Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Doodlers are no doddlers at work

Published 20 September 2012 03:34, Updated 07 May 2013 10:36

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Doodlers are no doddlers at work

What’s on your mind ... A doodle submitted by BRW reader James.

Your office is stuffed full of creativity but you probably wouldn’t know it. You can probably see people with their ears glued to their phones, others twiddling their coffee cups in meetings and still more, tap-tap-tapping away at their keyboards.

It may not look like a design studio, unless, of course, it actually is.

Most offices may seem to be just ordinary places of work: beige, on grey, on more beige.

But start to flick through people’s notebooks, their diaries and the scraps of paper they leave on their desks and a different story emerges.

There, peeping out from under the newspaper is a scrawl, a series of drawn cubes, a cluster of sketched stars. Sometimes whole faces, penned animals and shaded landscapes will emerge as people think and listen and doodle.

Those doodles can be there as exclamation points, to draw attention to the important things in our notes. A coiled snake for each new idea, or a series of arrows to separate topics.

Other times, they appear like dreams escaping fully fledged from the tedium of an unimportant task.

Social entrepreneur Tania de Jong says the creativity of people at work is largely untapped. Her company Creative Universe provides training and workshops to organisations to try and unlock some of the potential for innovation and new ideas.

“I think organisations really need to acknowledge that everyone has a creative potential. It doesn’t just occur in the R&D [research and development] and marketing departments,” she says.

“Creating a culture of innovation in organisations means every voice truly matters.”

Capturing people’s creativity means there has to be a process to encourage new ideas from all. But it also means getting people to drop their limiting beliefs about themselves.

Just because your doodles may be utilitarian, it doesn’t mean you are not creative. There are lots of different ways to be creative and not all of them are artistic.

Although she is an artist (a soprano) de Jong says her doodles are fairly ordinary snails and flowers and stars.

(BRW readers have submitted a gallery of their own doodles through Twitter, a selection of which enliven this page.)

Doodling has more than a tangential role to play at work; research from Plymouth University shows that it helps us concentrate and learn.

“If someone is doing a boring task, like listening to a dull telephone conversation, they may start to daydream,” researcher Jackie Andrade told BBC News.

“Daydreaming distracts them from the task, resulting in poor performance. A simple task, like doodling, may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task.”

In a small study, Andrade found that those who doodle are able to remember an average of 7.5 pieces of information from a voicemail message, while the control group could remember only 5.8 on average.

Andrade argues that it is not so much that doodling is “good” for your concentration but that daydreaming is bad. And if doodling stops you daydreaming in a meeting, so much the better.

Author and visualisation consultant Sunni Browni says doodling can help the process of thinking, defining it as: “to make spontaneous marks to help yourself think”.

“People who doodle when they’re exposed to verbal information retain more of that information than their non-doodling counterparts,” she told a TED conference. (An abbreviation for technology, education and design, TED is a non-profit promoter of “ideas worth spreading”.)

“We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus but ... it is a pre-emptive measure to stop you from losing focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving and deep information processing.”

Brown says people take in information to make decisions in four ways: visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic. “For us to really chew on information and do something with it, we have to engage at least two of those modalities, or we have to engage one of those modalities coupled with an emotional experience.

“The incredible contribution of the doodle is that it engages all four learning modalities simultaneously, with the possibility of an emotional experience.That is a pretty solid contribution for a behaviour equated with doing nothing.”

Tania de Jong will present the
Creative Innovation 2012 conference in Melbourne on November 28-30.

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