Whiteboard For Skeptics

According to author Dan Roam (The Back of the Napkin, Unfolding the Napkin, and Blah, Blah, Blah), there are three kinds of visual thinkers: people who can’t wait to start drawing (the Black Pen people); those who are happy to add to someone else’s work (the Yellow Pen people); and those who question it all – right up to the moment they pick up the Red Pen and redraw it all.

Hand me the pen! Black pen people show no hesitation in putting the first marks on an empty page. They come across as immediate believers in the power of pictures as a problem-solving tool, and have little concern about their drawing skills – regardless of how primitive their illustrations may turn out to be. They jump at the chance to approach the whiteboard and draw images to describe what they’re thinking. They enjoy visual metaphors and analogies for their ideas, and show great confidence in drawing simple images, both to summarize their ideas and then help work through those ideas.

I can’t draw, but… Yellow Pen people (or highlighters) are often very good at identifying the most important or interesting aspects of what someone else has drawn. These are the people who are happy to watch someone else working at the whiteboard – and after a few minutes will begin to make insightful comments – but who need to be gently prodded to stand and approach the board in order to add to it. Once at the board and with pen tentatively in hand, they always begin by saying “I can’t draw, but…” and then proceed to create conceptual masterworks. These people tend to be more verbal, usually incorporate more words and labels into their sketches, and are more likely to make comparisons to ideas that require supporting verbal descriptions.

I’m not visual Red Pen people are those least comfortable with the use of pictures in a problem-solving context – at least at first. They tend to be quiet while others are sketching away, and when they can be coaxed to comment, most often initially suggest a minor corrections of something already there. Quite often, the Red Pens have the most detailed grasp of the problem at hand – they just need to be coaxed into sharing it. When many images and ideas have been captured on the whiteboard, the Red Pen people will finally take a deep breath, reluctantly pick up the pen, and move to the board – where they redraw everything, often coming up with the clearest picture of them all.
Roam’s conclusion of these different types of people?

Regardless of visual thinking confidence or pen-color preference, everybody already has good visual thinking skills, and everybody can easily improve those skills. Visual thinking is an extraordinarily powerful way to solve problems, and though it may appear to be something new, the fact is that we already know how to do it.

What color is your pen?


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