Learn to Think on Paper (12 Creatives Show You How)

Cathy Hutchison
9 min readApr 18, 2018

Did you know that drawing is thinking? You can think on paper more effectively than keeping things in your head.

Each time we scribble some shapes in a margin, bubble an idea, or make a stick figure stand on its head, our brains are working something out. Doodles help us craft thought, and they help us remember.

But the benefits are more than just cognitive.

Through doodling, we have the potential to communicate more powerfully with others. Bring a napkin and pencil into a conversation and it shifts the dialog — often making things clearer than when we use words alone.

Want to unlock your own ability to think on paper? These 12 brilliant creatives can inspire and show you how:

Sunni Brown

Sunni Brown’s TED talk, Doodler’s Unite! gave legitimacy to the power of doodling to clarify thinking, but her 2012 release, The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently, launched a movement.

Featured on the Today Show with Megan Kelly, Sunni shares, “A lot of people doodle in secret — or in the closet so to speak — but they do actually doodle. It is a universal behavior throughout time. In fact, I have not seen an American president who hasn’t had doodles on his White House letterhead.”

Sunni takes exception to the standard definitions of doodling meaning things like: “to dillydally,” “to make meaningless marks,” or “to do something of little substance.” Sunni’s definition of doodling? “To make spontaneous marks with your mind and body to help yourself think.”

Sunni gives you permission to stop hiding your doodles and start leveraging them to think more effectively.


Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon is “a writer who draws.” His NY Times bestseller, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, is for anyone who wants to inject some creativity into their life and work.

Austin removes the pressure that creativity has to be original. He writes, “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

In his keynote speech at SXSW, he encouraged people to “Show Your Work” (a title which is the powerful follow up to Steal Like an Artist). Kleon explains that “Good work is all about process, yet we tend to only share the products of that process, and not the process itself. Opening up and sharing your process brings you closer to an audience, adds value to your work, and makes you better at what you do.”

Follow Austin’s advice and show your work in process. Letting people see your doodles, sketches, diagrams, and notes can connect you to the people you most want to influence at a deeper level.


Graham Shaw

Graham Shaw is a champion for helping people leverage drawing to visualize thought. In his TEDx Hull and TEDx Vienna talks How to Draw to Remember More and Why People Believe They Can’t Draw and How to Prove They Can, Graham busts the myths that drawing is only for artists. “We are all life-long learners and the ability to draw can really expand our learning potential…when we draw, we remember more.”

Graham initially drew during his own presentations to help key messages remain in his audiences’ memories. When a trainer asked if he could teach those skills to others, it began a journey that launched Graham into helping a variety of people. “Many people believe they cannot draw,” he shares. “However, I have now worked with thousands of people who have amazed themselves when they discovered their hidden talents.”

Graham Shaw will help you discover you can do something that you may have previously thought was impossible — draw cartoons of faces.


Dan Roam

Dan Roam’s book, The Back of the Napkin, was a breakthrough in teaching people how to problem-solve visually for business. In his latest book, Draw to Win: A Crash Course on How to Lead, Sell, and Innovate With Your Visual Mind, Dan takes the conversation further.

Roam writes, “In your business, you can no longer afford not to be visual. Our visually driven world now demands that pictures step to the front.”

Roam can help you tap into your latent ability to use a pen and paper to problem solve. “Stop thinking about drawing as an artistic process. Drawing is a thinking process.”


Ryder Carroll

When digital product designer and Brooklyn resident, Ryder Carroll, wanted to keep his life organized, he pulled out a notebook. The method of mindfulness-based productivity he developed became so effective, that he gave it a name and launched a website explaining the system so that others could benefit too.

Bullet Journal® (or BuJo® for short) was so efficient and flexible, that a community sprung up around it. “I wanted to figure out a way for me to be able to capture whatever I was thinking, however I was thinking it, and still house it in a way that was organized and easily accessible,” Carroll says in an article for CNBC.com.

Check out the hashtags #bulletjournal or #bujo on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and you will discover some truly creative and inspiring adaptations of Ryder’s system. Or learn the system for yourself at http://bulletjournal.com.

Michael Lagocki

Michael Lagocki enjoys working with people he likes to hang out with. As an art student, he helped launch GhostWerks Comics with his best friends — which resulted in a handful of comics and an AfterSchool Special. Later with artist and event planner friends, he launched, ArtLoveMagic, a 501c3 focused on arts education for kids and adults.

Recently, Michael has been collaborating with Mindshift using comics to help solve systemic problems. Not only does Michael provide graphic facilitation for Mindshift explorations, and illustrations for the books that result, but he creates graphic novels to communicate solutions to a wider audience than would be reached by books alone.

“Watching a room full of top industry professionals use my comics to understand complex challenges is priceless. I’ve always said that comics will save the world. It is powerful to see it in action,” shares Michael.


Jose Naranja

Jose Naranja is fascinating to follow on Instagram. His illustrated notebooks are works of art. The pages have exquisite detail — a blend of writing, drawing, and sometimes ephemera. The topics range from practical to fanciful, and frequently feature travel. While no one “doodles” quite like Jose Naranja, just seeing his work can light you up with what is possible.

In a recent interview with Notebook Stories, Jose shares, “I spent many years studying and working as Aeronautic Engineer. Unfortunately, when I started working, drawings were already made by computer so I’ve never drawn any technical thing as part of my job (which I’d wish, btw) or received any drawing or art classes. I just try to do as well as I can, observing and feeling. I guess I can make disappear my technical background. I’m as interested in Science as in Art.”

One of the fascinating things about Jose is that he binds his own books so that he can use the paper he prefers. (He has a tutorial on his website with a how-to if you are interested in trying it.)


Mike Rohde

Mike Rohde has great news for everyone who has ever seen sketchnotes and wanted to be able to create them: “You already have all it takes to learn how to create useful, effective sketchnotes, whether you’re new to visual note taking, or you’ve been drawing your whole life.”

The Sketchnote Handbook shows you how to incorporate sketchnoting techniques to help you better process the information that you are hearing and seeing through drawing — regardless of your artistic ability.

Mike is a champion of “ideas, not art” and can teach you how to take the kind of notes that engage your mind, best of all, it is a fun process.


Kara Benz (aka. Boho Berry)

Kara Benz was working as a server when she decided to open an Etsy shop to feature her bohemian-style jewelry. She started a Bullet Journal to keep herself organized, and as she began blogging as Boho Berry about the topics near to her heart — mindfullness, organization, goal-setting, and personal development — she would also feature shots of her Bullet Journal. The interest in her work grew and she created tutorials to inspire others.

Boho Berry has become a full-fledged tribe for creatives seeking to improve their lives through planning, goal-setting, and motivation. It has also resulted in products such as a beautiful box subscription to help introduce you to the tools.


Alessio Bresciani

Alessio Bresciani first started sketchnoting based on an annual experiment methodology of learning a new skill. Since then he’s been continuously refining this sketchnoting craft and has found it highly useful for working with digital teams to explore new opportunities.

Alessio blogs, “Sketchnoting and visual thinking can use used for many purposes, from accelerating big thinking through to generating wireframes for prototypes, to creating strategy presentations. I’ve even used it as a method to interview mentors across industries.”

Alessio has a short book, A Simple Guide To Sketchnoting: How To Use Visual Thinking in Daily Life to Improve Communication & Problem Solving.


Seaweed Kisses

Michelle is the lifestyle blogger behind Seaweed Kisses. One of the great things about Michelle’s blog is that she has a feature called, The Journal Diaries, that shows the insides of people’s notebooks. She also features stories about her personal notebook — a passport-sized Midori Traveler.

She recently wrote, “There was a point in time, though, where I would baby this Traveler’s Notebook and handle it so delicately. But then I thought to myself, ‘What’s the use of babying it when it’s meant to be handled for everyday use?’ Any imperfections would only add to its charm.”

The Seaweed Kisses YouTube channel is full of how-to’s. A mix of journaling, dayplanning, art, and supplies, Seaweed Kisses is a fantastic source of inspiration to spark your personal creativity.


Cathy Hutchison

Cathy was an overwhelmed professional with a demanding job, family, and volunteer projects when she first discovered sketchnotes.

Cathy shares, “I was at a conference, so burned out that I couldn’t absorb anything. But when I walked to the back of the room and saw a man scribing the sessions on large boards in a mix of words, color, and doodles, suddenly I could ‘see’ the ideas. I wanted to experience that clarity always. I bought a notebook, black pen and some crayons and started carrying them around with me everywhere. “

Cathy now teaches people how to journal, sketchnote, and think on paper at yourvisualjournal.com. You can read her full story of how sketchnoting changed her life here: How carrying a notebook and crayons erased burnout, improved my career, and delivered on my dreams.

You can do this.

You don’t have to be an artist to put your pencil to work organizing your thoughts. But you already know this.

Hidden insights spark when you bravely pick up a pencil and let the doodles flow. And the longer you do it, the easier it becomes.

So, the next time you are feeling stagnant in your thoughts? Go back through the people on this list and get inspired to start flowing again.

// Feel like you are starting at zero? Get the free ebook, the Quickstart Guide to Visual Journaling.