Draw your problem

Your hand, a pen and some paper are your greatest problem-solving tools

Katie McCurdy
Jan 2 · 9 min read

When I get stuck on something, a problem I can’t figure out how to solve, I tend to do things like ruminate on the problem, write down some words about it, have a [talking] meeting about it, maybe go for a walk in nature. I expect that with enough dedicated thought, I’ll figure things out.

I forget (again and again!) that one of the best tools available to me is drawing. Drawing benefits the brain in many ways, according to Cara Bean’s cute illustrated ‘Why Draw?’ booklet:

  • Drawing can instigate the development of critical thinking and problem-solving.
  • The act of drawing can stimulate positive brain chemistry like serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
  • Drawing can reduce stress.
  • (references)

So drawing can reduce the stress of feeling stuck, help you get unstuck, and make you feel happier. I know this, so why do I keep forgetting to draw my problems? (I think the answer is this: too much screen time keeps me overly focused on using technology to address my problems.)

It happened to me just this week. As I’ve been starting up Pictal Health, a company to help patients visualize their health histories, I’ve been feeling all of the pain, imposter syndrome, and overall discomfort that goes along with starting something outside of my comfort zone. I’m a designer who likes to solve problems and make things, and I’ve felt blocked about how to approach business models, sales strategies, and things of that nature.

I was spinning out, ruminating in circles, thinking that maybe I should do something else with my life, when I decided to draw my problem.

I’ll come back to that in just a minute, along with some other problem-drawing examples. But first…

How do you draw your problem?

First, you don’t have to be an ‘artist’ to draw your problems. And you don’t have to even draw a picture — writing words down on a blank piece of paper can help. Just put pen to paper. If you want, start with some simple lists. For example, ‘things that are blocking me.’ Or the classic ‘pros & cons’ list:

Or what about a simple table? A table or matrix can be really helpful when you’re trying to compare multiple facets of the same items. A classic example is a scorecard. Let’s say you’re scoring different pieces of software. How do the different options compare on price, customer service, and usability? Often we use a spreadsheet for tables, which makes sense in many cases, but hand-drawn tables can also be interesting (as you’ll see.)

You could also start to loosely map out relationships between things — this is helpful when you’re trying to make sense of how different entities (like departments, teams, etc.) relate. This is called a mind map or ‘ecosystem diagram,’ and these things can get pretty involved!

A nested bubble diagram, as shown below, can be a nice, quick, sketchy way to represent categories with sub-items or sub-categories. Of course you could use lists for something like this too, but I find something satisfying about the bubbles, and you can use them to represent size or importance if you want.

When you’re trying to sort out upcoming events, a timeline can be a very effective, calming tool. (I’ve written about the value of ‘sketchy timelines’ in the past.) Somehow, when you can see everything that’s coming up, it’s more manageable. There are a lot of ways to draw time, and below is one type of timeline that shows discrete events — I usually keep a version of this on my refrigerator at all times to show upcoming events and travel.

You can show phases of time using a simple gantt chart format; this is a common need for interdisciplinary teams who need to coordinate their work. There are plenty of project management tools that you can use to create detailed gantt charts, but it’s also nice to take a very first pass by hand to kick off your thinking.

I often will use some kind of rough flow diagram to help me understand what needs to happen in what order.

So, these are just a few methods and diagrams I like to use to sketch out problems.

It can and should be ugly.

The above examples are misleadingly tidy; drawing your problem doesn’t need to be pretty, and it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. At this stage, you’re just writing words down and drawing shapes in an attempt to create some meaning out of that jumble of thoughts that’s smashing around in your big, smart brain.

It’s pre-work, basically; sketching out a general framework that you can then turn into something more polished — for example an article, an agenda, an itinerary or work plan, a proposal…you get the idea.

Off-screen is best.

I’m partial to using large pieces of 11x17 paper to draw out my problems. A whiteboard is also nice. Any format that enables you to represent ideas ‘in real life’ and at large scale will give you the space to explore them differently than you could if you were constrained by a specific screen size. And, drawing on paper gives your eyes and mind a much-needed break from your screens. I like to keep a stack of paper on the side of my desk at all times, so I can grab one and start drawing when needed.

All that said, I have often used a tablet to draw out ideas and illustrations (including many of those in this article.) So that’s a legitimate option.


Example 1: Prioritizing customers

Ok let’s get back to my problem. As I mentioned, I’ve been feeling stuck on “business models” for Pictal Health, and especially on the question of ‘who is my customer?’ (Who would pay for this?)

I’ve mapped out potential customers in the past, and I decided to re-do it by hand, just to refine and refocus my thinking. I started with a bubble diagram, with large bubbles representing categories (e.g., ‘Holistic Providers’) and small nested bubbles representing specific types (‘Acupuncture.’)

Dang, that’s ugly. And there are a lot of potential customers there, each with approximately equal weight, which makes it hard to determine which are most promising. This bubble diagram was a helpful first step, but I knew I needed some kind of process of prioritization.

It occurred to me to try filling out a business model or lean startup canvas. I’ve written up a number of business model canvases in the past, and while I appreciate the thought that goes into them, I have not found them to be a very effective decision tool (more on that in an upcoming post.) I thought, looking at my customers bubble map, that I needed some way of rating them along different dimensions. Sounds like a scorecard! I sat down and feverishly drew out a hand-drawn customer scorecard in the form of a table.

This table contains categories like ‘market size’ and ‘ability to pay’ along with things like ‘pain level’ (how severe is their pain with their current way of doing things?), ‘access’ (how much access do I have to them?), and ‘red tape’ (super important in healthcare — how difficult will it be to work with them?) For some of the answers I estimated based on my best guess and gut instinct; I also researched things like Market Size to get specific numbers. Some of the cells are left blank, if I felt very unsure about the answers.

Importantly, the size of the items in each cell relates to how good or positive the thing is — so a larger market size is good, a larger pain level is good, etc. I wanted to be able to scan my table and see the best, most promising customers pop out at me. The sizing is relative — I didn’t carefully measure each shape so that it was perfectly proportional to the data it was supposed to represent. My goal was to get a loose sense of how different customers compared to each other. As I worked, I filled in the larger shapes with colored pencil. I didn’t mind this manual work; it didn’t take too long, and it gave my brain a much-needed break.

You might notice that the format of this table could fairly easily translate to a spreadsheet. Perhaps I’ll take the effort to make it digital, if I decide it’s something I want to maintain over time, or maybe the hand-drawn version is good enough for now.

What did I learn? Thanks for asking. While I don’t think I learned anything totally new, I gained confidence in some prior theories: that patients and holistic providers are a good place to start, and that less traditional and more forward-thinking insurance organizations may also be a great avenue to explore.

More than anything, I feel better and calmer having put this down on paper. It helps me understand where to apply my energy, at least for the time being. As my friend Alli would say, ‘it eases my heart.’


Example 2: Workshop Agenda

A few months ago I was planning a workshop on visual thinking. I found I was getting stuck trying to visualize the flow and order of activities; the agenda I was preparing on my computer wasn’t helping me ‘see’ things the way I needed to.

So I took a couple big pieces of paper and mapped out the workshop, jotting notes and drawing little thumbnails of activities.

See, it’s a bit of a mess, but this helped me more confidently return to my big screen and create a more refined and structured agenda.

And yes, the workshop was a huge success and I loved every moment of it.

Example 3: Travel Itinerary

Recently I was planning a trip to Japan and trying to figure out which areas of the country to visit in which order, while also fitting in time with a good friend who lives there and planning to be with her on Halloween, our favorite mutual holiday. I was feeling boggled by the different possibilities, so I had to draw it out. I can’t find the original messy notebook sketch, but it was something like this:

It’s sort of a cross between a bar chart and a timeline that gives each ‘leg’ of the trip its own section. I color-coded the regions so that I could more easily visualize the trip. Once I saw the options, I realized that only one of them made sense, given our goals. We chose the middle itinerary, and everything went smoothly. We loved our trip!

Photo by Nick Perez, taken at Matsumoto Castle

Every problem can benefit from drawing.

Drawing helps you explore new angles, more easily map out relationships, and process things in a different way than you could through typing on your computer.

Next time you’re struggling with something, I challenge you to turn off all of your screens, maybe go for a quick walk in nature to stimulate creativity, then grab a blank piece of paper and start drawing.


Hey y’all — I’m offering visual thinking workshops to help teams work together better. If you’re interested, reach out!


Shout outs:

Hurry Slowly podcast episode with David Sax about ‘The Revenge of the Analog’

Catherine Madden’s skillshare video about drawing data to communicate ideas — it helped me think about my customer scorecard in a different way.

This Quartz article about how drawing helps you learn

Pictal Health

Turning health histories into visual stories

Katie McCurdy

Written by

Designer and researcher focusing on healthcare; founder of Pictal Health; autoimmune patient; chocolate-eater. katiemccurdy.com and pictalhealth.com

Pictal Health

Turning health histories into visual stories

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