back of the napkin

Zen and the Art of Whiteboarding

Though it’s been around in some form since man’s earliest days, whiteboarding has become an important component of corporate brainstorming or “ideation” as it’s sometimes known. What started as a simple, low-tech presentation method has spawned a cottage industry of seminars and consulting businesses and books.
Whiteboarding is all about communicating complex ideas or abstract concepts in a simplified manner. And with the growth of international business, communication has become more important than ever, and what better way to bridge a language and cultural divide than with simple pictures?
I, and others looking to expand the role of graphics professionals, have noticed this trend, and would love to find a niche market for graphic artists in this new/old medium. With this in mind, I set out to investigate whiteboarding from an illustrator’s point of view.
Maybe it’s making up for the years of alpha-male-dominated climate in the business world, but the whole idea behind “ideation” may seem a bit “new age-y”, starting right with the word, “ideation”(?) and continuing with one of it’s core principles: “There are no bad ideas.” (Really?? I think I’ve come up with a few stinkers at one time or another that would qualify.)
Then there are some brainstorming exercises involving haiku poery or something called “laddering”.
So in exploring whiteboarding techniques, I find the challenge is to cut through some of the ethereal stuff and actually DRAW something that makes sense. Something that everyone (or nearly everyone) in the room can understand.

There’ve been several books on the subject, most notably “The Back of the Napkin” by Dan Roam. For a book dealing with how best to convey ideas simply through the use of pictures, I found it to have a lot of…well… words. After wading through all the acronyms (SQVID?) and bullet-point lists, I found the information overload to be somewhere in the realm of Steven Hawking’s “Brief History of Time”.
To be fair, the book’s main market is business people who want to bridge the communication gap between other business people, so they be more accustomed to the business-speak in “The Back of the Napkin”. The book clearly isn’t meant as a “how-to” for illustrator’s looking to tap into the whiteboarding market. In fact , one of Roam’s main points is that “anyone can do it”. While I’m sure that’s true to an extent, I can’t help but feel there must be SOME advantage to being able to draw when hitting the whiteboard. After all, ANYONE can play Pictionary, but when an illustrator’s playing, the smart money is on them.
In the end, one comforting point that I got from the book is that people respond and pay attention to hand drawn pictures better than they do to the average Powerpoint slide presentation, even if they present similar graphs and information. In fact, Roan freely ackowledges that many of the standard whiteboarding symbols (arrows, primitive shapes) come directly from Powerpoint and are proven to best convey certain concepts. And since most modern illustrators are used to working with metaphors and translating abstract ideas into clear visual terms, it seems to follow that illustrators would be naturals at whiteboard presentations, provided that they possess a certain degree of “people skills” (not always a given).
More information about whiteboarding and examples of it in use can be found at the following links:
Way of the Whiteboard (Dan Roam video)
Ideation and Design Principles

So now it’s time to hone those quick sketch skills. Who’s up for a round of Pictionary?

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