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Tools for Innovation III: Sketches and your brain

Sketch to be creative, and engage your brain.

If we accept that innovation is going to be the lifeblood of the economy, then we also accept that we need to understand how people create new ideas. When we think about what ideas are, we assume that ideas are things in our heads. But, it is funny what happens when people really start talking about ideas. Suddenly, they can't wait to get those ideas down on paper in words, equations and sketches. That is, our ideas come bursting out of our heads.

Why are we so interested in sketching? In the book Tools for Innovation, that I edited with Kris Wood, there is a chapter by Barbara Tversky and Masaki Suwa that takes up the importance of sketching.

There are a lot of reasons why sketching can help us to be creative. One obvious reason is that there are things that are hard for us to express in words that are easier to express in sketches. For example, if you are interested in the way things are laid out in space, it is hard to describe that, but easier to make a sketch that captures those spatial relationships.

It is often easier to sketch relationships between concepts than to describe them as well. To describe relationships between people or between components of a device, you can use arrows, boxes, and lines to say things that would be difficult if not impossible to put into words.

One particularly important aspect of sketches is that they are ambiguous. At the time that you draw a sketch, you probably know what you meant to draw. However, if you show that sketch to other people, they are less likely to know exactly what you were thinking, and so they may interpret the lines and elements in your sketch differently than you did. That reinterpretation can lead to new ideas. And you don't always have to rely on someone else for this. If you put your sketch down and pick it up some time later, you may forget exactly why you drew it the way you did. So, you have to reinterpret your own sketch, and that may lead to new connections for yourself.

This means that you shouldn't be afraid to show your drawings to someone else. We are often self-conscious about showing other people our sketches, because we feel that our artistic abilities leave something to be desired. But it is these very limitations in our ability to sketch perfect what we are thinking that leaves room for those drawings to be reinterpreted.

Finally, sketches can be good, because they engage your brain in different ways than talking about ideas. It has become popular to talk about using your "left brain" and your "right brain." I want to clear up one misconception first. It is true that for most normal right-handed people, damage to regions of the left side (the left hemisphere) of the brain will cause really severe language problems. For those individuals, damage to the same regions in the right hemisphere will not lead to the same damage. However, that does not mean that sketching somehow engages your "right brain" and that talking about things does not.

That said, language certainly has particularly areas of the brain that are important for speaking, understanding language, and thinking with language. Huge areas of your brain, though, are involved in vision. Those visual areas will not necessarily be that engaged in abstract discussions of ideas. As a result, sketching can bring these visual areas into the mix. In addition, the act of sketching engages your motor system by having you plan and execute movements. In this way, actively sketching while being creative will engage more areas of your brain, and will give more types of ideas the chance to influence your innovations.

So, the next time you're going to talk about new ideas, keep a pencil and paper handy. Sketch away.

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