Visual Thinking Toolkit


Over the last several months, I’ve been working to up my game when it comes to creating visual content for blogging and work. I’ve been doing some of this for a while and published an entry on my personal blog about three years ago titled Professionally Geeking Out where I shared some of what I was doing. Interestingly, my quest to expand my skills hasn’t led me to expanding my toolset. I’m working with a leaner set of those tools now but I’m better at using them. I recently posted that three-year-old blog on Linkedin and got some questions about what I’ve been doing from several friends and colleagues. One of those, Eric Yamamoto, is terrific with a whiteboard or easel. He commented that he was frustrated with drawing digitally and told me that I am making a lot of progress. So when asked me to share, I took it to heart.

I’m splitting this into two sections. The first will be places to learn, the second is what I’m using. I’ll add links galore. None of this is sponsored, it’s my own experience and what has worked for me. Do NOT be intimidated at the thought of drawing until clicking at least the first of those links below. If you think that’s a bit intimidating even, have a look at this TED Talk. This is worthwhile stuff.

Part 1: Sources of Wisdom
Dave Gray
Several years ago, I sat in on an organizational culture presentation by Dave Gray. His overview of our organization was spot-on and his presentation was amazing. He was drawing a grand picture by hand and sharing it over a WebEx. We swapped a couple emails and I checked out his site. It turns out that he’s a pioneer in visual thinking and I’ve seen his visual alphabet repeated many times. It’s easy and works. Click that link, watch a couple quick videos, and scribble a little.

Mike Rohde
Over the last few years, you may have noticed TED Talks or pictures from meetings with live sketching done over the course of the session. They tend to look natural and professional while maintaining a sense of improv about them. Mike Rohde coined the term “Sketchnote” to describe them. His The Sketchnote Handbook is a terrific resource to learn how to do this. Am I doing live Sketchnoting in meetings? Not entirely. Has it helped my skills in whiteboarding? Absolutely. 100%. Without a doubt. I wholeheartedly recommend this book because of how easy it is to pick up and practice. I love the style and approach. If you buy it, get a physical copy over a digital one. This is the book to show you that you CAN do it.

Dan Roam
Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin may be the original visual-thinking-in-business book which got traction. It’s a very good book with a business and problem solving approach. Where Mike’s book teaches drawing and visual layout skills, Dan’s shows how to build content which breaks down problems. It’s “take it to work” kind of content. I’ll be honest, it felt a bit wordy compared to Sketchnote Handbook, especially for a subject like this. He’s since published a book called Unfolding the Napkin which I haven’t read but seems focused on a more workshop approach. The content is great, well thought out, and useful. I’d probably opt for Unfolding over Back but either’s worthwhile.

Sunni Brown
I first heard of Sunni Brown in the TED Talk I linked to above. After reading Dan Roam’s book, I went back to Sunni Brown and noted that she’s co-written a book with Dave Gray called Gamestorming. The talk and link to Dave intrigued me so I bought a copy of her The Doodle Revolution. I’m going to put it at a neat mix between The Sketchnote Handbook and The Back of the Napkin. Both Napkin and this involve visual approaches to solving problems in novel ways. I’ve used them in taking meeting notes, prototyping workshops, drawing out concepts for customers, and more.

Catherine Madden
I’d call Catherine more a practitioner than an author. I became aware of her through an Instagram feed I’ll reference in just a bit and liked her style. I went through a Skillshare class she produced and immediately had some innovative ideas. It’s an easy intro into all of this. She’s since done another Skillshare and has an active social presence. I’m a fan.

Austin Kleon
Austin Kleon is more an artist than anything else. Unless that something else is an author – which is kind of an artist. I’ve given a few people copies of his Steal Like an Artist and am popping in and out of his Steal Like an Artist Journal. The Journal is a creative outlet for putting some of these skills to use. It’s also creative entertainment which can help expand your mind.

Part 2: Tools
I said that much of what I use for tools has narrowed down rather than expanded. I’ve got a black whiteboard (I know, I know – it’s different) in my home office and I will readily grab markers in a conference room. I use pen and paper in Steal Like an Artist Journal. However, I work primarily digitally. Eric Yamamoto told me that he’s tried several styli and a bunch of apps to no avail. Like I said, the man does great work and he hasn’t found a digital solution which works for him. This means that your milage may vary. One reason I like digital is that compulsiveness to draw something the way I want it – even if I’ve got no artist cred or training. Another is that my device has an infinite supply of materials as long as it’s got battery life.

Early on in the iPad days, I heard of an app named Paper by a company called fiftythree. I’ve tried a few other drawing and note taking apps but keep coming back to this one. There are people who create genuine art in this app but I’m not one of them. It’s got an easy to use and limited set of pens and brushes so it’s accessible. The company has a terrific Instagram feed with weekend takeovers. This is an easy way to see what’s possible with the app and where I came across Catherine Madden.

I mostly produced crude drawings for my blog until the company came out with their Think Kit and rebuilt the app. Think Kit has some basic geometric recognition to clean up squares, triangles, circles, connectors, and the like. Then you can shade them, join them together, and move them around like you would a physical PostIt. It’s an easy canvas I find more freeform than dragging shapes around PowerPoint. When people see it, they know that something different is happening.

Like Legos for Sketchnotes.
Easily add template pages to build from. Like Legos for Sketchnotes.

I use fiftythree’s stylus exclusively. I readily admit that I’m a bit of a fan of the company. What I like about the Pencil stylus – yes, Apple seems to have ripped the name off for theirs – is the way the tip glides across the glass. There’s surface pressure and speed sensitivity as well as a tapered tip which adapts to how you hold and use the device. It’s Bluetooth-enabled with an eraser (you know, like a pencil) and palm recognition which works for me. Lastly, that tapered tip is a bit grippy on the screen. Apple’s Pencil is slick and felt to me like ice skating when I tried it in a store. The fiftythree Pencil works in their own app, Microsoft OneNote, some Adobe apps, another very good indie drawing app called Tayasui Sketches (worth checking out too), plus others.

When I work with a remote audience or on my iPad in front of a group, I need to show its screen. I use an app called Reflector 2 with my MacBook Air. It’s essentially an AirPlay client. As long as the laptop is on the same wireless network as the iPad and the protocol isn’t blocked, it shows up from the iOS device. Some offices do block AirPlay but using a mobile hot spot or tethering to your iPhone or Android device is a reliable workaround.

Doing this over a WebEx makes me feel a bit like Dave Gray in a humble Padawan kind of way.

Wrap Up
That’s what my toolset is these days and how I’m pushing my own envelope. I find it a rewarding way to change up how I work. Visual thinking is game changing to me. It is not a toy but it is incredibly fun. I’ve drawn in front of peers and had them tell me that when they see me open up my iPad, they’re in for a treat. I’ve done whiteboarding with executives at clients who have often stepped up with a marker in their hands before I did. I even once had a client VP sitting next to me comment on my Pencil and tell me that he had one. The ability to present your own concepts along with them is a paradigm shift which takes a meeting from a presentation to a collaborative dialog. It’s like a visual form of Inception – when someone comes up with an idea on their own, even with help, then it’s far more impactful than seeing it on a corporate slide.

In the spirit of Steal Like an Artist, share what you’re doing. If you try the app (which is on iPhone too), read any of the books, or watch any of the videos then share your thoughts. Share your work if you feel up to it.

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2 thoughts on “Visual Thinking Toolkit

    1. Thanks, Mike. I’ve really enjoyed your work. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to start dabbling. You make it easy to get sucked into drawing.
      I’ve got an iPad Air 2 so there’s no replacement on the way. I’ve played a bit in the store but it’s not in my future anytime soon. Unless my wife needs to replace hers…
      Hmmmmm…

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