Redefining Doodling? Really?

Sunni Brown is young, she’s smart, she’s charming—and she’s being featured on TED talks (Technology, Entertainment, Design). TED speakers are notorious for the contributions that they bring to creative problem-solving and technological innovation.

Brown’s presentation, “Doodlers Unite!” begins with some historical context, which points to the negative connotations associated with the word “doodle” in the past. She then highlights how doodling at the workplace has been viewed as an entirely inappropriate activity up to this day. Brown states,

“I think that our culture is so intensely focused on verbal information that we’re almost blinded to the value of doodling.”

To subvert traditional notions of doodling, Brown proposes a new definition: “To make spontaneous marks to help yourself think.” But are the marks that one makes when doodling really spontaneous, when an end goal for the doodle has been predetermined?

Brown’s defense of doodling stems from its potentially valuable contribution to deep information processing:

“People who doodle when they’re exposed to verbal information retain more of that information than their non-doodling counterparts.”

Why is this the case? Brown suggests that there are “…four ways that learners intake information so that they can make decisions:” These states involve visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic processing, as well as reading and writing. For deep learning to occur, at least two learning modalities must be engaged or the experience of one modality must be combined with an emotional experience.

Doodling, Brown suggests, involves all four learning modalities coupled with an emotional response. As evidence to support Brown’s thesis, she refers to a “doodle” by Frank Gehri, a preliminary sketch for the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi.

Doodle for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Gerhi’s doodle is clearly serving a function, since it’s being employed in the interests of exploring design concepts. Similarly, Brown suggests that we ought to leverage doodling in environments where information processing is high, as a “…preemptive measure to stop you from losing focus.” She argues, “Under no circumstances should doodling be eradicated from a classroom or a boardroom or even the war room.”

The strength of Sunni Brown’s argument is also its weakness: her defense of doodling is entirely didactic. A new definition of doodling must be provided, she maintains, and its definition must embody a purpose: to help you think. Brown notes that one of the traditional definitions of doodling is “to do nothing.” In a culture obsessed with productivity and economic gain, doing nothing is a cardinal sin. “Doing nothing at work,” Brown rightly contends, “Is akin to masturbating at work; it’s totally inappropriate.”

What about “doodling” when you’re not at work? If no end in mind has been consciously identified prior to one’s beginning to draw, is it still doodling? According to Brown’s definition, the answer would have to be “no.” The implied suggestion in Brown’s argument is that so long as one is on task (that is to say, one has not lost focus), then doodling is acceptable. But if drawing does not serve a teleological output, it is not doodling, and by extension, it is not useful.

If Spiegelman’s “drawn over two weeks while on the phone” (Read Yourself Raw, 1987) is not a means for the artist to help himself think, then is it still doodling? Or would Brown argue that we are always helping ourselves think when we doodle? Would Sunni Brown consider Marc Bell’s “pschedoodlia” doodling, according to her definition? If not, then what is it?

Marc Bell, “Greetings from Calgary”

What is the difference between a doodle and a sketch? Is there one?

Perhaps rightly so, Brown avoids making reference to the unconscious mind as playing a role in doodling, instead, she defends doodling by linking it to discernable stages of childhood development; doodling is considered a naturally occurring event in human growth.

Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain predates Sunni Brown by 32 years. In this groundbreaking work, the author refers to discoveries in research involving right and left hemispheric activity in the brain. Edwards applies scientific assumptions about brain activity to the experience of drawing. She suggests that the concrete-sequential, logic-driven left hemisphere may dismiss any drawing as mere doodling, in line with Brown’s description of traditional assumptions about the doodle (The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, p. XVI). Because of the left hemisphere’s dominance, doodling is undervalued in cultures where linguistic intelligence is revered. The bias of left-brained, logical-analytical thinking and verbal expression means that right-brain exercises of the imagination, spatial intelligence and visual perception are sublimated, in particular due to the increasing emphasis on academic subjects in our elementary and secondary schools.

Like Brown, Betty Edwards was also involved in facilitating corporate retreats on the basis of her hypotheses about drawing. And while there’s nothing wrong with making money, I can’t help but be suspicious about the motivation behind encouraging these ventures.

Take a look at the Strategic Doodler Showcase on the Doodle Revolution website. Note the preponderance of words in all of the samples provided. How different is what Brown is proposing, compared with the mind map or the concept map? In the domain of education, mind-mapping software has enjoyed popularity, as pioneered by Tony Buzan with MindMap. Inspiration Software is another strong proprietary player. Open Source mind-mapping tools such as Cmap and Freemind are also effective tools for concept mapping. But mind-mapping has been around since long before software applications developed a digital interface for “doodling.”

Wherefore the recent popular attention to doodling? Sir Ken Robinson, a well-reknowned TED talk speaker, has revolutionized how we talk and think about education. In addition to his acute wit and refreshing outlook on teaching and learning, his talks are now famous for their accompanying animations, produced by RSA Animate.

While doodling’s sharing the spotlight with Sunni Brown is better than its not getting centre stage at all, I still want to doodle for the hell of it, and not because it’s going to solve a problem.

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1 Response to “Redefining Doodling? Really?”


  1. 1 Christina Teskey (@ChrisTeskey) December 8, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    I agree! Doodling to stay on task takes all the fun out of it. And people doodle for many different reasons. I doodle only when I’m bored and feel trapped in a situation where I have nothing else to do. While I have a new appreciation of doodling from Brown’s talk and this post and may no longer consider it just a waste of time, I wouldn’t want all doodling to be labelled with her definition.


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