The Infodoodler-in-Chief: Sunni Brown

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Sunni Brown’s latest book, The Doodle Revolution (Portfolio Penguin), is an every-person art. She advocates the concept that drawing is the key to the thinking mind. I got to thinking that drawing is the next big esperanto (although its been with us for eons). I asked Ms. Brown to comment for a story I wrote for the Atlantic. Here is the entire interview.

Sunni Brown - The Doodle Revolution (Portfolio Penguin)

You’ve obviously created quite a sophisticated system. How long have you been a doodler?Until I turned 27, my relationship with doodling had ebbed and flowed unremarkably over the years. I wasn’t a student known for being “the resident doodler” and my doodles showed up only on occasion, mostly in the margins of my notebooks. None of the scholastic environments in which I was educated supported—or even considered supporting—visual literacy and, at that time, my interest was in moving through the systems using whatever dominant thinking mode they espoused and getting the hell out of there. That absence of integration of visual language changed for me entirely when I started working at a consultancy called The Grove, in San Francisco. It was there that I was re/introduced to simple, applied visual language as a form of thought. It was after I started my own creativity consultancy in 2008 that I started to refer to applied visual language as “doodling.” I noticed that doodling was a universal expression of visual-thinking behavior (I was doing consulting and workshops all over the world) and I also noticed that it was seriously misunderstood and needed to be seen as what it really was—an act of cognition.

When did you ascend to Doodler-in-Chief?My title is officially “Infodoodler-in-Chief.” I’m friends with Google’s Chief Doodler, Ryan Germick, and he threatened to sue me if I stole his title. He was teasing (I think) but I figured it would behoove me to differentiate, so I one-upped it by using a term I was advocating openly and often in public anyway: Infodoodler. That was probably around 2010? I’m terrible with dates.

Sunni Brown - The Doodle Revolution (Portfolio Penguin)

Milton Glaser has said that “drawing is thinking.” What does the doodle allow you to do that writing alone does not?For many millions of people, writing is the dominant form of thinking and learning and it is the preferred mode through which they explore their worlds—internal and external. Written and verbal languages are obviously powerful forms of expression and exploration and it helps us immensely to master them to the best of our abilities. But the same can be said for visual language, and doodling is as instinctive to humans as is the acquisition of speech. We can view these alternating modes of thinking—visual and verbal—as distinct doorways into the knowledge-driven mind and into consciousness. Each mode routes us through their own neurological networks, so they consequently take us on different learning journeys. The value of adding doodling to our repertoire is that having access to both modes ultimately elevates the capacity of the person to think, feel and experience in more diverse and substantive ways. It strengthens a mental muscle that is currently drastically underused.

Obviously, anybody can doodle, but are their points given for the quality of doodles (i.e., scratches versus rendering)?I give no points for the aesthetic quality of a doodle for two specific reasons. The first is that the perceived skill level from the point of view of an audience may have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the learning experience for the doodler. A visual display that we consider to be utterly hideous from an aesthetic angle may still have taught a learner something significant about organic chemistry. Learning is the point. The second reason I don’t favor highly skillful doodlers is because one of the barriers to exploration of visual language IS this very notion that one must have talent or skill. As a person driven to educate around visual literacy, I want the tool to be accessible—an open invitation to doodlers at all levels—not just the Michelangelos. To position doodling as something that requires talent would be as dangerous as suggesting that only people who excel at writing should write. This is clearly preposterous.

What is an infodoodle? And is this an antidote to info-saturation?I define a doodle as “a spontaneous visual mark to support the thinking process,” and its more sophisticated sibling, the infodoodle, is defined as the tight integration of words, numbers, images and shapes to support knowledge exploration and integration. Both types of doodles are instinctive; one of them just requires more purposeful cultivation.

An infodoodle is absolutely an antidote to information saturation. One of the practices of an infodoodler is the curation of salient information and the subsequent visualization of that information. When we hand-write or type notes from classes or meetings, we usually just frantically slap content onto the page, hoping to get down as many words as possible. This is not a great practice for staying present, for remembering information, or for making it meaningful when we review it later. But by creating an infodoodle—a curated display of information using color, words, shapes, arrows, etc.—we are learning to not only sift through grains of content to find the meaningful pieces but we are also bringing those pieces to life by letting them live in multiple forms: a word, an image, color, a font, a shape. This changes the very nature of our relationship with that information.

Sunni Brown - The Doodle Revolution (Portfolio Penguin)

What role does wit have in doodling?It entirely depends on the goal of the doodler. Sometimes wit is superfluous—say you’re building an infodoodle of a lecture on thermodynamics and your works reflects only what the professor is saying (the assumption being this professor doesn’t lace her lectures with the wittiest of commentary). Other times, wit may be essential. Perhaps the learning experience for a particular doodler is directly connected to his ability to parody that content, so he visually ad-libs. Wit is a decision a doodler would make based on an end game, so the use of it is optional.

Are doodles (and infodoodles) for yourself or for others?This also relates to the goal. People create infodoodles for many, many reasons. Sometimes we build them to sort through a personal challenge, so that infodoodle would serve as a discernment and reflection process purely for ourselves. Other times, however, we build them deliberately to share. A student who takes visual notes is often asked to share those notes with her peers, so she often does. The strategies deployed b
y an infodoodler alternate not only based on her personal goal but also on her decision as to whether or not these are intended for an audience. Oftentimes, we change WHAT content we capture, out of a stream of content, based on knowledge of what the audience cares about. There is a huge amount of flexibility in the process, purpose and impact of an infodoodle.

How does this differ from drawing a zillion-dollar idea on a napkin? Or making a storyboard?The large majority of times, drawing an idea on a napkin is an act of doodling. It usually happens in bars and restaurants (people tend to choose paper, whiteboards or digital tablets when they’re elsewhere) and it is often a result of that spontaneous, uninhibited creativity that becomes possible during downtime. As for storyboarding, my personal process around that is much more linear and methodical. I may use doodling to trigger an insight prior to creating the storyboard but the overall structure and sequence is less impromptu for me. That said, inside of the frames of the narrative, I do often make spontaneous visual marks to show a scene or to remind myself of something I want to come back to. Sometimes I just doodle in the general whitespace to give myself free rumination time.

Must you be in a certain state of mind for doodling to work?Doodling actually changes your state of mind, so it can be seen as something you engage in when you deliberately want to shift your experience or your perception. For most people, doodling is a very calming and grounding behavior and one of its benefits is that it can shift us from a distracted and frazzled state to a more soothed and unhurried state. So if you’re not in the mental place you hope to be as you begin to tackle a project or respond to a question, you can use actually doodling as a tool—a creativity or an analytical tool—to change your physical and neurological experience, in that moment.


PRINT’s Summer 2015 Issue: Out Now!

The New Visual Artists are here! In this issue, meet our 2015 class of 15 brilliant creatives under 30. These carefully selected designers are on the scene making the most cutting-edge work today—and as many of our previous NVAs, they may go on to become tomorrow’s design leaders. Why not get to know them now? Check the full issue out here.