Draw It Like You Mean It

I’ve been thinking about something a lot lately, and I’m just going to say it:

If engineers aren’t sketching things out on white boards, paper or otherwise, we’ve got a big problem.

My daughter draws everything. Mommy. Daddy. Lightning McQueen. Iron Man. Pumpkins. Blue blobs (she is in her blue period). Leaves. Trees. The process of going to TJMaxx. Often all of these are on one page.

Confusing? Not at all, because she visually walks me through the ensuing conversation and because I see everything’s relation on the page, I have context and I can follow her vision. We’re taught to draw as soon as we can grasp a crayon. Crayola even makes infant kung-fu grip art supplies. We’re encouraged to draw everything right up until the point we learn our A, B, Cs.

And then it all starts to go wrong.

Writing takes over. Business tells us hand-drawn is not professional. It’s for artists. I need Visios. I need Word docs from the company template. Of course, there is a time and place for everything, and some things need to be written; but in terms of getting your idea across in the clearest and crispest manner, drawing almost always wins over any other medium.

Try this test with your team this week. Give everyone a stack of post-its and give them 45 seconds to:

  • Draw a car;
  • Draw a car in motion;
  • Draw a car in motion, stopping at a gas station;
  • Draw a car getting gas and the resulting monetary transaction.

Aha! Quickly, things get difficult and we start to see a lot of variance in what people actually draw on paper. Also, we will probably find that these situations have to fall back on a lot of dialog to explain context and what is the drawer’s overall vision.

Take away the drawings for the last person. Have them explain to the group as if we did not know a concept of a car or gas stations. Now things have become downright impossible or open to a lot of interpretation. I’m pretty sure people are leaving the room with very different understandings of what a car or a gas station might be. Obviously, this is not what we want on a development team at any level.

The problem here is compounded because engineers are solving problems for which there is no de facto solution or even more challenging, the problem is not understood entirely.

In this case, we should do whatever it takes to transfer ideas: Writing, drawing, talking or otherwise. More importantly, napkin drawings should stand on their own if that’s what is needed. Particularly, in groups, there is something about the tactile and personal feel to something hand drawn, something simple. It seems to get people focused on ideas and solutions instead of colors, images and “oh good grief, who used Comic Sans?”

If we’re sitting at the computer all day, the basic inclination must be to use the computer to create whatever is needed, to make it high definition, to make it “look professional”.


Go low tech. Go back to what we were born to understand. Focus on ideas and let them flow. Build consensus. Solve problems.

Okay, take a picture of it and put it in your Word doc if you absolutely must.