This month we've been working hard behind the scenes on some Oryx tech debt fixes and upgrades, so I got to do something special. I went looking for a fascinating person to talk to, and I found one! This is none other than Brandy Agerbeck, author of The Idea Shapers and visual thinker extraordinaire. This has nothing to do with our keyboards (or any keyboards for that matter), and it's so worth your time. It's a great look at how sometimes the best tools are the simplest ones. We touched on so many things:

  • What's visual thinking and why it's a superpower all thinkers can use (not just artists)
  • Complexity and KISS (keep it simple, stupid)
  • Parenting, how to draw with kids, and how to react to their creations
  • Coding and sketching
  • Practice and where it gets you, doing vs. reading
  • Why index cards are the best thing ever

And the list goes on. It's an hour-long interview, and I hope you'll enjoy it. Full video, audio, and transcript of our chat below:

Erez: Hello!

Brandy: Hello.

Erez: I'm Erez from ZSA, and with me here today is Brandy Agerbeck. Hi Brandy!

Brandy: Hello. Good to see you again.

Erez: You too. Yeah, this is our second call. I'm super excited to be talking to you today. I got your book, this is the book Brandy wrote. It's called The Idea Shapers. It's all about visual thinking, which as a term sounded vague to me at first, but when I dug in I found that I'm super excited about it and I found out it's something I need in my life.

The Idea Shapers

Brandy: Awesome.

Erez: Being so text based, I think me and many of the people that watching or listening to this probably are also quite text heavy. Writers, coders and such. Maybe, can you share a little bit about what is visual thinking and where does it come into play for a person who's very text based?

Brandy: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that there's ways that we're just sort of built as visual thinkers. So much of how we learn and most of our workplaces have forced us into that text based, because text lets you get really specific. It's really easy to distribute. So there's so many ways that we're naturally three dimensional people in three dimensional space relating to the world around us and we've turned ourselves into text based folks and often very linear thinkers because of the modes we're working in.

Visual thinking is just going back to using your senses more, letting yourself have that space to picture your ideas. I think there are some folks who do that more naturally than others. But also, just to relate things more spatially. One of my favorite things to say is, when is the last time you solved a problem in a straight line? When we try to solve with text or a sequence, and I'm looking forward to talking more about the importance of that in coding specifically. But certainly as you're working out what you're trying to get something to do that's complex, things don't line up in a line.

Erez: Right.

Brandy: Even writing that book was challenging, because I had to make it fit on pages that were in a particular sequence. What's so fantastic about visual thinking is it lets you take your thinking in a lot of different directions. One thing is, if you're putting an idea down on a piece of paper, you can put it anywhere on that piece of paper. Then the next idea you get, you have to think about how does that next idea relate to what's already on the page. It can be proximity but it can also be things like this idea is kind of overarching this other set of ideas, or these ideas overlap, or this idea fits into this idea this way.

That's the kind of thinking that I think can help us handle complexity more. I was going to say it was natural, but then I had to admit that that's probably extremely natural for me, which is why I'm teaching these very specific techniques, so that more of us can handle that complexity instead of trying to make really complex things either fit into a tiny over simplified thing, which doesn't really work, or to try to make a very, very complex thing turn out into a straight line.

Exploring complexity

Erez: Right. That's something that really struck me about the book and about the way you teach, complexity. It's almost like a bad word. When you look at it outside, it's "keep it simple, stupid". There's this ongoing push to simplify, simplify, simplify. And even, one of the things that kind of struck me... My background is in writing and one of the classics in the field is On Writing Well, which I like. It's a great book. But there's this tendency to say, "If you can use a small word instead of a big one, use a small word. Keep it simple."

Which makes a lot of sense. I agree with that, and I do think writing should communicate. But where I found myself making the mistake of thinking, well the idea should be simple, and ideas often are not. It was very interesting for me to see and to experience for myself how thinking visually... I'm a rookie. I'm very new at this, but I already had a little bit of playing around with it and sketching out ideas. How it allowed me to embrace complexity.

It makes complexity like... I realize that for me, complexity felt painful because I was using the wrong medium. Because basically, when I tried to linearize complexity, to get it down as text, it's unwieldy. But then when I kind of spray it out on a big piece of paper, suddenly it's not as painful. It's kind of engaging. It's kind of fun.

Brandy: Yeah. Can I interrupt for a moment? If I was interrupting your train of thought.

Erez: No, no, no.

Brandy: That's absolutely why that word "shaping", and "shapers", the book is called The Idea Shapers, that is just the word. Because it's about... you're wrangling or wrestling something. I talk about five types of visual thinkers. There are maybe more, but this sort of is a model I use to help folks identify as a visual thinker. One of them is the mess wranglers and complexity tacklers. When you talked about "keep it simple, stupid", I shudder, literally shudder when I hear that phrase, because the folks who love wrangling complexity, it's like that's the beauty of it. They want to figure out, we're motivated by figuring out how all the pieces fit together.

I think, like you said, that the pain isn't necessarily... Well, I think there's some pain and complexity when you don't know what are all the pieces are and you don't know how they fit together because there's just that tension of figuring something out. But I do think there is a lot of pain created in trying to force something into the wrong shape. Trying to force something into a linear shape when it turns out this piece fits into here and this thing goes over here, that that's where a lot of pain is.

I also think there's pain in here is this big, beautiful, complicated... more complex thing, and you're trying to lop pieces off of it to make it simple. So those are all ways that there's a sense of... I'm a huge fan of the blank page, because you let the shape emerge. Even if it feels tense and weird at first and uncomfortable because you haven't figured it out yet that if you just give that space to go through that process, and push things around and sketch things out in all those sorts of different ways, whether it's post-it notes or giant piece of paper, whatever the physical tools may be.

But what's so fantastic is when you let yourself be in that uncomfortable amorphous space, when the shape of it emerges it's so much stronger and then you're like well, of course, that's the shape this thing needed to be.

Erez: Right. That kind of speaks to iteration, which is something I wanted to get to. But just touching on the sense of discomfort first. I think one thing that I felt when you're new, since I am new at this, there is the discomfort of the shape of the idea, but there's also a sense of discomfort in the tools that I use, or lack of confidence in my graphic ability.

Brandy: Yeah, exactly.

Erez: I can't sketch to save my life, right? I'm totally not a visual artistic person, I've always been a word person, that's kind of my background. So one thing I've tried to overcome this, of course, is I reached for my favorite crutch which is digital. I have an iPad with an Apple Pencil and I took Concepts, which is a nice drawing app with an endless canvas, and I drew out an idea.

In a sense it was a more comfortable experience because it was more familiar, I had an undo button, I made an error and then I copy pasted my error, I didn't have to sketch it out again. There was a familiar comfort. But then when I compared it to a more physical experience... We have kids, right? So we have big drawing papers, like giant sheets, we get them at Home Hardware or something, it's the stuff they use for packing.

Brandy: Yeah, for sure.

Erez: Pardon?

Brandy: No, I just yeah, for sure. I can picture. I know exactly.

Erez: You know the ones, yeah.

Brandy: Yeah.

Erez: So then for the same idea I had actually, I grabbed one of those sheets of papers and I grabbed the kids' markers and I drew it out on paper and it was a totally different experience. It was not as comfortable, in the sense that I had no undo button and I had to squiggle over things, but there was almost, when I was done with my idea and I had this big sheet of paper depicting what I was trying to work, there was almost palpable sense of relief, like a... it's out there, you know? Which I didn't get with an iPad. What do you think about that?

Brandy: I love that story. I'm going to be quoting your story, if you don't mind. I think what's happening is that... I'm agnostic about tools. If a tablet works for somebody, great. And I do think what you just shared is one of the magical parts of visual thinking with physical materials, the idea that we're physical humans in three dimensional space, and when we're literally touching things and you had this giant piece of paper, you're relating to those ideas in a different way because literally it's out-sizing you and you gave yourself that space to work in. And if you work conversely, you're trying to distill ideas on post-it notes or index cards, you're going to have a different way you relate to that with your physical body.

I think digital tools and screens can do phenomenal things, and they're still an abstraction and distancing. It's not the physical world. You may have that physical object but there's that distancing. I believe that when you flatten out that abstraction and that distance and you're physically grabbing those art supplies from your kids and you're doing this, that you're far more tuned into the physical cues in your body, and it's something that when I wrote The Idea Shapers, I did mention physical cues, like to notice that. Because that's actually really useful information.

That also, the next step is, that is all about tapping into your intuition. So the fact that I wrote over 400 pages in this book and never explicitly mentioned intuition, it was because it was the nose on my face because it was the way that I was so tuned into, because this is, for me, the way I naturally work. There's that experience, it's not uncomfortable... It could be uncomfortable for other reasons but it's not uncomfortable because it's new, just because again, it's practice.

But I think that's super valuable information that when folks want to leap to digital, because I don't know, for whatever reason, it's what they have, it's what they know, it feels fancier, it feels more important, it feels more modern, whatever.

Erez: It's really, really heavily marketed, too, right?

Brandy: Yeah, for sure.

Erez: I kind of had this sense that as soon as I unbox my new iPad, I will be a more creative human being.

Brandy: Right?

Erez: Of course, it's really marketed.

Brandy: Yeah, for sure. Strong messages there, absolutely. So I think that just that directness of those materials, and I love that you use that kind of newsprint packing material because it's not precious. Because we are so good at making the sketchbook that is... you get the new sketchbook and then it's too perfect to use, or the journal or whatever it is, right?

Erez: Yeah.

Brandy: The fact that you had something that literally is usually crumpled up, the stakes were low, so you could just use the material for what it was instead of worrying about messing it up so much.

Erez: That's true. I think for me it also helped that what I usually see on that particular medium in our household is pretty basic art, like I can live up to that standard. I can make something as nice as a three year old, I hope.

Brandy: Awesome.

Erez: Yeah. And so, one of the things though that I got with the... Actually, I want to backtrack here, before we delve into the how, because I was going to touch on the how of the drawing but I want to touch a bit more on the why because in the book you give some pretty specific scenarios when you are reaching, when's a good time to reach for visual thinking in your life, in your day-to-day.

And my story, with that sheet of paper and the iPad, I woke up at 5:30 AM one morning, which is early for me, it was even before the kids, and I had a bunch of thoughts going on in my head. I was trying to process something that happened the previous day and did I make the right decision there, and why don't I feel so good about that and all that.

Usually I would maybe journal through it, but then I went no, I'm going to visually sketch it out as a system, I'm going to sketch out what happened there, what was the, I think, the causality, and what are the links between the various elements of what had happened to me? And that's what I did, and that really helped. So that's one case where visual thinking really came through for me, because...

The result for me was two things. There was a sense of relief and understanding of what had happened but it was also for the future. I ended up with a resolution, with a decision, with a new way. Oh, next time I'm going to do so-and-so and here's why. So that's one case that worked for me. What are other cases you feel or other circumstances where visual thinking is the tool to reach for, day-to-day?

Brandy: I think that one of the most common... Wait one second. Little froggy this morning. I think one of the biggest, broadest, most human, most common things is feeling overwhelmed. And there is just that very simple act of getting that what is buzzing up here out on to that piece of paper, that post-it note, or that index card, or whatever it is. And it could be a tablet too, that's okay. But just that getting it outside of yourself is, I think, undeniably my number one use of it. Thankfully I'm not somebody ever lacking in ideas.

So I think that is just a general case but I think that your... I love that you said in that particular experience, you were able to look at causality and make a decision. I think that you could really do problem solving in ways because you're able to push things around. I think that... Oh, I lost it. I lost it for a second. That's okay, we'll pick up something else.

There's so many things you can do. One of the things I think it's really great as a communication tool, just to get your ideas down if you have something to say, and because all those things are buzzing in your head. And you've been on the audience side of a bad communicator, where they're just working through their stuff and it's coming out of their mouth. But if you actually used pen and paper to get those ideas out and figure out what is the shape of what you're trying to say.

Now, you may then also choose to visually represent what you want to say, it could be like here's a model, like you've worked out something and you say, "I think it's shaped like this, this is the model I want to convey," and then you walk people through that visual model.

Erez: Right.

Brandy: Or not, or it's just made you a better communicator because you figured out how the pieces fit together. So my life's work is to help people identify as visual thinkers and to think visually, and as far as you're talking about the marketing of the iPad, a marketing problem I have is it can be used for so many freaking things.

If I say it, it works for everything, it sounds like it doesn't work for anything, people want that specificity. But in the book, it's a series of... One of my favorite things to do, I love that complexity and I love breaking down something that is complex into learnable pieces. So the structure of the book, the whole middle section, is a series of 24 different idea shapers, and each one of those I sort of just open up with here's the concept, then I talk about some of the nuance and details and choices you have, and then each one of those ends with that idea shaper at work. So the landscape at work, for example.

And that was to really make it more concrete, to make it more actionable, because I love the abstraction, but I had to recognize that people are going to want to see, well okay so what do I do with this? To the point of how people want, and we were talking about this when we talked last time, is that people want things to be really tidy, so as I shared the idea of the book, people were like, "Well, that's too many things." Or, "Why are there only... Why are there six idea shapers in this step and there's four ideas in this step?" And it's like because that's what it is.

Erez: It's the actual shape of a thing.

Brandy: Exactly. And as long as you break it down into learnable pieces and the structure makes sense, it's learnable. Do I think somebody's going to read that book, page 1-400, whatever, and instantly understand all of it? Absolutely not. Especially because it truly is... it's truly understood when you experience it, when you practice it. Like the stories you're already sharing. But yeah. It's being comfortable with that complexity. That's my happy places, personally.

Erez: Totally, totally. It's interesting, we interview users, we interview people who use our keyboards, who are often developers, and one of the people we interviewed recently, she had mentioned... there is photos of her workspace, and you can see a notebook, a pad, physical paper next to her computer. And she said in her interview, that really struck me, that was before I actually met you. She said, "A few minutes of sketching can save me hours of coding." That was really interesting to read.

So yeah, totally. Another story I guess I can share from my brief experience with it was I came to hang out with my kids and I sat down on the floor and grabbed a sheet of paper and started sketching out my day just because I'm practicing visual thinking now, so I wanted to express my day as a sketch without too many words. And my kid who's six grabbed a sheet of paper, sat next to me, and just did the same thing.

Which makes sense, kids often emulate, right? But what struck me there is how clearly and instantly the format communicated when communicating with a kid, right? Because when you try to express a grownup thought to a kid, you often have to pick and choose your words carefully or they don't want to listen to them especially if it's something they don't really want to hear right now, right? But sketches and pictures are so compelling, like you want to look at the thing and you want to make it your own.

And because I'm such not a visual artist, you can very easily live up to my standard of drawing, right? So we're kind of equal on that medium. It's not like I... Because in the past I tried to take up... And he's a good reader, right? But he's still working on his writing. So I tried to take a sheet of paper and make notes and summarize a discussion we had, maybe, in words. And that would very quickly devolve into a place of inequality because my handwriting is still a little bit better than his. And my sketching, frankly, is not, right? And we are both on level ground there, and I found that that physical expression of our ideas, makes us more equal. It makes the communication more compelling, but also more on even footing, which helps I think him feel better about whatever ideas he has.

Brandy: Yeah. I think there's a couple things going on there. One is, this is a way... I'm not saying every single child is really into drawing but I think most of them are until they're told they're doing it wrong. That's what I see on the other side of that, as somebody who has drawn nonstop, I'm 46 now, so since age whatever, one or two or whatever.

So it is a truly natural way we express ourselves, and I'm not a parent but I hear stories from other parents where their child draws something and then they look at it and they're like, "What on earth is that?" All you need to do is ask your son or daughter, "So what's going on here?" And then this whole story unfolds, and you can tell the wheels are turning and they're making meaning for themselves. Like they are in it to win it.

And of course it looks the way it is given that it's for them. It's not necessarily for an audience, aside from the fact that it looks like that because they're six and that is where their development and their fine motor skills and their drawing experience is. So there's that whole kind of this is what we naturally do.

That leads into this idea that I appreciate what you're saying about the parity or feeling comfortable or being able to quiet that inner critic because you're like hey, I'm using the same materials my kids use, we can sit side by side, and so often people... Of course, almost... Unfortunately more often than not somebody will tell me they can't draw or they say, "I draw like a seven year old," and they draw like a seven year old because they stopped drawing when they were seven. I draw like a 46 year old with this level of skill because of the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours, right?

Erez: Yeah.

Brandy: And for me on my side of things it breaks my heart that that inner critic is stopping someone from picking up from their seven year old level of experience and just getting that stuff out because I'm sure what you've practiced with, you may be thinking well it's kind of messy or whatever, but it's still been useful. I think every story you've told me, you really got results from it or progress at least, right?

Erez: Yeah.

Brandy: And so I call that the drawing switch where it's like at some point most people have turned off that drawing switch because unfortunately culturally the only acceptable ways to draw, I don't believe this, but this is the prevailing notion is unless you're going to be a capital A Artist or an architect or a fashion designer or whatever, and there's very clear expectations about what those particular drawings look like.

So that switch shuts off for nearly everybody and they unfortunately have turned off that switch to all these other reasons you could draw that have nothing with a specific role or representational drawing at all. That's why I love teaching visual thinking because it is about abstraction, because it's the thinking part, it's like you said, you were able to see causality because you're getting this stuff out, you were able to see what the shape of your day was. You were able to make a decision. All these things, it's not about building a house or creating a masterpiece but it still was extremely useful in those cases so far.

Erez: Yeah. And it's actually a fascinating... I don't see a paradox, but you mentioned in the book, you say, "You can either be product focused or process focused with your drawing."

Brandy: Yup.

Erez: There is an irony, it's an expected irony, but if you are process focused, if you're focused on the experience, drawing as a verb you call it, naturally the noun you produce will improve over time because you won't stop and that improvement will just happen naturally.

This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with my business partner. He's a tremendous sketch artist, I would say. He's an engineer but a decade ago we were working on a project together, and he sketched something out, and I took the papers and I kept them, I saved them for years later, because what he produced was so visually beautiful. It was just something quick with a pen on paper.

Then recently when I got into visual thinking I asked him, "How did you get so good? Did you ever go to school, were you ever educated in visual arts?" He said, "No, I just never stopped." He said that as a five year old he started drawing cars and stuff going through the street and imagining what the engine looks like on the inside and all that and just kept on doing that until today at his age. Tremendous ability.

And that got me thinking, it loops back to of course parenting, as many things for me do, and so my kid draws something and shows me the drawing, how do I react? And often there is this instinct to say, "Oh that's so beautiful, oh that's great." But really, that's again, product focused. Even if I'm complimenting, I imagine the thinking in his head is like, "Hm, the next one better be as good." And that kind of activates... Whereas when he shows me the painting I could say, "Oh, I see a line here, I see this as very red, I see a circle." Just describe what I see, which is also about the thing, but it doesn't ascribe any qualitative feedback here, it's just okay, you made a circle. Or I can even ask, "What does this circle stand for?" If it stands for something.

And kind of describe what I see rather than compliment or even try to correct, as some parents do. Just, "Oh no, that's not how you draw a car." "Yes it is." Or, "I see a circle, I see a line." And then he explains what it is and goes into the process.

Brandy: I love, love, love that story, I've loved every story. It's awesome. And what I especially love about your discovering this I see a line, I see red, I see a circle, is that... And this is exactly what I do... It depends on the kind of workshop or thing I'm doing but I have this three day workshop called The Lab where it's extremely emergent and people really are vulnerable, they make these giant drawings and some folks are brand new to visual thinking, some folks have some experience, some folks are in ruts. I take folks exactly where they're at.

It happens to be a group of six people who join me. So once six people have made their drawings, the first thing I ask is, "So how did that feel?" So I want them to notice, pick up on those cues, and just kind of have... I want them to reflect on their own experience. Then I ask them to... say, "What did you notice about the speaker," or whatever the content was that we're drawing. It might be audio, it might be visual in that particular case.

So again, noticing what is their experience in relationship to what they were drawing. Then when I open it up to people responding to each other's work I say, "So what do you notice?" And I say... So I'm trying to model that pattern of, "So what do you notice in other people's work?" And it can be, "I'm really attracted to that thing." Because we do love beauty. Stacks are important.

Erez: Of course.

Brandy: And you can also say, "This thing is confusing me over here." Like, "I don't know how to make meaning of this so can you tell me about that?" I need to do that so explicitly because what people naturally do is they jump three or four steps ahead and they've made judgments and they've made assumptions and they've lost that opportunity to have a conversation around how did you get here, how did it feel, and also if you're looking at my work and I get to hear your observations and what's confusing or what is resonating with you, I learn so much freaking more about your experience with my work.

I did a TEDx talk in 2013 and towards the end of it I had two flip charts side by side, and it was demonstrating that idea that... and I do a lot of facilitation work and we'll give breakout groups flip charts and they'll have to come back and present something. And very often what happens is a group comes back with a very... they found the person with the best handwriting and they made a list and they come back with something that looks really pretty, but there really isn't any work there. They haven't really processed anything. And as I say in the talk and demonstrate in the talk, another group could come back with something that's messy as heck but you can tell they actually made a ton of progress because they were pushing things around and crossing things out and just going okay, how do we wrangle this?

And the issue is that culturally it is very, very product focused. Somebody will be like, "Oh you have such pretty handwriting." It's like, okay, and? That doesn't support the process. It probably actually went against the process if that group was worried about making a tidy list and they never really dove deep into what they were there to do.

Erez: Again, the complexity, inherent massive complexity. So true. And that kind of brings me to the idea of iteration that you touch on a few times, and iterating, coders call it refactoring, whether as a writer you go back to your draft and you iterate, as a coder you go back to your code and you'll refactor it. Fundamental concept when working with ideas.

Brandy: Yeah.

Erez: What struck me, and I kind of wanted to hear your thoughts on, is the way I'm used to iterate, again, text based as I go to my draft or to my code. And usually it's versioned in Git or whatever, so I know I'm not going to lose the previous version. Then I take the artifact I've created and begin molding it, kind of like going back to, say, a sculpture the next day. And I take off the wraps and I work on the same thing.

Whereas in the book the way you kind of explain or the way I understood it, maybe I'm wrong, is you iterate by essentially creating a new artifact. You have your old drawing and it's right there, you keep it, you don't have to crumple or throw it away but you essentially used it as a reference and take a new blank sheet of paper or a new stack of index cards. Maybe not the index cards, we'll touch on that, but if I'm making what you call a landscape, like one big sheet that shows all these. Take a new sheet and make a new version from scratch. Did I get that right?

Brandy: Yes. It can be that. It could be that you're erasing things. It happens that personally I do almost everything in ink and I'm totally fine with crossing stuff out or making something... going over something so you notice it, if it's really messy. So it just happens because I love my flair pens, which somehow I took all my flair pens away so I don't have one, oh my goodness. Anyway.

I think part of that probably just comes from the materials I tend to use. But I think that, in my experience and experience working with other people, there is that tension, that physical tension, and you're getting stuff out and then there's sort of like a oh wait, wait, okay. And things start to come together and it's like that drawing that I've pushed aside got me to this point so let me grab the new piece of paper so I can just make an other... it's the next iteration.

And I want to really emphasize that I think there's so many of us that know how important iteration is but again, culturally, and I think it's almost entirely global that we are rewarded for showing the finished masterpiece. And only our colleagues understand, in whatever kind of work we're doing, only our colleagues understand the process it took to get there.

So I think there's a beautiful side effect to when folks use visual thinking is they're giving themselves much more space in that process zone, and that we can have conversations about the process. There's a whole nother conversation to be had about when you make one of those weird, messy drawings, how do you share it with somebody else to have a conversation? That has a lot of issues around vulnerability and critique and...

But I think anytime we can open up that space to enjoy the process, be purposeful in the process, and be iterative in that... nothing's going to come fully formed. I happened to grow up with a father who was a brilliant artist and a total jerk, and so many of the hardest lessons growing up was when he expected me to know something I hadn't learned. And it was all those expectations of well this is going to be... The context is my dad was an alcoholic quality assurance inspector for the Department of Defense.

Erez: Wow, okay.

Brandy: So we're talking extremely high standards on everything. And there's definitely positive things I've taken from that but the point is you have to learn this thing, you have to get the practice in this thing. So I think that's why it's a message I like to share wherever I can because recognizing that it's not going to come out fully formed, that's just reality, so give yourself that grace of it's going to feel weird and feeling weird is part of the process and then it's going to feel a little more comfortable and then you're going to have that shift and you go, "Oh my gosh this is so great." You keep on working until you get a much stronger product.

I'm guessing you've seen or know or personal experience, when you try to rush something, and you didn't give it the time to iterate, you didn't give it the process to iterate and you're like, "Well, it's done, but it could have been so much stronger had it not tried... If it was given the space to be processed." I hope that makes sense.

Erez: No, it totally does because to... It's a back and forth creating something, whether it's a blog post or a piece of code or a sketch, you output, and then you have to look at the thing, and that's where iteration starts, you have to sit down and like "hm, what did I just do here?" And look at it. And then of course you want to start fixing things. And often, when we rush things, we don't even look at them after having spewed them out and like "okay it's out". You don't even really know what you've made there because it's already out, it's gone, it's fast. I don't even want to look at it because I don't have time to work at it again.

I guess one more thought and iteration I wanted to hear your thoughts on is iterating between formats. I'm very proficient with a keyboard, I'm proficient with words, often... And this goes back to expressing our ideas. Often when I have a lot going on inside, the most natural thing for me to do and the quickest thing for me to get that out from my head or from my heart, wherever, is to get it, to grab a keyboard, grab Sublime Text and just write a bunch of stuff out.

Now, would you say that... At this point if I wanted to keep processing what I just spewed, often my usual thing is I go and I read it and I start tweaking it and editing until it rings true. Would you say instead of this do I stand to benefit from okay, I output the big thing on a screen and then turn my back to the screen, grab a big sheet of paper and try to basically do the same thing or iterate on it using visual thinking instead of processing the draft, you know what I mean? Do you think that's beneficial?

Brandy: It can be. I think the thing is, from what you just described, one of the biggest things is speed. When you're... We think, just the speed of thought is so gorgeously fast and so I would say if that is your fastest way of getting the stuff out, fantastic. And I appreciate that what you're just asking is doing that first and then if you do visual thinking.

The biggest thing is... what I think is great about switching modalities is it shakes up the patterns of the ruts we might be in. It just forces us to process in a different way. So there isn't anything inherently wrong about you getting all that text out and then continuing to work in that format, but if you then grab that sheet of paper you're going to relate to the information in a different way because it's going to be spatial. Because now you're like all right, I'm not just going to recopy... I'm not going to fill this giant sheet of paper... I don't recommend filling the giant sheet of paper with writing, with that big piece of paper or small piece of paper or whatever, you have that opportunity to think okay, how do these pieces fit together?

So I think that just shipping modality, it's going to give you new information, and I think that's just going to make what you're working on stronger. And that doesn't mean that... Or it's testing it, it's making it more thorough. I'm not saying you can't stay in text mode and not create something strong, I think you absolutely can, especially with experience, and I think there's just something really, really lovely giving yourself the opportunity to process in a different way, to shake up those patterns. Like I grab my sketchbook over here because I talk about how this is the way we relate to the world in portrait format for the most part. And just doing that, what that does to shift somebody's thinking is fantastic.

And I know this happens to be a notebook that's specifically designed this way, a sketchbook with the shorter side bound to encourage that. And still I see folks, and this isn't a criticism, it's of course they're going to do this because this is their previous experience and their training, will still just treat this, like they'll go from make a column of ideas, a column of ideas, a column of ideas, which is because again they're just trying to adapt this step from what they already know, but the fact that you can put your ideas anywhere in that piece of paper, you're going to come up with different things. That's just the beauty of shifting modalities.

Erez: Right. That really connects to something we touched on on our previous conversation. I love nonfiction, I read a lot of nonfiction, and usually after I read I go and I write, I kind of spend some time processing what I read. And recently I read this book called Frugal Hedonism. Great book, by the way, it's a really good look at more minimal living but not from the viewpoint of let's scrimp and save but it can be fun.

Anyways, I read this book and then I wanted to summarize what I wrote. And usually I do that by text and I decided no, I'm actually going to do it visually now. That was hard. And it felt like the right kind of hard because usually many of us are very practiced at taking a page of text and distilling it down on a paragraph or a couple lines. Easy. There is not much inner processing happening there.

But I found that if I try to take a page of text, someone else's text or a concept, in the book you have this beautiful picture of like you show a page of text and then you highlight a little paragraph and you take it out on to a sheet of paper. So I tried to do that and it was way harder, but having done that I felt like I had a much better grasp of the idea. I felt like it was mine, to an extent, because I really created something that wasn't using, say, synonyms or my version of the text. It was a picture, that thing was not a picture first and now it is a picture that I made. And it somehow made it more mine.

Brandy: Yeah, for sure.

Erez: And that kind of leads to another thought I had or a struggle I had in the digital versus physical. So being primarily digital and of course obsessed with archiving, backing up, retrieving, searching, all those things. It's like it's my idea so of course I want to make sure that it's backed up like four different ways and it's searchable so that in four years I can find what I thought. I think many people are like that.

And when I thought about it a little bit deeper I found out well I never really do go back to these things, almost never. But still, one fear I faced, the fears I face when I grab a sheet of paper, one is okay my incompetence with a medium which I'm kind of working through, but the other big challenge is what if I'm going to have this brilliant output, brilliant idea, brilliant experience here, and I can never find it again? I'm just going to file this away somewhere and never be able to hit Ctrl + F and find what that thing was. How do people deal with, how did you deal with that?

Brandy: I want to interject and then come back to this particular scenario. We've been saying the word visual thinking, and I think through our story... So when you say the word visual I think a lot of people are going to default to thinking of pictures and icons, and so many of the stories we've talked about has actually been about making your thinking physical and spatial.

Because we haven't had any visuals and we haven't talked about any visuals and it's funny because I was looking around, and I don't know if you have anything within arm's reach which has been one of these new experiences, like I think I happen to have like a-

Erez: I don't.

Brandy: Yeah. And I'm like oh, and look, I've got a nearly empty. Or here we go. So this is, I'm not sure how well this is going to show up there, but this was me trying to figure out how do my different online courses relate to my five types of visual thinkers. Like, that's messy.

A sketch done in the moment

Erez: No icons either, no icons or anything.

Brandy: Exactly.

Erez: Circles and words.

Brandy: Exactly. This over here is kind of supposed to be a human figure, it's like a lump of a body and a circle for a head. But this is the point that there's so much of this that we do that has nothing to do with representational imagery, which is the stuff that freaks people out. So I just wanted to make sure I... Because I think so many people, when you say visual, that's where they go to. Back in 2011, I wrote something called the Brandifesto, because I was just trying to get something out there about why do I care about this? And I said visual thinking, even though most folks have never really heard of it, it's still the most popular name for this kind of thing, but I would really love to call it visual spatial kinesthetic. It's really long. But I just wanted to surface that particular idea. And now did I remember what you actually asked to answer it? Oh, archiving.

Erez: I just want to say it was really great to see that page. I feel better about my visual thinking now. Like okay, I think maybe I'm being...

Brandy: No, seriously. Yeah. And I think if you look at the book specifically, yes of course there's going to be representational images in here because I'm demonstrating ideas but basically all those idea shapers, the 24 idea shapers are all lines and shapes and color and proximity, and this much of the book at the end is specifically about pictorial imagery. On purpose. Because look at all... You can have a lifetime of amazing thinking and productivity and decision making and prioritization and communication, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. With all these things that are diagrammatic, that aren't pictorial.

Erez: Especially when I'm sketching for myself.

Brandy: Yes.

Erez: I think if I know this square is supposed to be a house or whatever, right?

Brandy: That's it. Yeah, absolutely. So the idea of archiving-

Erez: And retrieving.

Brandy: And retrieving, right. For me, similarly I can make a drawing and unless I'm drawing content somebody... Like if I was learning something, so if I was at a conference and I was making visual notes for myself, those are cases where I may go back and go, "Okay, what was the structure of what they said or what was this detail?" And I want to retrieve something.

In my experience, the ones where I'm working out my own stuff, I don't go back because it was about the process, it got me, as you mentioned, drawing as a verb, when you're doing processed focused drawing, the only judgment of that drawing... it's not about judging it as a finished product, as a masterpiece, right? It's not pretty or ugly or right or wrong, beautiful or... same thing twice. It's about... the only judgment of those processed focused drawings are did it get you a step farther in your process.

So for me I can make that drawing and it got me a step farther in my process. And I probably iterated it on a different sheet of paper or I like to sketch things out. There still isn't a stylist that is responsive and as nuanced as what this can do. So often what I'll do is I'll physically draw something, scan it in, and then colorize it or whatever digitally because stylistically, I might want a finished product that looks like whatever.

Erez: It's something to share, yeah.

Brandy: Yeah. Exactly. And that's a drawing to communicate and that has a different function than these drawings like you just saw that's just to think through your own ideas. This is circuitous, but basically I think that a lot of times those drawings, they're just part of the process, they're one step of the process. There is an artifact left over, so very earlier you said you're either drawing as a product or drawing as a process and that's... They're always combined, but I definitely want us to give ourselves the space to focused on process, because we don't do that naturally, we weren't trained to do that. Your six year old is doing that and please, please, please, encourage him because as your business partner, you can see from your business partner's experience, staying in that space is so rewarding, there's so many different gifts. I think as far as archiving and retrieving, I think that I don't do this personally but something as simple as if you use sketchbooks, like this is my sketchbook right now, you can create bullet journaling, folks who do bullet journaling, they have an index, they make an index and say, "Okay, this page is this thing."

You could do that with things that aren't on a grid with text and check boxes. So that's an option. Another option is just snap a picture with your phone and have... name it something that makes sense. I know there is technology that is learning how to search drawings, but I think a lot of times if it's about naming something well and putting it and the right place digitally, that's probably going to get you back to it if you need to get back to it. Like you were saying, I don't often need to go back to those drawings because again it was about getting something out and responding to it, and getting that clarity and then on to the next thing.

Erez: Yeah. When you were talking I suddenly went like this because I had such a light bulb moment there, because I realized that those two threads of iteration and archiving really connect for me because let's say maybe I start with text, I go blah, I get all the text out. And then I turn my back to it and sit down on the floor here or whatever on the wall and sketch out, and then I iterate back into text and distill the insights I got from those two phases into text, which is, to an extent, my natural medium. Then first of all that end result could be a findable, retrievable, archivable artifact.

So I do end up with text, but still the visual thinking was super important to surface those complexities and break me out of the linear structure that the first draft kind of imposes. And then I can also, like you say, I can snap a picture and as you were talking I remembered, I think even Microsoft has a purpose-built app made to snap photos off whiteboards. So you point it at a whiteboard and it kind of flattens everything and makes it into a scan and then you can... If I really want the visual artifact I can just save it along the markdown, save it along the text I created, and then I have both.

Brandy: Yeah, I use an app called CamScanner-

Erez: I use that too, it's really good.

Brandy: It's great, and it's got that magic function where it does balance of the color out. Because you're drawing on a white piece of paper but then when you photograph it, it's no longer white. So that's a pretty sweet app. And I think, I love sharing that with folks who are needing, who are making flip charts. Whiteboards with their little bit of shine have their own... I'm getting technical but yeah. It's just really useful whether it's a whiteboard or a sketch on the back of a sheet of something printed out or it's a flip chart, super easy, super easy.

Erez: Yeah. Now, another discovery for me in the group, all of these... When talking visual thinking, my natural assumptions there were exactly those things, like flip chart, a whiteboard, a big sheet of paper, and what you call in the book the landscape. Like, I immediately go to this place of the mind map and there is this place of the mind map, and there is this but Instagram landscape showing the idea. And one of the surprising things in the book was you get into index cards and how you can use index cards for visual thinking which was something that never occurred to me. Can you share a little bit about that?

Brandy: Absolutely. I didn't know that my life's work was to introduce people to index cards. Because it is a thing that when people take an online course or they read the book they're like, "Oh my god that's my new best friend." When I was in sixth grade we were taught to write a paper using... it happened to be slips of mimeograph paper, instead of index cards, and it had a really simple format on it where here's the main topic or here's the main idea.

So I happened to learn that in sixth grade and the heartbreaking thing is I didn't use it. It stuck in my head, I can remember my paper was about rabbits and I could picture this one specific card, the common cold in rabbits is called snuffles. And it was a really powerful experience that unfortunately wasn't integrated... it was one teacher teaching it for one project, and boy howdy had I used that through... I actually happily have strong writing skills, but it was unnatural. I would sit in front of a computer screen and think, "Okay, this is supposed to come out fully formed." Knowing that that's not the case.

But I didn't rediscover that until late college and I think at that point you talk about what you're used to. Anyway, so I had that experience in sixth grade and then it reentered my life, not so much for writing papers but in high school I had a mentorship with an artist, a visual artist, who had something called the morgue. This is pre-internet. He literally had file cabinets of folders that were visual references. So if he had to draw a door, here was a bunch of clippings from magazines or newspapers or photos of doors, like he could pull that, representational drawing, it was his reference point.

So I got really excited about that idea of a morgue, less so for specific representational images but for ideas because those are always coming. So there was just this natural, that sixth grade experience and that high school experience, so since then I never... I always have index cards nearby because it's so easy just to take that idea and get it captured and keep moving.

Both of my books started with stacks of index cards and that's my number one advice. Doesn't have to be a book you're writing, that's often a desire a lot of people have, and it feels really impossible, and I just say, "Look, just start here and collect. Because they're cheap." And I do say, "Get unlined index cards, if you can't get unlined index cards, flip over lines ones because usually the back side is blank. And just get that stuff down."

It can be... hopefully it's legible enough you can read it when you go back to it but the great thing about an index card is you can put down a piece of text, you can draw a diagram, it can be anything. And it's just that generative phase of things are coming out and I'm collecting them, and then the beautiful thing about the stack...

So the landscape you're seeing everything at once. The beauty of the landscape is you have to relate things all in one surface. The beauty of the stack is it's modular. So you're able to sort. And you can sort with so many different filters. It could be that you're actually sorting to figure out which of these cards go into each chapter. It could be that you're actually sequencing cards and saying, "Okay, this is really the argument I'm trying to create and here's point after point after point," which is how we learned to write that paper in sixth grade. And you're going to sort things out, so the lovely thing about a stack is, when you're in generative mode it's just about... you're not judging stuff at that point. There's whole models around creative problem solving where it's like this diamond shaped model and one side is the divergent phase where you're... it's the brainstorming phase where you're just coming up everything, and in this process it's important to separate that from the convergent phase where you're being selective. And the issue is when you mix up those two, you end up judging ideas too quickly, sorting things out too quickly, and you don't get the weird outlier ideas and all that kind of stuff.

Erez: It's like editing while you're writing, very similar.

Brandy: Right.

Erez: Separating those two phases.

Brandy: Exactly, exactly. So the stack just gives you a chance to get the stuff out. And it's just about... And it's a relief where it's like I got that on an index card, I could keep moving. I don't have to worry about her judging that right now. Hopefully... I've certainly come back to index cards, I was just doing this a couple days ago where I'm like, "I have no idea what that means." That'll happen too but happily it's a fairly low percentage.

But that's the beauty of the stack is it can be... And you could have... What I love is you could have a stack of index cards and I could put down three index cards that are about my next online course. Another one is errands I need to do, the next 20 are for this other project or whatever. Because it's modular, it's okay that your brain is making all these new associations or coming up with new things or just going in entirely different direction. And the modularity, the idea is... The only thing that's... Well, I can say it doesn't feel difficult because I have experience with it.

The one part that is tricky about learning how to use a stack is how to split up the idea so it's one idea per card. And what level of detail do you want it to be? I love, in the book I talk about the anatomy of a card because I have a certain way I tend to put the main idea at the top, thicker pen, all caps. It's just stylistically there's a consistency card, a card that's useful to me.

And then I can use the corners to sort things, so I can say this I want to get done by this date or it could be this is going to cost this much. You can use the areas of the card and create systems for yourself that are useful. But I lost it. Stacks, they're where it's at.

Erez: Yeah.

Brandy: It's that discipline of deciding what is the proper amount of information.

Erez: The size of the idea.

Brandy: Exactly. But because... Once you figure that out, and it's not going to be a perfect system, you might put six ideas on a card and then later go, "You know what? If I'm going to sort out these ideas, now I just need to write those six ideas each on their own card." So it's a very forgiving adaptive medium and process. But there's that, once you can clue into this is a distinct idea from this idea, that's when you can push things around and sort things out or sequence and figure out what is it that I'm working here, and then if it's a book or if it's a paper or if it's a speech, great. Now you have this beautiful outline for yourself.

What I love with speaking is if I'm giving my keynote, like I could have a stack of cards or I'm doing a workshop, I'll have a stack of cards of these are the things I want to teach, and I might go into thinking I'm going to be doing 45 minutes, and if somebody says, "Well, somebody went long, you have 30," I'm thinking in those pieces so I can actually just go, "Okay, since I have... it's not one whole 45 minute thing, it really is these pieces," there's a lovely adaptability to that kind of thinking where you go, "Okay, you know what, I'm just going to take these two out, it's okay." Even if I'm not, at that point, physically holding cards like-

Erez: You have the model in your mind.

Brandy: Exactly, exactly.

Erez: That's amazing. For me that's a new realization even though I went over it in the book. The immense power of index cards, because when I look at, again, at a text editor or when I look at even visual landscape, very naturally one idea sits in relation to others. At the beginning, in the middle, on the corner, whatever. And for that initial phase of getting something out, often I find myself, especially when there's a measure of turmoil or confusion or just a lot going on, maybe excitement, doesn't have to be anything. And before I output my ideas into some tangible form they're running around in circles in my mind. I find myself thinking the same thoughts again and again and again. It's not always clear what is more important than the other.

And by using the stack I can just kind of like okay, this is one, this is one, this is one, this is one. And I focus on the atoms, almost, like capturing the little pieces, and then okay now they're all out, now I can arrange them.

Brandy: Yeah, exactly. And even in a document you're still... Well, if you want to retrieve an idea or see how something relates, there's a lot of scrolling. You can't see the entire thing at once. Now, what I love about cards is in the book you can explicitly see where I took that stack and I used a pin board to physically push them around until I figured out okay, these are the five steps, these are the concepts I want to be in these steps. And that pin board, there was still iteration and refinement past that but you can do that where you can make it a landscape for however much time you need it to be a landscape and I love the fact that you can just say, "I'm only focusing on this one card." Like all these post-it notes deck of cards. So I'm only going to focus on this thing right now. So that's the beauty of it is it's so malleable in what you can do with them. So hopefully we've converted everybody to index cards who's watching this.

Erez: That's amazing. So yeah, actually, we went over a lot. Iteration and the landscape and physical versus iPad and a ton of stuff. So if someone's watching this now and is intrigued or want to try out the power of visual thinking, is there something anyone can do in five, 10 minutes with whatever they have to hand, to experience some of what visual thinking has to offer?

Brandy: I think the stack is a perfect place to start. You don't have to have official index cards, you can take printouts, scrap paper, fold them into pieces. I think consistently sized pieces is useful, but again, just that practice of okay, I'm trying to get all these ideas out and I'm trying to get them one per piece of paper. A lot of people have post-it notes around, you can do the same thing.

And again, that's probably for a lot of people, they're not going to think that's visual, but it's kinesthetic, and it's spatial and you can write text on one card and you can make a sketch of something on another card. So I think that is like... is kind of something you could do after finishing watching this and just see what happens, what you get from it, and hopefully for those who are trying that, notice what does it feel like. Is it a relief, does it feel tense, does it feel uncomfortable because it's new?

Erez: So then the key would be I would grab a bunch of index cards and a series of ideas or some thoughts I have and try to get them one thought per card, essentially?

Brandy: Yeah.

Erez: And should I try to make pictures, is it okay to use words for that initial exercise?

Brandy: That's the biggest thing, is when people are introduced to the concept of visual thinking, so many... Again, because we've been trained in text so beautifully, and trained away from imagery, even though we're surrounded by images. So each one of us are actually really sophisticated as viewers. Like we've been very well trained all around the world to recognize what different images mean. Completely outside of being an art history major. So we're actually really sophisticated as viewers. The gap is what skills do we have as a maker. So just recognize that there's still a whole lot going for you.

What happens so often is when somebody gets excited about visual thinking, the next thought is oh, images are good, words are bad. So then they don't want to do... they're like, "I don't have words. I'm going to convey this thought in an icon." What then happens is they take most of their mental energy and get it tied up into this translation. And it's a very binary thinking of, well, it's something about a rabbit so now I have to draw a rabbit. And then the next idea is this is about a giraffe, oh I don't know how to draw a giraffe. Or this new idea is about evolution and they're like what do I do for evolution, because it's some poor abstract concept. So that's just to say that words and images work together, and like you saw in that super sketchy diagram, it can be shapes. You can draw a box and label it house and that's perfectly effective.

So just generally, the inner critic, I like to talk about... The day this clicked in my own mind was like oh my gosh, drawing is the enemy of the inner critic. Because that inner critic is telling you that you can't do this and it's a stupid idea and... And when you shush that inner critic and push him aside, him/her/they, aside, whatever that shows up for you as, and you just get that idea out? Now it's tangible. It may be messy and it may not be fully formed but now it exists outside of your head, away from that inner critic. And so it's like the inner critic killer.

And I know that's... I can say that and laugh about it but it is true and it takes a lot of practice to get better and better at just saying, "You know what? I'm just getting this down. I'm just getting this down, I can always iterate, I can always work with this later. Totally fine." But those are the kind of things you can get when you just kind of say, "You know what? I'm going to try this." Like you said you had so many great stories where you're like, "I'm going to try this." And it felt a little weird and then it felt good, and then this part felt weird and then this felt good. That's what's going to happen. That is part of the process.

Erez: Amazing. Super, super cool. I love how easy it is to get started once you... How physically easy it is to get started, no gear, you don't need anything special, you can just go for it. That's super cool. That in itself is power, just being able to just go and do it anywhere in the world with pretty much any tools you have.

Brandy: For sure.

Erez: Then if people watching or listening to this want to dig deeper, would this [The Idea Shapers book] be a good starting point?

Brandy: I would say that if you're still watching and you're like, "I don't know about this." I would recommend... So my site is It doesn't describe what I do but it's memorable.

Erez: A great name.

Brandy: And I highly recommend, there is a video about killing the inner critic, so more about that, what I just described. That's a great introductory video. So if you go to the site there's a link that says why visual thinking matters, you'll definitely see that there. There's also just a very overview what is visual thinking. If you look up "what is visual thinking" on YouTube you're going to find it right away. That's also a good introduction to that bouncing between abstraction and making something concrete, and also like I just described, thinking about visual thinking that's words and images and it's not icons, it's so much more. And then like I said I did a TEDx talk and that's called Shape Your Thinking.

So I think those are three pieces of video that can hopefully make the case for you if you're still like, "Not sure about this..." The Idea Shapers, I adore, I'm very proud of it. It was extremely hard to create but I'm very proud of the results and it's really dense. You may... I think why we connected so quickly on our last conversation was the love of thinking, the love of processing, the love of learning. And yeah, it's a dense book. So I think generally I recommend that if you're reading it just notice what resonates with you and focus on that. It really is a pattern language of visual thinking, that was my intent going into it. So you may find something where like iteration might be something that for one person is like, "I don't really understand that." Fine, great. But you find this other thing and you're like, "Wow, that makes perfect sense."

So I wanted to let folks know that there's a whole lot in there. For me it does feel like the universe of visual thinking, that was its intention, but just dip into it and notice what resonates, practice; practice is going to be 10 times, 100 times more important than reading the book because that's when it's really going to make sense, like your stories illustrate.

Erez: Yeah, no. I totally agree. I think it's one of those books to come back to every time, and I like how it's organized around the specific tools because then it's almost like a dictionary. If I'm trying to express myself and I'm already using visual thinking but I think I could be doing it better, I can always leaf through it.

And this is actually one of the reasons why I got the physical book. I'm a big Kindle guy, I love the Kindle, most of my reading is ebooks. This particular one I wanted to have that paper version because it is such a physical process, and I like to have it to hand when I'm sketching stuff and then I'm like, "Hm, maybe there's something I could learn here, or what was it about sizes?" Oh, I can quickly flip to that and refer to it with pen in hand and my sketch right there.

Brandy: And the dirty secret is there is a Kindle version of my first book, I still haven't gotten around to do the Kindle version of that one. And strangely I've only had a handful of people ask for it, because I think that's how people do relate to it, and I think that physicality of flipping and just going, "Okay, got it." And then you're immediately just turning to that index card or that piece of paper. So there will be a Kindle version, there isn't at the moment of us recording this.

Erez: Awesome. So thank you so much.

Brandy: Absolutely.

Erez: This has been a really, really interesting conversation.

Brandy: Total pleasure. I love any opportunity to share these ideas but to have such a rich conversation and of course, to hear how... I don't think you knew about my work, what, a couple of weeks ago?

Erez: Yeah. It was new to me until...

Brandy: Yeah. And so you're already using some of these techniques and already seeing results from it. So that is... You're going to have to evangelize with me, alongside me now.

Erez: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Brandy.

Brandy: Yeah, total pleasure, thank you.