when to draw

After a short meditation exercise, we talked through some research about how drawing benefits the mind. For example, drawing stimulates creativity, helps you focus, helps you solve problems, and can reduce stress. For more on this topic I recommend Cara Bean’s cute little illustrated booklet ‘Why Draw?’ We also discussed how drawing and visually communicating with other people can help us understand one another and collaborate better; for more on this, see the book Meeting Design.

We also discussed scenarios in which drawing is helpful, the first being when you’re feeling stuck and computer work isn’t solving it. Does that sound familiar?

Sometimes you just can’t wrap your mind around a topic unless you map it out and process it in physical space. Our brains only get the benefits of drawing when we are actually ‘drawing’ — not typing or creating visuals on the computer. Recently I’ve gotten stuck while planning a presentation, trying to figure out a trip itinerary, and planning this very workshop. In each case, once I realized I was at an impasse, I grabbed a big piece of paper (11x17 is a great size for this) and started mapping out my thoughts. It helped. No matter how big or small the problem is, drawing it always helps me distill my thinking, and I think it’s one of the most powerful tools we can use to get unstuck.

Beyond unraveling your thoughts, another impactful way to use drawing is to distill what you are hearing from other people:

“I think you’re saying…”

It’s like visual active listening, and it is one of the best things you can do to improve collaboration with others. I’ve done this often in meetings, jumping up to the whiteboard to take visual notes and draw out diagrams. It is an immensely helpful way to bring the group into agreement about what we are — and are not — talking about.

Of course it’s even better if you can draw with others. Collaborating visually, whether on paper, real or virtual whiteboards, or through other tools, is a more efficient and fun way to work with your team.

After discussing these and a few other scenarios, we jumped right into drawing.

Drawing to calm the mind

We began with a few easy pattern exercises to help people calm their minds and get used to putting pen to paper. I had them draw tight spirals — starting in the center, spiral out and keep the lines as close together as you can without touching. There is something special about creating spirals! As I draw them, I can feel a sensation in the front of my brain, like it’s being massaged. It is meditative. You should try it right now and see what I mean.

Here’s another pattern with circles:

We did few more similar pattern doodles, and after the workshop the attendees told me that these mind-calming drawing exercises were their favorite part of the day. There is a whole series of books out there to teach people how to create simple, brain-soothing patterns; at the recent Graphic Medicine Conference I met Sandy Steen Bartholomew, creator of some of the ZenTangle series of books and cards — I highly recommend her books if you’re interested in this topic. I bought the Tangles of Santa Fe, which has lots of very cool southwestern patterns.

On the topic of calming the mind, we also discussed the how nature can help us calm down and reduce our stress, be more creative, and increase our problem solving — actually a lot of the same benefits as doodling! So during the day I diffused essential oils and brought print-outs of nature scenes as inspiration.


Visual Alphabet

Next we practiced drawing the ‘visual alphabet’ — these are markings that serve as the basic, underlying elements that can be put together to form almost any shape. Like a language has an alphabet of letters, visual language has an alphabet of shapes. I used the version championed by visual thinking experts Dave Gray and Sunni Brown.

Once we practiced these shapes, we used them as a basis to create other common shapes that come up while drawing and diagramming: people, buildings, ideas, problems, nature elements, foods, and more.

For example, many people seem embarrassed about only being able to draw ‘stick figures.’ I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of, but look how switching out one small element can turn a stick figure into a much more expressive person:

Replacing the ‘stick’ body with a square shape gives us a lot more to work with, so we can more easily make our person seem casual, or excited, or make them do deep squats.

Once we had the basic shapes down, I had the group take a few minutes to draw three things they are grateful for. Gratitude journaling has many benefits, and a visual journal is a fun variation on the usual written version. I’ve maintained a visual gratitude journal myself for the last year and a half, and it’s helped me understand and prioritize the things that are most important in my life. (It also helps me make sure I draw at least a little bit every day!)

There’s a lot more to talk about here, but I want to get to my favorite part.


Diagrams ╚═། ◑ ▃ ◑ །═╝

I love diagrams. It’s a little bit of a joke among my colleagues. But truly, diagrams are one of the best tools for making and transmitting meaning. In my work as a designer, and in my diverse experiences facilitating different types of teams and meetings, diagrams have been the best way for me to understand and communicate.

And the superstar of all diagrams, in my opinion, is the timeline:

Love me a timeline.

The quick sketch above is showing time horizontally — this is just one way of showing what time looks like, and we often see time represented as vertical or circular. But because I usually use timelines to help sort through the past and ease the anxiety of the future, I find the horizontal timeline to be a good format.

A timeline of what happened in the past — like a journey map — can show us what happened in a specific scenario or what ‘normally’ happens. This is helpful, for example, when you want to break down a process and identify ways of improving it.

In meetings, though, I more often use a sketchy, casual timeline to map out the future. Most of us deal with deadlines, time frames, and milestones, and our work can get messy and anxiety-provoking when we’re not quite clear about what has to happen, when it needs to happen, and who’s going to do it. Getting your team in a room, throwing a timeline on the board, and adding milestones/phases to it together can be a powerful way to get everyone in the room in agreement while also easing their anxiety of the unknown.

After these kinds of planning meetings, it’s good to put specific tasks into a project management tool, but a basic, hand drawn timeline can be a great way to co-create a high-level view of what’s coming.

Ooh, I love a timeline. Don’t get me started!

( ♥ ͜ʖ ♥)

In the workshop, we talked through a number of other types of diagrams (like bubble maps and process diagrams) with an emphasis those that are best for real-time collaboration with others. These are the kinds of quick diagrams you can jump up and sketch out on a whiteboard; not the kind that might take hours to painstakingly create. (Though both are important and helpful in different situations.)

I had the group practice a few diagrams — first they drew what the next 6 months looked like for them personally, and then I had them try mapping out their days to show their most and least productive times. This second activity prompted an important discussion among the team about meetings, scheduling habits, and the need to preserve ‘focused time’ for getting work done. We discussed the Makers Schedule, Manager’s Schedule article by Paul Graham (a great read if you haven’t encountered this concept — in a nutshell, anyone who ‘makes’ for a living, like designers and engineers, requires long, uninterrupted periods of time in which to do their job.)


A ‘safe space’ for drawing

After the workshop, at least two attendees came up to me and thanked me for creating a ‘safe space’ for drawing. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but later I realized they were telling me that normally, drawing is a somewhat dangerous (or at least uncomfortable) activity for them.

I think there are a few reasons for this. Drawing and visual communication (beyond powerpoint, that is) are not the norm in many workplaces, especially very large, corporate organizations. And many people are not confident in their own ability to draw; this self-consciousness keeps them from jumping up to the whiteboard to document conversations or work through problems.

Finally, for many of us, and for many years, ‘work’ has happened on computers. So I think we forget that drawing is even an option, that we can break out of our usual digital toolset. It’s not natural anymore, and it requires a conscious leap to go analog.

So yes, drawing can seem a little bit provocative and dangerous, and it takes individual action and a bit of deliberate team culture work to normalize this different way of working. But as discussed above, it’s much more fun and efficient, and it helps us solve problems and understand each other better.


You can do this

There are a few things you can do to prep yourself and your team to draw more often. You can keep loose paper on your desk and in meeting rooms, put whiteboards or chalkboards up in collaboration spaces, and keep fun and colorful writing implements close at hand. I recommend Paper Mate Flair pens, Sharpie fine pens, colored pencils, and whiteboard markers (if applicable). To make drawing seem like the norm, try leaving your sketches and doodles up in your collaborative work space. It can help with team transparency and contribute to a more lively, dynamic atmosphere.

Here’s one small thing you can do to get started. Next time you are feeling stuck, turn off your computer, grab some paper, and start mapping out your problem. See what happens, and I’d love to hear how it goes!


I’m currently adapting this seminar for medical professionals — contact me if you’re interested in bringing it to your team.