An Interview With Dan Roam, Visual Thinker Extraordinaire
In my research for Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, I’ve recently been focusing on the way pictures—sketches, diagrams, even doodles—can make us learn better. There’s a surprisingly large research literature on the value of such drawings, showing that creating a visual representation helps us understand new material more thoroughly, helps us get engaged and motivated to find out more, and helps us stay focused and attentive.
Dan Roam knows this better than anyone. He’s the author of The Back of the Napkin and Blah Blah Blah, two terrific books about the power of “visual thinking” to solve problems and communicate ideas. Here’s how Dan defines visual thinking: it means “taking advantage of our innate ability to see—both with our eyes and with our mind’s eye—in order to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a way they simply ‘get.’” As a consultant to companies like Google, eBay, General Electric, Wal-Mart, and Sun Microsystems, Dan has figured out ways to help people use visual thinking to solve problems, share ideas, and come up with new inspirations.
I talked to Dan last week by phone. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation (along with some wonderful drawings contributed by Dan):
Annie: How did you get started in bringing these visual-thinking tools into the workplace?
Dan: Like a lot of people, I was one of those kids who drew a lot in school. I just never stopped. In college, I double majored in biology and art meant that when I graduated I was functionally unemployable. But I did have a trade–graphic design—which helped put me through school, and after college my first job was in graphic design. When you’re a graphic designer, it makes sense to draw all the time to express what you’re thinking. Through a complicated series of events, I then became a management consultant. In that context my drawing habit made me weird, because no one in business draws. But eventually I found ways to bring drawing and consulting together, and once I started helping companies with a visual-thinking approach, people told me I should write a book. That’s how The Back of the Napkin happened.
Annie: Don’t you hear from people, “I can’t do this, I’m not a visual person” or “This won’t work for me, I’m a terrible artist”?
Dan: I do hear that, and I tell them: We are fundamentally visual by virtue of being human. It is crazy to me that we spend our entire education becoming more effectively verbal while completely ignoring our visual capacities. Sometime around second grade, teachers stop using pictures, stop encouraging students to draw their own pictures. If you ask a class of kindergarteners, “Who can read and write? Who can draw?”, most of them can’t read and write yet, but every one of them can draw. Pose the same questions to a class of tenth-graders, and while every one of them will say they can read and write, only a handful—the “artists”—will say they can draw.
Our visual skills begin atrophy from disuse, and even more insidiously, we start to denigrate the visual parts of our brain. We think it’s unreliable; we think it’s superficial; or we think it’s juvenile and patronizing. “You’re drawing me a picture? What, you think I’m in kindergarten?”
The good news is that this bias is easy to overcome. I listen to people tell me they can’t draw, I put a pen in their hand, and a minute later they’re drawing. The key is that we use a very simple set of symbols: basic shapes, lines and arrows, stick figures. People should have access to this visual grammar.
Annie: What can pictures do that words can’t?
Dan: There are aspects of knowledge that can’t be expressed through words. But actually, the two complement each other. Often the best approach to solving problems and generating ideas involves a combination of words and pictures. When you add pictures, you add
layers and dimensions of thought that are almost impossible to achieve with words alone. Words can limit our ideas, confine them. Sketches don’t do that so much. They leave space for what’s still emerging. And drawing pictures relieves the stress of keeping an idea in your head. It’s a way to get your idea down while still keeping it in a fluid state.
Annie: Do you find that practicing visual thinking has an impact on you beyond the individual problem you’re working on?
Dan: Yes, because visual thinking gives us the tools to look at the world in a new way. You start seeing things that other people don’t see.
The mental tools we’re used to using put blinders on us. When we come at problems and ideas from a new angle, we’re able to see new solutions.
I highly recommend Dan’s books, The Back of the Napkin and the new Blah Blah Blah. Readers, have you ever used a drawing to solve a problem, communicate a thought, or come up with a new idea? Please share your stories.