Book review Pencil me in: The Business Drawing Book for People Who Can’t Draw

Are you doodling during meetings and talks? Scribbling those meaningsless patterns and forms? Good chance that you have found, probably unknowingly, a way to keep focussed while listening to something that bores you. As befriended psychiatrist Lineke Tak told me: ‘I have a very agile mind. I’m thinking all the time about all kinds of things. Doodling distracts my mind enough so that I can stay concentrated during a meeting.’
Or planetary scientist Sarah Noble (@IntrplnetSarah) who tweeted on 18 April of this year from a review meeting on the future NASA Psyche asteroid mission: ‘These reviews are incredibly important, but also incredibly dry, so I doodle to keep my brain from wandering.’Her tweet went with a very nice doodle from that meeting.

and also a day later :

I thought about this immediately when reading ‘Pencil me in’ by Christina Wodtke (@cwodtke). The book’s subtitle reads ‘The Business Drawing Book for People Who Can’t Draw’. Although Wodtke indeed aims mostly at small business people, I found her book inspiring for thinking about communication in and about science in different way.

Reasons for drawing
Wodtke sums up three kinds of drawing. Drawing the existing world as you see it, drawing what you don’t see or what doesn’t (yet) exist (for instance designing), and drawing to visualize ideas in your head as a means to share them with the outside world. Her book is about this last category of drawing. When zooming in she recognizes three reasons for drawing: communication, better problem solving, and better remembering. This rang the bell of sketchnoting (Google). I stumbled upon it through Twitter in early 2016 when I noticed planetary scientist James Tuttle Keane (@jtuttlekeane) reporting from a scientific conference through nice and very informative sketches. On his website he states ‘I live-sketch conference proceedings for both my own edification, and for sharing new results with the public on social media.’ Which just is what Wodtke promotes, among other things.

Colleagues on drawing
For this review I asked a few Dutch colleagues whom I know to draw about their experiences. Mieke Roth (@miekeroth), based in Lelystad, is a well known science and technology illustrator, who likes to call herself also visualizing journalist. Already as a child, for her drawing came first, using it later. She also discovered early on that drawing could quieten her mind. Later when studying animal sciences at university which incorporated a course on drawing microanatomy of animals, she found out that she never again forgot images if she had drawn them. Now when she works on assignments she listens very carefully during briefings and discussions, and makes the first drawings soon after. ‘When I draw, it takes most of my attention without much room for thinking. The thinking I do before, allowing me to listen very carefully during briefings.’

Nadine Böke (@NadineBoke) after studying biology, started a career as a science journalist and now is a communication consultant at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. She loves to draw in her free time and got some practical science drawing experience just as Roth did during her study. Thusfar she used her skills professionally mainly for unpublished story boards.

Freelance science journalist Bruno van Wayenburg (@brunchik), based in Leiden, has recently risen to fame in the Netherlands with his hand-drawn animations of science subjects through short movies. He discovered his talent in 2012 when participating in a nice but short-lived Youtube project called wetenschap101.nl. He didn’t want to become a talking head and instead starting filming his hand sketching explaining physics subjects with self voicing-over. The project fizzled out after a year for financial reasons, but Van Wayenburg continued, using more professional equipment and techniques but also still very much on simple hand drawing. This is cheaper for low-budget assignments, mostly from scientists and journalists.

From doodling to skill
These colleagues have some drawing talents from their own, but what if you don’t have – or think you don’t have – this skill or talent? Back to doodling again. If you like doodling, why not develop this some more? Wodtke suggests a number of practical excersises. Just like we developed our hand writing through endless training into an activity which doesn’t require thinking about it, you can develop your drawing alphabet, says Wodtke. Practice drawing lines, curves, square, circles, other forms so much that you make them rather perfectly without having to think about it. This gives you a new means of taking notes. Your next step could be sketchnoting. This is particularly interesting because in a number of academic studies students still practice drawing – like in archeology, biology, geology and geography. Why not develop this further? It could ease your life as a scientist and make you a better communicator.

Recently I had an extensive email conversation with Olivia Wilkins (@LivWithoutLimit), studying astrochemistry at the California Institute of Technology. I discovered that she is sketchnoting through Twitter (again!) when she took up the #365papers challenge. Reading an average of one academic paper every day and tweeting about it.

Understanding better
‘I first heard of the challenge last December when someone tweeted about how accepting the challenge to read 365 papers in one year had made them a better researcher and teacher,’ Wilkins wrote me. ‘They said that, even though they didn’t complete the challenge, they read much more than they had in the past, and the breadth of their knowledge of their field expanded substantially.’

‘At the time,’ she continued, ‘I had been struggling with ways to broaden my own scientific knowledge. As a second year graduate student, I have been attending research seminars for several years, but I often find that they are pitched to other in-field experts, not to out-of-field faculty or students. Initially, I felt seminars were a waste of time because I left frustrated and unsure of what the talk was even about. At some point, I began to doodle during seminars and conference presentations, which has helped me understand the content substantially. I start by sketching out the introduction of the talk: why the topic is important, what questions there are, jargon that might be new to me. While I’m doodling, I often miss out on the methods being discussed, but I find this to be useful because it gives me more time to think about why the research is meaningful. I check back in for the results and conclusions and tie everything back together. While doodling, I can only make note of the most important aspects of the talk, but really it is only the key ideas that are important rather than every single detail. After the fact, I have an image to put research ideas to, making it much easier to both remember concepts and look through my notes for additional information.’

#SciLitSketch
‘Similarly, I had found that I could never remember what I read in scientific papers. I would read and reread the abstract, introductions, and conclusions of papers when writing proposals or reports for coursework. It didn’t matter how many times I “read” them; the information just would not stick. I decided to take on the #365papers challenge because (1) I wanted to become a more well-read scientist, like the Twitter user I mentioned above, and (2) I wanted to try out a new way of reading by sketching illustrated summaries of each paper (or, in the case of long reviews, each section of a paper). I had posted seminar sketches occasionally before, but mostly I kept them to myself. Inspired by James Tuttle Keane sharing every single sketch from conferences he attended, I decided to share my illustrated summaries on Twitter. I came up with (as far as I know) the #SciLitSketch hashtag. I selected it because it would be an easy way to organize all of my summaries and go back through them later.’

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Remembering better
‘Initially the project was just for myself. Illustrating paper summaries helped me understand the main points of an article and remember them better. The process is time consuming, but the extra time required to think about the material and how different pieces of information in a paper all fit together allows me to understand them better (thus saving me time later because I don’t have to reread papers as often). Furthermore, even if I don’t remember a specific piece of information or where I found it, I have a better chance of remembering a part of a sketch. If I have a vague idea of the type of information I’m seeking and have a recollection of a related sketch I drew, then all I have to do is flip through my notebook until I find the sketch. From there, I can see the title and author and look up the paper to get the specific tidbit I want to incorporate into my writing. The project is also relaxing. I’ve become so bogged down with being a grad student and parent that I haven’t had as much time to be creative. I used to spend a lot of my time drawing and painting, but finding the time and energy to do these things has become difficult in the first two years of grad school. As such, #SciLitSketch has become a creative outlet for me, and it is productive towards my progress in graduate school!’

Communicating better
‘I was surprised that, while #SciLitSketch was intended for myself, this project has become an avenue for connecting with different people, mostly people I’ve never met. The other day, someone retweeted a sketch I made about one of her papers, sharing her excitement and surprise. I felt great being able to draw the sketch, so I was elated that it made someone else feel good too! I’ve also had several interactions with people who aren’t in my field or who aren’t scientists at all. For them, the #SciLitSketch-es are a more digestible and accessible means of getting scientific information that might not have been published in a popular science format. As a result, I’ve gotten to answer questions about science that otherwise might have gone unanswered or might not have even been formed. With that in mind, I try to include definitions and background information in my sketches, including things that aren’t new to me, so that they can be more easily read by others outside my field.’

‘My #SciLitSketch-es have evolved over the past months. First, I quickly learned not to write in colored pencil but only in pen. My first 15 sketches or so had a significant amount of notes written in colored pencil. While the color looks nice, it is much more difficult to read than pen. I’ve switched to writing in pen only and shading with colored pencil to add color that way. I’ve also learned that people are more likely to respond positively to summaries with lots of images but also short captions. Finding this balance is something I’m working on, but it is especially difficult because I tend to sketch while reading papers and run out of room. When I read the abstract of a paper, I can get an idea of what my three or four main points to sketch will be, but sometimes the discussion is filled with numerous interesting tidbits, all of which seem too important to exclude. I’ve also learned the importance of a clear theme in any instance of scientific communication. For some papers, it has been difficult for me to see how all of the pieces fit together, even after rereading the introduction and summary multiple times before returning to the discussion. There have also been some papers that were excruciating to read because they assumed that their reader was at the same level of expertise as the author. As a student (and as a scientist in a different but related field to these authors), this is frustrating and makes me feel excluded. As a result, I have worked toward making an underlying theme a priority for me as well as remembering that, even with an in-field audience, my readership will have a broad range of backgrounds and specialties, something of which I should be conscious of. That being said, the experience has solidified the notion that explaining things in a complicated manner doesn’t make you sound smarter, it just makes you sound more difficult to understand. Similarly, writing in a way that is fairly simple and fluid makes you more accessible as a scientist, both within and outside of science.’

Let’s draw!
I would like to quote Wodtke one more time: ‘Drawing is a primary form of understanding reality and expressing thoughts and ideas. Drawing, in any practice, helps you freely navigate possibilities and to visually think without limitations and boundaries.’ I think Wodtke’s book is a nice inspiration to take a different look at communicating in and about science.

Pencil me in: The Business Drawing Book for People Who Can’t Draw
Christina Wodtke, published by Christina Wodtke, available through pencilmeinthebook.com

Huub Eggen  (@phi48), 28 May 2018

Dit is de zesde boekbespreking in onze reeks. De eerste ging over The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science, de tweede over Houston, we have a narrative, de derde over If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? en de vierde Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. Nummer vijf: Science journalism, an introduction.
Heb je zelf een boek waarvan je denkt dat hij in deze reeks past, dan horen we ’t graag!