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Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

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5 Things I Learned About Storytelling with Doodles

This is the first post in a multi-part series about the Write/Speak/Code conference, what I learnt from attending it in 2019, and why I think it's important for us to support these events.

It's 5AM on Sunday and I was thinking about topics for my post today. Three talks yesterday really stuck with me as I looked back on "Speak Day" at Write/Speak/Code 2019.

But for today I'm going to talk about Telling Stories With Doodles and what I learnt from this gifted artist and empathetic technologist.

Some Background

I've long been a hobbyist sketchnoter. I started sketchnoting at tech conferences, then in meetings, then just for fun, for 3 reasons:

  • Fostering Creativity. It's well-known that taking a creative break allows your brain to process things in new ways, which in turn can drive innovation around ideas. The process of doodling is a fun way to visualize information in new ways that can help "out of the box" thinking.

  • Providing SelfCare. I've often felt overwhelmed (think large conferences) or stressed (think contentious meetings) and needed a way to calm myself or just distract my mind by focusing on something else. Doodling allowed me to do that in a way that was respectful to others (I was capturing meeting notes) and prevented me reacting in ways I might otherwise regret.

  • Assisting Recall. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In my case, I have found I can also remember visual cues better (and longer) than text. I can also connect with the information - or make connections to other ideas - quicker when I can see everything laid out in one page.

In fact, at the #BitsOfBuild community day event (after the Microsoft Build conference) I did a talk on how Sketchnoting can make you a better speaker.

Workshop: Telling Stories With Doodles

I have followed Denise Yu on Twitter for quite a while now. She is definitely someone who has inspired me to think about how sketchnoting can also be used for storytelling in tech -- creating a visual vocabulary that adds whimsy and emotion to help explain complex topics in clear and memorable ways. So when I saw her 2-hr workshop listed in the schedule, I hotfooted over with pen and book in hand

The workshop itself was fun and incredibly fulfilling. Almost every attendee I talked to started off with the self-deprecating "I can't draw at all" to that sense of wonderment with "OMG this was easy and fun and I want to use it explain this thing now.." which is perhaps the most empowering outcome of all.

Denise structured the workshop as a series of six segments:

  • People and Emotions / focus on characters and feelings
  • Letters and Banners / focus on framing and emphasis
  • Depth / focus on effects that make things pop
  • Anthropomorphism / adding human-like characteristics to objects
  • Lo-fi Metaphors / representing complex ideas with familiar analogies
  • Composition / layouts and navigational cues

Each part consisted of a short talk about a new skill we'd learn, followed by an example doodle from her collection that reinforced the usage, and then 3-5 minutes for us to try it out ourselves.

The format was extremely effective!! Don't take my word for it - check it out!

  1. Workshop slides - extraordinarily apt for self-study.
  2. Workshop website - will be updated with added resources.

5 Things I Learned

Here are my five takeaways:

  • (1) Emotion is key.
    The idea of anthropomorphism is that we can connect to objects if we give them a human face or trait. Extending that further -- we can communicate ideas by not only providing human traits, but representing the relevant human emotions that we feel when engaging with that tech. Want to explain phishing in an instantly-relatable way? Give form to the phishing email (e.g., a doodle with a face) and add traits that emphasize danger (e.g., flying eyebrows, mean smile, carrying a cartoon TNT box?).

  • (2) Imperfection is good.
    The difference between a doodle and "digital graphics" is that the former is, by definition, a raw and spontaneous sketch. Don't overthink it. Go with the flow. And in many cases, it is those wiggly lines, the unsymmetrical faces and non-professional feel to the drawings that will make people feel connected to them. It feels more authentic because you understand a human put effort into doing them.

  • (3) Mix it up.
    In each category, Denise showed us multiple forms or options for doing the same thing. Creating banners - make them boxes, make them balloons, try your own spin. Just make it visually fun and it will serve the purpose (framing). It's a great way to improve your visual vocabulary - practice new ways to do each skill. Coincidentally David Neal is running a #sketchnotechallenge on Twitter right now that will help you do just that!

  • (4) Sleep on it..
    This is my personal opinion so your mileage may vary. What I mean here is that if you are doing this with intent, to build something lasting (e.g., a poster explaining machine learning), then you probably want to plan out the ideas before you dive in to sketch them. And you will likely revise them a few times. What I have found is that it helps to get index cards or paper and "doodle" the ideas (characters and words for visual vocabulary, workflows and navigational cues for storyline). Then stick those up in your workspace somewhere and walk away for a few days. Your subconscious will be paying attention and processing those in the background. When you come back to the drawing board, you will have a sense of flow and can translate it to doodles faster.

  • (5) Review. Rinse. Repeat.
    Practice makes perfect. More importantly, the more you do something, the more you activate parts of your brain that chunk (identify patterns and optimize for reuse) key skills or combinations. And then you can start focusing on the purpose (what do I want to convey) and less on the process (how do I draw X). In time you will have created yourself a personalized visual vocabulary toolkit that not only allows you to create complete sketches faster -- but it ensures consistency and familiarity in representation. For instance, people will start identifying specific characters with specific ideas over time, making it possible for you to use text more sparingly and create better visual connections.

Go forth and create!

I want to leave you with a final moment of inspiration. Denise had brought along postcard- and poster- sized versions of some of her sketchtech art that shows how you can bring complex ideas to life in memorable and understandable ways.

Our industry needs more creative storytelling.

I hope this inspires you to start doodling too. I'm using the #sketchnote tag on for all my future posts on this topic - if you doodle, sketchnote or want to do more visual storytelling do use that tag or leave me comments below. I'd love to learn and share ideas that can help us make tech more welcoming for all.

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