Pencils for problems

My six-year old daughter came home from school last week with a story problem to complete for her mathematics lesson. Ugh, story problems (“If there are two trains leaving the station at 4:00…” etc.); the bane of my school days and a particular form of torture for many of the math-impaired among us (remember Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon where Hell’s Library consists entirely of volumes of story problems?). I never cared which train arrived at its destination first; I wanted to know what was happening on the train. Had someone been murdered? Would fallen leaves disrupt the journey? Were there any seats on the 4:00, or would the 4:15 be better?

I can tell this same wandering imagination plagues my daughter too, because try as she might, she simply could not work out in her head how much change she’d have left from £5 after she bought three apples at 50p, four bananas at 75p and a carton of milk at £1.10 (answer = 15p). Why? Because she couldn’t see what she was thinking. So we got out a pencil and paper and drew three apples, four bananas and the milk, each with its own price tag, next to a pile of coins. By drawing the objects she was able to see them in relation to one another, how much money was available and what happens when you trade apples for coins.

When it came to her English homework - to write a story about a fantasy world - she knew exactly which tool to reach for first: the drawing paper. Once the fantasy world existed as a drawing on paper; once it had boundaries and edges and a definite shape, she could begin to design the characters within it, and the story wrote itself.

The point of my story is that by using a pencil as a thinking tool, my daughter could easily make sense of challenging maths and writing problems – because she could see what she was thinking about. She brought visual literacy to table, to help out when language and mathematics fell short.

Every day, each of us comes across similar of challenges at work; something we have to think through or a difficult problem we need to solve. But how often do we reach for a pencil? It’s a skill each of us has (hey, if you can write your name you can probably draw a line – it doesn’t matter if it’s straight).

If you know something in a project isn’t quite working, or if you want to see how the pieces of an idea fit together before you build them, it makes sense to sketch them on paper. Draw different entities as simple shapes, maybe put a box around the commonalities, color-code the shapes to highlight differences, indicate each part’s intentions – what does each want to get from or do to each other? Does anything stand out? What needs to change in order for the design to flow smoothly? Can you see it now?

It’s not important to be beautiful – in fact, messy is better – what is important is that you’re slowing down and thinking carefully about each piece; how it looks, how it feels, where it is in relation to the whole, how they fit – or don’t fit – together. Because something very powerful happens when we think with a pencil – we touch all parts of an idea with our hands, feel around the edges and truly understand what each part is. And this is the important thing: oftentimes, you can’t see it by simply moving pixels around on a screen, you’ve got to feel the scrape of the pencil against the paper – in fact, I wrote the first draft of this post longhand – because the physical act of putting pen to paper connects your mind to the machinery of your body, slowing you down and creating the perfect conditions for inspiration to strike!

Sarah runs the Scriberia Academy, where we offer bespoke courses in visualisation and visual storytelling.